Monday, October 27, 2008

Song of the Week: "Mr. Highway Man", Howlin' Wolf

Me? No, no I've never been in a knife fight in a rural juke joint in the South. I did once cut myself shaving though. Don't laugh, it was pretty bad. I bled for hours and had to walk around with a little piece of bloody tissue stuck to my chin. Truth be told, I wouldn't know what to do if I was in a knife fight. However, one thing I do know about rural juke joint knife fights is that if they had a soundtrack (which I don't think they do), the soundtrack would have to be performed by the human knife, Howlin' Wolf.

I trust every reader here knows the work of the Wolf very well. The musical shadow he casts is as large as the man himself (that's about 6' 6" and 350 pounds). Nobody ever sounded like the Wolf before him, and nobody has sounded like him since. Nobody ever will. Most casual listeners are already aware of his excellent records he cut up North in Chicago for Chess Records in the middle to latter half of the 1950's and early 1960's. But there is another goldmine of Wolf records he cut in Memphis' Sun Studios (yep, the same Sun Studios in which a lip quivering cat named Elvis would soon record) with Sam Phillips.

In 1951 the Wolf took his head-cutting band into the small studio to record upwards of 30 songs over the course of the year. The band was every bit as powerful as the Wolf's voice. A voice that is perhaps best described as two-parts sandpaper, one part squeaky-toy stuck in the throat of an alligator, one part Pentecostal preacher, one part devils serpent, one part repentant sinner. Taken together it was 100% Howlin' Wolf.

Not many bands would be able to match the power of the Wolf. But this Arkansas-based band he put together was equal to any task. Powered by over-driven low wattage amps, a drum kit that is less played than beaten into submission, a piano that sounds like it is in danger of splintering into 1,001 pieces, and, of course, Wolf's own cross-harp playing that emulated the chug of a northbound train called Smokestack Lightning. The same train which carried away a teenage fugitive from a righteous crime. This band, like Wolf, was power incarnate.

Wolf's later, more famous work was backed up by one of the all-time great guitarists, the deft finger picker, Hubert Sumlin. But this earlier band had a guitarist with a very different approach. He was an aggressive flat picker named Willie Johnson. Where Sumlin would lay back and beautifully fill in the holes graciously left by Wolf, Johnson would challenge the Wolf at every syllable. Johnson's rugged voice came not from his mouth, but from his fingers. Through those fingers he pushed a small tube amp beyond control as he would mix in jazzy 9th chords with rusty 7th chords to create a full attack that was every bit as powerful as the Wolf. Johnson's guitar work is confident, relentless, brash and without hesitation. He never lays back as he and Wolf stab and swing at each other wildly with their musical knives.

Rock-n-Roll didn't exist yet. But that's only because the marketing department was a couple years late to the game. The work Howlin' Wolf (and occasional band member Ike Turner) did at Sun was as powerful as anything ever recorded at the studio. Sun's owner and sometime producer, Sam Phillips described the sessions with Wolf in the book, Moanin' at Midnight, the Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf : "I tell you, the greatest thing you could see to his day would be Chester Burnett (aka, The Howlin' Wolf) doing one of those sessions in my studio....his eyes would light up and you'd see the veins come out on the back of his neck. Awooooo!" Bold words from a man who recorded Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Mr. Highway Man is just one of the many great songs Howlin' Wolf and his band recorded that year in Memphis. Moanin' At Midnight, Evil, Howlin' Wolf Boogie, How Many More Years. Too many great songs to tell you about on two great albums. Enjoy...and don't get hurt!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

New Robert Johnson Photo?

Vanity Fair has a new must read article about the possibility of a third photo of the legendary and photo-elusive Robert Johnson being discovered. The new photo shows what may be Robert Johnson (left) posing with fellow itinerant blues kid Johnny Shines (right) who was known to have traveled and "cut heads" (a blues busking competition to draw crowds) with RJ. It should be noted that Shines had stated on record years ago (before the photo surfaced) that he and RJ had once posed for a photo while traveling through the juke joints of Arkansas.

I spent 10 minutes (okay, more, but I don't want to come across as super-geeky) looking at the two known photos and this third photo, and I must looks very much like RJ to me. RJ's long spidery fingers are as distinctive as any feature, his downturned lip and his glaucoma damaged left eye all match up nicely. And then if you look at the parlor shot of RJ (the bottom photo) and compare the tie to that in the newly discovered photo, dang if it doesn't look to be the same. Read the linked article, it is very well written.

