Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best Of 2014.

Best Film: Boyhood.

In a world where films are always striving to be unlike any other ever made, it's rare that a film actually follows through on such a promise. It's even rarer that the said film is actually great. Boyhood is one of the very few films of my lifetime that manages such a feat. Filmed over 12 years using the same cast, director Richard Linklater looks at the world through the eyes of Mason Evans, Jr. (a stellar Ellar Coltrane), as he grows from a kindergartener into a college freshman before our eyes. It is an episodic film of small moments that feels much closer to long-time-spanning documentaries like the 7 Up series & Hoop Dreams than what it really is--an motion picture epic, crafted from the small shards of everyday life into a stained-glass window of cinematic beauty.

Best Movie: The LEGO Movie.

The most visually-delicious film I've seen in years, which creates a world in which the atom is replaced by the LEGO brick. Like a well-built LEGO building, it clicks together multiple levels of humor & reality, held together by charming characters & hilarious dialogue. When I was a kid, I would imagine that my LEGO town would continue in their own world while I was away; The LEGO Movie puts me smack in the center of it. & it does so beautifully--on every brick-filled level.

Best TV Show: Orange Is The New Black.

[SPOILERS ALERT] Last year introduced us to the inmates of the Litchfield women's federal prison, this year took everything we thought we knew about them & turned it on its head. The Piper-centered story arc shifted aside while more minor characters came out of the woodwork: Who knew that the wedding-planning romantic Morello was a sick stalker whose visions of matrimony are confined to her head? Or that Sister Jane has been excommunicated? Or what really lurks beyond the sad eyes of Miss Rosa? While some of the tangled subplots were more compelling than others, no other show had me rushing back for more.

Best TV Episode: "Beach House," Girls.

In the middle of an uneven season, Girls delivered its best episode yet. When Hannah crashes Marnie's over-planned beach house girls weekend with her ex-boyfriend/now-gay BFF (& his group of gay guy friends), we see the intricacies of the characters rub up against each other & react in hilarious & insightful ways. At the center, the girls do a choreographed routine to Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart," before everything melts down into an epic 4-way fight that has been brewing for years, flames stoked by an uncharacteristically drunk-&-blunt Shoshanna: "You treat me like I'm a fucking cab driver." Don't think they'll ever make that mistake again.

Best Album: The Basement Tapes Complete by Bob Dylan & The Band.

The Old, Weird America that was only available in bootlegs has finally been unleashed in the digital age. To keep with tradition (& avoid the $139 price tag), I ripped mine off of a friend. My thoughts about the contents within can be seen from my earlier review here. Lo & behold! 

Best Song: "Word Crimes" by "Weird Al" Yankovic.

It's been an epic year for "Weird Al" Yankovic. After some 35 years in the music business, his 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun, was his first to hit #1 on the Billboard Album chart. & with "Word Crimes" hitting #39 on the pop charts, Yankovic is now one of the few artists to score 4 Top 40 hits in 4 different decades (Michael Jackson & Madonna are 2 others). Yankovic uses Robin Thicke's catchy (if seemingly unfinished) song about sexual boundaries ("Blurred Lines") & turns it into a lesson in social media writing etiquette. & not only does it work, but it finally taught me what an Oxford comma is.

Best Book: The History Of Rock 'N' Roll In Ten Songs by Greil Marcus.

Popular music's (hell, popular culture's) finest critic takes on the assignment of a lifetime: Narrowing down the entire history of rock music to 10 songs. This would be fascinating for anyone to tackle, but Marcus, who's always eschewed the sacred cows of rock music (he once made an essential rock discography that left off Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, & What's Going On), wrote a history of the music on his terms, ignoring anything close to a chronology & gleefully omitting such artists as Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, & Led Zeppelin. Instead we find mesmerizing chapters about The 5 Satins' "In The Still Of The Nite" & Cyndi Lauper's "Money Changes Everything," among others. It is unlike any other rock history you will ever read--which is precisely the point.

Best Reissue: Nashville.

Robert Altman's sprawling country (& cinematic) masterpiece gets the Criterion treatment. I've been putting off watching it for about 20 years now. Now that I own it in its beautiful new box, I am definitely going to sit down & watch it. Maybe even by 2016.

Best Comeback: Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas.

In the middle of April, there came a story that was wholly unexpected from The New York Times Magazine. A music journalist (John Jeremiah Sullivan) & research assistant (Caitlin Love) had unearthed new information about Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas, who seemingly came from nowhere to record 6 of the most coveted, haunting sides in country blues history--including Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" & Thomas's "Motherless Child Blues"--& then seemed to return to the nowhere from which they came. Through the archive of legendary blues scholar Robert "Mack" McCormick, Sullivan & Love followed a trail that has to be read to be believed: Check it out here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Elvis At 80: The 80 Essential Recordings.

This January 8, 2015 will be Elvis's 80th birthday, wherever he is.

But so far, I shockingly haven't seen any fanfare from the RCA/Columbia/BMG/Whatever conglomerate that will use any excuse but Arbor Day to release a new collection of the King (though now that I've put it out there, expect Itching Like A Man On A Fuzzy Tree: Elvis Sings Arbor Day, featuring "Singing Tree," "Holly Leaves & Christmas Trees," & God knows what else).

To try to beat them at their own game, I decided to propose an "Elvis At 80" boxed set of his 80 most essential recordings. 

To get an accurate cross-section of his best & most influential material, I made an inventory of his 5 most recent major multi-disc collections:  

1. The Top Ten Hits [2 discs, 1987] *
2. ELV1S & 2nd To None [2 discs, 2002 & 2003] #
3. The Essential Elvis Presley: 3.0 [3 discs, 2007] +
4. Artist Of The Century [3 discs, 1999] @
5. Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight [4 discs, 2009] %

Any song that appeared on at least 3 or more of the above compilations automatically made my list. (For the record, there are 17 that appear on all 5.) I also included all of his US Top 5 Hits & all of his platinum-selling singles.

Finally, I made sure that the list contained all of Elvis's US #1 Pop, Country, & R&B Hits, as well as his UK #1 Hits.

All sides of The King are represented--trailblazing rockabilly, hard blues, country tunes, tender ballads, slick pop, movie junk, heartfelt gospel, blue-eyed soul, live showstoppers, Vegas schmaltz, revival rock, & more--for a complete musical portrait.

From his first release in 1954 to the last single he would release in his lifetime in 1977, here is Elvis At 80: The 80 Essential Recordings.

Volume 1: Rise.

