Notes on The Nightfly

thDonald Fagen’s 1982 album The Nightfly is a delightfully perfect album. It’s admittedly odd that I like this record because I also love Dylan’s error-ridden Desire and The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. I love Who’s Next and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I consider The Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion to be as perfect a record as The Nightfly, for very similar reasons. They are both a reflection of singular musical purpose, a palpable exercise in impassioned importance in their own unique way.

It is easy to dismiss a record like The Nightfly as “slick” and “soulless.” However, what I hear when I listen to this record is actually pure soul. How much more soulful can you get than a musician obsessively creating a piece of work that is built like a perfect architectural structure, made to stand for decades to come? How come we accept and often demand perfection in architecture but almost beg for imperfection in music to bolster its authenticity? Building music in the form of an album is a lot like building a structure; at least it used to be.

This album falls in that large domain we know as the “classic” period of popular music during which budgets grew to gargantuan proportions and careers were nurtured. This era has given us such a wonderful wide swath of material in which to analyze and enjoy. Depending on the goals of the musician and associated business partners, an album was usually an entity that demanded consideration to a concept of some sort, however loose that was. At the very minimum there was an ambition of uniformity, whether that be in sound, style, or lyrical themes. The Nightfly is interesting in that it stands as a barometer to measure the influence of Walter Becker on the duo’s ‘70s Steely Dan output. We can hear the relative absence of cutting wit and dark-hued themes. In its place is more joy; we hear a harkening back to the idealism of the ‘50s (“Maxine”) as well as an exciting projection onto the future (“I.G.Y”). In the title track we meet a lonely Louisiana jazz DJ who talks to his late night audience while intimating that his best years are a memory. The melancholy nature of this lyric is obscured, however, by a tight groove and upbeat melody. Setting aside the perceptive and insightful lyrics, what makes The Nightfly stand out are the performances and ensuing mix. Yes the record is overdubbed like crazy. However, this is even more impressive due to the tightness of the arrangements and fluid nature of the songs.

The track listing is an endless well of treasures that keeps giving and giving on repeated plays. The album is addictive in this way. You can listen to just the bass on this record over and over and never be bored. The guitar work is similarly intriguing, consisting mostly as clean colours in flourishes and fills. The keyboards are ever-present and full of richness and assured presence. The subject of drums is a controversial one on this record. Some of the tracks are actually a machine dubbed “Wendel.” Created by Steely Dan producer Roger Nichols, it is purported to be the first drum sampler of its kind. Nichols built it in response to Fagen’s obsession with the perfect drum take. Honestly it’s hard for me to discern which tracks are real takes and which ones are Wendel, and this is because Fagen’s incorporation of all technology is tasteful and true to excellence.

I don’t necessarily feel a high level of frustration when I hear criticism of “slick music” such as the output of Fagen and company, but I have to stress that the goal of perfection does not make any music less genuine or vital. Some of what we have come to immortalize in popular music is just plain sloppy but otherwise redeemed by a genius lyric or some other crucial factor (ie. Desire). I’ve heard studio musicians say that there is a real joy in rehearsing something to the point that you have it down to a science because then you can truly have fun and explore musically after having done the hard work. This is a mature and measured take on creating music. There is ironically a freedom in striving for exactness. You can truly loosen up when you’re that tight. And that’s what I hear on The Nightfly and the Steely Dan recordings. We find the soul in the steadfast purpose of excellence.

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Bob Dylan Vs. Alfred Nobel

“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will I can only guess.”

