Tuesday, February 23, 2010

PCP's First Listen: Steve Forbert

The Pop Culture Press FIRST LISTEN
By Luke Torn

Down in Flames
Song-by-song through Steve Forbert's crucial reclamation of history . . .

As 1978's Alive On Arrival continues to dazzle three decades down the line, anyone familiar with Steve Forbert's story knows that his career was seriously derailed in 1983, in some of the most peculiar record company shenanigans of the era, when his record company held him ramsom for essentially producing music they deemed not commerical enough. The story goes much deeper than that--one for the books as they say--but Forbert to his credit has gone on to produce a seriously underrated body of work ever since. Having already produced two superb outtake volumes covering his early years--the Young Guitar Days discs--Forbert now rescues his long-buried session tapes for his fifth album with the deluxe Down in Flames. Here's PCP's first impressions:

Disc 1: Down In Flames [album proper]

Get Out Tonight (and Try So Hard)
A bit of stutter-step funk, vocals slipping in and out of a bullhorn, "Get Out Tonight" is Forbert in bubbly, optimistic mode. "I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got," a wise Bruce once said, and Forbert picks up that baton.

Take A Message to Mary
A gorgeous take on the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant chestnut, this is certainly a left-field choice for a cover circa the early 1980s. But given a gentle, sympathetic arrangement, with poignant guitar fills from John Leventhal, "Mary" is a Down in Flames highlight. A sad prisoners' tale, kin to Johnny Cash's similarly grim "Give My Love To Rose," the song was a Top 20 hit for the Everly Brothers in 1959, but feels as if it connects with a much older folk tradition. Forbert gives it a haunting, and appropriately lonesome, yearning vocal.

You Gotta Go
In a return to his southern roots, Forbert cut some spirited rockabilly at the Down in Flames sessions. "You Gotta Go" literally blasts out of the speakers, carrying a rare momentum, with a ferocious backbeat and some fiery fretwork. Amid urgent rhythms and spidery piano, Forbert leans into the kissoff lyrics with the relish of Jerry Lee holding forth at 706 Union.

Written in 1983 but universal enough to hit listeners with a rueful truth (especially in post-Katrina New Orleans), Forbert released this poignant ballad as a download a few years back, donating the proceeds to Hurricane Katrina victims. It's a beautiful song, the flipside in tone and pace of Dylan's "Crash on the Levee" or Springsteen's "Lost in the Flood." "Underwatertown," tellingly (and terrifyingly) written first-person from the point of view of a child, builds tension as the narrative rolls on, finally achieving a resigned, heartbroken melancholy.

So Many Mistakes
Bright young artist, meet the ways of the world. Delivered in a breathless rush, "So Many Mistakes" has a slight hint of ska in its herky, jerky rhythms and a series of character sketches worthy of the cinema.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune Again
One of Down in Flames' major compositions, Forbert must've known this one belonged in his upper echelon--recutting it for 1995's Mission of the Crossroad Palms. Borrowing its title from one of Bob Dylan's (then-unreleased) masterpieces, "Again" is restless and self-referential, funny and poetic, flashing images original and borrowed (e.g., the bits about "wooden soldiers" and "Jane she is a clerk," appear as surprise tribute to the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane") like an expansive but world-weary Tom T. Hall. Essential!

Because My Heart Says So
Superb, '60s soul-inflected love song, with a lean melody and a catchy, bouncy chorus. It might be unrepresentative (think Graham Parker's also uncharacteristic "Next To You," a 1985 hit), but this was a radio hit waiting to happen, potentially launching Forbert into easy-listening MOR-land. Why couldn't this have been the single from these sessions?

Sampson and Delilah's Beauty Shop
More teeth-rattling rockabilly, the lone song to previously slip out onto CD from this era (appearing on Columbia/Legacy's 1993 anthology The Best of Steve Forbert: What Kinda Guy?). This song never fails to bring a smile, and might nestle right in there with your Carl Perkins and Warren Smith sides, though the Sun stars rarely packed the kind of dense imagery and streetwise jive Forbert manages to put down here. Later cut by the great Webb Wilder for his stunning debut, It Came From Nashville.

Come With Me
A fine is somewhat monotonous rythmic rocker, this is Forbert in "glass half-full" mode, kicking off the dust. Nice, snaky John Levanthal guitar solo.

His Was the Sound
More pop history, Forbert style. It's hard to imagine a better tribute to the great Ritchie Valens than this intricate, upbeat piece, which really takes off on the bridge ("only 17 and he had it down," Forbert growls), and eventually dissoves into Valens' signature song, "La Bamba." This song jumps and moves.

Triplet-style blues, Forbert the streetcorner crooner. A pleasant throwaway.

What's So Hard About Being Alone
Another peppy number, and one that seems a tad tossed off. This time the song's sunshiny tone masks the protagonsist's denial and emotional pain at an affair gone wrong.

They're Out to Break Us
Perhaps Down in Flames' highlight, "They're Out to Break Us" sets a gorgeous melody to martial drums and Forbert's most defiant lyric. One could read the sentiment of this song many ways, personal and universal, which is essentially the key to its effectiveness. "God knows good from evil, baby what more can I say?" Forbert cries as the song plays out.

Disc 2: New York City Demos 1983-85
Rough studio sessions, recorded with Forbert's core band.

Go Ahead and Start
Some piquant political commentary for the Reagan years (and beyond), taking into account some stars-in-their eyes voters. Another Dylan echo in the line "The times are always changing . . ."

Music of the Night
A rambling, get-out-of-the-city tune here, reminiscent of the early '60s Greenwich Village sound. A measured Forbert vocal, and some delicate piano/guitar interplay, add plenty to this atmospheric cut.

Situation Love in Vein
Easily one of Forbert's most-blistering rockers ever, hinging on some pumping Chuck Berry rhythms and John Leventhal' feral guitar leads. An infectious song, reminiscent of something Joe Ely might come up with, and one wildly deserving of resurrection.