1. That's All Right: His first single, & as some like to tell it, the first rock & roll record, period. [single A-side, 1954] #+@%

2. Blue Moon Of Kentucky: The flipside of his first single, & in its own way, just as revolutionary. [single B-side, 1954] %

3. Good Rockin' Tonight: A manifesto for all that would come. [single A-side, 1954] +@%

4. Baby, Let's Play House: His first nationally charting record, making #5 on the US country charts. [single A-side, 1955] +@%

5. Mystery Train: A country song hidden in a blues song hidden in a love song to a corpse, & for some, the finest recording of his life. [single A-side, 1955] +@%

6. I Forgot To Remember To Forget: His first national #1 single (on the Country charts) & the song that facilitated his jump from regional star to national sensation. [single B-side, 1955] #%

7. Heartbreak Hotel: The song that put him over--#1 for 7 weeks in the US. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

8. I Was The One: A ballad, already oozing with his signature vocal mannerisms. [single B-side, 1956; #19 US] +%

9. Blue Suede Shoes: One of his finest rockers. [LP Elvis Presley & single A-side, 1956; #20 US, #9 UK] #+@% 

10. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You: A criminally neglected US #1 best-seller, despite what the ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits CD may lead you to believe. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #14 UK] *#% 

11. My Baby Left Me: One of the hardest-rocking recordings of the 1950s, buried on a B-side. [single B-side, 1956; #31 US] @%

12. Hound Dog: The hard rock half of his most famous single, a stateside #1 for a then record-breaking 11 weeks. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@% 

13. Don't Be Cruel: The above single's smooth pop half. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

14. Love Me Tender: A rewrite of a Civil War ballad that was the title track of his first film--& the first single to go gold based on advance orders alone. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #11 UK] *#+@% 

15. Love Me: The first EP to chart as a single in US history. [LP Elvis & EP lead track; #2 US] *#@% 

16. Too Much: Gluttony as lust, lifted by internal rhymes. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #6 UK] *#% 

17. All Shook Up: A signature hit that invoked his recent performance on The Ed Sullivan Show (from the waist up) & #1 in the US for 9 weeks. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@% 

18. (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me): His first gospel release, & as some like to tell it, his finest. [EP lead track, 1957; #25 US] +% 

19. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear: The most subtle song about sleeping with girls EVER--& #1 in the US for 7 weeks. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #3 UK] *#+@%

20. Loving You: The title track of Elvis's 2nd film & 3rd LP; immortalized between "Hound Dog" & "All Shook Up" at the top of the original Elvis' Golden Records, still his finest compilation. [single B-side, 1957; #28 US] #

21. Jailhouse Rock: Springsteen said that hearing Elvis for the first time was like busting out of jail; this song takes the Boss at his word--& a US #1 for 7 weeks. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

22. Treat Me Nice: A plea to the ladies & a study in atmosphere. [single B-side, 1957; US #27] #@% 

23. Blue Christmas: His finest Christmas recording, & in time, a rare non-charting platinum-seller. [LP Elvis' Christmas Album, 1957] % 

24. Don't: The last hit before he went into the Army--& in a quiet way, the end of an era. [single A-side, 1958; #1 US, #2 UK] *#@%

25. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck: The first major single not to hit #1 in the US or UK--although it would top the charts in Canada; an early harbinger of the shlock that was to come? [single A-side, 1958; #3 US, #3 UK] *#% 

26. Hard Headed Woman: The history of sexism as hard rock. [single A-side, 1958; #1 US, #2 UK] *#% 

27. King Creole: The title track of his finest film. [LP King Creole, 1958] #+% 

28. Trouble: A raison d'etre for every role he would ever play--on camera & off.  [LP King Creole, 1958] #+@%

29. One Night: An answer record to The Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," even though it came first. [single A-side, 1958; US #4, UK #1] *#@% 

30. (Now & Then There's) A Fool Such As I: The point at which style became the substance. [single A-side, 1959; #2 US, #1 UK] *#@%

31. I Need Your Love Tonight: A perfectly fine flipside that would've been any other singer's biggest hit. [single B-side, 1959; #4 US] *#%

32. A Big Hunk O' Love: One final blast of rock for the decade, & the song that would first associate "hunka" & "love" in the Elvis lexicon. [single A-side, 1959; #1 US, #4 UK] *#@%

Volume 2: Fall.

33. Stuck On You: Back from the Army & ready to reconquer the world, one hit single at a time. [single A-side, 1960; #1 US, #3 UK] *#@%

34. Fame & Fortune: A solid ballad with a stunning vocal--made all the more bittersweet now that we know how the story will turn out. [single B-side, 1960; #17 US]

35. Such A Night: A track so irresistible, it was carted out as a single during the doldrums of Beatlemania, where it made the Top 20 in both the US & UK. [LP Elvis Is Back!, 1960] +@%

36. Reconsider Baby: Another way his post-Army music could've gone--hard blues full of conviction, with Elvis driving the band like a runaway train; one of his greatest performances, even though he lets "Boots" Randolph steal the show. [LP Elvis Is Back!, 1960] +@%

37. It's Now Or Never: A rewrite of an Italian standard that became his best-selling single this side of "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel." [single A-side, 1960; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@% 

38. A Mess Of Blues: The above single's flipside, which could've (& should've) been a bigger hit in its own right. [single B-side, 1960; #32 US] #@%

39. Are You Lonesome Tonight?: The final third of his comeback trinity (along with "Stuck On You" & "It's Now Or Never"), & in the speaking part, the best acting of his life. [single A-side, 1960; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

40. Wooden Heart: A rarity: A #1 UK single (for 6 weeks!) that was never issued as an A-side in the US. [LP G.I. Blues, 1960; #1 UK] #

41. Surrender: Picking up where "It's Now Or Never" left off, Elvis exercises his operatic tendencies that would become a caricature the following decade. [single A-side, 1961; #1 US, #1 UK] *#@%

42. I Feel So Bad: As the first non-Hollywood A-side not to hit #1 in either the US or UK, a sign of the coming trouble in paradise? [single A-side, 1961; #5 US, #4 UK] *#+%

43. (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame: Hot enough to be a hit in its own day, hip enough to be turned into a Smiths song in ours. [single A-side, 1961; #4 US, #1 UK] *#@%

44. Little Sister: Elvis tries to get the girl, despite being wary of her older sister. [single B-side, 1961; #5 US] *#+@%

45. Can't Help Falling In Love: The lead single of his best-selling album (Blue Hawaii) & rightfully the song with which he would close his sets in the later years--what else could ever follow it? [single A-side, 1961; #2 US, #1 UK] *#+@% 

46. Rock-A-Hula Baby: Along with its flipside, "Can't Help Falling In Love," a microcosm of Elvis in the '60s, pop beauty on one side, movie junk on the other; "Rock-A-Hula Baby" wasn't the worst song Elvis ever recorded, but it was the biggest hit of his infamous 1960s hackwork. [single B-side, 1961; #23 US] #

47. Good Luck Charm: Elvis tries to get the girl by invoking the superstitions of talismans. [single A-side, 1962; #1 US, #1 UK] *#@%

48. She's Not You: Elvis tries to get the girl by re-staging the plot of Vertigo. [single A-side, 1962; #5 US, #1 UK] *#@% 

49. Return To Sender: Elvis tries to get the girl by enlisting the U.S. Postal Service. [single A-side, 1962; #2 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

50. (You're The) Devil In Disguise: Elvis tries to get the girl by entering a Paradiso-enshrined Inferno. [single A-side, 1963; #3 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

51. Bossa Nova Baby: Elvis tries to get the girl but all she wants to do is dance--also the final single he released before JFK was shot & his last US Top 10 of new material until his comeback later in the decade--coincidence? [single A-side, 1963; #8 US, #13 UK] *#+%

52. It Hurts Me: When Elvis applied himself & the material was decent, the result could transcend itself; a minor gem. [single B-side, 1964; #29 US] @%

53. Viva Las Vegas: A telling celebration of the kitschy consumer culture that would consume him in a few short years. [single A-side, 1964; #29 US, #15 UK] #+%