(“Idiot Wind,” 1974)

Dylan has received more than his share of criticism about his handling of the news on October 13 from the Nobel committee that he was the recipient of the coveted 2016 prize for literature – an honour bestowed thus far only on masters of the solely written word (read: no music attached to it). The committee’s choice created its own controversy as well, with literary types up in arms about the authenticity and value of Dylan as a literary figure. Of course anyone familiar with Dylan’s work beyond the obvious hits is not one bit surprised by the committee’s choice – or, for that matter, Dylan’s ensuing lack of emotion or interest in the award itself. Painfully shy and long since fed up with the prying and annoying general public, this award to Dylan primarily means another ceremony where people will ask him uncomfortable questions and act strangely around him. It means he will have to fly commercially for about ten hours, dealing with hassles the whole way. These scenarios alone would make him refuse to attend the ceremony. Even at a White House performance for the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, he couldn’t bear to attend the afternoon meet-and-greet, choosing to show up only for his performance and then bolting after a quick handshake with a delightfully amused Barack Obama, who later wrote this piece about the day Dylan came to visit:

“Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”


(via Wikimedia Commons)

Obama, a Dylan fan, gets it. Obama’s note about his experience with Dylan in many ways explains why Dylan has refused to embrace the Nobel Prize with any kind of fervor or excitement. It seems that in the midst of all the grandiose explanations as to why Dylan is being so unappreciative about this are very simple reasons for his behavior, which stem back to his personal history and his music. Dylan fans are not surprised by his behaviour because they have been inspired by his work in profound ways. Dylan’s lyrics are a haven for the disaffected, the grieving, the struggling, and the proud. Dylan’s work gives hope to the fallen, encouragement to the hopeless, and attitude to the powerless. Most importantly, Dylan’s words make you question authority, institutions, and long-standing beliefs. They remind you to be wary. They urge you to trust, but carefully. In this way, Dylan’s treatment of the Nobel committee’s announcement is itself poetic in its silence. Dylan fans can see it.

Up until now, Nobel recipients have not treated this accolade in such a seemingly disrespectful way (a notable exception, Jean-Paul Sartre refused his in 1964. Read more about it here). But Dylan makes you ask important questions: “Why should we care about this prize?” “Why do we hold it in such high esteem?” “Why does Dylan’s refusal to acknowledge the award and attend the ceremony bother me so much?” These types of questions develop our intellect and sharpen our senses to institutions we have thus far not even bothered to question. Who made Alfred Nobel the purveyor of all that is great in humanity over the course of the last 115 years? Is it, at its core, simply another “prize” that highlights important achievements while promoting and propagating itself in the meantime? The beleaguered committee, already incredulous at Dylan’s refusal to attend the ceremony, has announced that he is “expected” to give a speech within six months – as if Dylan will do this just because he is expected to. Is this an award or a sentencing?

Awards at their root are all contests of sorts. Dylan has never solicited an award, nor has he ever created with “winning” in mind. If you’re competitive, chances are you’re annoyed by Dylan’s actions because you cannot relate to someone not caring about such a large “prize” or accolade. How could a guy just sleep on this opportunity? There has to be a motive. But there isn’t. We think there is because of the enormity of his talent, while part of his talent is simply making us think.

While you can interpret Dylan’s actions as rudeness or even a purposeful snub to prove a point, it’s very likely that both Dylan fans and detractors have put way more thought into this than the man himself. If you put it into perspective in light of his life and body of work, you can quickly see how accolades mean very little to him. The late great Leonard Cohen, himself a brilliant wordsmith, gave a short quote upon hearing of Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature: “To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” There is a lot of weight in this quote. Cohen the great thinker, in comparing Dylan to Everest, asks this question: Does Everest need to be told it’s great? Does it care that it’s the highest mountain? People have tried to scale Everest in the same way that they’ve attempted to navigate the life and work of Dylan, and many have failed. Both are an enigma and a challenge, and neither will give up its secrets willingly. But one thing we know for certain: neither poet nor mountain will bear its identity being shaped objectively. If there is a root element at play here, perhaps it is this profound truth.