Song of the Week: 'Going Underground', The Jam

A couple of weeks ago I was leaning against a pool table in a loud music venue drinking some Dale's Pale Ale and listening to the Austin-based group, The Band of Heathens, cover their second Bob Dylan song of the night. My friend, Roger, and I began talking about the prolific writing of Dylan, the elusive nature of writing hit songs and how so few people can do it with regularity. I'm not talking about just writing a great song (as we highlighted last week). Truth-be-told, great songs are as abundant as paparazzi at another Britney Spears meltdown. I'm talking about writing a hit. And not just once, but hit after hit. Not many have been able to do it: the aforementioned Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Gershwin, Hank Williams and Willie Dixon immediately jump to mind.

Should someone like Paul Weller be on this list? Some may ask, who? Paul Weller, unlike the others already mentioned, remains largely unknown in the United States but was hugely prolific in his native England. For five all-too-brief years from '77-'82, Paul Weller's band, The Jam, dominated the airwaves in England with 18 consecutive top-40 hits, including 4 number one hits. Only the Beatles, The Stones and the German Luftwaffe had ever dominated the air over Britain more than did the Jam. But in the U.S., Paul Weller and The Jam were as common as a juggling platypus. Even as The Jam's competitors -- namely Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols and the Clash - made inroads with the provincial United States record-buying public of the day, The Jam were nowhere to be found on FM radio.

Why? It wasn't for lack of quality songwriting or performance ability, that's for sure. The Jam exceeded in both categories. The answer lies more in a mix of cultures, I believe. The Jam were a VERY British band. Unlike someone like Mick Jagger who often affected an American accent when he sang, Weller sang with a thick British accent about peculiarly British experiences. Evidence Down In the Tube Station At Midnight. How the hell was a kid from suburban Phoenix supposed to relate to a song about being mugged on a subway by skinheads who "smelt like pubs and wormwood scrubs and too many right wing meetings"? And that is if the kid can understand what the heck Weller was saying! And unlike the Sex Pistols or the Clash, whose singers also sang proudly with working class accents, the Jam didn't offer a visual curiosity that demanded attention (even if it was only scorn). Neatly trimmed in their black and white mod suits, paisley scarves and bowling shoes, the band's visual approach came across to Americans as little more than Euro-square.

But back home, The Jam were chart-toppers. Perhaps the pinnacle of that run of 18 consecutive top 40 hits for The Jam occurred with their first release of 1980, a stunning double A-side single of Going Underground b/w Dreams of Children. The single went to number 1 and cemented the trio as the darlings of the press and the undisputed rulers of the charts. Weller's rousing anti-Thatcher/Reagan era Underground was a political screed that questioned the public's thirst for war ("the public gets what the public wants/but I don't get what this society wants") while delivering a rousing musical score of rising power chords and pounding bass that barely give Weller time to breathe between verses. The song hits her crescendo at 2:19 as the over-driven Richenbacker pulls the song out of a staccato rhythm-section interlude. Weller parallels the guitar's melody as he venomously barks out "braying sheep on my TV screen/make this boy shout! Make this boy Scream!"

It's hard not to get your heart pumping on this one. I hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Song of the Week: The 13th Floor Elevators - I Had To Tell You

The other night I finished watching a documentary entitled Your Gonna Miss Me. It's a doc about Roky Erickson, the troubled front-man from the legendary 60's garage band, the 13th Floor Elevators whom are perhaps best known for their 1966 single, You're Gonna Miss Me.

It's certainly more about Roky than it is about the Elevators, but there is a lot of juicy stuff about the band nonetheless. As is so often the case, one comes away wondering "what could have been"? What could have been if they had better production, better management, better decisions in terms of drug use? But more than that cast of woulda, shoulda, coulda usual suspects, you wonder what could have been if Roky had better legal counsel, a better mother (the home film footage of mom's self-made Beast King movie is very, very odd), a better father, and of course, a better sense of what is real and what is not real. What could have been? As with Syd Barrett, one gets the sense that Roky was a brilliant musical mind that heard things that others didn't. But you also get the sense, as with Barett, that things were terribly wrong inside the head. Add an alleged 300 drops of LSD, and suddenly the cracks in the House of Usher become unfixable fissures.

Needless to say, I turned to their records not long after watching the doc. More and more these days I turn to their second album, Easter Everywhere. While it is not as "cool" as Psychedelic Sounds of..., EE has better production values and represents some of the bands' best songwriting.

The standout from the album, in my opinion, is the sublime "I Had To Tell You." I can't get enough of it. It's filled with warbly out of tune guitar, funky Rick Danko-like (of The Band) harmonies, a twittering straight tuned harmonica that hits the highest registers, and some of the best lyrics you can get outside of Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry.

The line from the song that always tugs at my ears is a quixotic line that plays up the contradiction between control and chaos. A line that raises hope in the same instance that it dashes it. A vulnerable Erickson pleades, "If you fear I'll lose my spirit, like a drunkards wasted wine, don't you even think about it, I'm feeling fine."

It never fails to get me. Just click on the post title to listen to it. I hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.