Don't Look Back
With its slow-moving rollercoaster melody and a fevered vocal, "Don't Like Back" resembles Springsteen circa Darkness on the Edge of Town, both in sound and feel. Like "Come With Me" and "Get Out Tonight (and Try So Hard)," and the set's next cut, "Welcome Back to the World," and even the great "Goin' Down to Laurel," this song celebrates living for the now.

Welcome Back to the World
A beautiful full-bloom ballad, Forbert cradling the melody like a newborn baby, that sounds like something the Everly Brothers might've come up with in their prime. This one could've really developed into something, but is still great even in embyronic form. Levanthal is spot-on with a spine-tingling guitar break.

I Wake Up Each Day (With the Light of My Life)
Straight Nashville-style country shuffler, a Valentine card one might say. With its rambling melody and ramshackle guitar, it sounds like a momentary whim in the studio, no more. That is, except for its unique and bizarre internal rhyme: "vice-versa" with "reimburse her".(!)

I've Got Charisma, I've Got the Hootchie Coo
Kind of a Latin-flavored thing going on here. A joke, maybe, or a sly come on? Whatever, it doesn't really work.

All Her Words of Love
A hushed country ballad of love-gone-wrong. Some ponderous observations on the verses lead into a darkly bouncy chorus and a sterling harmonica break.

I've Got News For You
Some more Memphis rockabilly, Forbert hiccupping like a latter-day Buddy Holly. It's an infectious track, with a Paul Errico/John Levanthal piano/guitar break lifting the song up to the rock and roll heavens.

Lifeline (Take Me Back)
Bright young artist tires of the fast lane. A bit of nostalgia, almost like something from the Carter Family catalog. "I got lost in this bad time," he avers.

Come With Me
Second take of this boot-scootin' bit of escapism.

Fighting Under the Clouds
In true demo style, Forbert's whispered vocals are kinda buried in the mix of big jangling guitars on "Fighting Under the Clouds," another overcome-the-odds ballad that shuffles along at its own unhurried pace.

Take Me Back
Another variation on a theme of getting the hell out of here. Levanthal offers big Duane Eddy--style fills on this genteel ballad.

Everybody Likes My Party
With its E Street-style piano intro and cascading melody, "Everybody Likes My Party" feels like a summing up, an it's-time-to-move-on number. Finally, Forbert is afforded the opportunity for apropos closure to the classic New York/Nemperor era.

Disc 3: Live Recordings With the Flying Squirrels 1983-85
Strong, if raw and unsweetened, recordings from the time when the record deal went south. For anyone who saw Forbert during this period, you know he was a rock and roll juggernaut, pouring it all out on the stage night after night with a great band. This 12-song set picks up some of that flavor, drawing on rare material and a few stray cuts from his eponymous 1982 LP.

Don't Look Back
One of the highlights of the unreleased sessions, introduced to the audience as a "slow dance tune."

Those Were the Lonely Days
A nice mid-tempo rocker with some gorgeous keyboards. From the sound of its melody it might be an early draft of "Running on Love," the lead masterpiece on 1988's Streets of This Town.

Don't Stop
An odd, loping quality marks this pleading song, the narrator imploring his love to not give in. The warmer, more personal angle of themes explored with the great "They're Out to Break Us," a disc one nugget.

It Takes A Whole Lotta Help
Revved-up, rockabilly Steve reappears here, the band positively cooking on a song that made a slick studio appearance on the eponymous 1982 Nemperor album.

You Gotta Go
Thrilling roadhouse piano from Paul Errico (pictured below, on stage with Forbert 1985) highlights Forbert's most urgent vocal performance on this set. The band heads out into rarified air on the break, crackling with electricity.

On the Beach
Another stray cut from the Steve Forbert album resurrected, and delivered with a touch of regret, if not bitterness. Levanthal's at his chiming best on the fills.

I've Got News For You
Fluid rockabilly workout, Forbert Elvising up the place.

Channeling Doug Sahm.

My Mistake
Another very fine lost song, this one has classic feel of some of the Young Guitar Days material, ala "House of Cards."

They're Out to Break Us
A spellbinding, tension-building live take on the set's best song, the singer leaning into the defiant lyrics, Levanthal flinging little bits of silvery guitar shrapnel around Forbert's voice.

Samson and Delilah's Beauty Shop
A storming, echoey, chaotic, lo-fi take, Forbert maneuvering through the verses with aplomb, and adding some ably impeccably-timed stutters and exhortations.

You're Darn Right
Down in Flames closes out with more blistering Levanthal guitar, Forbert breathless to catch up in a rush through this rocked-up country pounder.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Journey Through the Vanishing South, Jim White style

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
Retail DVD (Plexi; http://www.plexi.co.uk/)
Review and Interview by LUKE TORN

Spectral visions of the American South spar with religious grandiosity and hellbent Saturday nights; singer songwriter Jim White is your guide

It's not often a set of album liner notes evolves into a feature-length film, but that's exactly what happened in the case of Jim White's 1997 debut album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! White's terrifying road tale delving into the macabre spiritual undercurrents of the South served then to amplify his disembodied, surreal songs. Now, with White serving as travel guide and riffing on the cultural contradictions of a region that's produced artists from Flannery O'Connor to Johnny Cash, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus emerges as mesmerizing, slice-of-life filmmaking.

Though Searching only uses White's original narrative as a touchstone, its rich cinematography, superb music, and colorful characters catch the offhand flavor and spectacle of the vanishing South in vivid detail. Commissioned in part by the BBC, the film was directed by Andrew Douglas (The Amityville Horror), who brings to the proceedings a flair for capturing the South's stunning geographical splendor.

Renting a beat-up 1970 Chevy, with a concrete Jesus stuffed in the trunk, White, Douglas, and company set out to find "the gold tooth in God's crooked smile," as White describes it, and end up depicting an area rife with internal contradiction, driven to extremes by the unseen hand.