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Concert Review: Steve Earle and the Dukes, St. John’s (November 10th, 2016)

Last night Steve Earle and the Dukes rolled into St. John’s with the hammer down on the 30th anniversary of Guitar Town. Earle and band walked out onto the Holy Heart Auditorium stage at 8pm sharp to a roar from the audience as ushers’ flashlights reached into the aisles to assist flustered latecomers shuffling into their seats. Standing as bold, straight, and confident as he did in that now-iconic 1986 video for the title track, Earle strummed the unmistakable chugging opening G chord before singing that opening line of hillbilly testament: “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me, it’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee.” It’s what the crowd came to experience: a celebration of an album that still resonates with urgency and vitality. The Dukes kicked in with polished poise, sparking off what was to become a two-hour plus night of songwriting precision and performance. Earle’s voice is slightly more rough and gravelly than the original 1986 recording, but he has retained his signature tone and delivery with good pitch and volume. Both performer and audience have changed dramatically since that time, and Earle’s growth and metamorphosis as a songwriter throughout the decades is a testament to change as a very necessary element of life.


It is hard to believe that thirty years have passed since Nashville unleashed Steve Earle on a country music business that up until then typically featured stoic, motionless singers in polyester pants nodding into a camera on a TV show with wagon wheels and porch swings as stage props. Sure, we had Waylon and Willie to keep country honest; but we didn’t have anyone like Steve Earle: headband, jean tuxedo, bandanas wrapped around his wrists, broad-shouldered, fresh-faced, mean. Looking over his shoulder into the camera on the cover of that first album, we see a young man with both confident vision and guarded apprehension in his expression, foreshadowing the turmoil that would follow in the wake of his enormous success.

Earle entered the mainstream in his early 30s after ten years or more plugging away in Nashville as a songwriter in a city with thousands of others doing the exact same thing. Earle was personally mentored by his unsung heroes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, giving him a unique edge and contributing to his originality as a songwriter and performer. Coming of age in the MTV generation, Earle’s rebel image was solidified worldwide in those early videos for “Guitar Town” and “I Ain’t Satisfied.” The left-leaning Steve Earle was not even on the horizon at this point and could hardly have been imagined. We still had a southern-tinged hillbilly star whose thoughtful, yet conservative lyrics leaned to the right while flipping the finger to the establishment. However, what truly set Earle aside from his peers was his potent mixture of country and pop. His verses were country, but his bridges were The Beatles. His guitars were country, but his drums were rock and roll. This sound propelled the country genre forward and influenced its growth in ways that were felt like an earthquake through the business as it rolled on into the unsteady ‘90s.

Besides his inaugural visit in 1989 during the Copperhead Road tour, Earle’s previous concerts in St. John’s have primarily featured material from his second coming as a politically-charged liberal intellectual whose lyrical themes leaned so far to the left that you’d swear the guy who put out that string of hits in the ‘80s was a historical imposter. Old favourites were played almost begrudgingly out of necessity to feed the hunger of an audience that wanted to be respectful of Earle’s songwriting talents yet yearned for the irresistible nature of the hits from his lean and hungry years. It’s a struggle that many music icons face, trying to make the new creativity matter while acknowledging what gave them the platform in the first place. On this tour, however, there is little confusion on material. The audience knows that it is getting Guitar Town in its entirety, and that alone is enough to push theatres to capacity. Earle’s delivery of this material feels fresh and renewed. His stories about the inception of the album reflect a sense of respect for what it’s become in the history of popular music. Acknowledging Nashville icon producer Richard Bennett as a key force in the making of the album, Earle reminisced about spending days in L.A. at Bennett’s place writing songs for the album and cutting demos for the later Nashville master sessions. Earle makes no effort to explain or highlight the differences between who he was then and who he is now, which is in keeping with a tendency to always be moving forward, both creatively and personally.

