By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Johnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music — and he has, read on — but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?
The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template — soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid — through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.
"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."
Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?
"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."
Then he starts chuckling again, remembering some of his off moments. There have been a few.
"One of the first songs I sang was a Burt Bacharach song," Mathis recalls. "Burt is a task master, always has been. He wants you to do it exactly as he hears it in his head. ... But I wasn't taking direction well. The song is called 'Warm and Tender'" — Mathis sings a few bars, sounding creamy and light even over the cell connection from his California home — "and I ended up sounding like Frankie Laine. It was so bad. It's on the other side of one of my biggest records, 'It's Not for Me to Say,' which sold a million copies. I hear it and think, 'How could he possibly have let me do that?'
"There's a lot of that. I made a few songs years ago under the care of a doctor who gave me amphetamines, and that didn't sound good, either."
Mathis, who tours only occasionally now at age 75 and spends most of his time at home and playing golf five days a week (he now boasts an impressive seven holes-in-one), credits his very straight-and-narrow style to a small group of good advisers, most notably Gil Reigers, his guitarist for more than 40 years.
But despite the gentle but firm guidance, the Velvet Voice occasionally has veered off the sweetened path, from trying his hand at Brazilian music ("The one place I'd like to get back to is Brazil," he says, "because I fell in love with the people there and their music, and I still sing a lot of Brazilian songs") to making frequent guest appearances with the Muppets (his duet with Rowlf the Dog on "Never Before, Never Again" during a 1979 TV special is worth YouTubing).
Two recent projects, in fact, have brought his varied tastes full circle.
Late last year, a Jewish organization called the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation compiled an intriguing CD, "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The album rounded up rare instances of notable black singers taking on Jewish music, such as Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his scatting during "Utt-Da-Zy" and Eartha Kitt's orchestrated delivery of "Sholem."
The society also dug up a relevant Mathis recording. One of the four albums he recorded in 1958 was "Good Night, Dear Lord," a collection of religious songs dedicated to his mother. Amid the expected Christian music — from spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep Night") to formal pieces ("The Rosary," two versions of "Ave Maria") — were three Jewish songs: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about a Warsaw ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and the Yom Kippur prayer chant "Kol Nidre." The latter appears on "Black Sabbath."
"People ask me to explain why someone like myself would get involved with religious Jewish music," Mathis says. "It's the way you're brought up. Me, growing up in San Francisco, I had this extraordinary opportunity to listen to all kinds of music and studied voice for seven or eight years with a wonderful teacher. She first introduced me to it. As a singer, when you hear something extraordinary like that — and a lot of Jewish music is musically quite challenging — you want to sing it, you want to at least try it, to see if you can do it."
Back to his roots
Mathis' latest album, also released last fall, is off-track, too — "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville." A good friend of the late Ray Charles, it may have been inevitable that Mathis — a native of Texas — would tackle a country record. But Mathis says this actually has more to do with his roots in rock 'n' roll.
"The first music I heard was country music. My father sang it for me," Mathis says. "That's the reason I started singing. This country album is really a throwback to what my dad taught me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Over the years, I've performed with extraordinary people always in the background of my arrangements, especially the guitar players. This time, they're in the forefront. It's a guitar record! It's such a joy to listen to the recordings when I stop singing and hear this extraordinary guitar music."
So he made a record that kinda rocks, after all?
"Is it so hard to believe?" Mathis asks, laughing again. "My little brother [Michael], you know, had a band and did mostly rhythm and blues. He did stuff with Sly Stone there in San Francisco. Michael got me involved with a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. But I studied, as I mentioned, with a classical teacher, and most of the music I heard was pretty much Broadway and classical, and that's what I got involved with. In the household, my dad was singing country and Michael was playing rock 'n' roll, and I had six other brothers and sisters bringing in other stuff. If the slightest thing had changed, who knows, I could have been a rock 'n' roll star."
• When: 9 p.m. April 30
• Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets: $65-$75, (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music — I recommend it highly, it's damn good — but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad — I dream of greatness, you know — I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."
He's nothing if not quixotic. Stammering in his speech but blistering in his singing, Furman idealizes the artist as idealist. He's having this chat with us from the living room of his parents' Evanston home, where his band rehearses because they can't afford anywhere else. He mentions several times how poor he and his bandmates, the Harpoons, are despite having met each other at Boston's private Tufts University.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey," Furman says. "I've been a little too poor sometimes. Now may be one of those times."