Douglas and crew consistently come up with striking compositional images--a creepy, house-of-mirrors view of Louisiana swampland, decades-abandoned school buses rusting in the woods, a beat-up car adorned with countless "repent now"-type bumper stickers passing by on the highway. "There's a lot of rapture talk on that car right there," White blurts.

Meanwhile, the film roams into the most intimate of settings--churches, barbershops, trailer-park lean-tos--in an elliptical, sometimes bemused quest for some kind of understanding. Throughout, White spins out bits of hard-won wisdom borne of experiencing the yin-yang perplexity of growing up southern. His theory that, "until you've walked away from the South, you can't see it," is written on the faces of most of the humanity passing by the camera, including, in particular, the barbershop patrons present as sandpaper-voiced Johnny Dowd (with Maggie Brown) serenades them with a song called "First There Was a Funeral."

Locked in by grievous poverty, iron-fist religious repression, and a socio-political culture painted in stark black and white, the film's protagonists are portrayed as embroiled in one dichotomy after another: haves vs. have-nots, good vs. bad, being saved vs. burning in eternal hellfire.

In the face of such fatalism, White opines, it becomes incumbent on southerners to "invent a God who's gonna whup some ass." While visions of feverish Pentecostals and writhing parishioners speaking in tongues (with enthralled yet terrified youngsters looking on) are among the film's most indelible moments (likely to stay with you long after the film ends), it's to the filmmakers' credit that, while the film does deal in stereotypes, it never comes across as disrespectful, never mocks its subjects.

In fact, a strange kind of empathy emerges from bits like The Singing Hall Sisters' harmonizing on a murder ballad, "Knoxville Girl," or the prison scene wherein inmates describe their crimes as mere manifestations of boredom.

Secular salvation--where it can be found--lies in music and storytelling, and Searching provides its share of spine-tingling, occasionally surreal moments. Novelist Harry Crews croaks a scarifying tale regarding the arrival in Appalachia, long ago, of the Sears catalog, an alien product wherein the models are inexplicably in possession of all their limbs; alt-country existentialists the Handsome Family, whose rugged, unadorned Appalachian spirituals dove-tail best with the film, are seen performing "When That Helicopter Comes" for an audience of one--a puzzled young boy--near a trailer park; mountain man banjoist Lee Sexton's "Little Maggie" and Melissa Swingle's unearthly musical-saw rendition of "Amazing Grace" are likewise hypnotically compelling.

"It's only within the music that the dichotomies and complexities of the world dissolve," the film seems to suggest, and it's those dreamlike sequences, presented throughout, that somehow mitigate the powerful, see-sawing black-and-white forces that lie at the heart of the film and the South.

Extras: Five deleted music/monologue scenes with David Johansen, Harry Crews, and others; director's commentary

Jim White
Athens, Georgia resident Jim White's latest is Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, released in 2004 on the Luaka Bop label.

Luke Torn: How would this movie have been different if you took it back 75, 100 years?
Jim White: Well, the duality and dichotomy [religion and drinking] would be no different. I think what would be different would be that there would be a big investigation into the English filmmakers who vanished in Louisiana. There's more guns back then, everybody would have been shooting from all directions--the church people, the bar people, everybody.

LT: Did you feel like you were a liaison between the British film team and the locals?
JW: They [the film team] did a fair amount of research and contacting on their own. Probably about half the contacts in the film I provided them and the other half they found on their own. So, they're very good natured people who like to go out and meet the world. Somehow or other, they have a charm, it's a tribute to their humanity, that they can walk into the most unlikely place and get people to spill their hearts to them, and then they treat that information with respect. They're just saying 'These stories are beautiful, listen to them.'

LT: Seems like a lot of the peculiarities of the South are vanishing before our eyes.
JW: It is vanishing. In the scene from Sheffield's Jesus Is Lord Catfish Restaurant Truckstop, which is in Valdosta, Georgia--I took them there when they were scouting for the film, and the whole entire wall-to-wall establishment was a tableau, like a primitive artist, Howard Finster-style tableau of the rapture, with planes crashing and people rising out of graves and cities on fire and buses turned over … it was astonishing. When we came back five months later, Sheffield had painted the whole thing white. And Andrew [Douglas] walked in, sat on the ground, and started crying. Sheffield had changed its name to Sheffield's Country Kitchen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

the Rise of Country Rock
By Luke Torn

The scene is LA International Airport, 1965. The Byrds, riding a wave of scrumptious hit singles that have redefined rock 'n' roll, and having just recorded their sizzling psychedelic masterpiece "Eight Miles High," are headed to New York City, for a promotional photo shoot and a TV special hosted by Murray the K. Gene Clark, though, is in a panic. The group's darkly handsome lead singer and principal songwriter, terrified to his bones of flying in the best of circumstances, is further alarmed by technical issues stalling the plane's takeoff. In an instant, in one fear-swept moment, Clark snaps, bolts off the plane, a momentous decision with a ripple effect throughout the pop world.

"Gene was standing up in his seat, and he's in a cold sweat," remembers fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn. "He's kinda like shaking. I was like 'What's going on, Gene.' He says [in a terrified voice], 'I can't do this, man. I have a really bad feeling about this. I can't do this.' He's just in a panic, like he's got a premonition about the plane crashing. He walks off the plane. He later said it was kind of a nervous breakdown, a lot of stuff going on, more than just airplanes."

Turning one’s back on a chart-topping group was treacherous territory in 1965, and Clark’s career, beginning its pendulous fluctuation from inspired genius to maddening self-sabotage, would suffer accordingly. Bandmate David Crosby mythologized the incident in his song "Psychodrama City," chiding Clark for his phobia: "To this day don't know why/He got on at all/if he didn't really want to fly/Psychodrama City, don't need none today."