54. Crying In The Chapel: Elvis's only pre-comeback US Top 10 once The Beatles arrived--& it was recorded in 1960. [single A-side, 1965; #3 US, #1 UK] *#%

55. Tomorrow Is A Long Time: Elvis's only real Dylan cover--& the cover that Dylan is said to have treasure the most--buried away as a bonus track on the flipside of a mediocre soundtrack. [LP Speedway, 1966] @%

56. How Great Thou Art: The greatest sacred performance of Elvis's life. [LP How Great Thou Art, 1967; #101 US] %

57. Big Boss Man: The first of Elvis's "pre-comeback" singles that signaled his quiet return to meaningful rock music, before an official comeback vehicle was formed. [single A-side, 1967; #38 US] +@%

58. Guitar Man: The finest of his "pre-comeback" singles; reissued to the country market in 1981, it topped the genre's charts. [single A-side, 1968; #43 US, #19 UK] +@% 

59. A Little Less Conversation: A forgotten flipside that was so hot it became a #1 single. In England. 30 years later. Through a remix. Yet I find the implied funk of the original all the more exciting. [single B-side, 1968; #69 US] +

Volume 3: Resurrection.

60. If I Can Dream: The closing song of the comeback special & one of the finest performances of his life. [single A-side, 1968; #12 US, #11 UK] #+@%

61. Memories: The sentimental theme of the comeback special, which means it's the sentimental theme of his entire career. [LP ELVIS: NBC-TV Special, 1968; single A-side, 1969; #35 US] #+%

62. In The Ghetto: Keeping with the times, Elvis wanted to do a "message" song; keeping with himself, he did one that spoke out against poverty; although it missed the top of the main US & UK charts, it was snuck onto ELV1S thanks to a #1 in Cashbox. [single A-side, 1969; #3 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

63. Only The Strong Survive: Some motherly wisdom that formed the most recognizable track from the finest studio album he would ever make. [LP From Elvis In Memphis, 1969] +@%

64. Long Black Limousine: Elvis's finest performance, period. (c/f my earlier American Wolf piece about it here.) [LP From Elvis In Memphis, 1969]

65. Suspicious Minds: His final US #1, driven by a love-fueled paranoia that wouldn't meet its match until Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." [single A-side, 1969; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

66. Don't Cry Daddy: A tender performance of a country weeper, just before the production values turned the material more maudlin than meaningful. [single A-side, 1969; US #6, #8 UK] *#+@%

67. Stranger In My Own Home Town: Elvis's hardest blues, in no small part because, as a '50s rocker finding his way in the '60s, he lived it out. [LP From Elvis From Vegas To Memphis/From Memphis To Vegas, 1969] @%

68. Kentucky Rain: His greatest single miss the Top 10 (except for in Canada & Australia). [single A-side, 1970; #16 US, #21 UK] #+%

69. The Wonder Of You: "Kentucky Rain" notwithstanding (it was a track from 1969 that wasn't released until early 1970), this was the beginning of Elvis's final decade--live, off-handed, passionate, overzealous, & powerful; many subsequent songs would try to meet this standard, but precious few would succeed. [single A-side, 1970; #9 US, #1 UK] *#+@

70. Polk Salad Annie: Never much of a hit or a radio staple, someone at RCA must love this one, as it makes not just every multi-disc anthology, but the one-disc summaries of them too; that said, it nicely captures Elvis on stage in his '70s prime, albeit without the focus or power of "The Wonder Of You." [LP On Stage, 1970; UK single A-side, 1973; #23 UK] +@%

71. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me: Both "The Wonder Of You" & "Polk Salad Annie" were live recordings; this song marks the beginning of the studio '70s--regal, overblown, & at its best (like here), a place where quality of songcraft is met by commitment of performance. [single A-side, 1970; #11 US, #9 UK] #+@

72. I Just Can't Help Believin': Another song that somehow makes nearly every major Elvis compilation; issued as a single a year later in the UK, it reached a more-than-respectable #6. [LP That's The Way It Is, 1970] +@%

73. An American Trilogy: The paradoxes of the Civil War resolved in a single medley: South ("Dixie"), North ("The Battle Hymn Of The Republic"), & slave ("All My Trials"). [single A-side, 1972; #66 US, #8 UK] #@%

74. Burning Love: His final truly signature hit; snuck onto the ELV1S CD because it reached #1 on Cashbox. [single A-side, 1972; #2 US, #7 UK] *#+@%

75. Always On My Mind: A stirring study in melody & regret. [single A-side, 1972; #9 UK] #+@%

76. Steamroller Blues: From his "Aloha From Hawaii" concert comes the most unlikely single of them all--a James Taylor cover that climaxes with the singer comparing his love to a napalm bomb. [LP Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, 1973; single A-side, #17 US, #15 UK] +%

77. Promised Land: His last great recording & his first successful Chuck Berry cover. [single A-side, 1974; #14 US, #9 UK] #@%

78. Hurt: The anguish of lost love met with an almost operatic delivery in his most celebrated late-period recording. [single A-side, 1976; #28 US, #37 UK] +%

79. Moody Blue: The title track of his final album & the final US #1 in his lifetime (on the country charts). [single A-side, 1976; #31 US, #6 UK] #+

80. Way Down: The last single Elvis released in his lifetime, sales (& significance) buttressed by his death. [single A-side, 1977; #18 US, #1 UK] #%

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Washington 2014 (Seen The Lights Go On For Billy): The Gershwin Prize Concert.

It was a pretty good night for a Wednesday & Justice Sotomayor gave him a smile.

I love Billy Joel.

Still, when I first heard he had won the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize For Popular Song, I was a bit skeptical--especially when, in Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington's initial press release that discussed the quality of his songs, all but one were from Joel's 1977 commercial breakthrough The Stranger. (The LOC's subsequent statements about the Joel's songwriting have included a wider range of songs.)

But the implications remained--many of Joel's signature songs like "Just The Way You Are," "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "Only The Good Die Young," "She's Always A Woman," & "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," were from this one album. Sure, he had other great songs, but the Gershwin Award? I remained skeptical.

Well, after spending a week straight listening to nothing but Billy Joel, I had the honor last night of attending the ceremony at the DAR Constitution Hall in downtown Washington, D.C.

It was a very D.C. show--everyone was in their Paul Simon bow-ties (the late Illinois senator, not the former Garfunkel partner who won the first Gershwin Award) or in their Hillary pantsuits, except for the older ladies, who were dressed like Madeleine Albright. Flanking Billy Joel in his box seat were Dr. Billington & Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the latter of whom received the most applause after the Piano Man of honor himself.

It was a night to celebrate Billy Joel, & to do so, they had a revolving door of performing artists to demonstrate the versatility & worth of his material, which gave me something to do while I tried to not be distracted by the fact that they were all Columbia/Sony/BMG label-mates with Joel. (The sole exception was Michael Feinstein, who didn't perform a full song himself & was there in part as a member of the Library of Congress's National Recording Preservation Board.)

Some fared better than others.

Boyz II Men opened the show with a rousing rendition of Joel's doo-wop revival hit "For The Longest Time" (the original of which featured Joel doing all 14 vocal parts). Leann Rimes reminded everyone why she once beat out Britney Spears & Christina Aguliera for Best New Artist at the Grammys when she belted out "Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)"--& also demonstrated that the otherwise marginalized late-period Billy Joel song deserves a reappraisal. Former lead Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (A.K.A. The One Who Was Embarrassed By Bush) switched the genders around on "She's Got A Way" & reinvented it as lovely country tune, finding the folk song hidden inside of it that its simple structure had always implied was there.

