By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones are slumped in a suite at Chicago's Dana Hotel, utterly discombobulated. Granted, these are rock stars, and it's mid-morning, but Jones — a feline Welshman, neatly groomed but, he admits, hungover — and Hynde wear the vacant, resigned stares of natural disaster refugees.
"I don't know what the f—-'s going on," Hynde says, running a hand through her trademark black mane. "Every day I look around and go, f—-, what is going on? We came over to spend two weeks here, now we're living here. I've never had anything catch fire like this in my career."
She's referring to some intense media and fan interest in her first-ever side project, a rootsy new band called JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys. It's a departure from Hynde's three decades leading rock's defiant Pretenders, a moniker that still exists solely because of Hynde's stubbornness and determination in the face of personal tragedy and commercial whim. Last May, without a record even being finished — the CD "Fidelity!" is finally released this Tuesday — she and Jones were trotting across the country, including a stop in Chicago, teasing fans with short sets of the new songs.
But the whirlwind promotional tour was even getting to a seasoned road warrior and expatriate like Hynde.
"I'm totally displaced," she says. "I don't know where I am most of the time, or where I'm supposed to be. I don't know if I'm man or woman. I don't know if I'm American or British. I don't know where I live. ... Men think I'm a man. The guys treat me like one of the guys."
"I treat you like a woman, don't I?" Jones asks.
"I don't know," Hynde replies.
The silence that follows that exchange is beyond awkward, but very telling. Everything there is to know about the mournful music and sighed laments on this record is communicated just as effectively in those several seconds of uncomfortable staring at boots. The union of Hynde and Jones is a dynamic musical partnership, but it's based on a star-crossed, May-December romance.
Jones, 31, met Hynde, 58, in a bar in late 2008. (Yes, gents, you can still meet people like Chrissie Hynde in a bar. Still wanna call it a night?) There was chemistry, then there were text messages. There was a spur-of-the-moment getaway to Havana, where their personal relationship flamed and fizzled. But it fueled a musical collaboration, and they wrote the 11 songs for "Fidelity!," each of them a naked confessional of an irresistible romance that they say could never really be.
"We made a record that is, yes, very honest. It's some pretty gut-wrenching stuff," Hynde says. "All the songs are written to each other, about each other. ... You know, a lot of people fall in love with people they can't be with. That's what this record is about. It's about falling in love with someone and realizing you can't be with him. He wants kids and a family. I'm too old. It's too late for me."
Right away, over the lilting, sad guitar of the opening song, "Perfect Lover," Hynde and Jones get to explaining what Hynde calls their "unrealistic" love:
Hynde: I smoke and drink and eat too much and other things I shouldn't
(JP: That's why I love you, baby)
I'd like to think I'd never touch what other women wouldn't
(You're not like the others)
I'm a hotbed of addictions, contradictions rule my day
(You're just like me)
I know it's wrong, but the pull's too strong, Lord, help me walk away
I found my perfect lover, but he's only half my age
He was learning how to stand when I was wearing my first wedding band
"Music is a distillation of love and pain," Hynde adds. "Everyone's suffering something. I was crying when I wrote some of this stuff. I mean, it's not that serious. The nature of rock — if you're watching a rock band, you should be laughing at least half the time. We didn't make an album to depress people."
The thoughtful Jones pauses, mulling that over during another strange silence. Finally, he wonders aloud, genuinely worried, "F—-, maybe we have."
A little 'fairground luck'
Hynde, Jones and a supporting guitarist, Patrick Murdoch from one of Jones' former bands, trotted into the Near North studios of JBTV last May, hitting the stage before a small audience of maybe 50 fans. But the instant Hynde appeared under the lights, someone shouted a request for the Pretenders' hit ballad "Night in My Veins."
Hynde's face fell. She hadn't even sat down yet. With a little of the sneer that's endeared her to rock fans for 30 years, she laid down the law for the evening: "Anyone else who says something like that tonight will be ejected from the premises."
Not that the song would have been inappropriate for this pair ("He's got his hands in my hair and his lips everywhere / It feels good, it's all right / even if it's just the night in my veins"), but Hynde is determined to prevent her rock star status from overshadowing her new project with Jones. She was insistent about the billing: JP first, no Hynde.
The relationship began, after all, musically. "I just liked his songs," Hynde says, a little sheepishly, which is saying something for this typically brassy woman. They originally bonded over a discussion of fairgrounds. Hynde has a lifelong love of them, and Jones grew up on the one his parents owned in Wales.
One night, Jones texted Hynde to wish her well before a Pretenders show, on tour supporting the band's last album, the country-rock set "Break Up the Concrete." He said he was sending her some "fairground luck." Hynde liked that phrase and replied, instructing him to write a song called "Fairground Luck." Two days later, it was in her in-box.
"I sent her the song, and she liked it," Jones says. "When she got off the tour, she said, 'Hey, you wanna go to Cuba?' We took guitars to Havana and wrote the basics for the album."
"Fairgrounds just always meant freedom to me," Hynde says, recalling her youth in Akron, Ohio. She's lived primarily in London since the early 1980s. "I loved these fairs that would show up, like, in a strip mall parking lot. I loved that. I loved the gypsy nature of it. The way these people showed up and then moved on to — somewhere else. It was very romantic. And I knew I had to keep moving like that. I left when I was 22 and moved to London. I just left. I feel like I'm still doing that."
Jones had been in a band called Grace, once groomed by EMI as a next-big-thing. It fell apart after two years, and when he met Hynde he'd been fronting a band called Big Linda. Many of those players are now rechristened as the Fairground Boys.
"I was offered a development deal through Universal before all this came about," Jones says. "They were going to put me with, like, 10 big-name songwriters. When a record label wants to put you with 10 different songwriters, how can any truth come out of that? How can you communicate who you are? I felt very pushed, pulled and manipulated. They wanted me to wear certain things, dye my hair. Chrissie and I got together and wrote our album, and it felt so much more natural. I found myself musically through her. She's my muse. I just walked away from it all."
"I didn't encourage that," Hynde interjects. "I didn't want to be that guy."
Jones laughs. "That guy!"
'The kids are safe'
Hynde and Jones returned to Chicago early this month for a 20-minute set at Lollapalooza — on the children's stage, following Dan Zanes. With old fans and tiny tots watching them play their naked songs about cross-generational lust, Hynde was open about the pair's difficult dynamic. She explained the new album was about "when a woman meets a much younger man and they realize they don't have a future together."
"But don't worry," she added, "the kids are safe as long as I'm on this stage."
The frustrated desire plays out across the span of "Fidelity!" In the first single, "If You Let Me," Jones' coarse, scoured voice warns, "If you don't want me to come in, you'd better lock this door." Hynde describes their first encounter in "Australia," her amazement ("I was propping up the bar on my own / Mostly, guys like you say goodbye to me") as clear as her submission ("OK, pal, take me outta here"). The songs are tuneful, built on guitars and a more pleasing variation of the Americana leanings Hynde explored on "Break Up the Concrete."
That album, she says, didn't get the grassroots interest this one has. But while the promotional efforts have been exhausting, she finds the response exciting. She's especially glad they came to America.
"There's nothing happening in music over there right now," Hynde says. "It's all pop crap. ... We came over here five weeks ago looking for interest. People don't do it like this anymore. There's still all this waiting and planning a strategy. I just wanna get on with it. Why not? I mean, we met in a bar.
"When the Pretenders started, we were in the '70s, coming out of that dreadful prog-rock period. And then punk happened, which was so refreshing in so many ways. It was like bands started being taken seriously without all this posing and styling. They were just themselves. I mean, later today we have to go to some photo shoot for Women's Wear Daily, and they told me to bring four different 'looks.' You know, that is just so not me. This is my look." She gestures to her high, black boots, jeans and black T-shirt. "There's just one, really. But even with that, it just feels fresh now. We've been taken seriously based on our music ever since we came ashore six weeks ago. The whole industry has collapsed, and people are finding an audience without all the trappings and the corporate strategies. Today feels more like 1977 than ever."
But after the flush of new romance is gone, both personally and commercially speaking, what will happen next? Hynde says she and Jones have enough material for a second album, but she hedges.
"A second album would be of a different nature," she says. "We were each other's muse on this album. The next one — I dunno." A beat. "Things have changed."
And they both fidget through another lengthy silence.
JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys are scheduled to perform Oct. 10 at Chicago's Park West, with Amy Correia. Tickets, $25.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Listening to Jimmy Webb's stable of once-upon-a-time hit songs — "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — you'd think he had a GPS in his writing room.
The Oklahoma-born songwriter left home at age 16. In short order, he was writing songs for artists in the late '60s and early '70s, songs that became big hits, like "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer. Those other hits all belong to Glen Campbell.
Webb, 64, is on the road again, out playing some dates this month to support his first CD in a few years, "Just Across the River." The album features many of Webb's hits reborn in loose new arrangements and featuring guest singers such as Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Campbell and more.
"We're in Chicago in a few days, then playing Largo in L.A. — I've got five sons and a daughter out there, plus my father, who's 87 — then Seattle, Nashville. I thought it was just a bunch of gigs, but I guess that's a tour," Webb says in his easygoing Oklahoma drawl. He's chatting from his home on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., where he says he's really a homebody. But in order for home to have real value, you have to be glad to see it again.
Q. Why are you still traveling and touring?
A. Mainly because the alternative is to ossify and die. It sounds corny as hell, but music is my life. I've been lucky that I got away with this for so many years, that I've been able to do something I love doing and sometimes even get paid for it. To be honest, making music is not a real job, not like running a metal press on an assembly line somewhere. It's full of great moments of joy and passion, and interaction with the audience — which I enjoy more and more. Shaking hands, signing autographs, collecting anecdotes from people who've spent their lives on the other side of the speaker listening to what I have done and what my friends have done. I take a lot of energy from that. ... But at the same time, there's no place like home.
Q. Once Glen Campbell and the others had hits with those geographical songs, were you pegged as Rand McNally?
A. Success begats a certain kind of success. If you do a certain kind of photograph and it's successful in an ad campaign, you become known for that kind of photograph. It's like typecasting in movies. When I started writing about places, it was because I wanted to. I remember being a little uncomfortable once people started asking me to do it. [He pauses.] I started to say I don't do that anymore, but on Judy Collins' new album, which came out the same day as mine, she's got my new song "Paul Gauguin in the South Seas." So there I go again.
Q. Can you just not help yourself?
A. It's something at a very deep level in my consciousness. I tend to relate to places. I have a backlog of cinematic images and of places I've seen that I fall back to.
Q. Are your geographical references essential to the lyrics? Could the song have been "By the Time I Get to Seattle"?
A. It wouldn't have been a hit. [Laughs.] In that case, the location was important because I was in a real circumstance of having trouble in a romantic relationship, and I had decided to pack it in and drive back to Oklahoma. That whole song is about that trip back to Oklahoma, even though I never got around to making that trip. Phoenix is on Route 66, as is Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. I was born on Route 66 in a little town called Elk City. ... It had to be Phoenix for that song.
Q. Because you say, or because the song demanded it?
A. Sometimes these things, they make their own decisions. They take a certain line and you follow along and keep up because the song knows where it wants to go. Sometimes it's too good to be true and writes itself. Sometimes it's like scaling Mt. Everest, or being born and dying and being born again. ... "Gauguin" was a very difficult song to write. I knew the story was in there, and I knew I knew that story. I knew what it was like to work and have it unappreciated and want to run away from all the trappings of civilization. I Still sometimes pull my hair out with frustration at the whole urban groove and the rut we allow ourselves to get into, how hard it is to break out, how silly it is when you're sitting in, say, a place like Lanai, Hawaii, and thinking about New York. That's silly. But by the time you negotiate security and get yourself back on the plane, you've slowly indoctrinated back to the discipline and rigidity of the confines, the prison-like atmosphere of the urban areas we live in.
Q. So what places do you escape to?
A. Part of me is still an Okie. I like wide-open spaces. I like to get on my boat ... [On my end of the conversation, a siren screams through north Chicago streets. Webb pauses, hearing it, and says, "Speaking of the urban prison."] I like to have a nor'easter rattling my front teeth. I like to see nature acting out.
Q. You've revisited your catalog before, particularly in concerts. Why take the celebrity-guest approach on the new album?
A. It was never intended to have a lot of celebrity artists with it. That's a fact. If we discussed it at all it was to say let's not have celebrities involved. ... The main purpose of this album was to shed all the affectations of urban life, including the southern California pop roots I have. I at least have some capillaries. Some aspirations of my recording career have included the desire to make big production albums along the lines of Elton John or Billy Joel. Now that's silly. It's been done and done well by guys who will always do it better than I can. Freddy Mollin [the album's producer] said, 'We should go to Nashville, get top-line musicians, literally the very best, line 'em up and work it out so we're all in the studio on the same day.' These are busy guys. 'We'll cut 13 tracks in two days, and you'll have an epiphany. You'll have the most joyful time you've ever had in the studio.' He said, 'Just go back to the kitchen table in Oklahoma with your father sitting there strumming his old steel-string Silvertone guitar, singing "Red Sails in the Sunset," ... and let it go. It's the way you sound best.' I've learned Freddy is right most of the time. ... Sure enough, we had a ball. ... It was a nostalgic plunge into the swimming pool of memory and sentiment and the DNA of growing up as a country kid.
7 p.m. Saturday
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $25, lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Twas an esteemed watchdog of modern society who once said, "I say, whip it. Whip it good!"
The music of Devo is chirpy and chilly, perky and punky, and the pioneering synthesizer band's early hits are enshrined in the seeming fluff of 1980s pop culture. But when Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale assembled the band in the late '70s, they had serious social commentary in mind.
The name itself is a shortening of "de-evolution," an idea that humankind actually regresses as it moves forward in time, instead of evolves toward an ever-brighter enlightenment. In the cold but still tuneful medium of electronic new wave, Devo was able to match the message to the medium, producing catchy but often controversial songs about the apeman on the train next to you ("Jocko Homo"), the perils of having "Freedom of Choice" and a rockist-riling cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."
The latest revival of the Devo brand came this year with a new studio album, the lively and toothy "Something for Everybody," and a new tour, which includes a stop this weekend at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.
Mothersbaugh spoke with the Sun-Times about the band's revival of misfortunes, how they have tried to use advertising against itself and the pitiful state of the world overall:
Q. What drew you back to the studio after 10 years?
A. We're old-timers, and we forgot what made us stop in the first place. Kidding. Actually, we met with our label [Warner Bros.] and instead of pontificating to us about what a record company is and what an artist does, they said, "We're trying to reinvent ourselves. Maybe you can help us."