Earle and the Dukes made their way faithfully through Guitar Town, following the original track sequence. Houston guitarist Chris Masterson nailed the Telecaster intro to “Getting Tough” while Earle sang those eerie opening lines: “I got a job but it ain’t nearly enough, $20,000 pickup truck, belongs to me and the bank and some funny-talkin’ man from Iran.” These lines bear little resemblance to where Earle has gone politically since then. In the chorus, he claims that “nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good old boy.” Even more poignant is this line in relation to Trump’s victory Tuesday night. Cynically, perhaps it does again pay to be a good old boy in the good old USA, although Earle mentioned later in the night as an intro to “Devil’s Right Hand” that if he’d been in America Tuesday night he’d have shot himself in the head.

img_7868lr-3 Making their way through Guitar Town from start to finish, Steve Earle and The Dukes overcame some technical issues such as bad guitar cables and assorted extraneous noise to deliver a set of songs that resonated with an almost fevered sense of excitement. People sang every line of even the deepest cuts, displaying their affinity and familiarity with each groove from that record. Of course Earle and band had to endure a few drunks in the balcony shouting for “Galway Girl,” a song that Newfoundlanders have adopted as their own and subsequently played into annoying ubiquity. (They later got their wish, as Earle played it proudly and faithfully in the second set.)

After a short intermission, songwriter and band returned for a second spirited set of classics from the Steve Earle catalogue: “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” “Copperhead Road,” “Devil’s Right Hand,” “The Revolution Starts Now,” “Johnny Come Lately,” and more. Earle’s latest incarnation of The Dukes features long-time bassist Kelly Looney, guitarist Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, Chris Clarke on keys and steel, and newcomer Brad Pemberton from Ryan Adams’ Cardinals on drums. All skilled veterans, the sound was dead-on with a mixture of faithful accuracy to the hits and explorative musicality unique to this particular combination of musicians. Earle appears to be a generous bandleader who is less interested in micromanaging than he is melding with them as a fellow musician.

Toward the end of the show, Earle put on a Telecaster and played it very loud and proud until his final bow. I will avoid going into specifics about the encore in consideration of those going tonight, but let’s just say you’ll leave the venue sufficiently rocked after a full dose of Guitar Town and another full set of Steve Earle classics. If there’s ever a time to go see Steve Earle, this is the tour to take the plunge.

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Nashville: The First Two Days

The time has come to make this record…and we are off to the races. We arrived in Music City Wednesday morning at 10:30 after taking the very early 5:40am Westjet flight from St. John’s to Pearson and then on to Nashville. My cousin and longtime musical compatriot Barry LeDrew is along with me to play drums, and his company/talent are greatly appreciated as I take on this daunting new venture. We wasted no time getting down to business, going into Resistor Studio at 2pm on zero sleep from the night before and a hurried lunch at the Turnip Truck on the way.

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We spent most of Wednesday working through arrangements. We sat in a semi-circle in the main tracking room with my producer Joshua Grange and went through each song organically and methodically. Josh’s musical experience is deep and wide, having played and recorded with the best in the business. As a result, his demands are very direct and specific. This is nothing like Barry or I have ever experienced before. He is already pushing our boundaries and not compromising at all with regard to what he wants from us as musicians. His no-nonsense approach extends to lyrics as well. About ten days before the sessions started, Josh slashed many of the songs I had put forward for the record, stating very matter-of-factly that these songs were just not going to cut it for his tastes and purposes as a producer. I was taken aback at first. My initial response was, “there must be something wrong if you’re not seeing potential in these songs.” But after a day or two of licking my wounds (and at one point almost pulling the plug due to my wounded ego), I realized that Josh was truly committed to taking me out of my (admittedly isolated) comfort zone and into a brand new realm. And the only way to do this was to move beyond what I’ve been doing all these years musically. So I agreed to take his guidance and put my trust in him 100% going forward.

Fortunately there was material that he liked, and much of it came from our writing sessions in May. There was a cohesiveness he heard in this material that sounded more like an album than the mishmash of songs I had put forth to him weeks before. The only issue was that many of these ideas were yet to have lyrics, and the arrangements were not yet finished. Undaunted, Josh assured me that all would be well when we started and that the goal was to work our asses off for ten days and make a killer record. He reminded me that this was not a spa holiday and that I’d be spending a lot of my time pulling my hair out over lyrics while he and Barry were working out drum sounds or doing overdubs. After only two days in the studio, I realized that he was right. I did spend a lot of time in the past week or so working on lyrics for the new material, but after hearing these lyrics Josh is still pushing me to revisit certain lines, sections, concepts, etc. It shall be a challenging ten days lyrically, but the end result will no doubt be worth it.