Meanwhile, Josh Groban proved that he is a talented singer but that even the most delicate Billy Joel material (in this case, "She's Always A Woman") isn't best suited for a classical voice. Gavin DeGraw did a fine-but-ultimately-forgettable romp through "It's Still Rock & Roll To Me," the greatest song to ever mock New Wave while sonically embracing it. (It was also Joel's first #1 hit.) The only real disaster was John Mellencamp's case for Joel as a protest singer, with an acoustic version of "Allentown" that sounded like a misguided outtake from Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' LP. Mellencamp played it loose & understated, with an accompanying guitarist who never seemed to lock in with what he was doing. Ultimately, the punchy melody that drives the original was lost in a sea of well-meaning but confused rasping & strumming.

The only person to receive a standing ovation from this opening set was Tony Bennett, who closed with a perfect take on "New York State Of Mind." Here was a song that was written & conceived for a lounge/jazz singer like Bennett--& he sang it like the old-school New Yorker that he is, mixing the jazz, pop, & perhaps, a touch of rock. Somewhere, the Gershwin Brothers were smiling.

But all of this combined proved to be merely a flicker before Joel came out & burned the place down. He played his songs so thoroughly & theatrically, I was shocked to realize afterwards that his set was a mere 4 songs. He opened with "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," riding the driving verses into the thrashing pre-chorus with such flair that it made you forget the entire evening of music that had come before it. He then played "Vienna," which for my money is the finest song he has ever written--opening & closing with a lilting cabaret figure, he builds the melody up & brings it down with a promise of escape couched in words of pragmatism. "Dream on," he sang to the newly-minted Gershwin Prize facing him on his piano, "but don't imagine they'll all come true." Well, most of the time anyway.

Joel next unleashed "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)," an apocalyptic tale of a post-future New York City that was the highlight of the night. Originally released in 1976, it took on a new significance a quarter century later, when it came eerily close to prophecy. It is a song about the Brooklyn bridges blowing, the Harlem churches burning, & the mighty Manhattan skyline falling. But it is an old man's tale, shrouded in mystery & memory; for all of the song's chaos & destruction, its key words seem to be: "There are not many who remember--they say a handful still survive." It could be sung by the few survivors of the PS General Slocum steamship disaster of 1904 who were still alive to see the Twin Towers fall.

Billy Joel closed his small set with "You May Be Right," the lead single (& a Top 10 hit) from 1980's Glass Houses, the most rocking album he would ever release. It is the best of his "angry young man" songs, a song of defiance that added up to more than the huffing & puffing its lyrics implied. This is a testament to the song's crashing, bashing music, which revels in the feeling of simple, stupid rebellion. Which only makes sense--isn't this night ultimately all about the music in the first place?

With the thrashing bookends of "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" & "You May Be Right," Joel made his case for being a rocker, even when his reputation might imply otherwise. If the night had ended there, it would've been spectacular, but of course it didn't--there was still the obligatory "Piano Man" encore, which featured the ensemble joining in. Early reviews have called it the highlight of the evening, but they must've not been listening. From my seat, the whole thing seemed ad-hoc & ill-conceived (Kevin Spacey gets to sing more of the song than Billy Joel?! Boyz II Men & Tony Bennett don't get any feature spots in it at all?! Mellencamp didn't even bother to show up?!), with its finest moments--a Boy II Man waltzing with himself, Groban & DeGraw swaying like the bar patrons they sing about, Rimes acting like a lovable kook--only speaking to how dispersed the performance was.

The show deserved a better ending, & had they let Joel close it by himself, it would've gotten it.

The whole thing airs on PBS on January 2, 2015, at 9:00 PM, so you can judge for yourself. Presumably there will also be the prerecorded congrats (from Streisand, McCartney, & James Taylor), the video interview segments with Joel (always interesting, if produced in a bizarrely shoddy manner), & the dance numbers from his Broadway musical (which might as well feature Eva Trapp dancing alone--despite all those around her, you won't be able to take your eyes off of her).

Once the show had ended & I was tallying up the full setlist when I got home, I was struck by the small number of actual major Billy Joel hits that got played. Aside from "It's Still Rock & Roll To Me," neither of his other #1 hits--"Tell Her About It" or "We Didn't Start The Fire"--were to be heard. He also didn't play anything from his quartet of #3 hits: "Just The Way You Are" (except for a tease bit he did about its opening riff), "River Of Dreams" (it was played as part of a prerecorded medley for the dancers), "Uptown Girl," & "My Life" (the latter of which was the biggest oversight of the evening). Come to think of it, of his 13 Top 10 hits, only 2 were accounted for: "It's Still Rock & Roll To Me" & "You May Be Right."

The fact that this went unnoticed during the evening made me wonder--how many artists could fill a comprehensive overview of their career & leave out almost all of their biggest hits? Perhaps this, more than anything else, is proof that Billy Joel truly deserves the Gershwin Prize For Popular Song.

So congrats, Billy. & thank you for helping us all to forget about life for a while.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost Time Is Now Found Again: The Basement Tapes.

Bob Dylan contemplates the best way for you to prove your loyalty by spending $120.00.

Part 1: A Background.

It's taken some 47 years, but I can now write 4 simple words that have eluded nearly a half-century of rock scholars before me: The Basement Tapes exist.

This is no small feat. After taking the world by storm in 1966 with the loudest, greatest, & most controversial rock music anyone had ever heard (live, anyway), Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle in upstate New York & hid out for the better part of a year, playing the family man while his backing group--then called The Hawks, now better known as The Band--began to join him. Together, they spent the middle part of 1967 into early 1968 jamming & recording, first in the Red Room at Dylan's house & then in the basement of a house rented by several members of The Band known as the Big Pink for the tacky color of its aluminum siding.

The music was a retreat from the groundbreaking rock & roll they had pioneered, exploring their rock, country, folk, & blues roots in a barrage of often spur-of-the-moment covers, & then on a series of strange & timeless originals. These were initially circulated as demos for other artists to record, but in time, Dylan & The Band's versions began leaking out, all but single-handedly creating rock music's bootleg industry (&, as some like to tell it, the alt-country & Americana genres).

In 1975, Dylan & The Band (or rather, Columbia Records) released The Basement Tapes, a double-album which attempted to put the whole thing to rest. It didn't. While it was extremely well-received & a big hit, hindsight has proven it to be a compromised product: Many of the most famous Basement Tapes songs were missing, such as "Quinn The Eskimo" & "I Shall Be Released," & the songs that were released featured overdubs & edits that over-polished the integrity of the originals. But most jarringly, among the 24 songs included were 8 recordings by The Band, which were passed off as part of the sessions. While The Band's music on the album is excellent, it would have been better heard on a compilation album by The Band, as it has a different sound, feel, & focus from the Dylan material.

Over the years, an additional 4 (undubbed) Basement Tapes recordings were released on various Dylan compilations, but the CD age brought several top-notch multi-disc bootlegs of material, first in 1989's 5-disc The Genuine Basement Tapes, & then 2001's 4-disc A Tree With Roots. While the former may have a bit more material, I've always preferred the latter since the sound was (mostly) remastered at a much clearer level.