Q. The brave new world you've been singing about has arrived. Why join them on their quest?
A. We always want to be a part of something new and changing. The Internet has changed the way musicians and artists create art, and the way audiences experience it. It's even changed what art is. I like it. To me, YouTube is much more interesting than MTV ever was. For what you lose in some sort of quality, just the idea that you can watch this incredible encyclopedia of all sorts of music and art and information, well, I think it would be a really great time to be 20 years old and thinking, "I want to be an artist, but I don't know what to do."
Q. Your first experiences with Warner Bros., I'm guessing, were not open, round-table discussions.
A. [Laughs] There was a marketing meeting when we first landed at Warner [in 1977]. We're sitting around a table with these guys, and one guy goes, "Here's the marketing plan for your music: We're going to put life-size cut-outs of you in every major record store in the country." And then he just leaned back and smiled and the other guys tipped their coffee cups. We looked around. That was it. We said, "How much will that cost?" $5,000. "Can we have that money to make a film instead?" They were like, "A film? What can we do with a film?" We took the $5,000 and made the "Satisfaction" video, and they indeed had no idea what to do with it. We mostly showed it on a screen before we started our shows. But we kept talking about sound and vision, sound and vision. Then along came MTV, and instead of killing rock outright it kind of propped it up for another 10-15 years.
Q. Why is Devo always wrapped up inextricably with marketing and advertising?
A. It goes back to our beginnings. Gerry [Casale, the other Devo co-founder] and I were at Kent State in 1970, protesting the Vietnam War. Gerry was there the day they shot the kids on campus. I was protesting because, OK, they're commies, I don't care. They can have bad government if they want; I don't want us to be napalming them for it. After the shootings, everyone went quiet. So the first thing we learned was: rebellion is obsolete in capitalist culture.
Q. Even though that's the founding image of rock 'n' roll.
A. Exactly, but look how they all change. The Sex Pistols turned into groovy fashion statements. Anything political they were about was turned into a way for capitalists to make money. We wondered: How do affect change in a democracy? Who does it best? Even then, it was Madison Avenue. They don't do it by attacking, they do it by hugging you to death. So while we don't like most of the things they sell us — it's mostly conspicuous consumption and mindless consumerism — the techniques they use work. So we thought: What if we use those techniques for good instead of evil?
Q. You had this conversation with a major record label?
A. This time we did. They wanted us back. We said, "On one condition: Let us use an ad agency for marketing instead of you guys." We talked them into hiring Mother [a new ad agency in Los Angeles], and we talked to them about marketing a brand that had been off the marketplace for 25 years. We did focus groups, color studies, all kinds of things. We wound up using advertising techniques to skewer themselves but also advance our cause, so to speak.
Q. Haven't Devo songs have been used in ads for years, hawking all manner of products?
A. We've licensed Devo songs a thousand times, always have, always wanted to. "Whip It" has been "flip it" and "strip it" and Swiffer, I think, made it "Swiff it." To me, if that stupid commercial puts Devo in your head, and some kid who doesn't really know the song hears it and makes a connection to Devo, maybe he'll be proactive to find out what we're all about, hear the real lyrics, make it more important. It's like when "Freedom of Choice" gets used in a beer commercial. I don't drink beer, but if a beer drinker hears the lyric and it makes him think, "What do they mean by that?" that's better than not thinking it.
Q. You play both sides of this game. You write a lot of music for TV commercials. You even used to slip in subliminal messages, right?
A. I did do that early on, yes. I'd sneak in Devo catchphrases, like "Duty now for the future" and "Be like your ancestors or be different." If I didn't like the product, I'd put in "Sugar is bad for you" or "Question authority." It's easy to do. I lost interest after about 40 of them. It's funny, though, when you're unveiling these things in meetings, and you get to the part where you can barely hear "Choose your mutations carefully." I have to be careful not to blush.
Q. Why did you stop?
A. It's not necessary anymore. More people believe in our original concept of de-evolution than ever. Years ago, they thought we just had a bad attitude. We're just about the Captain & Tennille at this point. Honestly, I didn't think de-evolution would happen so soon. But here we are waiting in incredibly long lines at the airport for incredibly old planes with not enough food or water or air, and we have way too many people and no one is talking about the biggest problem on the planet, which is overpopulation. I never thought it would be like this so quickly. But, hey, we do have portable cell phones.
WITH DIRTY PROJECTORS
• 7:30 p.m. Thursday
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• $35-$100; congresschicago.com
• 4 p.m. Friday
• Grant Park, Michigan and Congress
• $90-$850; lollapalooza.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Jon Bon Jovi is standing up.
The only reason that's news is because he blew out a calf muscle on stage July 9 during a concert at New Meadowlands Stadium in his home state of New Jersey.
"I got another leg," he told the crowd. "I don't need this one."
He hobbled back to the microphone and finished the show with "Livin' on a Prayer."
"The leg's back now, miraculously, with all the rehab I've had," Bon Jovi told the Sun-Times in an interview Wednesday. "If I was a football player, I'd say I'm 'probable' to play. Really I've just nursed all the sympathy I could get at home, and now I've gotta go back to work."
Work is a prominent theme on his latest record, "The Circle." Bon Jovi's job has looked the same for nearly 30 years — playing one massive stadium show after another. This weekend, he returns to Chicago for two nights at Soldier Field. After that, more stadiums and arenas in 30 countries for the next two years. Again.
The Circle Tour already is the top-grossing tour in North America. Bon Jovi's last tour also had that distinction, in 2008. Amid all the reports of canceled shows and trimmed-back tours this summer, Bon Jovi's stadium gigs emerge as one of the few winners. Thus far in 2010, he's played 38 shows, selling half a million tickets and banking $52.8 million, according to Pollstar.
Since long before the band hit it big with the 1986 album "Slippery When Wet" ("Livin' on a Prayer," "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Wanted Dead or Alive"), Bon Jovi has been playing the big venues. "It's what we've done since the inception of this band," he said during a conversation that reflected on the first stadium shows, the new music business and writing a song about Jennifer Hudson.
Q. These tours are clearly huge undertakings. Do you have a limit? What would be too big for you?
A. Well, I was the guy quoted saying that I wanted to play and sell out the desert — more than once. I've always been very comfortable in the big venues. It's not an issue of being too big as long as it's manageable, for us and the fans, and the business calls for it. And we're having fun, which we still are.
Q. Do you remember the first arena you played?
A. Yes: 1983, opening for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden. Talk about a daunting venue — this was before we'd even released a record. It took courage, but we did it. ... It was really only daunting inasmuch as this was the fabled Madison Square Garden, a place where heroes have walked. Every kid out there thinks that tennis racket is going to turn into a guitar and they're going to have the chance to speak to someone. We got there. We got in trouble, too. We had more people backstage than ZZ Top had times 10. We invited everyone. There was one case of beer between about 150 people. We didn't even get to meet ZZ. It was a fantasy.
Q. Do you still get nervous at all?
A. Not so much nerves, but anticipation. I ask: "Are you prepared?" I've never had stage fright, if that's what you mean.
Q. What do you attribute that to?
A. If you really want to dissect it, it goes back to the drinking age in New Jersey being 18 back in the '70s, which meant you could sneak into bars as young as 16. You'd get to see bands, and you thought that was the big time. And every step along the way, that was the big time. From the dance to the club to headlining a club to theaters and stadiums — every step on that path you said, "This is it! I've made it!" ... It all goes back to that naivete or innocence at 16. I didn't have to go to the service, and I was young enough I could live at home, and I didn't have a family to support, so I could chase this dream. When the drinking age changed to 21, it changed the opportunities for the next generation of kids. Now you had to get to about 19 before you could sneak in and see a rock band, and by then things can be different.
Q. In the '80s, you had the quintessential success story: make a record, hand it to a DJ, he plays it, it catches on, sign the record contract. Could you pull that off today?
A. Yeah, but in a different way. The public spaces are on the Internet now, and the audiences aren't as big. "The Loop" [Chicago's WLUP-FM] had a voice back then. There were places like that where DJs had influence and were style makers. There are a couple of those guys still in the world. Pierre Robert in Philadelphia [at WMMR-FM] is a throwback to that. He guides you through what's going on, including some social activism. But if a kid like me walked into a Clear Channel chain now ... no one's going to come out and say, "Sure, let's spin this on the air in Chicago!" He'd get his ass whooped.
Q. When did you realize that had changed?
A. One day in Chicago. I remember walking Michigan Avenue — right? where all the stores are? — to that huge Virgin Megastore that was there until three or four years ago. I'd go there whenever I was in Chicago. I'd buy DVDs and CDs and whatever junk, anything and everything. I walked down there one day to see it all gone and thought that's the beginning of, not the end but — it was definitely my nose slamming into the face of the record business and thinking, "Well, the new generation better find us a trick, because the old generation has given away the keys to the kingdom."
Q. Puts "7800 Fahrenheit" in a new light, eh?
A. You know, I had a conversation with Doug Morris, now the head of Universal [Media Group, Bon Jovi's current record label]. He was president of Atlantic Records when they tried to sign me in 1983. There we were in a meeting with [Atlantic founder] Ahmet Ertegun and Doug and all these guys trying to sign me, and we didn't sign. I did my deal at Polygram. But Doug wound up at Unversal, and I asked him, "What would have happened if I'd signed with Atlantic?" He said, "To tell you the truth, I don't know if we'd have made 'Slippery When Wet.'" I said, "Why?" He said, "You know, your first two albums did OK, but chances are we wouldn't have given you that third shot. That's the way Atlantic used to think. If you're not headlining after two records, move on." And now here he is the president of my label, saying, "Sure glad we didn't drop you."
Q. I'm guessing this is why you remain in at least some contact with aspiring bands, putting contest winners on your stadium bills [like Chicago's 7th Heaven, opening Friday's concert].
A. I've been doing the opening band contest for years. I love it. I want them to get the opportunity to go out there and see what it would be like on Christmas morning, the way we lived. If anything, it's a motivation tool. When they've tasted that ZZ Top moment, they go back home and work harder and figure out things, whether it's soliciting fans in the aisles with fliers they've made or giving away CDs 'cause they've made 500 of them or calling the newspaper and telling them what you do, getting an article written about you. My day or this day, you've got to work hard at it.
Q. How's "The Circle" doing?
A. Well enough, in this day and age. I think it's a fabulous album that says a lot.
Q. You do seem to be tackling topical matters more than ever here. How do you approach current events without crossing the line into folk music?
A. We think universally and timelessly. Case in point: the song "Bullet." One Sunday morning Richie [Sambora, guitarist] was at my house, and I'm watching "Meet the Press," and it's about Jennifer Hudson's brother-in-law, what's his name? The guy who killed her family members on a rampage? [On Oct. 24, 2008, actress-singer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered on the South Side. Hudson's estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour, has been charged with the murders.] He's this guy going, like, "Why didn't I get mine?" Awful. But instead of sitting down and writing a song with his name in it or hers, with a specific day and date, you make your case because this same situation is going to happen again in five years somewhere else. You speak to the larger issues. You ask whether the song will stand up 20 years from now and is the message going to be clear.
with Kid Rock and 7th Heaven (Friday)
with Kid Rock and the Worsties (Saturday)
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Soldier Field, 1400 S. Museum Campus Dr.
Tickets: $36.50-$500; ticketmaster.com (Friday is sold out)
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III doesn't often get political in his folk songs, but that doesn't mean he's purely objective on the subject.
"Yes, my wife and I were watching the election results here in L.A., and enjoying the results. Congratulations there in Chicago," he tells us. "Whew. Four years ago I was in Vancouver mixing a record and watching returns at a Canadian house and, God, I was ready to pick up the paper and start looking for apartments."
Indeed, he returned home to America — but now he's in recovery. That is, his new album is called "Recovery," and it's a set of 13 old songs — songs mostly from the earliest outings of Wainwright's career (he was the first "new Bob Dylan," the singing surgeon on "MASH," a Grammy winning singer-songwriter, even star of and soundtrack creator for several Judd Apatow projects — and, yes, he's the father of Rufus and Martha). At the behest of artist-producer Joe Henry, Wainwright dredged up this baker's dozen of old tunes — "School Days," "The Drinking Song," "The Man Who Couldn't Cry," "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House" and more — and re-recorded them with his band. He talked to the Sun-Times about why he decided to look backward and what it's like singing a young man's songs at an older age.
Q. Each time we talk, I have to stop myself from calling you "Loudo" or assuming a friendship with you, which I think is the result of listening to so many of your deeply personal songs for so many decades. Is that common, people assuming a familiarity with you because there's so much biography in your music?
A. That's OK. It's not a bad thing. It hasn't gotten too creepy yet. People know a version of me, certain biographical facts because I've written about them. But they don't really know me, and I certainly don't know them. They show up in the CD line when I'm signing copies, and they say, you know, "This song meant a lot to me," and I like that.
Q. And here you are 40 years later, still touring.
A. Yeah, my swingin' life, still beating the bushes, still seeing if I can kindle some interest. I've been kindling now for 40 years — exactly, actually. I got paid to play music for the first time probably in 1968.
Q. How convenient for a milestone anniversary to offer this disc of retooled old songs?
A. Well, it wasn't that kind of thing, really. It all started in discussions with Joe Henry, when we were working on "Strange Weirdos" [an album of songs used in and inspired by the film "Knocked Up"]. I really love this group of musicians I'm recording with now in L.A., and we thought, "Why not go back and look at some of the old songs?"
Q. How did you decide which ones to "re-cover"?
A. It was very democratic. Joe mentioned some songs, I had some suggestions. I know that in these days of the Internet and downloading a song and reshuffling a playlist, the listener has a lot of choice in terms of the way they experience music. The last few albums I've made, I've tried to put the songs together in a way that creates a tone or a mood — dare I say, takes you on a journey. But once you make it, God knows, people can do whatever they want with it. Still, I gathered these 13 songs to try and make a journey.
Q. Having traveled quite a journey in 40 years, what kind of journey is this record?
A. Well, it's all about this band, really. That's what makes this different. That and the fact that it's all now from the perspective of a singer who's aged almost 40 years. The things I write about haven't changed much, actually. I was obsessed with getting old even when I was young.
Q. What was it like to rediscover songs you'd forgotten?
A. Well, I was sometimes amazed. Like "Old Friend" — I hate to praise myself, but I was amazed at what a good song it is. I was good, man! [Laughs.]