Yet as the decades wear on, it’s Clark’s intriguing tangle of solo work—highly influential within numerous strands of popular music yet virtually unheard by the general public—that gains in stature. A daring musical synthesist, author of a ‘70s trilogy as ambitious and eloquent as anything then waxed by far more celebrated peers Neil Young and Bob Dylan, Clark was a phantom, unable or unable willing to capitalize on his good work.

Poetic, spiritually attuned, charismatic, difficult, complex, Clark was in continual battle with a demonic dark side—replete with a vicious drug and alcohol habit—that would eventually contribute to his death. In his comprehensive biography (Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds' Gene Clark), John Einarson weaves a fascinating, ultimately devastating story of a compartmentalized man, a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure of zigzagging personas--from a warm, gracious, artistically driven personality to a soul wrestling with the depths of human desperation.

"To this day," says Duke Bardwell (who toured with Gene in the mid-'70s), "I will never forget watching genius and insanity go hand in hand like they did with Gene Clark."

As a Byrd, Clark launched the riff of a thousand garage bands ("I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better"), prefigured acid rock ("Eight Miles High"), seriously influenced the Beatles (see "If I Needed Someone"), and spilled out a dozen other shimmering, romantically idealistic ballads: "The World Turns All Around Her," "She Don't Care About Time," and "Set You Free This Time," melodic gems all, retain a regal classicism.

But after stepping out of the Byrds cauldron, Gene's brand of poetic songcraft quickly lost traction. He was tentative, trying out different bands, different musical equations. “I think he may have been someone who was really scared to death of being a solo guy,” surmises guitarist Stephen Bruton, who befriended Clark in later years. “Whereas he had the ego where he wanted to be a solo guy, he was really full of doubt."

Country music was on Clark's mind as he took tentative steps toward a solo career. In a 1966 Hit Parader interview profiling the Gene Clark Group, he hinted at the future: "In the short time we've been together, we've worked up a lot of material. It's kind of a strange sound. We're working on some things, which are a mixture of country, western, and blues combined."

Hopes were high as Clark’s combo began a summer '66 residency at LA’s Whisky A Go-Go. Though the image proffered by the Long Ryders’ Sid Griffin of "young Doc Hollidays wearing Bolo ties playing poppy C&W" is intriguing, the Group [pictured below] was stillborn. Ominously, Clark's new, untested material sailed right over the heads of those in attendance.

Back-to-the-roots country influences were floating in the ether on the West Coast, though. David Jackson, a member of country/rock pioneers Hearts & Flowers and later a Clark collaborator, was among the scene's central players: “It was really a matter of, here is a song right now. You’d go to somebody’s house after a gig and sit around and play until three or four in the morning, maybe pass a joint, maybe drink a beer but that wasn’t the reason everybody was there. The guitars would come out. It was a give and take, like, 'Let’s do this one.' As opposed to 'Let’s make it sound like a cross between Hendrix and Merle Haggard.'”

Eventually, within the incestuous California scene, an identifiable sound began to emerge. Bluegrass rebels the Dillards did the unthinkable, going electric on "Nobody Knows." Chris Hillman's breezy "Time Between" and Buffalo Springfield’s “Go and Say Goodbye” were stepping-stones.

But when Clark, banjoist Douglas Dillard, and guitarists Clarence White and Glen Campbell teamed up on Gene Clark With the Gosdin Brothers, a modernized fusion jelled. Clark, Midwestern farmboy turned pop aristocrat, hardly threw himself full force into the world of steel guitars and Nudie suits, but in amongst the baroque/pop brilliance of “Echoes” and Rubber Soul-isms of “I Found You” are the seeds of country/rock.

White—the brilliant guitarist from the Kentucky Colonels—accentuates Clark’s brooding ballad “The Same One” with splintered bits of almost imperceptible Nashville twang, a sound that shared plenty with Joe South’s playing on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. On “Keep On Pushin',” the Gosdins’ sparkling gospel harmonies and Dillard’s nimble Rickenbacker banjo threaten to turn Sunset Strip in its hipster prime into a backwoods revival meeting. And “Tried So Hard,” Clark’s rustic hangdog vocal finding solace in White’s shuffling rhythms, is nothing less than peerless, heart-on-sleeve country soul.

Clark pondered the record’s place in history in 1972, when a revamped version was released: “It serves as an interesting picture of growth as it was taking place. We were all just a little bit ahead of our time. No country-rock sold well until after 1969. The public was still more ready for ‘Marrakesh Express.’”

“Gene was a country boy,” says McGuinn flatly. “He had a love for that kind of music. Chris [Hillman] was more involved in it, Chris was more instrumental in bringing it to the table, but Gene was right there. I could see that country streak, although he was enamored of the Beatles.”

Clarence White in tow, Clark played a few gigs around LA to support the album. One lucky soul who witnessed a rare appearance at the Ash Grove recalls: “The entire night was three-part harmonies, and it knocked me out. It was also the first time I'd ever seen Clarence with a Telecaster. Prior to that, he'd simply been that amazing flatpicker from the Kentucky Colonels, who played straight bluegrass. They did some Everly Brothers stuff that was stunning.”

Coincidence or synchronicity, LA was soon crawling with longhaired roots-rockers. Gram Parsons' International Submarine Band arrived from New York. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (with Jackson Browne), Hearts and Flowers (featuring Bernie Leadon), the Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt), not to mention Michael Nesmith and Gary Paxton’s stable of insurgent country hopefuls, were gathering steam.

Clark, who abandoned more album projects than many artists undertake, would go through several more ‘60s iterations before rekindling his friendship with Dillard, just back from a touring stint with the Byrds. The pair, joining ranks with Leadon and Jackson of Hearts & Flowers, alighted on the revolutionary idea of mixing country, folk, rock, and, especially, bluegrass, and the Dillard & Clark Expedition was born.