But with Columbia releasing The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Complete Basement Tapes earlier this month, all such bootlegs are instantly rendered moot. Since Dylan's "Bootleg Series" began over 20 years ago, I was shocked that they hadn't ever done a definitive Basement Tapes until now--& was beginning to think that perhaps they never would. Perhaps it was too unwieldy, or required too many legal rights?

Well now, some 40 years after Columbia first released the original Basement Tapes double-LP, they have issued a deluxe 6-disc anthology that purports to contain every extant song & fragment of Basement Tapes material, housed in two small hardcover coffee-table books in a slipcase. The whole thing is a bit humbling--& like the Basement Tapes themselves, more than just a little surreal.

All that said, it is not a flawless set. Instead of trying to make educated guesses on who plays what, the producers of the set have opted to instead say that Dylan sings lead on everything, & as for the backing vocals & instrumentation, no one can be positive since The Band were all multi-instrumentalists. OK, I get it, but still a cop-out. Process of elimination & logic should've filled in the gaps, even if it contained numerous parenthetical question marks. After all, how many people in The Band ever regularly played bass on anything? (I count one: Rick Danko.)

Also frustrating is that, despite all of the photographs & reproductions of tape boxes & reels, there is nowhere that simply lists all of the numbered tapes in order & the material that each contains. We just have to take their word that it's roughly chronological, but with the 6th disc being made up of material with poor sound quality, the whole thing is intrinsically set up with gaps in the narrative. Again, I get it, but why not put an ordered list so that we can reconstruct the complete running order ourselves if we so choose?

Finally, I am not convinced that every shred of recording is in fact accounted for. I say this only because of one thing that I know is missing: The beginning of "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg," in which the person doing the answer call (I hear Rick Danko, but others could argue for Richard Manuel or Robbie Robertson), first pops in the words "Allen Ginsberg" for "Alligator." Dylan is caught off-guard, laughs hysterically, & relaunches the song as a surreal novelty. The new official version leaves out this early piece of the song, implying that it is Dylan who had considered this as part of the song from the start. Did Dylan not want to give away that it was another person's punchline? Or is it a scrap of tape that actually has been lost? Or something else entirely?

Given the sheer volume & ranging quality of this material, it's no surprise that the set has divided the critics somewhat into various camps. If you want to see the believers' side, check out David Fricke's over-zealous 5-star review in Rolling Stone; if you want the non-believer's side, check out Sasha Frere-Jones' misguided take in The New Yorker.

In truth, neither are correct--The Basement Tapes are not a masterpiece nor a joke shop of follies, but both & neither, & more, & less. Trying to paint them as all good or all bad defeats the purpose of their very construction & existence as a cultural artifact--they instead are just that, a cultural artifact, something that is at once artistic & accomplished, yet primitive & incomplete.

* * *

Part 2: A Review.

Disc 1: The Beginning.

The new Basement Tapes set begins with nothing less than Dylan & The Band going back to Sun Records where it all began, around 1955, & remaking rock & roll music from the beginning. Only instead of focusing on Elvis, Johnny Cash is their man. (Indeed, the sole Elvis song that makes the cut on these initial Basement Tapes excursions is "I Forgot To Remember To Forget," one of only 2 songs to be recorded by both Elvis & Cash during their respective times at Sun.) Various country tunes make their stream-of-conscious hit parade--an off-the-cuff take on Hank Williams' "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," a lovely version of Cowboy Copas' more obscure "Waltzing With Sin"--but it's the Sun-era Cash who they keep going back to: His Old Testament prophecy of "Belshazzar," a driving "Folsom Prison Blues," & a wonderful reinvention of "Big River" across 2 takes that open the song up into a funky groove, with Dylan's words dragging things out like the winding river he follows. At 10 songs in, The Basement Tapes have already reached its first stunner.

Dylan & The Band conjure a Sun Records with no Carl Perkins songs, only his lead guitar work that can be applied everywhere (& was, thanks to The Beatles catalog). Even a force of nature like Jerry Lee Lewis is reduced to a ghost; he can only be heard through his own Hank Williams cover of "You Win Again," yet in the Basement Tapes, they remember the words to the second bridge ("You have no heart...") that Lewis himself forgets. It is a country & western swap-meet, with Johnny Cash standing over the proceedings--& what they lack in deep baritone, they make up for in sheer willpower.

The remainder of the first disc finds their way from country into folk, including a stark reading of "Bells Of Rhymney" at arm's length that sets the stage for the silly wordplay to come (even if every word is true to the Pete Seeger original) & a sweeping "Ol' Roison The Beau," which is the basis of pretty much every drinking song of the 19th century. Most lovely is a version of "On The Banks Of The Royal Canal," here called "The Auld Triangle," which becomes a song about how prison can transform into purgatory. In this way, it is the flipside of their earlier version of "Folsom Prison Blues," which took a grim prison ballad & turned it into a weekend getaway. In "The Auld Triangle," every word & note is measured carefully, the best verse coming towards the end, when the singer imagines the female prison with 70 women (which, as a modern listener, I can't resist by filling in with the extended cast of Orange Is The New Black). "& it's with them, where I'd like to dwell..." daydreams the singer. His prison life is so complete that even when he pictures himself with women, they too are in prison.

One of the first originals of the set is "Under Control," which I mention for the sole reason that it sounds so remarkably like The Eagles' "Life In The Fast Lane" (minus The Eagles' cheeky refrain & guitar lick), I can't help but wonder if Don Henley didn't somehow get a version of this Basement Tape on his hand & subconsciously turn it into his own rocker. Stranger things have happened in rock, such as, for example, the remaining 5 discs of this set.

Disc 2: The Weird.

This is where the strangeness sets in. Greil Marcus has famously described The Basement Tapes as tapping into "The Old, Weird America" of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music, & it is here where this "Old, Weird"-ness is fully heard. After a rollicking version of the Liverpool ballad "Johnny Todd" that is built on the same chord changes as half a dozen garage rock standards, Dylan sets his sights on John Lee Hooker's "The Big Flood," & in Marcus's perfect words, "turns a dank, still blues about death & ruin into a spelling bee." Dylan also renames the song after the place where it all went down--"Tupelo"--about a half-dozen years before Elvis Presley was born in the same streets.

There's "Kickin' My Dog Around," which is as complete & self-contained a statement as one can find in the Basement Tapes--"Every time I go to town, the boys keep kickin' my dog around/Don't know why I go to town, don't know why they kick my dog around"--to The Band's backing vocals that turn the proceedings into a dada version of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm." One can find "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg" (but NOT the earlier part of the tape where the joke is first created--only its silly aftermath, which strips it of its punch), which finds Bill Haley rubbing shoulders with the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical...especially when they say the word "crock-a-gator."

"Tiny Montgomery" is the first original Basement Tapes standard to appear: Train-wreck words ("3-legged man in a hot tent-pole...") filling in the spaces between its deceptively simple message ("...tell 'em all Montgomery says hello"). This disc also first unleashed the joys of "I'm Your Teenage Prayer" for me, a profoundly weird (yet well-structured & performed) '50s-style doo-wop send-up, with the lead & backing singers competing for the listener: "Take a look at me, baby," sings one, "Take a look over here, baby," answers another right after. Such an obvious & simple idea--with all the shtick to be found in 50s records, how had no one thought to put the backing vocalists competing with the singer? It's almost enough to make you miss that the tagline--"I am a teenage prayer" sounds a few words short of a coherent statement.