Q. Was there a desire to do anything different with the songs?
A. I came out of a tradition of singer-songwriters, and I liked guys who made voice-and-guitar records. So I resisted it. Now the calendar pages are flipping, the autumn leaves are blowing and here I am back doing these songs with a band. But it's a band I'm extremely comfortable with and really respect.
Q. I hear the next album might also be a looking back.
A. The next record might be different. I'm working with Dick Connette on a collection — there was a guy in the '20s, Charlie Poole, with a band called the North Carolina Ramblers. Dick and I are both fans of his, and we're working on something like that, singing some of those songs, writing new ones, adapting some.
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Opening for Leo Kottke
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage, Fawell and Park, Glen Ellyn
Phone: (630) 942-4000
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Speaking with Mark Eitzel, it's always surprising how cheery he is. His music, and that of his band, American Music Club, is soft and sad, stirring and smoky. "Brooding" is an overused adjective for it. He's often written off as a grump, a depressive. And while he certainly has a record of behavior and lyrics to convict him of those charges, he's more often a smiling, self-deprecating goofball.
"It's a real bore," Eitzel says of the assumptions about him. "People think I'm so morose, but I'm not. My music honestly is a reflection of what I see in people's eyes. Which, yeah, is morose. In San Francisco, take the bus — I mean, c'mon, it's morose. Unless someone's yelling 'Cracker!' at you, which happens every time I ride the bus."
And soon he's laughing and spitting out two other facts that are still a surprise about him.
"Yes, I'm turning 50, but I'm a gay man, so I can say I'm perpetually 29." He laughs some more. Really. "I'm a middle-aged gay man, which is one step away from being a grande dame."
It's not usually the same personality that sighs through supple songs such as "All My Love," "Decibels and Little Pills" and "I Know That's Not Really You" on American Music Club's latest album, the second since they reunited a few years ago, "The Golden Age."
There are also two songs aimed at his heralded hometown: "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco" and "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco." (Not the grande dame, ahem.) Always a booster for the City by the Bay, these two San Fran titles may have been a reaction against the city in which "The Golden Age" was actually recorded: Los Angeles.
"I'm not one of those San Franciscans who hates L.A., though. I love L.A.," Eitzel says. "That's a big thing: Everyone in L.A. hates San Francisco and vice versa. It's a bore. I have a lot of friends down there ... but I'm not gonna live there. I need city. I need a downtown that's not full of stupid violent people and one I can walk across. I don't want to always be driving, driving, driving."
But surely the change of locale altered his songwriting perspective, as has happened for countless rock bands who relocate to an L.A. studio, from Steely Dan to Folk Implosion.
"Well, with Steely Dan, my God, that much coke use would change anyone," Eitzel says. More laughing. "And, sure, it had its effect. I wrote my first song there beside a kidney-shaped swimming pool with a view of the city. You can't help but love it. It's a mirage on sand. It's completely fake. But it's great. And I like having stupid conversations, really. L.A. is comforting that way. You don't have to think too hard."
Eitzel spent his last two solo albums twiddling knobs more than strumming guitars, especially the disc "Candy Ass," which is not his most beloved outing.
"That was never supposed to come out," he says. "I did it for the money, honestly. I kinda hate it. I was rushed and I didn't use the good stuff."
American Music Club will never slip down the electronic slope, he promises. "AMC is very much a guitar band. Nothing else."
But Eitzel is still stretching his musical experience. He's writing a musical.
"I'm collaborating with [British playwright] Simon Stephens," Eitzel says. "It's going really well. It's a non-narrative kind of musical, a little bit odd. The songs and the action go together in a very elliptical way. We tried some of them out on some opera aficionados, and they hated it, which is good. They can suck on my big f—-in' butt. You can print that."
He's really laughing now.
AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB
- 10:30 p.m. Saturday
- Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
- Tickets, $15
- (773) 525-2508
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Margo Timmins is blessed with one of Those Voices — an utterly unique and instantly identifiable sound that sharply defines her music and her band, the Cowboy Junkies.
On the Junkies' new disc, "At the End of Paths Taken," that voice pushes typically sublime melodies while the band further relaxes the loose, spooky alt-country sound it's honed for two decades and writhes through some crazy noises, eerie voices and unexpected sounds. The disc has received adoration from critics and fans since its April release — the kind of rapturous reception given to the band's second album, "The Trinity Session," which broke them to a mainstream audience and which celebrates its 20th anniversary later this year with a special edition.
Timmins discussed all this and more when we caught up with her before a show in New York ... somewhere. "We're playing tomorrow night," she cooed over the phone, "but I couldn't tell you where. It doesn't matter. As long as we show up and there's an audience, we have no expectations."
Q. Were the great reviews for the new disc a surprise, or did you feel this one was something special?
A. After so many years, we have no expectations of how an album will be received. When we listened to it after recording it, we were more surprised at how well it turned out. It was an album in which we really had no idea what we were doing. We went through tons of changes. Our only plan was this: totally experiment and play with the songs. We came at it almost backwards from the way we've been doing every other album for 20 years.
Q. How'd that approach come about?
A. It started with Michael writing songs and handing them to me without music, just the words. So I got familiar with the poetry first, on paper. And come to find, he'd written the music in weird guitar keys he's never used before. Some went smoothly. Others were like, "Is this good?" But by the time we got to the end and listened to the whole thing in order, we just laughed and thought, "It worked!" I mean, we can always make it work, but it was good.
Q. What made you think it was good?
A. Well, I played it for my parents. And my aunt and uncle were there, too, for some weird reason. They're of a totally different generation, I thought they wouldn't get it. I thought my aunt and uncle wouldn't even try. But by the end of the album I could tell they'd gotten sucked in. I think that's what this album does. If you give it time, it'll suck you into what I think is a really comfortable place.
Q. On the surface, the record doesn't sound that different, given that the band has such a consistent sound. But it hits you differently, harder. What's happening here that hasn't before?
A. It's certainly a Junkies record. My voice is always the thing people identify as a Junkies record. ... We do have a signature sound, even now after 20 years. I don't fully know what that sound is, I don't know what makes it, but it only happens when the four of us are playing together. When I've sung with other bands, it's not there. ... But the music behind me this time is strange — so many layers and weird sounds. Oddly enough, the only real melody in any of the songs is my vocal. And this otherworldly music just twists and writhes around me.
Q. And that is the result of the experimentation?
A. Oh yeah. In "Mountain" [a truly odd pastiche of spoken-word, tortured music and Margo singing a brief chorus], you can hear me laughing. I'm always laughing in rehearsal — there's a lot of my laughter on tape — and when Mike was mixing the song he dropped some of my laughter in there. It's not as a joke; he uses it as an instrument. It's very subtle. But it's very much part of the "OK, let's throw this in and see if it works" spirit of making this record.
Q. What about the Cowboy Junkies is distinctly Canadian?
A. Hmm. I think we're very Canadian, but what that is I just don't know. [Pause] It's a ... part of it is ... it's being humble. That's a positive thing almost, but there's a negative side to it. We spoke of having no expectations — that's a good way to live, but it's also not good because you don't make demands and you don't get as far as you could have, or should have. You won't be disappointed, but the other side is you don't make things happen. I think that's very Canadian. Pretty much just going with the flow, wherever it might take you — I think Canada as a whole is very much like that. Like, "All right, we'll get into this war if you want to." [Laughs]
Q. What was it about "The Trinity Session" that made such a breakthrough for you back in 1988?
A. That record happened at a time where that kind of sound was just not happening. These big rock bands were all at the top of the charts. Then this quietness emerged from the din — I think that's what got people's attention. ... At the time, there just wasn't anything like it. We had no idea it would catch on like it did. We knew it was special, no doubt. The next morning, we listened to the tapes. Oddly enough, my mom was there, because Mike had run the tapes over to my house around the block. We knew right away it was good and different, but we figured it would be an underground thing, not something that would attract major labels and attention. But my mom turned to me and said, "Your life will never be the same."
Q. Is your mom always present for these first listens?
A. [Laughs] I know, it's crazy, isn't it? I'm 46 and Mom's always around. But I thought she was crazy when she said that, but I remember for years waiting for my life to go back to normal. She knew. I should ask her — I don't know if that statement of hers was a happy thought for her or not.
Q. And did I hear there's a 20th anniversary edition of "Trinity" in the works?
A. Yes, [coming out] this fall. We wanted to do something special to mark the 20th, but we didn't want to take away from "Trinity." We went back to the church [Toronto's Holy Trinity, where the album was recorded], which was scary. I didn't want to muck it up. And we just covered the whole album — the same songs, just 20 years later, and with some guests: Natalie Merchant [doing "To Love Is to Bury"], Vic Chesnutt ["Postcard Blues"] and Ryan Adams ["200 More Miles"]. We filmed it all, of course, because in the era of DVD everything must be documented. We were really nervous, but it came out great. We realized that the reason the record sounded so well is because we picked the right building. The sound is so beautiful in there, and because it's so beautiful it's inspiring. You get in there and hear yourself, and you're like, "OK, I can sing!" The sound floats and comes down and wraps you up. I'd forgotten the feeling of it.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ah, George Winston. Just his name is relaxing now.
His "folk piano" records were the first New Age music to find real commercial success, securing a place for the innovative Windham Hill label in the early '80s.
His delicate playing evokes the patient seasons, pastoral landscapes and rollicking psychedelic binges glimpsed through previously unopened doors of perception.
Wait a minute. What was that last one?
Winston has recorded many tributes in his storied career as an instrumental pianist. He's paid homage to the great New Orleans ivory-ticklers that inspired him, namely Professor Longhair and James Booker, and a few years ago he recorded an entire album of Vince Guaraldi's compositions.
But his latest project seems, at first, a bit out of step with what we've come to expect from this soothing player.
The new album is "Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors," 13 classic songs by the Doors translated through Winston's nine-foot Steinway.
The project has been so well-received thus far that Winston performed a concert with Doors organist Ray Manzarek on Sept. 26 in New York City.
The album proved to be a challenge for Winston, and in our recent interview he discussed the unique opportunities in listening to the Doors for the music instead of just grooving to Jim Morrison's poetry.
How did you develop the idea for an entire album of Doors songs?
I had been working on a series of solo piano dances, kind of being a piano one-man band. I was checking out everything I wanted to play, R&B and soul and rock, Sam Cooke and Gershwin and the Beatles. I was trying out everything possible, and that was going to be my next record — Volume One of these solo dances.
But I noticed that I had worked up 24 Doors songs, a lot of which were not danceable. I began working more with them, and that became the project. The Doors record got bumped ahead to be the new record.
So it was purely happenstance?
Well, sort of. I have listened to and been inspired by the Doors for 35 years . . . I was a senior in high school in 1967 when I got the Doors' first album, just because someone told me they had an organist.
I'd never heard of them. I put it on, and right away "Break on Through to the Other Side" obliterated everything I had ever heard. I was like, "Whoa! What is that?" I decided I had to get an organ and play in a band one day.
Had you ever thought of recording these songs before?
No. I wasn't even thinking of doing it when this all came about. They're very difficult composers to interpret, and my main temperament is as an interpreter. I mean, with the Doors, the version is the version, you know?
Jose Feliciano did a great version of "Light My Fire," so that was encouraging. It was very difficult to make them my own, though. I definitely put the time in on this one. Out of the 24 I had, these 13 worked together best to make the statement I wanted to make.
And what statement is that?
I like albums to be like one song all the way through. I want the songs to work together in the right order, and these 13 seemed to me to flow together very well the way I had done them. It's great when it all just kind of speaks to you like that.
Was it worth the hard work?
Oh yes, but I'll never do a record this hard again. Most of these songs were organ songs, not piano, originally. Plus, it was all so personal to me. It was like I was writing a novel about them: I wanted to do them justice because I love them. The more time you've lived with something, the more significant it is. And, you know, what else can you do with "Light My Fire"?
Well, it seems that you took the song to New Orleans. That track and "People Are Strange" really heave with a bluesy — almost ragtime — rhythm. Is that because of your New Orleans influences or because they sprang from this dance music project?
Some of the songs translated well into my folk piano, melodic mode, and some of them, like those two, are in an R&B style — my James Booker, New Orleans piano mode. That came out of the dances.
I was working those songs up to be dances, indirect listening. Those two songs are done completely the way James Booker would have played them. His piano language has kind of ingrained itself into me involuntarily.
Professor Longhair was instrumental in your career, so to speak. What was your relationship to him?
I never met him. I'd quit playing in the late '70s, and I heard his 1949 recordings 30 years later, in '79. I thought it was so perfect that I started playing again. He inspired James Booker, too, and that became my way of thinking about the piano.
You grew up in Montana, and I assume those wide-open spaces and changing seasons fueled your seasonal records ("Autumn," "Winter Into Spring," "December") and that open, circular style you call "folk piano." How did that develop?
The folk piano is a style I made up in 1971 as a reaction to stride piano. I wanted to do something simple and melodic, which was opposite of the stride style.
I love to have the piano ring out and to keep it simple. I'm interested more in tone quality than in having a lot of notes. But if it wasn't for the stride, I wouldn't have had anything to react against.
How much Montana is in your music?
The folk piano records are extremely Montana-based. Everything I do, really, has some Montana in it — even the Doors album. The cover photo of the Doors record was taken in Montana, by the way.
The way the four seasons are so distinct and different there influences everything I do, even the R&B. "People Are Strange," for instance, is an autumn song. Everything to me is seen through the seasons — that's the bottom line.
Some people refer to sound or "om" or the creator, but seasons are the driving force to me. The Vince Guaraldi stuff is all about that.
All that Charlie Brown stuff is undeniably linked to certain times of year, not just because the television specials aired around holidays but because the songs were about seasons.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
We could clear the dictionary of superlatives discussing
the colossal talent of B.B. King and his indelible mark on
blues, rock 'n' roll, even jazz. A singer, a songwriter and
a guitarist beyond compare, King has been a forceful
presence in music for more than half a century, and at 76
years young the old master is still recording, still
touring — despite occasional injuries, like the fractured
leg he suffered two weeks ago falling from his tour bus
steps — even hawking Whoppers in TV commercials, somehow
without sacrificing an ounce of his legendary dignity and
We might also assume that King achieved such legendary
status by learning from the right people. Growing up in
Mississippi, King heard certain blues guitarists who fired
him up, and the excitement encouraged him to step out of
his street-corner gospel quartets and pick up an old
guitar. But even though he has been described by Rolling
Stone magazine as "a great consolidator of styles," King,
with his trademark humility in an interview this week, said
he couldn't then and still can't play as good as his
"I could never play like my idols. I wanted to. But I
couldn't do what they did, so I couldn't really take that
and do something else with it. People say I borrowed this
and I borrowed that and then made it all into my own thing.