“Gene and Dillard just went all over the place together, every night, every day,” says Expedition bassist David Jackson. “Douglas, being the bluegrass textbook that he is, inundated Gene with everything bluegrass. Gene synthesized that into his style, which had not been bluegrass at all. I thought it really kind of reached a new plateau with the collaboration of Dillard and Clark, in my view, at a poetic level."

The band’s A&M debut, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, appeared in autumn 1968, recording sessions roughly paralleling the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Its startling acoustic mix—featuring mandolin, dobro, banjo, guitar, harpsichord, and plentiful mountain harmonies, anchored by Clark’s silkily soulful baritone—is stunning in both concept and execution. This was music that parted the pop seas: like Dylan’s Basement Tapes, it was such a radical throwback, a deeply American amalgam coalescing at the country's most turbulent, soul-searching time, that it remains a musical island unto itself.

"Bernie, Doug, and Gene and I just sort of showed up every day, and started playing," Jackson remembers. "And Gene would be sitting on the couch, not saying much--maybe 'hand me a donut'--he'd have a guitar in his lap . . . he'd have a melody and some chords maybe, and an hour would go by, and I'd have my bass out, and Bernie would be tuned, and maybe he'd have some lines. That's how it would go. The first album was not planned, really."

“Gene responded to the stuff with Douglas and us with his whole heart and soul,” Leadon told Einarson, “because it was embracing the totality of who Gene Clark was, his [Missouri] roots, and [he] got to use his extraordinary lyric and writing ability but without having to try to invent a whole new music, which was what you were sort of expected [to do] in the pop world.”

Once the troupe moved out of the living room and onto the stage, though, trouble lurked. "Gene was not a demonstrative performer," says Jackson. "He was the quintessential singer/songwriter. He didn't ask the audience for anything. He just stood there. In fact, his demeanor was very guarded, and he probably thought that you were not going to like this shit anyway."

Whether it was stage fright, or another combination of demons, the Expedition's public unveiling--at West Hollywood's hippest hangout, Doug Weston's Troubadour, December 1968--was shocking.

"We all went down to the Troubadour that Tuesday at 2 o'clock,” Jackson recalls. “We load in, have a quick soundcheck. About 3:30 I left, went back to take a nap, had something to eat, took a shower. When I got back, the doorman says 'You better go next door to Dan Tana's. Better go get Gene and Doug.' I went 'uh-oh, what's the matter?' He said, "Well, they both dropped acid, and they're sitting in there drinking martinis.'”

"I go, ‘oh my god, okay.’ So I go next door, and sure enough, they are blind! It's indescribable! They're just grinning ear to ear. I just remember a kind of haze occurring, instantly, and going 'we're in serious trouble.'"

With Leadon's help, Jackson managed to wrangle the pair back into the club. And it was packed--fellow musicians, old Byrds freaks, the rock press, movers and shakers of Laurel Canyon's imminent pop royalty.

"So the lights go down, [Troubadour light man] Dickie Davis says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Dillard & Clark!’ When the lights come on, all of us are facing out, but Gene is sitting on his amp, facing the back wall. Somehow we make it through the first song, and Dillard picks up the fiddle for the second song. Somehow or another I guess we got Gene off the amp, and standing in front of the mike. We get to the end of the second song, Doug puts his fiddle down on the floor, jumps up in the air, and lands on the fiddle, breaking it. Don Beck, who is our multi-instrumentalist, and a devout Christian, was playing the mandolin. He just looked up at me, and said, 'Well, that's enough for me,' and he walked off stage, never to return.”

The Expedition would rebound, but irreversible damage had been done. There would be a second, slightly less dazzling album (Through the Morning, Through the Night), and a stunning non-album single (“Why Not Your Baby”), but the group quickly unraveled.

Fiddler Byron Berline, who joined up during the group's latter days, and played with Clark sporadically through the '70s, traces their decline: "The biggest problem with that group was Doug and I were wanting to pick more and I think Gene felt sort of left out. He didn't seem to be happy most of the time but he was very difficult to read at least for me. Around November 1969 we were invited to play on the Hee Haw TV show. This was their first season and a nice break for any group to get on National TV. Gene didn't want to go (because of flying) and eventually left the band right after that."

By the early '70s, Clark abandoned LA for the rustic confines of Mendocino. Country living rejuvenated him, even as he became even more reclusive, resulting in a visionary trilogy: 1971’s White Light, Clark’s meditative requiem for the ‘60s; 1972’s Roadmaster, a feast of existential, cinematic twang, hardly acknowledged to exist in its day; and 1974’s No Other, a Smile for the ‘70s, and a record so daring in its tributaries of gospel, folk, R&B, psychedelia, orchestral pop, and country that one might rightly cite it as a culmination of Gram Parsons’ Cosmic American Music.

Framed by Jesse Ed Davis' expressively economical guitar, Mike Utley's ghostly organ, and Clark's lonesome harmonica trills, the campfire songs on White Light slip into consciousness almost unnoticed. Beachside seclusion and a recent exploration of Zen contributed to Clark forging a novel songwriting style, "a form of redemption," explained Serge Denisoff in his Rolling Stone review--one preoccupied by the wayward forces of nature, the obscenity of time, the simple act of being alive, filtered through a poet’s obsession with symbolism.

"There was no panic, no pressure, it was kind of a golden era," says Gary Mallaber, the Steve Miller Band drummer who played on White Light. "We listened, we arranged, we performed until we all felt that was the take. All well before any digital surgery was possible."

Featuring several of Clark’s most intimate love songs--“Because of You,” "With Tomorrow"--and "Spanish Guitar," a remarkable meditation on the nature of creativity,
the keys to White Light's enduring power nonetheless reside in its closing songs: A stately rendition of "Tears of Rage," Bob Dylan's perceptive basement nugget encapsulating the deep emotional undertow of parenthood; and “1975," a frontier tale, urging continued introspection in an era of retrenchment, one of Clark's most beautiful creations. “We always easy understood that/It was no good not to explore,” Clark exhorts, his drifting vocal giving way to a Davis guitar coda of spine-tingling elegance.