But his confidence in his music is well placed. Whether its existence attracts money or not, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — guitarist Andrew Langer, bassist Job Mukkada and drummer Adam Abrutyn — make rootsy rock 'n' roll that's fiery, fierce and, above all, honest. The songs on their third and so far best album, the new "Mysterious Power," are at once familiar and exciting. Furman's not doing anything we haven't already heard from Dylan in the early '60s or Neil Young across the span of the '70s or the Violent Femmes in the mid-'80s, but he's doing it with such ferocity and abandon that makes him an individual stylist rather than a mere imitator. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in rock 'n' roll just to get it rolling.
Question: You seem pretty cavalier about claiming to walk the poverty line.
Ezra Furman: It's the life of an artist. It's fine with me. My only real goal is to be good at this. I've idealized all these people who were never very successful. I don't know. Maybe I should care a little more. I'm getting by. ... I don't need much money. I like the 99-cent loaf of bread better than the $3.50 one.
Q: Who's one of those not-very-successful people that you idolize?
EF: Paul Baribeau, for one. Nobody's heard of him, and he's the best songwriter in America, basically. He's always playing people's houses or basements. He's in his 30s. He's such a heart-stopping, great songwriter and performer. He can write a really passionate song, and he mostly just plays acoustic guitar and screams. He's my No. 1 evangelical project.
Q: So what would success look like for you?
EF: My version of success is someone finding my album in a bargain bin one day and falling in love with it. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
Q: What could lead you to the point of "selling out"?
EF: I don't think I'll get there. I was reading this article recently by the guy from OK Go [singer Damian Kulash, in the Wall Street Journal] all about how making money in the music business is different from what it used to be. He's talking about selling music to corporations for commercials and all kinds of stuff, and how it's not selling out anymore. Nobody sees this as impure anymore. He was so cavalier about it — just do it, this is how you get rich now, and you wanna get rich, right? I was like, shut up, stop. Not everybody is in this just to chase money.
Q: You're chasing, what, gratitude, affection, artistic credibility?
EF: Just some sign that what we do is good. I know how I feel about my favorite records. I want people feeling that about us. To be somebody's favorite record, at least for a period in their lives — that's the ultimate success in being a musician. What could be a greater honor than to always be in someone's car stereo? I'm not going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. F—- that. I'd rather be in someone's stereo.
Q: The new record, "Mysterious Power," sounds more energetic and cohesive than the previous two, which is saying something. What's behind that?
EF: We just had more time. It's a more carefully chosen album. The first ones were slapped together pretty quick. Each one was done in five or six days, like, "This is our band, this is how we play songs live, there you go." We didn't have a record label, no one was asking for the album. We made the album and then found a label for it. We spent time on it, and some songs I thought were throwaways wound up being turned into some of the best ones simply because we had time to find out.
Q: Give me an example. Which songs followed that course?
EF: "Bloodsucking Whore" is a good example. That was a bitter joke. That was me in a messed-up relationship, and I was, like, listing off Buddy Holly songs. I wanted to write some simple, classic Buddy Holly ballad. I just threw it out and didn't think much of it. It was a joke to me. But the Harpoons, believe it or not, they're musicians. People probably don't know that enough about this band. I'm just sort of a strummy, singy guy. I write these songs and the Harpoons know what to do with them. They picked that one out and masterminded the sound of it. It's one of the best on the record.
Q: What compels you to keep writing songs?
EF: Dissatisfaction with what I've already done, I guess. I listen to so much music. The real answer is I listen to so much and I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's a healthy sort of jealousy. It's like the competition. The past year, I started getting into the Replacements. The things they got away with. I think, "I could do that better than he does!" Or some great record like [the Beach Boys'] "Pet Sounds" — man, I could totally pull off my own version of this.
Q: What are you recognizing in this other music? What makes a great album great?
EF: Well, that's just it. They didn't know they were making a great record when they were making it. They didn't think they were capable of writing the greatest album ever. That's what keeps me going. Who knows what could happen if I keep writing? Maybe I'm about to drop a total masterpiece if I keep pushing myself. I see some sort of potential in myself. You just never know. You should always write another song.
EZRA FURMAN & THE HARPOONS
with Tristen and the Apache Relay
♦ 9:30 p.m. April 23
♦ Subterranean, 2011 W. North
♦ Tickets, $10-$12, (773) 278-6600; subt.net
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").