All I ever had was my own thing to begin with," King said.
Indeed, in interviewing an artist the most cliched
question to ask is, "Who influenced you?" But when
approaching a legend as large as King, in a career that has
become its own undeniable influence, we couldn't help but
come back to that discussion. Where, indeed, did this
franchise begin, and are these the same roots sprouting
"Well, it wasn't Robert Johnson, let me say," King said. "A
lot of kids think Robert Johnson was the greatest blues
guitarist ever. I don't agree. Lonnie Johnson was much
better. And there was a guy born in Texas, born blind,
called Lemon Jefferson. People called him Blind Lemon
Jefferson. He was another idol. I liked jazz, too. Charlie
Christian — born right there in Oklahoma — he was great,
another favorite. Barney Kessel (another Oklahoman) said he
was the greatest jazz guitarist ever, and I trust him
because he's the greatest ever. I heard a French gypsy named Django
Reinhardt, and then T-Bone Walker playing electric guitar.
We called what he did single-string. This is the stuff that
made me fall in love with the guitar."
"Lookie here, I've got a lot of these records right here
in my room today."
"I still can't play like any of 'em.
"I wish I could explain it. I wish I could say what they
did that got me. Each one of them had something that seemed
to go through me like a sword. I don't know how to explain
it. It's something that happens and you just know, you know
on some spiritual level, that this was meant for you to
hear. It's like a person telling a story — each one of 'em
had a punch line. You get it or you don't. And I got it. I
A lot of blues players have come along during the 54
years King has been recording and touring, but few of them,
he said, have pierced him the way those original players
did. King's ever-expanding influence has brought many of
them to his throne. He's recorded with countless blues
stars, frequently with his old buddy and current opening
act Bobby "Blue" Bland, and with such figures as John Lee
Hooker, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Robert Cray, Willie
Nelson, Van Morrison, Albert Collins, even rapper Heavy D.
"The young guys don't get me the same way," he said.
"They're always playing something I wish I could play, and
they play things I can't play. I learn from them, but I
don't get that something I got from the other guys."
He speaks wistfully of his collaborations with Eric
Clapton, most recently the "Riding With the King" album. In
fact, that's the only record of King's in the last few
years that gets much airplay.
"Blues isn't on the radio much," King said. "Every city has
some station that plays the blues late at night. I met one
fellow once who said, 'B.B., every Saturday night after 12
we play a whole hour of blues.' And I said, 'Well, what do
you do with the other 23 hours?' ... Most of the time I
hear blues on the radio it's on a college station."
Ironically, maybe the most singular event in King's
development as a guitarist was his landing a job as a disc
jockey in the late '40s at WDIA in Memphis. He'd already
begun to work as a musician — playing at a cafe in West
Memphis, Ark., with the likes of Bobby Bland and pianist
Johnny Ace — so as a DJ he gained a reputation for playing
the hippest records around. As a bonus for listeners, King
sometimes would play along with the records on the air,
publicizing his own personal guitar lessons.
Years later, at the dawn of the '90s, King attached his
name and status to a nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis,
largely as a way to buttress the legacy of Memphis blues
that had set him so firmly on the path to stardom and
"Beale Street was down to nothing, and some people wanted
to help bring it back. I travel around the world, and
people think Chicago is the home of the blues. Now Chicago
did a lot to help blues players — they opened their doors
and hearts to Muddy Waters and many like him — but
personally I think Memphis is the home of the blues and
always was," King said. "Most of the original blues players
were born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis and then went
many different ways. I was one of them. And people had
started to forget."
You wanna talk influence? King's regular gigs in the
late '40s on Beale Street convinced Sam Phillips, then an
engineer at another Memphis radio station and at the
opulent Peabody Hotel, to open his first recording studio.
King was one of his first clients in 1950, recording his
first records. Phillips went on to be the most important
producer in the history of rock and soul, starting Sun
Records and launching Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Roy
The B.B. King Blues Club is now the cornerstone of the
gentrified Beale Street, and the success of the club has
led to three more openings — in New York City; Universal
City, Calif.; and in the Foxwood Indian casino in
Connecticut — with plans to open a total of 10 across the
"If I live long enough, maybe I'll see all 10. I'm really
proud of them," King said. Then he sighed. "I've been pretty
good through the years. I've lived a pretty good life.
Someday they'll be blues without B.B. King around, and I
doubt you'll miss me that much. But I've done OK."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St.
Admission: Sold Out
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The Isley Brothers did OK with "Twist and Shout," but the
Beatles made it a monster hit. Same story throughout the
'60s with "Respectable" (the Yardbirds, the Outsiders),
"Nobody But Me" (the Human Beinz) and "Shout" (Lulu). These
other groups copied the Isleys' blueprint pretty closely
and somehow scored bigger hits with the same songs.
The Isleys eventually got their due — with R&B hits such
as the shimmering "This Old Heart of Mine," "It's Your Thing"
and "Who's That Lady?" — and they look back on those early
days not as struggles but as a time when their influence
helped direct the flow of modern music.
"The Isley Brothers have always been there as some sort
of reference point," said Ernie Isley in an interview this
week. "We're in the fine print, in the details of rock 'n'
roll. Our name may not be called out first, but you always
see us in connection with many of the greats. People talk
about Hendrix blah blah blah — and the Isleys are there.
People talk about the Beatles blah blah blah — and the
Isleys are there ... Now with rap and hip-hop, we're the
most sampled of anybody. We're still in the mix."
Indeed, the Isley Brothers have been there from the
beginning, when the first trio of Isley siblings — Ronald,
Rudolph and O'Kelly — traveled from Cincinnati to New York
City to record a string of doo-wop singles in the '50s.
These first songs didn't take the group far at all, but
during a 1959 performance in Washington, D.C., they added a
line to their spirited cover of "Lonely Teardrops." The ad
lib: "You know you make me want to shout." The audience went
An RCA executive saw the show, and when he signed the
Isleys soon after, he told them to build their first RCA
single around that catch phrase. The song "Shout" was born,
and though the Isleys' debut of it never cracked the Top
40, "Shout" would become an oft-covered classic, becoming a
hit all over again with Lloyd Williams' version in the 1978
movie "Animal House."
"We show up in movies all the time," Ernie said. "That
movie 'Out of Sight' with George Clooney uses (Public
Enemy's Isley-sampling hit) 'Fight the Power' and 'It's
Your Thing' running throughout. I didn't know that when I
went to see the movie. I felt proud and humbled at the same
time. I thought, 'Lord, have mercy. Did we do this music
that keeps pushing these buttons?' "
Ernie Isley joined his older brothers in the family
business just as the group was hitting it big. His first
job was playing bass on the Isleys' No. 2 1969 hit, "It's
Your Thing." He backed up his brothers with bass, guitar and
vocals until he and two other family members — brother
Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper — joined the older
three on 1973's "3 + 3" album, featuring the next huge Isleys
hit, "Who's That Lady?"
"That was my official coming-out party," Ernie said.
The inclusion of Ernie added a new dimension to the
Isleys' lite funk. Trained originally as a drummer, Ernie
found his way to guitar, largely inspired by Jose
Feliciano's cover of the Doors' "Light My Fire."
Not that he didn't have one of the greatest living
guitarists living in his house. During the Isleys' 1964
tour, they recruited a young guitarist from Seattle named
Jimmy James. He played on "Testify," the Isleys' first single
for their independent record label, T-Neck. A couple of
years later, at the Monterrey Pop Festival, the world was
introduced to this guitarist under a modified name: Jimi
"I was 12 years old when Jimmy came around," Ernie
recalled. "All I saw was a very talented musician. I
couldn't understand why he practiced all the time, because
he was already so good. But the thing I saw was more real
than the thing everybody else saw. I saw the unsimonized,
unhyped, real, living, breathing person living in my house.
My brothers bought him his first Stratocaster.
"People used to have conversations where they'd ask,
'Who's the better guitarist: Clapton or Hendrix?' I was
never popular, because I'd say Jose Feliciano. I mean, he
took this song by the Doors and showed how melodious it is --
and he was playing acoustic, and he was blind. I thought
Hendrix was great, too, but not because of 'Purple Haze' or
'Foxey Lady' but because of what I heard him play without
an amp. Nobody wanted to hear that, though."
The Isley Brothers and Jimi Hendrix both were inducted
into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. During the
ceremony, Ernie joined the all-star band to sing "Purple
Haze," even playing the guitar behind his back.
The Isleys have found new life in the era of hip-hop,
too. As Ernie mentioned, more rappers sample Isley Brothers
songs than even James Brown.
"It started with Public Enemy doing 'Fight the Power.'
That was one of the first samples. That was before there
were any ground rules as to how the songwriters and
publishers were going to deal with this. After that, it
seemed we started getting about a dozen requests for
different songs out of our catalogs on a daily basis. We
The current Isley Brothers lineup includes Ronald, Ernie
and Marvin, the same trio that recorded the group's latest
album in 1996, "Mission to Please." That record was the
group's first gold album since 1983's "Between the Sheets."
"We're working on another CD," Ernie said. "We gotta keep
going. This Isley Brothers banner has been flying for more
than 40 years, and I get the feeling there are some people
who are just now starting to pay attention. I mean, what
these guys do seems to dictate which way the wind is going
to blow against the flag. You know, people know what
Britney Spears is doing and what the Backstreet Boys are
doing. But what are the Isleys doing?"
The Isley Brothers
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady
Tickets: $40.50 on the
floor, $36.50 in the balcony, available at the Brady
box office and all Dillard's outlets
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Nearly 15 years ago, I took a date to a great date show. Brave Combo was playing on the lawn at an art museum in Oklahoma City. We took a picnic, we languished through the warm evening on the cool grass, and later, as I laid back on our blanket, the band started playing "The Bunny Hop." Lead singer-accordionist Carl Finch stepped into the crowd and picked up a long line of children behind him. They meandered around the grounds doing "The Bunny Hop," and Finch led the entire processional stepping right over my head.
So it was really no surprise when we caught up with Finch this week as he and the band are working on their next record — a children's album.
"It's definitely a natural step for us," Finch said from his Denton, Texas studio. "People have told us for years how much their kids liked our music, and these were all albums not (solely) intended for kids."
The children's album will be a typically quick follow-up to Brave Combo's current CD, "The Process," which was just released and is itself a significant departure from the band's norm. Brave Combo, you see, is a polka band.
Polka is their musical base, anyway. In the last two decades — for they just celebrated a 20th anniversary — Brave Combo has served as a freewheeling crash course in world dance music, creating new songs based on old forms and turning rock 'n' roll classics into something you could dance to cheek-to-cheek — those being literal cheeks or the, um, other body part. Their early polka remake of the Doors' "People Are Strange" definitely raised their profile, and "The Process" turns Foreigner's "Double Vision" into a smoky, seductive mambo.
Brave Combo, however, is not a novelty act. Twenty years later, Finch is still having to defend himself and his band — though not as much as he used to — and this week he talked about that, about the overlooked genius of polka music and about winning his first Grammy award.
Thomas: If someone had promised you, back in 1980, that you'd still be making records and even winning Grammys in 20 years, how would you have reacted?
Carl: With great disbelief. I knew I dug the music, but I had no idea how large the polka world really was. I thought I was kind of onto something, but I realized a lot of other people were thinking along these same lines. For me, it's been a process of figuring out that I fit into a picture already, not that I have to paint my own ... So I've been able to get swept up in it. I like the power of polka, the tension and release. I like how polka musicians are aware of the power of this formula, how this happens technically within the polka and how they work to maximize that impact of the tension and release. A lot of music does that but not to the degree polka does it, and so many cultures have latched onto that power — Tejano, Slovenian, Czech, Polish, German.
Thomas: Some people out there are laughing at this by now — polka music. Why does polka get that derision?
Carl: Well, it's changing. The youngest generation with any listening and buying power now don't have as many preconceived ideas, and a lot of younger musicians don't have the old connections with squareness. It's a dying concept leftover from square TV and perceptions of polka as this bland, Lawrence Welk thing — though even he, when he was younger, was hopping on buses and going from town to town. There was mission behind what he did ... People who think polka is square are the most square and uninformed people around. The hippest people know it.
Thomas: Just a month ago, you won the Grammy for Best Polka Album for your record that came out last year, "Polkasonic." Has that helped your own mission to nationalize modern polka?
Carl: Actually, our challenge now that we won that Grammy is to not be considered ungrateful outsiders within the polka world. We have to make sure that those in the trenches know we're serious and committed.
Thomas: Being somewhat irreverent and pop-oriented, it's probably harder to play for a polka-loving crowd than a rock club.
Carl: Some of the polka fans get livid about us, saying we shouldn't even exist. They don't think we're serious. They also usually come from the belief that polka should be played only one way: their way — in a certain style like Slovenian or Czech, etc. We're a weird mixture of all the styles, and we've been around doing this for 20 years, so our (musical) vocabulary is pretty good.
Thomas: About five years ago, Brave Combo issued a collaboration album with the late Tiny Tim — certainly a mixture of new attitudes and old. Your band is pretty well-armed with irony, while Tiny took his music very seriously. The album is fantastic, but how did that pairing work?
Carl: There's a lot more irony there than you would imagine from him, and we in turn were a lot more serious. The record took a long time to do, but we were conscious throughout that we didn't want this to throw us further into the novelty bin people always channel us into. We didn't want this to be a cheap knock-off for him, either. That's why we had him go into his big songbook to get stuff from the turn of the century and the 19th century, in addition to, you know, the Beatles songs we did.
Thomas: Like "Sly Cigarette," which is such a great old song.
Carl: Exactly, it's my favorite of that batch. "Sly Cigarette" — how politically incorrect can you get? That's why we chose it. And we still play it.
Thomas: The Grammy for "Polkasonic" was awarded in February, then your new record, "The Process," came out in March. Wasting no time, I see.
Carl: "Polkasonic" was on another label, and we certainly didn't plan on the Grammy. But it was released by a label, Cleveland International, that got behind it and pushed it really hard. It made serious headway into the polka world, and it actually won the Grammy, beating some pretty heavy-duty guys. "The Process" came out the next month, which is both great and unfortunate at the same time. A little confusing.