“I don't know how to rightly explain this,” Clark later mused about his songwriting, “except that there was philosophy involved. Dylan in a way is a philosopher, he's a thinker, a deep thinker, John [Lennon] too. I consider John Lennon and Bob Dylan two of the best minds that we probably had, or have, in the 20th century. . . . And they weren't what you would call religious guys. They were just really spiritually connected. That vibration came across very strongly from the Beatles to us [the Byrds]."

By 1973, though, Clark's focus was waning, and Roadmaster, a hodgepodge left unfinished, had to sneak out as a Dutch import. It's perfect Clark-ian irony that this most user-friendly, straightforward country/rock effort--with crucial contributions from luminaries like White, Berline, and Hillman--was inaccessible but to a few. Highlights are many, but "One in A Hundred" and "She's the Kind of Girl," featuring all five original Byrds, and "Here Tonight," Clark fronting the Flying Burrito Brothers, are tantalizing glimpses of an alternate universe, wherein Clark righteously reclaims his country/rock legacy.

Yet nothing, from Roadmaster's country/rock formalism to Gene's participation in the ill-fated 1973 Byrds reunion, prepared listeners for what was coming: No Other, Clark's misunderstood magnum opus, a daring repudiation of the stereotypical, dumbed-down breed of singer/songwriters and country/rock effluvium then ascending to superstardom, would hardly transform Clark's fortunes. It would, however, over time, be appreciated for the eccentrically challenging masterpiece it is.

“There were some boundaries being broken on every level,” observes Jackson. “Gene brought a seriousness to this thing that not even Gram brought. There was a nobility to Gene, one that I just kinda took to be a natural part of his personality.”

From its garish cover art (a glammed-up Gene set to spar a few rounds with Marc Bolan) to the spooked-out subterranean gospel of the title song, No Other was like shock treatment. Producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, fresh off playing ringleader for a floating party masquerading as Bob Neuwirth sessions, painted No Other on a grand scale. With its Spectorian wall of sound—a dense mix of keyboards, strings, assorted percussion, chorale vocals, and layer upon layer of gurgling, crying guitars, the record is initially intimidating, but soon enough intuitively, mysteriously moving. Clark, playing the philosopher, the seer, proffers abstract observations on the cyclical nature of life, the inevitableness of change, the immensity of nature, the surrealities of time.

"The whole album was written when I had a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Northern California," said Clark later. "I would just sit in the living room, which had a huge bay window, and stare at the ocean for hours at a time. I would have a pen and paper there, and a guitar or piano, and pretty soon a thought would come and I'd write it down or put it on tape. In most instances, after a day of meditation looking at something which is a very natural force, I'd come up with something."

"Some Misunderstanding," an epic marked by Stephen Bruton's piercing guitar and Clark's pleading "We all need a fix" chorus, is itself an easy target for misunderstanding, especially for anyone looking for druggy '70s decadence. Yet the song, indeed the album, unfolds to reveal a mysticism capable of producing multiple, metaphorical meanings.

"My feeling about ["Some Misunderstanding"]," explained Clark in 1977, "was if you fix yourself in such a pattern that you haven't got any channels of release or escape to go out, look, think about it and come back in . . . the thing about Zen and the form of music is that Zen to me is only a tuning, but it is a spiritualism."

Bruton [at left], a Texan who'd recently backed Dylan, was one of an army of guitarists handpicked to play on No Other: "Gene was really talented. He was a kind of a loner guy. He had a cool voice, but it was also kind of a fragile voice, he was a fragile guy. I was really knocked out when he said they were looking for me for the sessions. I played with Gene several different times. It was always pretty wild. We were pretty crazy. So I never was sure what was used and what wasn't."

Asylum's David Geffen, who had been so taken by Clark’s songs on the Byrds' reunion album, would damn No Other to obscurity. Upset that his $100,000 budget netted eight measly songs, he cut its promotion (curiously, No Other never even received a review from the-then bible of rock—Rolling Stone). A follow-up was shelved, and despite some fine work to come, Clark's career began its inevitable slide from grace.

Clark's little-documented mid-‘70s Silverados tour (from which a live album is planned for summer 2008) is among many lost chapters chapter in the Clark saga. Einarson asserts that the band "took songs from Gene’s existing catalog, including numbers from No Other, and redefined them in Appalachian triad harmonies and country-flavored arrangements," echoes of Dillard & Clark.

A simple, back-to-basics alliance with McGuinn circa '77 also held promise. “We were real good friends," reports McGuinn. "That gets lost in all this bickering, and all these bios and things. I loved the guy. We had a great time on the road together, and we had a real good chemistry musically. It was really special, and then it turned into McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, which was something else entirely."

Surprisingly, despite Clark's wilderness years, his last LP--1987's So Rebellious A Lover-- sent a jolt through LA's burgeoning cowpunk scene--from Green on Red to the Long Ryders--an echo traceable back to country/rock's nascent beginnings. In perfect keeping with a common Gene Clark theme, he'd come full circle.

"That album came about as a result of singalong sessions Gene and I had at his house," Gene's partner Carla Olson recalls. "It all just evolved naturally. It was that sparse acoustic approach that we sought to duplicate in the studio. Atmospheric, western [featuring steel guitar wizard Ed Black], stark and voices voices voices. People tell me to this day," she says, “that it inspired the alt-country generation.”

Record sales tell nothing of Gene Clark's story. But his influence, subtle, even imperceptible, permeates down through the years--No Other impinging on Primal Scream's watershed Screamadelica, Robert Plant/Alison Krauss covering the Expedition on their new Raising Sand. “Gene was a star," McGuinn asserts. "For whatever level of acceptance he had going in the commercial market, Gene was a star.”