In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality — and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.
"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" — Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" — "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.
His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.
Q. Did the process of evaluating your catalog for this box set begin when you reconsidered old songs for the "Recovery" album?
A. If you've been doing this and as you get older, you look back. Can't help it. In my songwriting, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. It has to do with coming to the end of something, I guess. "Recovery" was a way of revisiting songs, some 40 years later, in the context of the band I work with out in L.A. This box set starts all the way back to the first track of the first record.
Q. Did you select the tracks?
A. Yes, I had to pick the tracks, which was very painful. A lot of things didn't make it. You only have 80 minutes on a CD. Hopefully it has some sweep for the listener, some interest for old fans and new fans alike.
Q. How did you make your choices?
A. Some people let others decide for them. I could have gone that route. I have friends who are familiar with my canon and whose judgment I trust. I checked in with those people and asked their opinion on what was essential. I requested the same of some fans that I've met at gigs over the years — they always seem to be guys. At the end fo the day, it was difficult. In the liner notes I say it was like drowning kittens. I left off some of my favorites.
Q. Like what?
A. Two songs: "Missing You" and "Man's World." Those are favorites of mine, but there was just no room for them.
Q. Yet you included a lot of extras on the bonus disc. Tell me what transpired to make you feel that "Laid," a song you say you always felt was too mean to put on a record, is OK to lay out there now?
A. It's a little rough, but I like it. The idea of bonus tracks is to put out stuff people wouldn't normally have heard, and "Laid" fit right into that pocket. "Laid" is a pretty bleak look at getting laid. It's not something I do anymore. It's just an interesting snapshot of where I was at the time.
Q. Were there discoveries for yourself when digging up some of the rarities?
A. Well, in terms of the bonus tracks, yeah. There's a song on the box called "McSorley's," which is a song I only performed about three times, in 1970. The oldest saloon in New York's East Village was this Irish bar called McSorley's, and until 1970 only men were allowed. Coinciding with the rise of the women's movement, there was a lot of pressure put on the place and that tradition was broken. They forced it to go co-ed. At the time, I was a twentysomething sexist pig and wrote this song as a kind of protest. This was a great tradition, women are turning into men, that sort of thing. It was very sarcastic. I think politically I've moved away from that stance [laughs], but I put it on the box as an interesting look at where I was in 1970 — wistful about the idea that there are bars where only men can go.
Q. You talk about these songs as if they're photos in an album.
A. That word "snapshot" is very good here. These songs are three-minute pictures of something. There's a lot of stuff behind them — the good songs, anyway.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and listening to the old stuff?
A. [A pause] I'm not a guy who sits around and listens to his own records. That's not my idea of a good time. When you make a record, you listen to it hundreds of times; you kind of wallow in it. Once it's out and you can't change anything, I don't want to hear it again. I'm not going to be listening to this box set.
Q. The Irish version of "The Hardy Boys at the Y" on the box was nice to hear. It makes much more sense in that arrangement. I never understood why the ends of the verses repeat until now.
A. I love that kind of music. The Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore — we knew each other playing folk festivals. I can't recall why we didn't put that song out this way instead of the live version [on 1975's "Unrequited"].
Q. Tell me about writing "No Sure Way."
A. I once lived in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful part of New York, and there's this thing called the Promenade Walk out there where you can see all of lower Manhattan. When 9/11 happened, I was out here in this Long Island house, and I went back a day or two later to the Promenade and looked at that ... smoking mound, I guess is what it was, of rubble and humanity. When you face something that huge, you think, "I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin." I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. But later that week I found myself taking a subway ride that went directly underneath the mound, and I wrote and recorded this song three days later. Like the words I used in the song, it felt "obscene."
Q. In the liner notes, David Wild describes you as "fearless." Do you feel fearless?
A. In my part of the liner notes, I address that point that David and others have made. Take the song "Hitting You." It's about hauling off and hitting [daughter] Martha. That's an example, I suppose, of a fearless song. If you're at a performance in a dark room with lights on you and a microphone and people are sitting there listening, it sounds and looks fearless — but it's a natural habitat for me. I feel pretty safe. I'm aware of the fact that I'm getting into areas that maybe people have strong feelings about, but for me it feels quite natural, not any act of courage. It's what I do. It's my shtick. I write about my personal life and the people in it. I haven't masked it too much. It's just what I do.