Thomas: "The Process" is your most accessible, pop-oriented album yet. Was this the plan or just the next evolutionary step?
Carl: The total effort behind this record is to find more airplay. We were working on the songs and writing a group that fit us but reached out in different directions. We wanted to make a record that might confuse critics and our fans but open some new doors into radio.
Thomas: Was it difficult to fit the polka elements into the pop songs?
Carl: It's different than usual, different than putting the dance style first. For me, part of it was a catharsis, using music to help deal with some internal struggles. I made those the reason and meaning this time out. It's about a process not just of writing and expressing but of living and being human. The song "Golden Opportunity" sums it up: even the (bad) things are supposed to happen.
Thomas: And you've finally written a song called "Denton, Texas," your home base. Why did it take you 20 years to do that?
Carl: Just kind of time, I guess. We've been treated so well here. They've named it Brave Combo week here, and we've become sort of ambassadors for Denton. We're working on becoming the kings of Denton. We're very recognizable here.
Thomas: How did Denton, Texas, come to be so supportive of a polka band?
Carl: When we got together this was a big jazz and prog-rock town. So when we came around doing polkas, they kind of understood the sophistication of it.
Thomas: Tell me about the children's record.
Carl: We're doing it with a couple of kid album veterans, Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink. We were doing a festival in southern California, and they were there. They saw our show and were staying at the same hotel. We hung out, and they said they'd like to do a record with us ... I'd never thought about it seriously until this. To be honest, the songs and content may be more for kids, but the songs sound like Brave Combo songs. Musically, it's just as sophisticated and adult, but the themes are for kids. We're doing an old Harry Belafonte song, "Real Simple Thing." It's concepts kids can relate to — mountains, water, valleys — but adults will be able to put their own meaning to it, as well. One song is about not wanting to clean up your room, and we've put it to a sinister cha-cha beat. Whatever it means, you know, it doesn't matter. It's just a song.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Bob Newhart's inimitable bone-dry wit has tickled the
funny bone of nearly every generation since his meteoric
rise in the late 1950s. First came the hugely successful
comedy records, including the Grammy-winning "Button-Down
Mind of Bob Newhart."
He moved to TV in the '60s with "The Bob Newhart Variety
Show" and "The Entertainers," the latter also featuring Carol
Burnett. In 1972, he launched his television calling card,
"The Bob Newhart Show," in which Bob played the ever-patient
psychiatrist with an office and apartment full of oddballs.
"Newhart" followed in 1982, moving Bob's deadpan delivery
from urban Chicago to rural Vermont. Again, the kooks
abounded, and Newhart's second series proved as successful
as the first. TV Guide listed 1990's final episode of
"Newhart" — in which Bob wakes up to find himself in bed with
"Bob Newhart Show" wife Suzanne Pleschette, proving the whole
second series to be a dream — in the top five most-memorable
moments in television.
The '90s saw a few more stabs at TV — the
schedule-plagued "Bob" and the anticipated but short-lived
"George and Leo" with Judd Hirsch — but Newhart's legacy
manifested itself most brilliantly in a drinking game
called "hi Bob" popular on college campuses. Every time
someone on "The Bob Newhart Show" says, "Hi, Bob," you take a
He is, in other words, ground-breaking, pioneering,
historic and responsible for numerous watermarks in
In recent years, Newhart has returned to his stand-up
roots, taking his deadpan shtick to venues across the
country. In conjunction with the homecoming celebration at
the University of Tulsa this week, Newhart will be
performing his old and new routines for a special show on
We caught up with Bob on the phone this week. Of course,
conducting a phone interview with the comedian who made
one-sided phone conversations high comedy raises
interesting possibilities on its own. If you'd like, you
can read only Bob's half.
Thomas: You're at your office today? What kind of
business do you have to tend to in an office?
Bob: Oh, you know, signing autographs and returning
phone calls and such.
Thomas: Do you write material there?
Bob: No, I've found that the best place to write is the
bathroom. It's the least distracting place in the house. I
imagine most of the world's greatest inventions came to
people between the shower and the john. Orville probably
sat right there and thought, "I wonder what would happen if
we directed the air over the top ..."
Thomas: So stand-up starts sitting down, eh? Are you
enjoying taking your stand-up show on the road again?
Bob: Oh, yes. I've always kept the stand-up side of
things going. I can't imagine not ever doing stand-up
Thomas: What can we expect to see in the show?
Bob: Maybe one or two routines from the old albums, and
generally my kind of observations on this crazy place we
inhabit called the planet Earth.
Thomas: You were a stand-up comic who landed a TV gig
long before that was the established career path. What
differences do you see in the way comedy finds its way from
stage to screen today?
Bob: Well, as this season has proven already, just being
a stand-up comic isn't enough to guarantee the success of a
TV show. Some comics have had great success with it — Ray
Romano, Seinfeld, before them Roseanne — but simply putting
a stage comic on TV isn't automatically the answer. You'd
better be able to act also.
The advantages to it, though, are that you already know
how to time a joke. Secondly, you come with a persona
that's already established; you don't have to spend five or
six episodes explaining why this person is the way he or
she is. Most importantly, though, you need to know the
persona yourself. You have to be able to act as your own
watchdog when writers try to make you say things you know
your persona wouldn't say.
Thomas: Do the old routines still knock 'em dead, or do
'90s audiences have different expectations of a stand-up
Bob: Yeah, they still work. That's the weird thing. I've
re-recorded some of the stuff from the first and second
albums because I didn't have a hand in the editing of them,
and they removed a lot of the silences in order to save
time. In comedy, the silences are as important or more
important than the words. I got to record them again the
way I originally heard them as opposed to the way they were
edited, and we recorded them in front of an audience whose
average age was about 35. And they still worked the same
way. The laughs were just as strong. Funny is funny.
Thomas: Despite where you said you come up with your
material, you've never had a potty mouth. Does that somehow
date you among new comedians?
Bob: When I started, there was a language barrier.
That's been broken down. Some of the younger comics think
that they'll be funnier if they use the strong language. I
think they're confusing shock with funny. Seinfeld worked
clean. Stephen Wright works clean. Jay (Leno) works clean
when he does stand-up. I don't have a problem with the
language, I just always have to look underneath it and ask,
"Is it still funny?"
Thomas: Much of your early routines are recognizable
because of the phone conversations you act out on stage.
That started between you and a friend, right?
Bob: His name was Ed Gallagher, and he recently died,
just two weeks ago. He was a smoker. We were both in a
suburban stock theater company, and I was an accountant at
the time. Just as I was about to flip out at the end of the
day, I'd give him a call and we'd improvise over the phone.
I'd tell him I was someone famous, and he'd interview me.
He suggested we record them. It was kind of a poor man's
Bob and Ray, and it wasn't very successful. Ed was
eventually offered a job in New York, and I decided to go
it on my own. Out of that, the phone bits evolved.
Thomas: Are there any comedians out there now you think
resemble your dry wit?
Bob: Stephen Wright and I are similar in our delivery. I
was talking to someone the other day about him. They said
he's like today's Henny Youngman. I said, "Yeah, Henny
Youngman on acid." He's so surreal. When I did "Bob" — "the
ill-fated `Bob' " as it's now known — he was on. He's very
dedicated. At some point during "Newhart," I was asked who I
thought the next Newhart would be, and I said Seinfeld.
It's that same kind of easy-to-live-with, non-pressured,
laid-back style, and all those terms people use to describe
Thomas: "The Bob Newhart Show" has been running regularly
on Nick at Nite, which advertises its line-up as "America's
TV heritage." What do you think of the idea of us having a
TV heritage, and how do you feel to be a part of it?
Bob: I'm proud of TV and what it's accomplished, and I'm
proud to have been a part of it. I've done a couple of
movies, but I prefer TV because of its immediacy and
especially because you can do it in front of a live
audience. Not enough shows today are done in front of live
audiences. Laugh tracks are so transparent.
Thomas: Specifically, how does the live audience enrich
Bob: The audience teaches you about your comedy. We were
rehearsing one week on "The Bob Newhart Show," and there was
one line that (made me say), "Guys, this is not going to
work. It's not funny." (The writers) said, "Trust us. Just do
it." So I did it, and sure enough, it didn't work. Nobody
laughed. I looked over at them, and they kind of nodded.
The next week, they knew their material would be tested
against that audience, so they wrote harder and looked
An audience tells you a lot of things you can't find out
with a laugh track. One was Larry, Darryl and Darryl (from
"Newhart"). Once they showed up, the audience went wild, and
they were only planned for one show. So right away we put a
couple of more scripts together working with them, and they
were a huge success. Every time they would enter, we'd all
have to pause for the roaring applause, and the same thing
happened every time they left. We couldn't have found that
out with a laugh track.
Thomas: Your shows always seemed to pit you, the stable
individual, against this sea of nutballs. Was that a
Bob: I used to tell Mary Frann (who played Bob's wife in
"Newhart"), "If we appear to be crazy, then the show isn't
going to work. We have to be the glue that holds this
together because everyone else is nuts." For a while, they
talked about spinning off Stephanie and Michael, and I
said, "It isn't going to work. They're cartoon characters.
They only work within the framework of this sanity."
Thomas: Any new series in the works for you?
Bob: No. "Bob" and "George and Leo" were such
disappointments for me. When something doesn't work, there
comes a time when you have to admit that it's someone
else's time. I'm happy with the huge success I had.
Thomas: Finally, I have to tell you: they're planning a
big game of "Hi Bob" on campus before your show here.
Bob: (laughing) With all the success I've enjoyed, I'm
going to go down in history for "Hi Bob." For some reason, I
was told that game started at SMU, which I kind of hope is
true because it seems like such a staid campus. It's a real
compliment to the show that people have picked up on that.
We weren't even aware when we were doing "The Bob Newhart
Show" how many "Hi Bobs" there were. The only thing I hope is
that the players stay on campus and don't drive anywhere
Newhart by the numbers
Bob Newhart's first career wasn't comedy. For many
years, he was an accountant — which, as he said, drove him
to comedy. In order to calculate his indelible success as a
comedian, though, here's Newhart by the numbers, courtesy
Number of TV shows in which Bob has starred: 6
Number of those shows which incorporate some element of
his full name, George Robert Newhart: 5
Number of episodes in his four most recent series: 378
Number of U.S. viewers who tuned in for the final
episode of "Newhart" on May 21, 1990: 29.5 million
Number of U.S. viewers who tuned into the cameo episode
on "George and Leo": 15.7 million
Number of Newhart's former co-stars who appeared in that
Number of "Hi Bob" greetings in all 142 episodes of "The
Bob Newhart Show": 256
Most in a single episode: 7
Number of personal Emmy nominations for Newhart: 4
Number of Emmy wins: 1
Number of Grammy awards he's received: 2
Number of weeks "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart"
stayed on the Billboard magazine Top 100 albums chart: 108
(with 14 weeks at No. 1)
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Reynolds Center, University of Tulsa, Eighth
Street and Harvard Avenue
Tickets: $10 at the Reynolds Center box office or all
Carson Attractions outlets; 584-2000
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Back-to-back Grammy award-winner Roberta Flack was on
the phone with us a few hours before the annual Grammys
ceremony last month. She wasn't attending — the call came
from her home in Barbados — and she wasn't even sure she
would watch the show.
"I'm not sure I can get it down here," Flack said, "and I
couldn't sit down that long even when I was going to those
Grammys may be old hat for Flack; however, even
when she doesn't attend, her presence often still permeates
the glittering music halls. This year, for instance, the
golden child of the evening was hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill --
once leader of the Fugees, a band that just two years ago
launched its formidable career by covering one of Flack's
signature early '70s hits, "Killing Me Softly With His
Flack herself has a unique place in Grammy history. In
1972, she took home trophies for Record of the Year and
Song of the Year for her recording of Ewan MacColl's "The
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." She also shared a trophy
for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group that year with
Donny Hathaway for the duet "Where Is the Love." That alone
was a nice haul, but the very next year Flack returned to
collect three more statuettes for "Killing Me Softly" — an
unheard-of one-two punch.
Then what happened? Well, therein lies the rub, as well
as what makes a musical artist distinct. The pop scene
changed — the fans' love of story songs in the early '70s
gave way to mindless disco beats — and Flack refused to blow
with the prevailing winds. She remains an unmistakable
talent at this point in her three-decade career precisely
because she didn't try to become a disco queen (a la Patti
Labelle) or a private dancer (a la Tina Turner). Flack was,
is and forever will be a balladeer.
That's not to say she hasn't dabbled. Her last album,
1995's "Roberta," opened with a kind of rap, and she's
tinkered with jazz singing, but Flack endures as a vocalist
who lures the simple, shining joy out of a ballad, from
those first two smash hits to her chart-topping duet with
Peabo Bryson, "Tonight I Celebrate My Love." She sings songs
that tell tales — timeless ones.
"I got started at the time people were really into songs
that told stories," Flack said in our conversation. "That was
a really good time, the early '70s. Even rock 'n' roll
artists, country and R&B artists — and this is when those
divisions were really clear — they were all trying to do
music that told stories. It wasn't necessarily a
once-upon-a-time story, but something people could connect
to, some personal experience they'd been through. The
exciting part about being a musician is recognizing that
when you're on stage, when someone connects with what
you're singing about, and you just watch them change.
"But everything has its season, and things changed.
Except me. The disco thing was next, and I'm not stupid
enough to hang in with that. I'm perfectly satisfied to
sing a beautiful ballad." The process of choosing
ballads sometimes is subject to whim or instinct. Flack
said she looks for ineffable concepts like "gorgeousness,
effect, meaning" in a song before she tackles it, with an
emphasis on that last one: meaning.
"I have to think that somebody other than me is going to
understand it," she said. "I don't want to sing and entertain
myself, or provide just therapy for myself. I want to be
sharing my feelings. I make sure I'm picking a song that
speaks to experiences and attitudes and moments in all of
Still, the meaning Flack may find in a song can be,
well, unique. "Killing Me Softly" is a lyric written about
the songs of Don McLean (telescope that notion through the
Fugees' version and see what you get!), but Flack said she
sung it because it reminded her of someone close. Plus, the
face she had in mind when recording "The First Time" in 1969
was small and, well, furry.
"At the moment I recorded that, I was singing to a little
cat," Flack said. "It sounds cornball, but it's true. I'd
never had a cat before, and my manager had just given me
one. I named it Sancho. About the time I got him was when I
got the chance to go to New York and record demos for that
first album ... In those two days, I recorded between 35
and 40 songs live. (Not long after) I got back, Sancho
died. Then, three or four weeks later, when I recorded the
album, I was thinking about little Sancho, that cute little
funny-looking, scrawny cat."