My heartfelt thanks in preparation for this piece to Roger McGuinn, David Jackson, Carla Olson, Gary Mallaber, Byron Berline, John Einarson, and Michael Bonner. And, to Stephen Bruton, one of the greats.
Stay tuned: Pop Culture Press's annotated Gene Clark Top 25 Countdown is coming soon!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Undeservedly obscure: Louie and the Lovers pose for a promo photo circa 1970

The Complete Recordings

There's a roiling, "Proud Mary" bite to the choppy guitars on "Rise," the title track of Louie and the Lovers' lone album, released in 1970. The Creedence Clearwater anthem had been a massive hit the year before, a generation-defining smash, and that, combined with their Salinas, California roots, ensures that a certain Creedency songwriterly quality ripples through this lost gem.

But Louie Ortega, leader of the Chicano quartet, a talented if green teenager then sucked into Doug Sahm's ever-swirling vortex, hardly possessed John Fogerty's gruff, work-a-day vocal crustiness. At its silky best, Ortega's tenor--an elastic, expressive instrument--adeptly captures a kind of melancholy sadness and vulnerability. The dulcet "I've Always Got You on My Mind," a drop-dead gorgeous ballad of unrequited love, had the goods to storm the charts à la "Proud Mary." This song, with the rest of the group (Frank Paredes, Steve Vargas, and Albert Parra) lending a knowing, understated grace, is brilliant simplicity--intense romantic longing set to a gentle, loping rhythm.

But, like Mr. Sahm himself, who produced the debut, Rise is not happy to stand in one place for too long, and Louie and company handle the eclecticism with aplomb, pulling off stray-dog blues, '50s-style R&B throwbacks, and guitar showpieces like the ace teen dance band they were. It's a dazzling mix--there's some material with real staying power here--but the verities of the music business circa 1970 ensured success was not to be. Rise failed to rise up the pop charts, as it were, but Bear Family's typically peerless archaeological work has unearthed the band's entire studio output, the entire Rise plus a raft subsequent cuts produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd for Atlantic but, except for a couple of singles, never released.

Among the more gripping numbers included are "Driver Go Slow," a brooding, guilt-wracked reflection of its protagonist's crime-of-passion murder; a spectral cover of Kaleidoscope's "If the Night," more 1966 than 1970 (this Chris Darrow composition appeared on the group's 1967 album Side Trips); and mysterious rocker "Little Georgie Baker" (later released as a non-album single), which hinges on an infectious rockabilly guitar lick and a narrative delivered with an ominous urgency (this song would've been fascinating in the hands of early UK R&B stompers like the Animals or Them).

Ortega proves to be a fine writer as well, just starting to find his voice. And if some of it is derivative, it's gloriously so: "I Know You Know" is a jangly wonder, guitarist Frank Paredes pitching in on celestial harmonies, a cut that could've nestled comfortably into side two of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. "Royal Oakie," a joyous, stoned, back-to-the-country ramble conjuring CCR, is infectious in a "Mendocino" kind of way (wonder if Sahm ever tackled this one?). Emblematic of the entire legacy of Louie and the Lovers might be "Tomorrow Just Might Change," 1:48 of pure pop sunshine destined for b-side anonymity. Given an authoritative, hopeful Ortega vocal, chiming guitars and swirling keyboard fills, it's irrefutable evidence of how powerful this group could've been.

The 1971 Atlantic sessions, featuring session aces like saxophonist David Fathead Newman, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, piano wizard Dr. John, and steel guitarist Charlie Owens, present a slicker, sadly sanded down edition of the band. Delving deeper into corrido other Mexican influences, burnished with a cosmopolitan pop sensibility (perhaps an early draft of Sahm's later Texas Tornados), they're trying harder with lesser results. It's all very tasteful, fascinating in its own way, but no match for Rise. Still in search of that magic bullet--a MOR hit that might land them in the big time--the band lost the thread. Even the more promising cuts--would-be wedding song "We Don't Have to Change," a ramshackle cover of Marty Robbins' "El Paso," and "Caribbean," the latter cut in apparent desperation at the behest of Wexler, are nonstarters. Very little of the Atlantic sessions carries on the raucous, anything-can-happen spirit of Rise, even though Ortega's exponential growth as a singer is much in display.

Of the later material, "My Belief in You," with its catchy stair-step melody and steel guitar and accordion interplay, stands out. As does "La Paloma," the oft-covered Mexican ballad, here serving as a showcase for Ortega's soaring vocals. All in all, Bear Family was right to pull together this group's collected works; throwing Rise a long-deserved lifeline is a masterstroke. And anyone with a modicum of interest in inventive, eclectic pop will find something to like on The Complete Recordings. (Luke Torn)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pop Culture Press: The Reincarnation

SALVO from Pop Culture Press

Greetings pop enthusiasts, rock and rollers, loyal readers, friends and colleagues, maybe a stray dog or two--

It's your old friend Pop Culture Press, with a long overdue update. Thanks to some crazy hard work by far too many people to name, PCP published for 20-plus years in the print realm. In magazine years, that's like, um, 280, or something. It was work from the heart, though, for the love of the music and the excitement it generated everywhere, and for the encouraging words and endless kindnesses extended by bands, musicians, readers, record labels, friends, and, well, you name it.

But, all good things come to an end, and a glimpse of the "music business" and the "publishing business" as they exist circa 2010 (versus, say 1987) indicates, well, changes afoot. Ha ha ha ha! Anyway, as you already know, I think, issue # 66, Nick Cave on the cover, closed the book on that particular chapter. As much as we'd like to spend our remaining years hanging out with certain of our former swindlers, I mean distributors, telling funny bankruptcy stories and guffawing about the slippery slide of all those alternative media hippies into oblivion, I'd say our time would be much better spent cranking up the music delivery device of our choice, inundating ourselves in sound, actually, and putting a few thoughtful, hopefully insightful, words on its behalf out into cyberspace.