The remainder of the disc is divided between music that is either lovely (the protest ballad "Joshua Gone Barbados," which Dylan sings with all of the passions as, well, Dylan singing it in 1963; the either entirely stupid or entirely brilliant "Baby, Won't You Be My Baby") or tedious ("Rock, Salt, & Nails," which seems to only be worth singing through to get to its wonderful closing couplet; "Try Me Little Girl," which Dylan uses to try a screeching falsetto). & then spread throughout is the material originally recorded by Ian & Sylvia, which is at once lovely ("Four Strong Winds" & "Song For Canada") & tedious (both takes of "The French Girl").

Disc 3: The Classic, Pt. 1.

After 3 of the finest folk covers of The Basement Tapes--a tender "Young But Daily Growing," a determined "Bonnie Ship The Diamond," & a weary "The Hills Of Mexico"--Dylan & The Band spend most of the disc getting into the most classic music of The Basement Tapes project.

There's "Million Dollar Bash," the closest the Basement Tapes have to a national anthem; "Yea! Heavy & A Bottle Of Bread," pure dada written by a man who simply loves words; "I'm Not There," an unfinished, unclear, unforgettable tale of love & devotion that is the most legendary Basement Tapes song of all; "Please Mrs. Henry," a drunkard's sing-a-long plea for acceptance into a boarding house; "Crash On The Levee," a blues about a universal flood & the personal toll it can take; "Lo & Behold!," a version of The Lady Vanishes, where the lady stays put & logic vanishes instead; "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a perfect 3-chord proto-country rock standard featuring mail-order brides, easy chairs, & a tree with roots; "I Shall Be Released," perhaps the most famous of the Basement Tapes songs, well-known enough to have Elvis sing through a refrain in 1971; "This Wheel's On Fire," for my money, the best Basement Tapes song, period; "Too Much Of Nothing," with the perfect answering line, "can make a man ill at ease."

If you've made it this far into this article, chances are you already know all about these songs & have heard them a million times (& happily have never gotten any closer to their depths). But to hear them here is a small revelation, with no overdubs but a high-quality sound. Even if you can never imagine improving on your copy of A Tree With Roots, you should get this set if only because you can simply hear everything better. When "I'm Not There" (for many, the quintessential Basement Tapes song) was first released on the film soundtrack of the same name, I was disappointed at how low it was mixed, despite the fact it was now the 21st century. Someone must've gotten the memo because "I'm Not There" starts so loudly it becomes an entirely different, completely fuller, listening experience. Song-for-song, this may be the finest disc of the set (if not Dylan's entire career--yeah, I said it), in no small part because it is now that much greater to listen to.

& for me, the riddle at the center of "This Wheel's On Fire"--"& you know that we shall meet again, if your mem'ry serves you well," which impossibly places an unknown future into a known past--may just be the perfect Dylan line of them all, even if it may have been written by Rick Danko.

Disc 4: The Classic, Pt 2.

Picks up in the same classic territory as the previous disc left off: "Tears Of Rage," a funeral for a country that has forgotten Independence Day; "Quinn The Eskimo," the most unlikely UK #1 hit single (thanks to Manfred Mann) to use the phrase "it ain't my cup of meat"; "Open The Door Homer," reaching back to Jack McVea's 1946 vaudeville-inspired rhythm & blues hit "Open The Door, Richard" (the first song to have a fade-out) to spin advice about memories & toilet-flushing; "Nothing Was Delivered," the fallout of a faulty bill of sale, in which the victims still wish good health for the seller. All were released in various versions over the years (although "Henry" was in a version by The Band), & all deserved to be.

But after 3 takes of "Nothing Was Delivered" with varying success, the entire disc (if not Basement Tapes project) pivots on one transition: The one between "All American Boy" & "Sign On The Cross." As the earlier bootleg sets attested to, these songs were apparently recorded back-to-back, one beside the other on their respective Basement Tapes reel. To my ears, they provide the Basement Tapes' greatest one-two punch.

"All American Boy" is a goof on Bill Parsons' 1958 talking blues about getting a guitar, learning hot licks, getting hooked up with a manager with a big cigar, & becoming a star until you get drafted into the Army--in other words, it was a song about Elvis Presley. Dylan draws a line around the song so that the bottom falls out, the guitarist becomes a drummer, & everything goes from strange to stranger in a drunkard's reverie: "Clean your hand & come up tight, roll smoke & down at night/Hold on a train on a whiskey jar--settle it down, there you are!"

Dylan was comfortable with the talking blues form, as he had learned it from Woody Guthrie & then perfected the form himself in songs like "Talking New York Blues" & "Talking World War III Blues." Each of those songs had a point, but here any larger messages are lost. What we have instead is the sound of someone making up a song as they go along, to amuse his bandmates, to amuse himself. & yet, the careless, casual randomness of the words create a distinctively Basement Tapes feel--a secret America where reason go out the window in favor of a land where anything can happen--or, as the case may be, nothing can happen. A lot. It is a strange, timeless sound & it is this element that connects so well with the early folk & blues records of The Anthology Of American Folk Music.

& then, at one of the throwaway answer parts of the song, sung in a goon's voice that sounds like Richard Manuel (even if Garth Hudson confirms it is Robbie Robertson), he free-associates with Uncle Sam coming in from the original song's version: "Uncle Sam," he begins, followed by, "In this land." & then he adds 4 more words--"Ripping up draft cards"--& everything, the song, the Basement Tapes, goes from a timeless America to one that is decidedly 1967. Dylan comes in & interrupts him, as though to save the song from any modern interjections, & finishes it out with a return to the strangeness that has defined it thus far; the fact that Dylan can successfully return to this level is not only lucky, but remarkable. "You'd be a fine drummer," he drawls at the end. "Picker man's a-commer. Dog hummer." It is at once timeless, strange, & kinda dumb.

The next sound we hear is a reaching guitar winding together the instruments of "Sign On The Cross," & suddenly, everything is completely different. The irreverence has given way to reverence, all balanced on a stately gospel progression, the soft thunder of the drums rumbling underneath. It is a song of subtle, small gestures & extreme focus, & contains what is probably the most beautiful vocal that Bob Dylan will ever record.

"Sign On The Cross" is a song about religion & devotion, but more in the way that it is sung & played than any lyrics in & of themselves. Like the best Basement Tapes music, the words are obscure & sometimes nearly unintelligible, but are carried by the emotion. In this regard, it is a sort of answer record to that other long, mysterious, & legendary Basement Tapes song, "I'm Not There," only where that song finds extreme isolation, "Sign Of The Cross" finds community. By both implying & eluding proper organized religion, it serves as a powerful reminder as to why we have organized religion in the first place; as a religious song, it is Dylan's finest, with the possible exception of "Every Grain Of Sand."

But then, about halfway through, Dylan steps on the mood, pulling himself out of the song by breaking into a weird spoken break about the sign of the cross, delivered in a smiling African-American dialect that turns the song from a serious deliverance into a silly performance. You can't tell if he's celebrating the sound of an old southern preacher or mocking it, & in truth, it's probably both. It is a distancing method between the singer & the song, holding this sacred performance at arm's length as though it may all just be a joke after all--it looks into the Sign On The Cross & finds an All-American Boy.