In concert, Flack said she tries to gauge the
temperament of her audience and chooses songs to fit that
perceived mood. Set lists vary from night to night when
she's on the road (the Tulsa shows are special
engagements). She's been known to nix "The First Time" in
favor of, say, John Lennon's "Imagine," because "the young
kids today" might identify with Lennon more readily than her
own signature work.
Those same young kids are still driving record sales,
and Flack's perceived distance from them is why she thinks
she's without a record deal at the moment. Not that it
troubles her greatly — she's looking, but she's got time and
options, she said — but she recognizes that she's not
"A lot of us don't have deals now — those of us who sing
those story songs well. There's just not a place for us in
the scheme of things. "We're not doing hip-hop, and if
you're not doing what sells," Flack said, "you're not going
to be doing."
With the Tulsa Philharmonic
When 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Third Street and Cincinnati Ave.
Tickets $14-$58; PAC, 596-7111 and Carson Attractions, 584-2000
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Larry Graham is sometimes referred to as The Man Who
Invented Funk. "Well, I don't know about that, but I did
invent my style of playing the bass," Graham said in an
interview this week.
Indeed, a great number of influential musicians formed
the foundations of funk, but the music never would have
been the same without Graham's particular style of playing
the bass. That contribution gave the music its signature
sound: the slap bass.
Slap bass is just what it sounds like: the bass player
slaps the low strings with his or her thumb, keeping rhythm
while plucking the other strings with the fingers. Graham
"invented" this method of playing before he had his own funk
band, Graham Central Station, and before he joined the
legendary '60s soul-funk collective Sly and the Family
And that sound? Well, it was all a mistake, really.
"Bass players usually play overhand, with their fingers.
That's a carry-over from upright bass playing. My style is
different because I came to the bass from the guitar,"
Graham explained. "My mom and I were working together, and
this one club had an organ with bass pedals that went half
way across. I learned how to play those pedals while
playing my guitar, and I got used to that.
"But one day the organ broke down. We sounded empty
without that bottom sound. I rented a bass to hold down
that bottom until the organ could be repaired. I wasn't
trying to learn the correct overhand style, because I
wasn't planning to play bass any longer than I had to. I
was playing it like a guitar. But the organ couldn't be
repaired, so I got stuck on the bass. That rental turned
into a purchase."
After a while, the jazzy combo with Graham and his
mother became just a duo of the two. Again, Graham
improvised to fill in their sound. Lacking a drummer,
Graham began thumping his bass strings to make up for not
having the backbeat of a snare drum.
The innovation paid off in a big way. Sometimes it only
takes one person to be impressed.
"There was one lady in a club we played regularly who was
also a fan of Sly Stone on the radio at the time," Graham
said. "She used to call him up on the phone and say, `You
gotta go hear this bass player.' Eventually, she was
persistent to the point that he came down to hear me.
That's how I got the gig with Sly, and that's how this
style of playing got popular — through the records we made.
If you were a musician playing our tunes, you had to play
the bass like me for the song to sound right. Then, when
these people started writing their own music, the bass
players kept using that style. I never thought it would be
"And, you know, I never did see that lady again to thank
But with Sly and the Family Stone, he did help write
sweat-dripping classics like "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice
Elf)." A lyric from the band's classic "Everyday People" (now
used to hawk Toyotas) sums up the group's musical
philosophy as well as its timeless appeal: "Different
strokes for different folks."
At least, that's what Graham said made the group so
popular in the early '70s — much more so than his unique
"We were different. We were a rainbow," he said. "The music
was a combination of all types of music. You could hear
R&B, jazz, rock, even country. Plus, it was a
self-contained band. We played the instruments as well as
singing all the parts. There was male and female, black and
white, mixed up every kind of way you could think of."
That was 30 years ago. After the Family Stone split up
in '74, Graham immediately formed his own funky collective,
Graham Central Station, which thwacked its way through the
'70s before Graham went solo in 1980.
In all that time, Graham has watched funk music grow
into its own, fade slightly, then come back indirectly
through samples in hip-hop songs.
"A lot of the old-school stuff is hot again because it's
been sampled so much. Us, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James
— they're all back on the scene because the kids, after they
hear whoever's rapping on top of that song, are smart
enough to know that's M.C. Hammer rapping but Rick James
making the music. So they go dig up his old records or my
old records," Graham said.
One such second-generation fan has turned out to be
Graham's latest R&B benefactor. Last year, Graham was in
Nashville to play a show, and he got a call during
soundcheck from another artist in town at the same time:
Prince (The Artist, or whatever you call him).
"He heard I was in town, and he called me and told me
he'd be jamming after his concert at an after-party, would
I like to come down and jam? That was the first time we
played together, and we had an instant lock," Graham said.
"Growing up he listened to a lot of my music, and he said I
was one band who influenced him the most. I hadn't played
with anybody who knew my music so well. I started doing
tour dates with him, then a few more and a few more, pretty
soon a year had passed. We knew we had something going
together, so I moved to Minneapolis to be closer to him."
The relationship has resulted in millennium-marking
projects for both artists. Graham worked with Prince on the
new single versions of Prince's 1982 hit "1999," and Prince
collaborated with Graham on a new Graham Central Station
record, "GCS 2000." Both discs were released on the same day
early this month on Prince's NPG Records.
Graham is still adjusting to life in Minneapolis after
seven years living in Jamaica. When we caught him on the
phone this week, it was snowing in Minnesota.
"Been a while since I've seen snow, let me tell you,"
Graham said. "It has a pretty thing about it. Of course, I'm
saying that from inside the house."
But the climate shock is worth the artistic freedom he
enjoys working outside the traditional record label system
with Prince at his Paisley Park Studios.
"It's great working up here. You have total freedom to
record whatever you want to record. Nobody's standing
around saying, `You can't do that.' There's no time crunch,
no budget to worry about. As long as the bill gets paid for
the electricity, the tape will be rolling. When you're
finished with a song is when you're actually finished with
it, not because you ran out of time or money to pay the
label or the studio. And to have the greatest producer in
the world working with you — well, it all went into creating
what I think is a great album for me," Graham said.
"And it's good to have a new lease on life. Funk is back,
so this is where I belong."
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The band's debut, 1996's "Great Divide," slipped under the
radar of most music fans despite its shimmering beauty and
sparkling guitars. But when Semisonic tweaked their
recording approach and turned in a song that resonated with
a wide audience of nightclubbers, the follow-up record,
"Feeling Strangely Fine," inched toward platinum sales.
The clincher, "Closing Time," was catchy enough to
ensnare even the modern rock fans who didn't immediately
empathize with singer-guitarist Dan Wilson's tale of
precarious decision-making in a bar at 2 a.m., just before
everyone is turned out to the sidewalk sale. Some bars now
play the song at closing time as a cool nod to their
With that hit and the latest, the plucky "Singing in My
Sleep," on the resume, Wilson and his bandmates — John Munson
and Jacob Slichter — are now open for business, and this
month they venture out on another arm of a lengthy tour,
bringing them through Tulsa and points south. We caught up
with Wilson in a Santa Monica, Calif., studio — tore him
away, actually — to talk about Semisonic's success, the
makings of a good "bedroom album" and the latest generation
of crack rock bands coming out of Minneapolis.
Thomas Conner: You sound exasperated. Is this a bad
Dan Wilson: Oh, I'm just in the studio working on a
song, and it's very hard to drag myself out right now.
We've been on tour so long; it's so hard to find time to do
Conner: What's the song like that you're working on?
Wilson: It's upbeat, hard to describe. It's kind of got
a Lindsey Buckingham thing to it. I've been hearing a lot
of music lately, watching him play the guitar with his
fingers blazing. I'm trying to cop that.
Conner: Is this a break in the tour for you?
Wilson: It's kind of a multi-purpose trip to L.A.
before we go to Las Vegas to be on "The Penn and Teller
Show." The last thing I saw on that show was a man putting
this lighted wire down his nose and throat. It was all very
grotesque. Hopefully they won't ask us to do that.
Conner: This next leg of the tour brings you down south,
which I think you've missed thus far, right?
Wilson: Yeah, we're trying to hit some of the places we
didn't get to last year. We kept missing Texas, and we've
never been to Louisiana. We sort of saw the spring shaping
up where we could play some of these places. I value that
in a band — getting out there and playing the long shows and
giving the fans as much as we can. I have a wife and
daughter who I miss very much when we're on the road, but
there's something about that contact with the fans that's
really important. It lets you know if you're dealing out
the real stuff.
Conner: You once said that you wanted "Feeling Strangely
Fine" to be a "bedroom record." What's that?
Wilson: Well, not in the sense of turning it on and
having sex with someone. It's one that you put on with
headphones in a dark room when the rest of the family is
asleep and listen to the whole CD. I dreamed that that's
how people would use this record. I wanted it to be
something really intimate and inside your head.
Conner: So how do you go about crafting a bedroom
Wilson: I wanted to make sure the lyrics were really
apparent. On our last album, "Great Divide," we buried the
vocals in this swirl of guitar tones and intricate samples.
I was disappointed when the reviews came back — and I take
what they say pretty seriously — saying that the melodies
were great but the lyrics were meaningless fluff. Fact is,
I think I try to be as honest as I can in my lyrics, and
those (on "Great Divide") are some of my best. So I wanted
this record to have a really intimate vocal sound up
Conner: I would venture to guess that approach helped
streamline the arrangements, yes?
Wilson: Yeah. It put us in the situation of saying, "If
there's no room for the vocals, then take out 11 of the
guitar samples." It's looser sounding. It feels more like
three guys having an interesting, passionate, intense time
in the studio.
Conner: What are some of your favorite bedroom albums?
Wilson: "OK Computer" by Radiohead is a great one. "Hejira"
by Joni Mitchell. Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville." Tricky's
first album ("Maxinquaye"), though I don't like the whole
thing. John Coltrane's ballads album. I was the family
member who never came up for air. I was always in front of
the stereo listening through the headphones, and none of my
family members could get my attention.
Conner: I once heard "Feeling Strangely Fine" compared to R.E.M.'s "Murmur."
It started to make some sense when I thought about it,
mainly because of that intimate feel. Make sense?
Wilson: That mysteriousness is probably — hopefully --
there in our record. "Automatic for the People" is my
favorite R.E.M. record, and I was probably trying more to
emulate that kind of directness, space and emptiness for
the bedroom vibe. It just can't be a constant onslaught of
fun, you know?
Conner: "Murmur" hit the atmosphere about the same time
some of modern rock's seminal bands were coming out of your
hometown, Minneapolis. Were you caught up in the legendary
Wilson: My idols were the Replacements and Husker Du, plus Prince, Soul Asylum, Jimmy
Jam and Terry Lewis as producers. It was great — Minneapolis
was one of the few towns in America where, for about 10
years, all of your teen idols were from your hometown. A
lot of people in Minneapolis grew accustomed to having
their entertainment needs fulfilled by local musicians.
Conner: An enviable position, for sure. What's it like
up there now?
Wilson: Honestly, I think this will be a great year for
Minneapolis music. There's a new album by the Hangups I
think is incredible — a lot of early R.E.M. and Badfinger
and Small Faces in this really weird but personal
retro-sounding album. There's a provocative band called the
12 Rods that make some really weird sounds. My brother Matt
came out with an album last year that I think was
criminally underpublicized (Matt Wilson's "Burnt White and
Blue"). And, of course, I think we've added a lot to the
Conner: How so? What's the legacy there in Minneapolis?
Wilson: Anything we aspire to ends in this butt-shaking
WITH REMY ZERO
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: $13 at
The Ticket Office at Expo Square, Mohawk Music,
Starship Records and Tapes and the Mark-It Shirt Shop in
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
For a moment, I thought it was a joke.
"Hi, Thomas, it's Frank Black," said the voice on the
phone that morning. "I'm at my manager's house, and I'm
making some calls this morning, and I saw you on the list
for interview requests, and I just thought I'd call and see
if you wanted to set something up."
An artist doing his own schlepping? Sounded fishy, to
me. Sounded like my friend Robert, too, who also happens to
be a fairly rabid Frank Black fan. I nearly laughed aloud.
As the conversation trickled on, though — this
actually was Frank Black, former lead singer of the Pixies
and now slightly less manic solo artist. We arranged our
interview for the following week, and I voiced my surprise
at his grassroots service.
"Well, I'm just a regular guy," he said.
"As a fan of your crazy music for the last 10 years, I
somehow doubt that, but we'll talk more later," I said.
On the appointed day, I called him at 8 a.m. Not exactly
a rock star hour. Maybe he's a regular guy, after all.
"My mornings are pretty regular guy-ish," Black said. "I
get up, give various animals a treat. If I'm in a coffee
streak, I'll make coffee. If we have nice foodstuffs in the
house, I might prepare myself a gourmet breakfast or skip
it altogether. Then I make phone calls."
The Pixies re-established the chaos at rock's core,
laying the foundations for '90s modern rock with their
serrated guitars, sloppy playing and Black's alternating
mischievous irony and brain-curdling shouts. Listening to
them rage through such visceral, subversive rants like
"Gouge Away," "Debaser" and "Bone Machine," sunny mornings with
breakfast and puppies are not exactly how I had envisioned
Black greeting each new day.
The years have mellowed Black, though — not to mention
the distance from the Pixies' former glory. The group
disbanded in 1993, and Black took off on a solo career
portraying himself as an average suburban nobody with
unexplained obsessions. The sales have shrunk ever since,
and so have Black's notions of how to conduct business.
"I was calling you because it's just easier for me to get
things done when I have the chance," Black said. "The band
has decided to do this next leg of the tour without a crew,
without even a tour manager. It's my job to advance the
shows. We've been in constant downscaling mode for the last
couple of years ... We're enjoying becoming more
self-sufficient. The more we do it, the less we need. I
don't freak out if we show up to a gig and the monitors
sound horrible. We booked the gig, and people are there.
The only thing that really bugs me is a messy, dirty
backstage men's room."
Black's latest record illustrates the new stripped-down
approach, as well. "Frank Black and the Catholics," Blacks'
fourth solo release and the first to bill his new backing
band, was recorded directly to two-track digital tape. No
multitracking. No overdubbing. No studio trickery or
polishing. In fact, the album they released was intended to
be a mere series of demonstration recordings.