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Wednesday clued up with seven of the ten songs mostly arranged. Barry and I left the studio around 9pm, had some sushi, and hit the sack for the sleep of the dead – about ten solid hours. Our hotel was too far from the studio, so Thursday morning we moved to the Knight’s Inn in East Nashville to get closer the central goings-on. The only problem is that this hotel closely resembles the one in No Country for Old Men (yes, the last one where the big shootout happened). So after dropping our luggage to the front desk this morning (and praying it would be there when we got back), we headed to the studio to start in on basic tracks. I spent most of the first hour on the phone trying to cancel the Knight’s Inn reservation. Josh had set up a lyric-writing session with singer/songwriter Lera Lynn, who was also kind enough to get on the phone when we arrived and find Barry and me a room at the nearby Extended Stay Hotel. We actually started our writing session while still on hold with Knight’s Inn, who were initially adamant about not letting us cancel the remaining 9 days’ reservation but eventually relented.

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Barry and Josh went off to Fork’s Drum Closet to look at some Ludwig snares while Lera and I started combing through some of my lyrics. She explained to me the concept of “hook fatigue,” which means, among other things, driving a melodic hook to death by adhering to it too closely or being too repetitious with it. Turns out I’m a master at this. Fortunately a lot of my lyrics were salvageable by tweaking lines here and there, moving some things around, and generally trying to loosen them up and not be so rigid and religious with the melody. It was an eye-opening and valuable session. Lera told me that while writing with T-Bone Burnett on the soundtrack to the series True Detective (in which she also acted), he told her that a song should not say the same thing in multiple verses. In other words, once you’ve expressed an idea or concept in a verse, move on. Lera is also very good at economizing phrasings and getting rid of the chaff in a song. Joshua produced her last two records The Avenues and Resistor, both of which showcase her deep talent as a singer and a writer.

As we were wrapping up our writing session, Barry and Josh were just finishing mic’ing and checking the kit. We went out and grabbed some lunch before getting down to business with a bed track for the first song on the list, “Fool to Stay.” This is a very old unreleased song of mine that caught Josh’s ear in our May sessions, and it’s getting a workover for this record. It is the only song on this album from another era in my writing. The rest are brand new. Lera and I reworked the lyrics quite a bit for this one today, and Josh leaned it out with a sparse, slower groove. After several takes (with Josh on bass in the control room), we decided that we had a solid one for referencing. Josh and Barry worked on a few drum overdubs, and I went off to another room to have a beer and work on some more lyrics. We then finished off the session with an acoustic guitar track, which I played. Josh was insistent that I was speeding up; it didn’t feel that way to me. After some disagreement on this issue, it was determined that earlier we had strayed a bit on the click during the beds and that I was stuck somewhere between the click and the main track. The stray was hardly noticeable yet throwing off the groove ever so slightly. We were all feeling the fatigue of a long day, so we decided to end the session at that point and disperse for some food and rest.

Before leaving, Josh sat at the grand piano for a minute and played the progression for “Fool to Stay” in very dramatic, beautiful flourishes and runs. Barry and I just stopped, listened, and smiled. Josh said, “Yeah, I can really hear this on the track. And Hammond.” We all nodded in agreement and walked on out of the studio with hugs all around and a bon voyage until tomorrow when we work on more bed tracks and…you guessed it: lyrics.