& then just as effortlessly as Dylan slips out of his serious persona, he slips back into it, returning to the reverence in a bridge about the prisons & penitentiaries too that drives the whole thing home (literally, as it brings the song back to the root chord for a final verse). Yes, you can hear him giving muffled chord changes to his bandmates here & there & even a near-flubbed note or two, but "Sign On The Cross" sounds like one of the more rehearsed numbers on the Basement Tapes recordings. For almost any songwriter, it would go on to be a centerpiece of their career, but for Dylan, it would be recorded one time & largely forgotten, not even properly released until a few weeks ago.

After "All American-Boy" & "Sign One The Cross," we get more weird classics: The rocking "Odds & Ends" that is so perfect, it led off the official Basement Tapes release, while summing up the project in 6 words or less ("Lost time is not found again"); "Get Your Rocks Off," which is at once lazy, filthy, unsettling, & hilarious; "Clothesline Saga," which inverted Bobbie Gentry's then-contemporary #1 hit "Ode To Billy Joe" into a song that Christopher Ricks uses to illustrate "Sloth" in his mad, beautiful Dylan's Visions Of Sin; you can hear "Apple Suckling Tree" converge over 2 takes until it's one of the homespun-yet-funky moments in the entire project; a cut-off "Don't Ya Tell Henry" with some awful/amazing horns; & finally, a version of "Bourbon Street" that takes the horns of the previous song & drives them into the ground like a steamroller in a graveyard.

If the Basement Tapes ended there, no one would blame Dylan & The Band--& in a way, they do.

Disc 5: The Homecoming.

The first half of the 5th disc begins with never-before-bootlegged material from early 1968, with Levon Helm back in the group & the proceedings more organized. For the first time, the songs sound less like a bunch of guys rummaging through a garage sale & more like a singer & his band going over songs for a setlist.

3 of the first 4 songs reinvent Dylan standards in profound ways: There's a "Blowin' In The Wind" that must be heard to be believed--running for 6-&-a-half minutes over a funky bar groove, it takes the endlessly-covered song to places where no one else has had the vision to take it, setting the words out like a test, & watching them bounce off the music & each other until everything rolls along into the next line; they do a version of "One Too Many Mornings" that plays like a subdued version of "The Royal Albert Hall" concert, it's got all of the vigor of the loud-&-electric stage version, but washed in a lazy Sunday afternoon--Richard Manuel does a stunning job taking the first verse & makes you wish that more verse-trading had happened over the sessions; & finally, Dylan leads an "It Ain't Me, Babe" that sounds like a dry-run for The Rolling Thunder Review. Appropriately, the one non-Dylan song in the string is called "Satisfied Mind."

Dylan then leads the group through 2 takes "Ain't No More Cane," which is being rightfully lauded as one of the finest "new" moments of the box set, & then on to "Santa-Fe," one of my very favorites of the classic Basement Tapes songs, unfinished yet natural, & then onto songs that feel more contained & organized. Even the one that isn't, "My Woman She's A-Leavin'," is tightened up a few songs later as "Silent Weekend," which takes the blueprint of Charlie Rich's "Lonely Weekends" & applies it to a Wilson Pickett demo, only with internal rhymes that are as funky as the groove. Perhaps most odd is a version of "900 Miles From My Home" that takes the shell of a traditional folk song & welds it into the melody of Dylan's then-recent composition "John Wesley Harding." We can feel the curtains being closed & the floor being swept on the Basement Tapes.

But there's one last stretch of the Basement Tapes sound with Levon Helm in toe, as the parlor-ballad-turned-folksong "Wildwood Flower" is turned back into a half-forgotten slurred parlor tune & the 6 white horses of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" make their way into the 6 white horses of "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain." The Old, Weird America lives.

One final Basement Tapes classic can be heard, "Goin' To Acapulco"--its late appearance in the chronology informing Helm's quoting it in his autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire ("It's a wicked life/But what the hell/Everybody's got to eat")--looking beyond the border of America to fuel one last journey.

The set ends where it should, with the 2 takes of "All You Have To Do Is Dream," which lifts the title of an Everly Brothers song & turns it into a paean to confusion & floorbirds.

Disc 6: The Rough Stuff.

As mentioned before, the material with the worst fidelity was taken out of order & put into a final disc, which concludes the set. Song-for-song, it is easily the junkiest volume of the box, but that's not to say it doesn't reveal its odd charm. Weird hooks like the bounce of "2 Dollars & 99 Cents" & the nonsense syllables of "Jelly Bean" take us back to repetitive almost non-songs like "Old Lady & The Devil" & "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" of The Anthology Of American Folk Music, in both fidelity & feel. There's a lot of Dylan instructing, or putting out ideas & riffs, & in some cases, like "Hallelujah, I've Just Been Moved," it pays off, while in others, like the long & listless "That's The Breaks," it doesn't. & then there's stuff like the 19th century-sounding waltz of "Pretty Mary" that I bet most people would hate, even if I dig it.

From the previously released bootlegs, one can find the unfinished & elusive "King Of France," which I've always associated with The Band's own poor-fidelity version of "Ferdinand The Imposter"--both rough but well-worth a listen. "Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad" finally unleashes the presence of Woody Guthrie that has been felt all along--the wandering mind, the talking blues, the ability to try & accept anything that comes your way, especially if it originates from your own mind--& does it justice. & a version of The Rays' 1957 hit "Silhouettes" is quadrupled from a fragment to a nearly 2-minute clip where you can hear the doo-wop sound that Dylan & The Band are constantly returning to, played like "Heart & Soul" by a 7-year-old piano student.

Thrown in at the end is the 2 takes of "The Spanish Song," which for my money is the worst thing on the Basement Tapes, & probably not a coincidence that it's listed as the final music on the set. Thankfully, one final secret track revives a completely different "900 Miles From My Home" from the previous disc, turning it into an exploding fiddle piece that in sound & spirit matches only Robertson, Manuel, & Danko singing "Old Time Religion" in The Last Waltz, before ending on a take of "Confidential," another trip back to another half-forgotten early rock & roll song, ending things where it probably should, on a doo-wop cover, where Dylan & each member of the Band probably began their own musical journey over a decade earlier.

* * *

Part 3: A Conclusion.

As one reviewer has suggested, the 139 tracks from the recent Basement Tapes box set can be seen as an invitation from which you can make your own collection (just like The Beastie Boys actually did with their trailblazing Sounds Of Science anthology in 1999, but I digress). Although a smaller, 2-disc Basement Tapes Raw has been released alongside the deluxe box, I believe there's room for one more product that would bring it all home: A disc that collects the original versions of all of the Dylan songs from the 1975 Basement Tapes release in their most familiar versions, along with 8 more of the most classic originals. & like the original 1975 set, all 24 songs fit on a single disc. I call it:

The Basement Tapes "Masters"

1. Tiny Montgomery
2. Million Dollar Bash [Take 2]
3. Yea! Heavy & A Bottle Of Bread [Take 2]
4. I'm Not There
5. Please Mrs. Henry
6. Crash On The Levee [Take 2]
7. Lo & Behold! [Take 2]
8. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere [Take 2]
9. I Shall Be Released [Take 2]
10. This Wheel's On Fire
11. Too Much Of Nothing [Take 1]
12. Tears Of Rage [Take 1]
13. Quinn The Eskimo [Take 2]
14. Open The Door Homer [Take 1]
15. Nothing Was Delivered [Take 1]
16. Sign On The Cross
17. Odds & Ends [Take 2]
18. Get Your Rocks Off
19. Clothes Line Saga
20. Apple Suckling Tree [Take 2]
21. Don't Ya Tell Henry
22. Santa-Fe
23. Silent Weekend
24. Goin' To Acapulco

& there you have it. Running at 1:19:37, it nearly covers the entirety of a single compact disc. I of course would've loved to include "All-American Boy," but ultimately did not because it is not credited to Dylan.