"We were really just making an expensive demo," Black
said. "We had booked four days in a studio that was a
thousand dollars a day. Time itself said to forget the
multitracking and play live, which we'd never done ... I've
been in a pattern of writing in the studio, of building a
backing track and worrying about the lyrical content later.
We couldn't do that here. After the second day in the
studio, we realized it sounded good, familiar, like we knew
we sounded in a club."
The Catholics include bassist David MacCaffrey and
drummer Scott Boutier, formerly the rhythm section for
Conneticut's Miracle Legion. The eponymous new album
features former Bourgeois-Tagg guitarist Lyle Workman; on
tour, though, Rich Gilbert, from Human Sexual Response
among others, handles the guitars.
Black's first couple of solo records were largely
collaborations with Eric Drew Feldman, a one-time veteran
of both Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Though
Feldman still contributes on occasion, he backed away from
the projects as a tighter band began to gel around Black.
Black said Feldman still may join the Catholics as a
keyboard player, but he's busy producing PJ Harvey at the
The return to the band construct has streamlined his
sound, Black said, and he's glad to be a member of a posse
"It's hard to miss the Pixies when we've got another band
dynamic going," Black said. "It feels more band-like now. The
choice of bandmates is more mature, too. You sort of fall
into a situation with a bunch of people when you're
younger. That had no experience behind it. This has 10 to
12 years of experience behind it. Now it's more possible to
be the Rolling Stones when before we were more like the
Monkees. There's something to be said for experience. It
creates a groove of its own, which I think is heavier."
Heavy grooves are certainly what Black enjoys. The new
album is fairly typical and full of them, though the live
recording keeps things moving briskly. The groove is the
easy part, Black said. It's the lyric writing he dreads,
which may explain a good deal of his, um, bent verses ("My
Fu Manchu / Is a hard-earned way / Occidentally tic-tac").
"The easy part is strumming the guitar and getting that
first lump of clay that looks like a song. You shape it,
figure out the chord progression, and the melody comes out
of that. The next part is pushing myself to write the
lyric. I have to push," Black said. "It's like an algebra
assignment. I'm not looking forward to it, and I put it
off. Once I get into it, I enjoy it, but there's a mental
block to that point. It's the scholarly side of
songwriting. It's about having words rhyme together and
having the song make sense, even if it's just to yourself.
It's puzzle solving.
"At this point, I'm not worried about what the song's
about yet. You can write a song about anything. It's about
putting words together. I get out dictionaries and
reference books, geographical dictionaries, rhyming
dictionaries. There's language in these books, and that's
what it's all about. I'll get to three notes in the melody,
and I'll think, 'Here, I want to go wah-wo-wah.' What word
sounds like that? I'll stumble on a word for it. It might
be obscure, but it will set off a flurry of activity. Then
it's, `Oh, this will be a song about that.' "
One thing Black does not write about much, though, is
himself. No confessional singer-songwriter stuff here.
"I don't get too caught up in that whole diary rock
thing, when you have to write something from the heart.
That's icky," he said. "You will write from the heart,
whatever you write. There's a lot of fake stuff from the
heart. People get caught up in striking a certain kind of
pose, and it makes for some lame songs."
Frank Black and the Catholics
When 8 p.m. Saturday
Where Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
available at The Ticket Office at Expo Square, Mohawk
Music, Starship Records and Tapes and the Mark-It Shirt
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
This story should never be written again.
You're probably sick of hearing about it. Riot Grrls. Angry young women. Lilith Fair. Girl power!
It's been written a thousand times, particularly during the recent glut of female artists finally cracking the popular charts in droves. Rolling Stone nearly spent its entire 30th anniversary edition looking at women in music. Seven books have been published in the last three years about women in music, most of it rock. Friday even sees the release of “Spiceworld,'' the Spice Girls' much-ballyhooed feature film — noteworthy if only for the fact that you're probably hard-pressed to name another widely released feature film about an all-female music group.
Women, women everywhere. This is news?
But the reason this story, by all rights, should be the last one of its kind is that the issue of women in music has finally become a moot point. It's not a story anymore. The presence of women on the radio is no longer the novelty it once was to the male-dominated music and media industries.
Granted, here I am — Mr. Conner — practically pronouncing women free of their former bondage. Well, I wouldn't presume that, but I will say this much: in music, gender cannot be called a genre.
Oh, I tried. I assembled 10 female musicians last weekend in a conference room here at the Tulsa World and intended to probe the woes of sexism and restraint. But these artists complained less about what their chromosomes held back from them and more about the danger of the media's distractions and the struggle to make it in Tulsa playing original music.
So the story here is that there is no story — that women are now being heard more as individual voices than as unwilling spokespeople for the feminist movement, and that while sexism still rears its bony head, all the talk about women in music has simmered down to little more than a marketing ploy. And we know how long those hold up.
The following musicians were gathered for this discussion: jazz vocalist Pam Van Dyke, rock and standards singer Lori Duke, pop singer Jennifer Gee (from the Pedestrians), rock songwriter Sarah Wagner, rock-country singer Tex Montana (head of Tex Montana's Fireball Four), pop-rock singer Shawna (formerly from Daisy Strange), rock singer Angie DeVore (from Outside In), jazz singer Jennifer Miller, pop-dance diva Melodie Lee (from Degage) and solo rocker Holly Vassaur.
Here's the nut of the conversation we had, and the poignant insights it generated:
The Fixation on `Women in Music'
Wagner: It's the big trend now because you see more women in music, and not only that — they're making big hits.
Duke: You don't have to have the curves to get people's attention anymore.
DeVore: Yeah, that beauty-pageant mentality that dominated the industry for so many years is gone. Women are being successful, so the media writes the story of that ... More women are breaking now. They've always been out there, but more now are having really big success.
Shawna: A lot of the people who think in those ways about women being second best to men — well, this is blunt — they're dying off. A younger generation is stepping up and saying that women are as talented as men, if not more talented. As a result, women are focused on as a gimmick.
Wagner: It cuts both ways, too, because sometimes the focus on women in music hurts the guys. Back in the days of (my original band) Food Chain, we always had a guy in the group. We'd roll into some town, though, and there'd be a poster saying, `All-girl band!' I kind of felt sorry for the guys there.
Different Approaches Within the Media
Shawna: Radio listens for the talent and whether or not someone has the chops to attract an audience. The press looks for the story to tell, something worthwhile to share about the artist. TV only worries about who looks good, and since TV is such a dominant medium, that's what's hurt us more than anything over the years. But I think people are starting to get beyond that now.
Why Women Are Making It
Miller: The cost of making a CD and doing things has come down within the grasp of most beginning artists, many of whom are women. It's affordable now to get into the business. That changes the whole face of doing things.
DeVore: For $30,000, you can build a studio that's equal to the $3 million ones of yesterday.
Wagner: And what about the audience? Look at the people working in offices now. You have more women in the workplace, more women with purchasing power and business presence. What market do they want to hear? Some guy wailing on a guitar or stomping on a nail? No — there are more women in the audience wanting to hear what appeals to women.
Two Steps Forward, One Back
Miller: Still, even though my name is on the bill, when someone in the business approaches us at a show to talk to us, they'll almost always first go to the guitar player or the drummer, thinking someone else must be in charge besides the woman.
Montana: Here's how far things have come. Two months ago we played a happening spot here in Tulsa, and a happening band played after us. Afterward, I went up to the guitar player — who had fully seen me playing guitar earlier — and said, `That's a really cool guitar,' and he said, `It's a ... Les ... Paul,' like I wouldn't have any idea what a Les Paul guitar was.
Duke: We were watching a band a while back out of Nashville called the Wild Rose Band — all women. A guy I was with said there was no way they could be playing all the instruments, that surely they had session players — men — come in to play the parts and the women just sang.
Vassaur: I worked at a music store here, and the reason I quit was because a sales job came open and they hired a guy who had zero experience and barely knew about music.
Wagner: Someone told me once that a woman's place is in the audience. That was actually a lot of what inspired me to pick up a guitar and prove him wrong.
The Curse of the Angry Young Woman
Vassaur: Women are always going to be angry at men. There's always going to be that element of bitterness.
Miller: Heck, Motown's been trashing men for decades ... It didn't seem like that with most of the early jazz singers who were women, but they weren't usually writing their material. Jazz, too, emphasizes the music more than the words and the message.
Van Dyke: Someone like Billie Holiday, though, wrote some of her own songs, and they were pretty dark.
DeVore: Alanis (Morissette) did a lot to open doors for women, but there were a lot of pioneers before her.
Working With Female or Male Musicians
Wagner: You work with whoever can play the part. Men, women — it doesn't matter.
Montana: Yeah, but then who carries your gear around?
Montana: I am a woman. That's all I know. The life experiences I'm writing about are a woman's experiences ... It's a lot easier for a woman to go out and sing a pretty song about something that's pretty inane — that's easier than going out and displaying your anger and jumping around and trying to be a guy among the guys. That's pretty difficult, I think.
Duke: Gus Hardin came to me years ago, when I was about 21, and said, `You sing real good, but one day you're going to get rid of all this stuff, and you're going to have some emotions come to you, and then you'll have something to sing about.' Your perspective changes with experience, and you have to be ready to drop the facade and give yourself to the performance — guys or women.
Miller: You write about what you're going through at that time, at that moment. You write for yourself. I write for me — a woman ... But there are some basic emotions — love, fear, happiness — for which it doesn't matter who you are.
Wagner: Audiences and critics are so much more critical about women's performances. I'm sorry, but Johnny Rotten couldn't sing a note, so why are we getting all over Courtney Love? She yells just as good as he did.
Montana: There's a part of you that's always a ham if you do this. Part of you is going, `Look how high I can kick while playing guitar!'
Gee: It's easier for women to get started in music, and it's easier to move ahead. People don't give you weird looks as much when you tell them you're in a band.
Lee: I don't tell people I'm in a band. I don't want people to say I'm cool just because I'm in a band — and they do. People find out and turn to me, going, `Melodie, you're really cool!'
How Tulsa Measures Up
Miller: I'm from the East Coast originally, and I've noticed much more of the good-ol' boy mentality here. It's a totally different mindset here than in Europe or on both coasts. It's more critical of women.
Sarah: If you play standards, you can land a five-nights-a-week gig, but if you play original music in this town — let me tell you, honey — you won't get a thing.
DeVore: If we didn't have some covers worked up, we wouldn't get most of the gigs here.
Montana: You take a man and a woman, and when kids come into the picture it's real easy for the man to walk himself right over and keep playing in a band and keep doing what he wants. Women can't do that. Most of us don't let ourselves, anyway. In that respect, we don't have the same opportunities as men.
In a Nutshell
Van Dyke: Women are simply very interesting — across the board. For a long time, a woman's place was not in public, and the women who did make into fields like music and acting had to get over their reputation. Now the barriers are broken down, and people realize how great we all really are.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Rick James' career never stopped — how could it, what with all
the rappers sampling his songs? — it was just put on hold for a
couple of years.
“I wasn't dead. I was just in prison,'' James said in an
interview from his Los Angeles home this week. “I was still in the
minds of the people — I just wasn't functioning. Now I'm back, and
I did an album and I'm on tour. That's all I've ever done.''
Since the 1960s that's indeed all he's ever done. James' career
spans the whole of modern R&B, from his beginnings in a Toronto
band called the Mynah Birds (which included rocker Neil Young, of
all people) through his steady stream of hits in the late '70s and
early '80s — most notably, “Super Freak'' — to his most recent
reincarnation as a slightly more humble but no less powerful Mack
It's a life to reckon with, for sure, but James had more to
reckon with in the '90s, making more headlines than music. After
some problems with drug addiction, he wound up jailed on assault
charges and served nearly three years in a California prison.
Fortunately, James emerged from his sentence a sober man --
literally and figuratively.
“Jail was rough. It was like being in the middle of a Ku Klux
Klan meeting,'' James said. “I've never been one for people to be
telling me when to eat and when to shower and how to walk, and that
(stuff) went on for three years. It was a very degrading state, but
it was a curse that turned out to be a blessing.
“The experience brought racism into my life all over again. I
grew up in a working-class town (Buffalo, N.Y.), in the ghetto, and
I knew about racism then, but I became successful and never
encountered that anymore. I was totally removed from that. Prison
slapped that back in my face real quick. There are some racist,
sadistic, ignorant (people) in the world.''
James was bitter about the experience at first, but that soon
gave way to hope. During his incarceration, he wrote nearly 400
songs — “some political, some spiritual, some sexual, some
Fifteen of those new songs are on James' newest release, “Urban
Rapsody'' from the Mercury and Private I record labels. (Private I
was launched by Joe Isgro, a former indie record promoter whose
1986 arrest on payola charges shook the music business. The charges
were dropped last year, and both men are eager to put their legal
entanglements behind them.) The first single, “Player's Way,''
features Snoop Doggy Dogg. Throughout the record and its liner
notes, James emphasizes his desire to return to his “urban roots.''
Roots, though, are just what many in the current crop of R&B
kingpins are lacking, James said. Despite a slight debt to many for
keeping the idea of Rick James alive through samples of his riffs
and phrases, James is not at all impressed with the state of R&B
“I think it's pretty ... weak,'' he said. “I'm not thrilled
with what the young kids are doing. How can I be? I miss the
melodies in the songs, the lyrics — all these kids are doing is
sampling other people's (stuff) and trying to sound like Stevie
Wonder or Charlie Wilson. I can't appreciate that ... Most people I
grew up with had a vast knowledge of music, lyrical structure and
melody, and they played instruments. These kids have licks but no
melodic sense. But they're making money, so where do you draw the
Case in point: M.C. Hammer's “U Can't Touch This,'' a 1990 hit
built on the sampled riff from James' “Super Freak.'' The sample
was legit, and James made a nice chunk of change when the single
hit No. 1, but he's not thrilled about it.
“(Heck) no I wasn't impressed with that (garbage). I was
impressed with the money I made, and I was baffled that that song
could come back and make so much money, but I was shocked more than
anything. Hammer didn't come to me, he went through my company. If
he'd come to me, I would have refused him. After that, I told my
people that I didn't want anymore rappers using my stuff. The
(rappers) should come up with their own material.''
James launched his own career by trying to come up with his own
material — something new and innovative. He recognized from the
beginning that infusing R&B with other genres would not only create
that new sound but open him to a much wider audience. Working with
a base of Parliament-Funkadelic groove, James began adding rock,
soul, jazz and even classical elements to his songs.