(See my Instagram feed for daily photo and video updates on my Nashville experience: @chrisledrew)



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My Nashville Album Campaign: Beyond the Financial

On Monday, May 23rd I launched a funding campaign on Indiegogo for my third solo album, tentatively titled “The Nashville Album.” Indiegogo is a site that manages financial backing for projects ranging from new technology to new artistic works and everything in between. Launching this campaign was a nerve-wracking venture, mostly because of my fear about people’s perceptions. I felt that some would view it as virtual panhandling, despite the fact that all contributions are in trade for product, experiences, or services and not set up as a one-way transaction. The only thing that did balance out this fear was that I had funded my first album in 1997 through a similar type of pre-sale offer, and many people in my life who had intended on buying the album anyway were only too happy to buy it in advance if it meant that it would get finished. Of course an online funding platform such as Indiegogo is so much more than simple pre-sales, so it was a leap of faith launching this to the world with the blind hope that people would actually engage without judgment or preconception.

I also knew that I was launching at exactly the same time that the Newfoundland government was handing down one of the most brutal budgets in its history as a province. In a time of austerity and (justified) tightening of purse strings, would my project and its $15,000 goal be seen as indulgent and out of touch with reality? With my Nashville producer Joshua Grange’s busy touring and recording schedule (which dictates that we make the record in early August), we had no choice but to launch when we did and hope for the best. To my delight, it was well-received and in the last few weeks has brought a whole new spark to my musical vision.

Back in February, I personally funded a trip to Nashville to make a pitch video and meet with Joshua in advance of the recording. My good friend and musical cohort Paul Kinsman came with me to film the video and capture some footage of Josh and me working together in his studio. I wanted potential backers to view this project as a serious one, and I felt that it was important to go to Nashville and come back with solid images and videos to prove that this was not a “vanity project” but a true musical collaboration between a Canadian and an American that could yield some very interesting musical results.

When the campaign was ready to be shared, I sent a note and campaign link to my Hotmail contacts a day before launching publicly; I wanted let all the principal contacts in my life (past and present) know about what I was doing before it hit social and conventional media. I received many positive replies of acknowledgment and support, and I reopened connections with so many people I had lost contact with over the years (mostly due to kids coming along and life revving into high gear). I’ve since had a few lunches with old friends, and I’ve made plans to connect with others in person as well. Just knowing I still have the support of these people gives me added confidence in my writing and musical abilities, which makes me even more determined to make the best record I can make. I learned through these renewed connections that contributions come in more forms than financial. Making a record requires much more than money; it requires faith from people in your life.

Sharing the campaign on social media was also a big motivator for me. When I saw the amount of people sharing, liking, and retweeting, I said to myself, “Wow, maybe people really do want to see me make a new solo album.” This may sound a bit insecure, but the truth is that musicians at all levels of success worry about these things. “Does anyone care? Will anyone listen? Am I living in a dream world wanting to make a new album at my age? What am I trying to prove?” I’ve been fortunate to meet some widely successful musicians over the years and have always been surprised at their openness about being unsure or insecure about new material or their place in music. Songwriters are always looking toward their next song, and they never know if anyone will think it’s any good or not. So it’s a big deal to have people’s faith in advance of releasing new material. Steele Communications, NTV, and the Newfoundland Herald have also been tremendously supportive early out of the gate, for which I am very grateful. As a result of this support, my writing has taken off in spades and I am creating like a man on fire. I’ve got three guitars set up around the house, all in different tunings. I pick them up constantly, working on ideas and recording snippets on voice memos. It’s the most prolific I’ve been in years.


While I do hope that we reach our goal by the time late July rolls around, that is not the only focus of this venture. The unexpected dividend of finding out that many people really do want to see me make a new recording is enough to inspire me to forge on and complete this record, no matter if we reach the goal or not. Some goals, such as reconnecting with old friends and finding out that I really do have a strong audience, have already long been met.

Much more than a funding opportunity, this campaign so far has proven to be a very accurate way to assess my true audience and also to interact with people on many other levels besides financially. Of course I would be dishonest in saying that it didn’t matter to me if people contributed to the campaign or not. It is, however, true that a venture such as this one yields other rewards besides financial backing. The knowledge that a solid audience of discerning, critical friends/family/associates are expecting me to make a quality product puts pressure on me to make the best record I’ve ever made. And I love working under pressure.