& besides, it wouldn't be the Basement Tapes if it weren't missing a few odds & ends.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Henry Thomas's Skeleton Key.

Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas was a bluesman who recorded about two dozen sides some 85 years ago. Born in 1877, he was one of the oldest blues singers to record & one of few to use a kind of panpipe called quills—an ancient instrument that was once ubiquitous in the American South, but was falling out of fashion by the time the blues craze hit in the 1920s. Chances are he would be nothing more than a minor footnote if it weren't for the fact that 2 of his songs—"Fishing Blues" & "Old Country Stomp"—were included in Harry Smith's legendary Anthology Of American Folk Music.

His advanced age (he was 50 when he made his first record) coupled with old-fashioned instrumentation (a guitar pitched up high in an open D tuning, which smacked of a style that was honed on banjo) & the good fortune of recording for a company that was content to release mostly non-blues material (the hot music that pretty much all labels of African-American music was releasing in his time) led to something bigger than even Henry Thomas's 6'3" frame: An insight into pre-blues music.

Pretty much everything we know about Henry Thomas is thanks to the blues historian Mack McCormick; his essay for an early double-LP set of Thomas's songs is the standard to which all liner notes should be held—you can read them here.

One of the key things McCormick points out is how Henry Thomas was the child of ex-slaves, which makes him part of the first generation of African-Americans to be born free. It is said Thomas left home at age 11 & never looked back. Usually traveling around with no home is seen as a cruel punishment in the blues, but for people of Thomas's generation, being able to roam freely may have seemed like a privilege.

& so roam Henry Thomas did. He appears to have no set address—like Woody Guthrie, he rode the rails, like Kurt Cobain, he slept under bridges. He played on Texas street-corners, at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, & most importantly to us, in a Chicago studio, yielding 23 songs over 5 sessions from 1927 to 1929.

Henry Thomas recorded a special kind of music. It has been called "songster" music, but I think of it more as "skeleton key" music—the sound of a genre (blues) emerging from the ether, in a sea of shared verses & melodies. Based on his recorded output, Henry Thomas didn't seem to write songs as much as he adapt them or form them on the fly. As a result, rhythms, melodies, & structures can change on a whim, such that one song can shift into another.

There's Thomas's "Bob McKinney" from 1927, an early version of "Stagger Lee," which begins about a bad man, much in the style of Mississippi John Hurt's "Stack O'Lee," which Hurt would record one year later. But midway through, Thomas starts singing a refrain of "Take me back," which the song then seems to do—taking him back in time or memory or simple association—until he lands with a version of "Make Me A Pallet On The Floor," which has an entirely different chord structure & swing, as well as nothing to do with Bob McKinney or anything from the first section of the song. A born journeyman, Henry Thomas performed his songs like he lived his life: Made up as he went along.

Listening to Thomas's recordings is a uniquely organic experience—sometimes a verse is sung in one song that crops up identically in another; sometimes a song about one subject turns into a song about another; sometimes a verse format is rigidly kept; sometimes it feels like you're listening to a medley. & then there are times when a single line is repeated 3 or 4 times in one verse, & then switched up with a call-&-response in the next, which makes you feel as though you are witnessing the blues being stumbled upon right before your ears.

His songs run together like the common well of music from which the blues—& later rock—would form. This is music all about forward motion, not just in the restlessness of the songs themselves, but of the way in which his songs set the structure for countless others. In "Lovin' Babe," he sings about "Goin' down that road feelin' bad," which Woody Guthrie would turn into "Goin' Down That Road Feelin' Bad" & name it as the most popular song of the Dust Bowl migrants; in "Bull Doze Blues," he sings of "Going up the country," which Canned Heat would perform at Woodstock as "Going Up The Country"; in "Shanty Blues," he sings that his lover "Cause me to weep, cause me to moan, cause me to leave my home," which Lead Belly would record sing in "In The Pines" in New York City in 1944—& Nirvana would record in New York City 49 years after that.

In "Railroadin' Some," Thomas turns his guitar into a chugging train & his quills into its whistle, calling out the stops several decades before James Brown closed his Live At The Apollo LP with his then-current hit, "Night Train"; in "Arkansas," he sings a version of "My Name Is Johanna" that sounds like it could be the grandfather of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi"; in "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance," he sets up the phraseology—if not quite the music—for Bob Dylan's version, one of the few non-originals included on his breakthrough LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which is definitely his finest folk album, if not his finest album, period (for what it's worth, it is the one in the Library Of Congress's National Registry).

Countless more phrases & tunes whiz by in the music. Henry Thomas sings about having a girl who works hard; being Alabama bound; going back to Baltimore; the last fair deal going down; looking where the sun done gone; standing on the corner; going around the mountain; being a poor boy a long way from home; wearing that ball & chain. His music can take any form—he can blow his panpipes like a train whistle; he can howl to imitate a dog; he can stop his guitar cold & pull the song out from under you, before returning with a huckster's smile & tagline. He sings about sinful women; he praises God; he sings a song about a little red caboose that wouldn't sound out of place in a nursery school sing-a-long. His songs feature people walking, standing, dancing, running, traveling, going fishing, cooking with shortening bread, riding on trains, waiting for trains, riding the rods under trains, driving in automobiles, sailing in boats, working in a pink & blue dress, sitting in jail.

One can only wonder what a few more recording sessions would have yielded—it's hard to imagine an even bigger scope of American life than what we already have. Like Lead Belly, who was 14 years younger than Thomas, it's not hard to picture him singing for hours on magnetic tape songs that he learned & made up.

It should be said, however, that Henry Thomas wasn't a masterful songwriter, musical virtuoso, or a great singer—his music does not have the painstaking craft of Robert Johnson, the musicianship of Muddy Waters, or the powerful delivery of a Howlin' Wolf. He is a rudimentary guitarist & a capable if unremarkable vocalist; only his exquisite quills playing marks him for any uniqueness. He is a street performer, nothing less, nothing more, & it is this that gives him his power.

Listening to his 23 songs—more original recordings than any other songster of the period, as Lead Belly largely made non-commercial field recordings & Mississippi John Hurt only expanded his discography once he was rediscovered in the 1960s—gives you the feeling of taking an African-American performer from off the street (literally) & listening to what music he plays—to make people entertained, to make people dance, to make people think, to make people sing along, to make people forget their troubles.

We may not know exactly what the average folk music sounded like to the average folk for the first generation of free African-Americans until the blues hit in the 1920s, but thanks to Henry Thomas, we have a better idea, a skeleton key that unlocks all that came after it—& maybe, at least some of what came before it.