The result was a long and varied — if not always as innovative
as he'd hoped — career featuring numerous hits in addition to the
“Super Freak'' smash, songs like “You and I,'' “Give It to Me
Baby'' and “Fire and Desire,'' a duet with Teena Marie many
consider one of the finest love ballads in R&B.
Other songs showed James deftly applying his hybrid techniques.
“Fool on the Street,'' for instance, is a smooth R&B number with a
decided Latin influence. “Dance With Me'' uses vibes to create a
clear jazz mood. “Mary Jane'' — a song about marijuana which
James said he still sings (“I Still sing it, I just won't smoke
it'') — mixes R&B with rock 'n' roll, a formula that brought James
most of his success.
“George Clinton was always an inspiration to me, and we're very
close,'' James said. “He was always experimenting with new sounds,
new textures, and it always enthralled me the way he could mix,
like, sci-fi with funk.
“I always wanted to take that groove to a new level. Like the
Beatles took rock to a new level, I wanted to do the same to R&B
... I didn't want to be stereotyped into the R&B genre. I'm not a
funk artist, and I don't like being labeled a funk artist. That's
too small a world. I want to do more than that.''
It must have worked. Most R&B stars today speak reverently of
James as the original bad boy. Even the late Marvin Gaye once said
of him, “I studied Rick's writing and stole some of his licks. We
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
My friend Adrienne and I would stay up all night in her dorm room,
smoking and playing guitar. She had already learned nearly every
song on the Indigo Girls' debut indie record, and somehow I always
got saddled with singing the high part in a wavering falsetto. We'd
venture off into other tunes — wheezing through Melissa Etheridge
and mumbling through R.E.M. — but we'd always come back to the
Indigos' “Strange Fire,'' “Make It Easier'' and my favorite,
“They're so beautiful and so easy to play,'' Adrienne would say. “I
mean, I could write this stuff, but think about how great they're going to
be in a few years when they've got 1,000 performances and some cynicism
under their belts.''
Nearly 10 years later, with several thousand performances and a vital,
sincere activism instead of mere cynicism under their belts, the greatness
of the Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — has matured and aged
like good wine. But they haven't mellowed. In fact, the newest record,
“Shaming of the Sun'' (due in stores April 29) finds the Indigo Girls
bolder and louder than ever while remaining in the tag-team folk-rock form
that nurtures the duo's inviting harmonies and easily approachable social
As the pair wound its way across the Midwest collegiate circuit last
week, I caught up with Amy Ray — the growling, passionate yang to Saliers'
studied, introverted yin — after a show in Davenport, Iowa. She talked
about the new album, the pair's approach to writing songs and the Indigo
Girls' constant challenge to maintain an activist integrity while safely
inked into a major-label recording contract.
Thomas Conner: I'm really taken with the new record. As the two of
you get older, you're getting louder — both in the music and your
political voice. It's usually the other way around. Why the
Amy Ray: This is a loud record, isn't it? We'll probably
do a soft one after this to show our true colors. We keep planning
a straight-up folk record, and then this happens. This time around
when I was writing, I was kind of reverting to when I was younger
and finding my way again. The lyrics are very literal on this
record. We're more comfortable that way now. I've always been
fairly outspoken, and Emily's gone through some politicizing in the
last two years. We're becoming more aware of how to speak on
certain things we're involved in, from Native American issues to
gay rights. We went into the studio and just let it all hang
TC: The song “Shame on You'' is the most radio-friendly song
as well as the most overtly political. Is that by design?
AR: No, I just wrote it and it ended up that way. It didn't start to be
about politics. I was hanging out with my friends in a park. There's a lot
of immigration and illegal alien concerns in my area, and a lot of the
poultry industry that hires these Chicano and Hispanic workers. They're not
only underpaid and mistreated at work, but they are hassled all the time.
That just all came up while I was writing the song.
TC: I always think of the Indigo Girls as politically important
musicians, yet I'm hard-pressed to think of a bona fide protest song in your
AR: Hmm. Well, “This Train'' from the last record (“Swamp Ophelia'') is
a pretty good social commentary on the Holocaust and genocide in general.
It's not like we're Billy Bragg, though, with a history of writing labor
songs. That's part of the thing. We just write what we write. In my life,
everything I see is through a political lens. As a gay woman — or just as a
woman — everything I do is more political. So even the songs about
relationships, even though they're not written with some agenda in mind,
have some political stake.
TC: You've never necessarily denied your sexuality, but you've never
grabbed at the cover of The Advocate to tell the world about it, either. Why
choose the low-key approach?
AR: Emily was less concerned with it early on than I was. I did a lot of
interviews for gay publications by myself when we were starting. I remember
doing one with this journalist from Hits! and he asked, “Are you gay?'' and
I said, “Well, yeah,'' and felt so good that the question had finally been
asked and was done with. Then he didn't even print it. I was so miffed. They
give musicians such hassle for not coming out, but then they don't care when
you're forthright about it. They usually only care unless you don't want it
known. We've never made a big issue of it because it's not a big issue, but
we feel it's worth sacrificing some of our personal life to talk about it
when we need to.
TC: What are the differences between the way you and Emily each write
AR: Emily's more disciplined about it. She can make space and time for
herself and sit down to write and really craft the song and the lyrics. She
has a very large chord vocabulary ... and a very large word vocabulary, too.
I'm not articulate that way. I write whenever it comes to me, wherever I am.
I feel I'm hard-pressed to take it when it comes.
TC: Both of your songs tend to be intensely personal. I know it's
sometimes easy to write a very personal song but that performing and
recording it tend to be a burden. Have you experienced that?
AR: The sharing of things doesn't bother me. We both feel a certain
amount of protection because of the music, and in the spirit of the music
we're willing to bear that. We're protected by its good energy — by the
good witch of music. (Laughs.) The problem I have is having to relive it
every time I sing it. Sometimes it's painful. I write something to get it
off my chest, and when I relive it, it's like, "Oh, jeez, I'm gonna have to
sing this every night for a year. How am I going to do it?' The songs have
to take on an esoteric meaning for me to get through it.
TC: I was warned to prepare myself for a drastic difference in
the sound of this album, but I wasn't really that shocked. The
presence of more electric instruments really doesn't sound so out
of place. The difference I noted was that the songs and their
arrangements are more ... tortured. Am I getting it?
AR: Oh yeah, you're getting it. The sound really isn't that different. I
had a couple of hard years during our time off. There were some hard things
I had to deal with. They were hard but I learned a lot. My songs and the
arrangements of them are more tortured, and there's a reason for it. Emily's
lyrics aren't as tortured, but there's something going on in her musically
that's intense. She expresses anger well through music — very dignified.
For instance, the song “Scooter Boys'' was recorded completely off the
cuff. She doesn't even know what tuning she was in. We were jamming on
something completely different, we moved into this song idea I had and what
came out of her was from a completely different place. I don't even know if
she knew what I was singing about.
TC: When you were on the “Politics and Music'' panel at last
month's South by Southwest conference in Austin, some panelists made a point
I was glad to hear voiced: that the argument over major labels vs. indie
labels is irrelevant. Do you agree with that?
AR: I think that's right on some level, but I don't agree on another
level. Logistically speaking, a major label is bigger and there are more
people, so it's more bureaucratic and you automatically lose some quality
control except for the niche of people close to you. The people close to us
at Epic are great, but when you look at the whole company, you know there
are probably people there with questionable integrity. In an indie, you can
spot those people quickly and get rid of them.
As a person who has an indie label, I agree with the capitalism
argument. An indie is selling a product just like a major is, and they'll
screw you just as quickly as a major will. People who cut down major labels
as being more capitalistic than indies are lying. But an indie is a
different spirit. It's harder for a major label to have a grassroots effort,
but it's easy for an indie.
TC: How has Epic responded to your activism?
AR: Epic's very cool about the poltics. Rage
Against the Machine is on Epic, and so is Pearl Jam. Those two
bands are constantly pushing the boundaries with the label. Every
chance they get to express their opinions, they do. We just went on
a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, with Zach de la Rocha from Rage. The
Epic publicist worked really hard for that event, and the label
donated video cameras and equipment so we could document the work
down there. This wasn't a project that would make anyone a lot of
money or even make the label look better; they did it to support
our interests and because they feel our politics have a certain
amount of importance.
TC: Was the idea for the upcoming (in June) Pay-Per-View special
yours or Epic's?
AR: It was theirs, and that's the kind of thing I would totally shy
away from. But Epic helped us keep the price low and are allowing us to hook
up with politically correct sponsors, like The Advocate. They said we've got
three hours of air-time to do with however we please. So we're like,
“Great! What bands do we want to push? What politics do we want to talk
Still, it's frustrating at times... But you have to fight things from the
inside out. We'll stay with Epic until we need to go.
With the Scud Mountain Boys
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Expo Square Pavilion, 17th Street and New Haven Avenue Tickets:
$19.50, available at The Ticket Office at Expo Square, call 747-0001
By Thomas Conner
© TULSA WORLD
Johnny Cash is cool. Johnny Cash is a rebel. Johnny Cash is
an American myth. Johnny Cash is back.
Forging through his fourth decade of recording, Cash has once
again fired boosters in his career no one would have guessed he
had. After hooking up with hip, young rock and rap producer Rick
Rubin and signing to the rock label American Recordings, Cash
turned out one of the most phenomenal albums of his career, 1994's
This year, he's back with another expectations-breaker.
“Unchained'' finds the legendary Man in Black singing better than
ever before and covering everything from old Cash originals like
“Mean-Eyed Cat'' to songs by Beck and Soundgarden. Like Tony
Bennett, Cash has found himself a fatherly icon amongst the MTV
“Unchained'' debuted this week at No. 26 on the Billboard
country chart. Not bad for a country artist of any era, but
particularly great for someone who's been counted out of the game
as many times as Cash has.
“I haven't had (a record) that high in a long time,'' Cash said
in an interview last week. “It feels good. It feels like the '50s
all over again.''
Cash was let go from Columbia Records in 1986 and moved to
Mercury, where things just didn't blossom like he expected. Once
free of Mercury, Cash wondered what path he would take next. That's
when Rubin called.
“Rick came looking for me,'' Cash said. “I was playing a show
in California, and he called my manager and asked if we could talk.
Once I found out who he was, I said, 'Why in the world would he be
interested in me?' And I asked him that. He said he knew my work
and that he wanted to sit me down, give me and microphone and a
guitar and let me sing everything I wanted, and then he'd find a
way to make an album out of it. We let the idea sit a while, and he
was still serious about it months later. He made me believe I could
do what I really wanted to do.''
See, even American legends need a little encouragement. Rubin's
devotion to the project convinced Cash to sign up, and the result
was “American Recordings,'' an astonishing guitar-and-voice affair
that revived Cash among his two generations of fans and added a
third — a new group of young admirers, lured by the vogue
“Unplugged'' nature of the record and by the historical awe that
surrounds the figure of Cash.
On “Unchained,'' which features Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
as the backing band, Cash keeps up his balancing act between the
old and new fans. For the longtime fans, he covers another Carter
Family tune (“Kneeling Drunkard's Plea'') and finishes a Cash
original that wasn't finished the first time he recorded it (“Mean
Eyed Cat''). For the new fans, Cash covers a couple of modern rock
pioneers and does so with the power and grace that has tamed all
musical influences around him these 40-odd years.
The new disc opens with “Rowboat,'' a plaintive love lament
written by the cutting edge's boy wonder, Beck.
“I used him as an opener a year and a half ago in L.A., and he
sang some Carter Family Appalachian things. He also sang 'Rowboat,'
and I really liked it,'' Cash said.
The Soundgarden cover, “Rusty Cage,'' didn't come to him so
easily. Rubin asked Cash if he'd heard the song; Cash said no, so
Rubin played him the Soundgarden album.
“Right away I said, 'That's not for me. No way. I can't record
that song.' But Rick said, 'What if we work up an arrangement that
feels comfortable for you,' and I thought about it. The lyrics
really fascinated me. It's like the Beat look at a love affair --
very mystical, interpret-it-your-own-way kind of lyrics. But I just
didn't think there was any way. They worked a long time, and it
worked out. Now it's my favorite song that I perform,'' Cash said.
The choice of new material is more than mere kow-towing to the
current hip couture, but Cash said it's nice to have more young
fans. The monumental legacy of Cash's career doesn't seem to be
daunting to the new fans, either, and Cash said there's really no
prerequisite for understanding his music.
“You know, the 'American Recordings' was really what I wanted
people to hear from me — just me and my guitar. That's why I like
any country artist.''
And what's next for this cornerstone of country music, and how
many more boosters does he have to fire in his career? For now,
Cash said he's just taking one show at a time, entertaining his
fans — from each generation — as his highest priority.
“I've been around twice now. This is my third time around,''
Cash said. “Everything else from now on is gravy.''
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Prior to his upcoming visit to Tulsa, and his appearance in
"Sesame Street Live: Let's Play School,'' America's favorite bird,
Big Bird, stopped to answer a few questions about his life and
times. The Tulsa World spoke with Big Bird on March 20 — his
birthday. Here's a report of the, er, fowl language:
Tulsa World: How old are you today?
Big Bird: 6 years old. I don't think I look a day over 5, do you?
TW: How long have you been 6 years old?
BB: Longer than I have fingers to count.
TW: You have fingers?
BB: I'm luckier than most birds.
TW: What's your secret of staying so young?
BB: Living in my fantasy world. I'm a part of a fictitious
world where nothing changes. Plus, constant maintenance and grooming.
TW: What species of bird are you?
BB: That has never been figured out. Maybe sort of a stretch
canary. I'm synonymous with all birds.
TW: Can you fly?
BB: No. But I have high-flying dreams.
TW: What is your natural habitat?
BB: My nest on Sesame Street! It's at 123 1/2 Sesame St.
TW: Are there other birds like you?
BB: Nope. There's only one Big Bird.
TW: What do you want to be when you grow up?
BB: I'm still thinking about that one. I'm pretty happy where I am.
TW: Will you ever graduate from first grade?
BB: I get a gold star every night for doing my homework. I
get a little help from my friends on Sesame Street, of course.
TW: What do you want to teach other children?
BB: To feel good about school, to be cooperative grown-ups
and to develop their own sense of humor.
TW: What's the most important lesson you've learned?
BB: How important my friends are. And that the world is a
better place with all different kinds of people and animals living
together as friends.
TW: What's your favorite record?
BB: "Mocking a Mockingbird and Other Big Bird Calls.''
TW: If you had one wish, what would it be?
BB: I'd wish for two more wishes so I could give one to you.
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.