Thanks all!

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“The Man with the Plan”: Thoughts on Glenn Frey


Photo by Steve Alexander

Back in 2013 I wrote a review for Onstage Magazine about the Eagles’ performance at the Salmon Festival. Those who read it know it wasn’t favourable, and there were reasons for the direction in which I took the critique. I called it as I saw it. Some agreed, and some wrote hate mail. The Eagles of 2013 were quite a different entity from that of their original ’70s run (of which I was a dedicated fan), and I admittedly could not reconcile the two for a number of reasons – not all musical. I was particularly rough on Frey and his apparent lack of enthusiasm for performing. This, of course, stings me a bit this week as I process his passing.

Oddly enough, I occasionally perform in an Eagles tribute and sing lead on several Glenn Frey songs. As such, I’ve come to deeply respect his talent and the role he played in that band. One piece of information that I’d not really thought about until I started performing with the tribute was that Frey only sang one lead vocal on the Hotel California album. Up until this record it had essentially been a 50/50 split between him and Henley for lead vocals. The song in question is, of course, “New Kid in Town.” It happens to be my favourite Eagles song, and it’s also too high for my vocal range. So when we play it I get to lay back and listen to my bandmates hit all those high notes while I strum along. And every time we play it, I’m reminded that for all of the things we’ve read about egos in the Eagles, Glenn Frey’s ego must have been fairly in check to make the decision to lay back – no doubt in the spirit of some larger production plan – and let Henley take the lion’s share of the vocals while Frey strummed acoustic guitar, played some keys, and sang harmonies. It had to take confidence to be that man, especially after the string of hits that featured Frey’s lead vocals prior to Hotel California. He definitely saw the Eagles in a larger context at this point and seemingly felt deeply connected to the unit as a whole, whether he was in the limelight or simply strumming and grinning.

One other thing that surprised me about Frey’s role in the Eagles was his lead guitar playing. I assumed that Frey’s musical contributions were limited to vocals and acoustic guitar. I had no idea that Frey played the lead guitar solos on “Witchy Woman, “James Dean,” and “I Can’t Tell You Why.” He also played piano on “Desperado” and “The Last Resort.” It is refreshing to realize that Frey asserted his musicality to a far greater extent than many listeners realize, and he did so with very little fanfare. In the promo video for “I Can’t Tell You Why,” for example, lead guitarist Don Felder mimes Frey’s guitar solo over the original track while Frey plays keys.

An unabashed fan and imitator of Gram Parsons (who, ironically, hated the Eagles), Glenn Frey’s voice was stronger and more polished than that of his idol. He was also better-looking and had something that Parsons never possessed: a business sense. Teaming with Henley and, shortly thereafter, manager Irving Azoff, the band dreamed big and set its sights on British mega-producer Glyn Johns who had overseen some of the biggest records of the ’60s and early ’70s. The Eagles recorded their self-titled debut album in late ’71 over the pond, in the same studio that The Who had used just months earlier with Johns to record one of the biggest rock albums of all time, Who’s Next.  You would never say in a million years that the reverb on Roger Daltrey’s big scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the exact same reverb you hear on Henley’s “Witchy Woman” vocal.

This tenuous alliance with Johns would eventually dissolve after their concept album Desperato failed to meet the gargantuan expectations placed upon it by their debut, which spawned the massive “Take it Easy” and “Witchy Woman.” Switching to producer Bill Szymczyk, their star continued to rise throughout the early and mid ’70s. During this time and up until Hotel California, Frey had sung lead on some of the band’s biggest hits: “Take it Easy,” Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Already Gone,” and “Tequila Sunrise.” By the time he was 27 years old, Glenn Frey’s vulnerable, yearning tenor was embedded in the minds of millions around the world.