So, a big hearty welcome to the PCP blogspot (http://popculturepress.blogspot.com/). We'll be digging through the extensive archives for the best of PCP past and Luke's freelance cache, as well as going nowtro, pawing through new releases and bands for the best bits of power pop, indie rock, garage bands, folk, blues, country and alt-country, and plenty of older, off-the-radar music and reissues. And we'll be a stepping stone of sorts to PCP's more extensive website still to come.

Please drop us a line in the comments sections, and thanks as ever.


PS--Photo at right: Cyril Jordan, Eddie Munoz, and Paul Kopf of Magic Christian, Pop Culture Press Party March 2008, Dog & Duck Pub, Austin, Texas (photo courtesy of Kent Benjamin)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


There may be some memorable songs lurking beneath the surface of this late '60s curio--the melancholy "Tucson" hits a nice, grey-day-on-the-American-road vein--but the sweetening machine, swathing the tracks with strings and Sgt. Pepper horns, shrill shopping mall harmonies, and arrangements from the Mamas and the Papas school of chart supremacy, work to undo the songwriting's modest strengths. Lead track "There Is Now," with its driving guitar underpinnings and swirling melody, also shows promise, its quieter moments capturing that peculiar mix of late '60s hope, need and fatalism. "Will you please come, and help me find a reason to be alive," wails singer Susan Alexander as the song reaches its apotheosis. Too much of the time, though, Euphoria reaches for a kind of Ian & Sylvia meets Spanky & Our Gang sheen, shiny but without much depth. Trainspotters will note that the group included Massachusetts-born Tom Pacheco, a fine criminally overlooked songwriter whose group the Ragamuffins made a couple of unforgettable mid-60s folk-rock singles, and who went on to work with Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and other Band luminaries in a long, intriguing career. (Luke Torn)


By Luke Torn

Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the American south. It may be true that the corporatization and cable-ization of America, the Internet, and all the rest, has flattened our sense of place, sucked out the character inherent in a sense of place that used to fuel the kinds of cultural explosions of which rock ‘n’ roll was a part. We’ve got a great hillbilly singer, Gillian Welch, whose roots lie in 60s TVLand Hollywood, and one of alt.country’s progenitors, the Jayhawks, came from icy Minnesota. Perhaps the purest country singer out there, Laura Cantrell, hails from New York City, probably the least countrified burgh you can find. It all adds up to some sort of weird disconnect, where even the most perfectly stylized music seems like a put-on.

The Drive-By Truckers are no put-on. Like the greatest blues and country singers, they know we’re all fucked, but that we might as well raise a ruckus on our way to hell. On Decoration Day, the Truckers begin the proceedings with a sweet twangy waltz whose characters, brother and sister, are mired in an incestuous relationship. Four babies later, the law finally catches up, breaks up the "family," and issues some prison time. It’s a grisly tale, but in its creepy way, it demonstrates how impossible it is to escape your raising, a major DBTs theme. Then the Truckers lean into stage fave "Sink Hole," all billowing gray clouds of mangled guitars and Patterson Hood’s desperate account of a farmer about to lose the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. From this song on, Decoration Day assays a litany of untenable situations, trapped characters, and broken lives with the kind of thunder and intensity perhaps only seen in the early raging days of 1976 punk rock, or maybe, to use a more apropos southern connection, Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio circa 1957 and "Train Kept A Rollin’."

"Rock ‘n’ roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies," yelps Mike Cooley on the relatively joyful "Marry Me," a cut that was born down on Exile on Main Street and raised by Let It Be-era Replacements. From the sizzling guitar fills and Jerry Lee-like piano damage, this song has the kind of momentum and electricity all too rare in pop today. So does "Do It Yourself," a blazing slab of rage written by Hood and aimed squarely at a friend who committed suicide. On "Pin Hits the Shell," Cooley takes on the same subject matter in a much more subdued but no less affecting way. An interior dialog full on reminiscence and reflection, its an utterly brilliant counterpoint. "It’s enough to make a man not want to be nobody’s daddy," he sings, "when all he thinks he’s got left to hand down is guilt and shame."

Ultimately, it’s the dynamics inherent in two great, explosive songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (not to mention newcomer Jason Isbell, who pens the sobering title track here), that makes the Drive-By Truckers such a formidable force of nature. Between them, they bring a context and interconnectedness that’s of a piece, yet reveals nuance and a panoply of moral and personal shadings in its depiction of real-life desolation. Many of the songs, from "Something’s Gotta) Give Pretty Soon" to "Heathens," reveal characters at a crossroads, with decisions to make. Others, like Isbell’s letter to his father, "Outfit," deal with the ramifications of decisions already made. Still others, like the remarkable album closer, "Loaded Gun in the Closet" somehow avoid destructive confrontation that always seems to lurk right around the corner.

Of course, Decoration Day would be a pale affair if the Truckers didn’t have the musical chops to back up their remarkable songs. The beautifully textured bed of guitars on "My Sweet Annette" is emblematic of a dense but versatile sound achieved throughout, an approach that is quite fluid, giving the songs plenty of room to breathe. The Truckers’ musical grasp is such that their folk, country, blues, and good old Stones/Faces rock ‘n’ roll influences coalesce so seamlessly that this might as well represent a new mutant genre. It certainly couldn’t be called retro, yet the band clearly has its tendrils deep into the history of American music.

Producer David Barbe coaxes a gritty, gutsy sound, and leaves plenty room for the musicians to take the songs to lofty heights. One example is the coda on the title track, where the song seemingly fades out, only to reappear in the guise of a gnarled, knotted guitar overture. Another is in "Do It Yourself," where the band takes a fairly straight-ahead rocker and kinda drags it through the mud, roughing up some already dirty guitar parts in a perfectly apropos bit of audio verite.

It’s rare for a band to produce a masterpiece on their fifth album (how many can you think of?), but those that do prove many tenets of the American work ethic: perseverance, stubbornness, dedication, focus, and, most of all, hunger. With Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers challenge themselves to see just how good they can be, and come out with perhaps the best rock ‘n’ roll epic of 2003.