Q. That's what folk music is supposed to be all about.
A. It's about what's happening to you, and what's happened to me is in manyways what's happened to everybody. My life is not particularly unusual. There's identification. That's what art is about. People say, "I know what he's talking about."
Q. I read that [Wainwright's son] Rufus is assembling his own box set, true?
A. Yes, Rufus and I are recording a song next week to be on his bonus disc.
Q. What song?
A. "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson.
Q. And congratulations on becoming a granddad again. [Rufus Wainwright announced earlier this year he and his partner became parents to a child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, via Lorca Cohen, daughter of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen.]
A. Thanks. I was in L.A. when Viva arrived. I love being a grandparent. It's so much easier.
Q. What's next?
A. Writing new songs, and I suspect I'll think about making another record.
Q. Any acting gigs?
A. I have an audition tomorrow! Thank heaven I have folk music to fall back on.
with Kim Richey
• 7 and 10 p.m. April 15
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $24-$28, (773) 728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman & the Harpoons
Ezra Furman & the Harpoons have been knocking around this area for years, Furman being the young but oft-cited "unappreciated genius." The first couple of records, "Banging Down the Doors" (2007) and "Inside the Human Body" (2008), bristled with energy and potential. They drew a lot of Violent Femmes, Neil Young and Bob Dylan comparisons and were clear proof of a burgeoning, visceral talent, even if they weren't convincing of the "genius" tag quite yet. With the third outing the comparisons will keep coming (he's a snotty Roky Erickson, an amphetamine-jacked Chris Kowanko, a not-so-childlike Daniel Johnston), but the argument that Furman is a brilliant individual with his own searing voice will be much easier to make. "Mysterious Power" is revelatory — a joyous racket, a splintered confessional, an anxious thrill ride with the top down next to a fidgety poet who's crazy in love.
"Mysterious Power" opens simply, with Furman strumming his acoustic guitar and singing a mournful love letter to "Wild Rosemarie," something he has to get off his chest before the rest of this record can get going. He baptizes his regrets, using water metaphors to describe how the things he longed for turned against him — "How it had drowned us after all / how we used to thirst for it to burst forth from the sky and start to fall" — and when the second song rumbles to life, Furman has been reborn. He spits determined, one-note verses as the piston-packing Harpoons rev their indie-roots rock engine into second, then third gear. "I Killed Myself but I Didn't Die" is an explanation of the miracle that must have followed his post-Rosemarie depression, and a new declaration: "I hate pop music and I hate 'The Duke of Earl'!"
After that, more anti-pop, anti-"Duke" pokes in the eye, each one with a power-pop hook embedded within a thoroughly scrambled punk, rockabilly or "Zuma" song. "I am nothing but a boy in my room," Furman laments in the title track, thinking aloud over a pokey, Muppet-like piano part. But in "Hard Time in a Terrible Land" he's not so furtive, spewing biblical wisdom, careening through the crack band's bluesy boogaloo and preaching, "You've got rats in the water and bugs in the wood / Listen up, son, you better do what you should!"
The album staggers between angular quips and plaintive yearning, between the Modern Lovers and "Modern Love." The song "Bloodsucking Whore" actually is a breathless plea to be said whore; he surrenders his dignity long before the end to allow Andrew Langer's tortured guitar to finish begging on his behalf. Most songs are intensely personal dumping grounds for Furman's candor about his maladjustment, including his failure to understand love, his carefully articulated passion to keep trying and the frustrated rage that inevitably ensues. "I can't tell what I am gonna do next," he says in "Teenage Wasteland" (not a Who cover). "I'm gonna self-destruct / I don't see a problem with it."
"Mysterious Power" turns into a road album midway through, around "Don't Turn Your Back on Love," Furman's walk with Woody Guthrie down a dusty road contemplating the author of the song "America the Beautiful." His lyrical advice works both ways: don't give up on love, but don't ignore its dangers, either. "You idiot, you fool, don't you do it," Furman honks in his gritty, high-sinus voice. He keeps traveling through "Portrait of Maude," rolling out to California chasing "a cowboy-movie kind of love," and then brings it all home for "Wild Feeling," a quintessential album closer slowly considering all that's just happened and how it's all going to end — returning to his water motif: "The streams that take us to the sea / will overflow and that will be / the end, the end, the end" — as he almost absent-mindedly strums his guitar. It is a righteous conclusion, and it deserves an amen.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.