Satisfied to take a back seat to the lead vocals on Hotel California, he once again showed his balanced vision on their last album before the big split, The Long Run. He only sang lead on “Heartache Tonight.” Interestingly, the songs he did sing on these two landmark albums were, arguably, the best ones on the records. The latter was a co-write with Henley along with Frey’s old friend from Detroit, Bob Seger, who had a 20-year-old Frey sing background vocals on “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man” in 1969 – three years before the world would get a larger dose of Frey’s vocals.

Both Henley and Felder called Frey “generous” in their statements this week upon his passing. I think this trait can easily be seen in Frey’s large, yet generous role he played in the Eagles. Even though his presence looms as large as Henley’s in the band, Frey actually comes out as the consummate team player under close scrutiny of the band’s history. He no doubt saw Henley’s voice as a better match for their purposeful switch from country-rock to straight-out rock in ’76. Granted, some of this was based on a business-oriented ambition. However, by this time, rock had become a corporate-driven entity anyway – and Frey and Henley were at the forefront of this new model of artist-as-businessman (for better or worse).


By 1980 it was all over but the mud-slinging. Even Henley and Frey weren’t speaking for a while. But of course they inevitably came together again in ’94, and the new Eagles became the ubiquitous money monster of the music business. Up until 2015 they were still raking in millions until Frey took ill and the train came to a halt. After all, the Eagles cannot go on without Frey – no matter how wavering a role he played as lead singer throughout the band’s career. Henley may have stood out in front of Frey vocally, but Henley was stuck behind the drum kit on stage. Back in the heyday it was Frey who was really out front: the svelte California Dionysus with long hair flowing down over a sports jersey, shoulder cocked, playing a big-ass Martin 12-string, winking at the girls, driving them mad. Frey, as Henley said, was “the man with the plan.” And that plan certainly panned out for him and all those who rode with him on his mission for musical greatness. His death leaves a chasm that will not and cannot be filled. It can only sit as a looming reminder of all we are poised to lose as a massive group of people lucky to have been alive at this time of musical development and ingenuity.


Filed under Current Events, Music

Brightness on the Edge of a Lyric: Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”

(Photo by Bundesarchiv Bild)

(Photo by Bundesarchiv Bild)

FM Radio was reaching peak popularity in the early ‘80s just as I was entering into my teen years. As such, it had me and my friends captivated. We loved the Sunday night full-album specials, the superior sound quality over mono AM, and of course the knowledgeable DJs whose stoned musings contained interesting tidbits of info on the songs they spun on turntables with their own hands – and often from their own collections. As a kid some songs would actually scare me. I remember the creepy tones of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” and the sexually-infused lyrics of Meat Loaf that I didn’t quite understand but knew were subversive in some way.

One song in particular that stood out from the rest in this regard was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” It remains the only radio song I’ve ever heard with the word “pregnant” in it, and when you’re 14 or 15 years old that stuff freaks you out to no end. The plaintive wail of the harmonica, as well as the strong, studied picking of the 12-string acoustic guitar, was all business. There was no fluff in this tune. It was a song about failed promise and dashed hopes. It was in essence the opposite of how rock music was supposed to make us feel. And this is where this song’s power lay for me the first time I heard it.

Listening to it as a kid, this song’s sadness was conveyed in its sorrowful drum beat, vocal inflections of desperation, and incessant minor chord structure that obscured light at every turn. You just knew when it came on the radio that you were going to be arrested in the moment, your mood altered to a darker state. In the ensuing decades that have brought us to this moment, I’ve become a singer/songwriter myself and I also teach English literature. So musically and lyrically my impressions of a song such as “The River” have evolved considerably. My inspiration to write about this song stems from local classic rock station K-Rock recently adding it in fairly heavy rotation; I’ve heard it numerous times in the past two weeks or so, and every time it comes on I feel like pulling over and giving it all the attention it so rightfully deserves as a piece of classic poetry emitting from my car stereo. I’ve got all my friends driven crazy talking about it. It’s incredible, really, that such a powerful song so full of higher meaning can be jammed right in between Trooper’s “Here for a Good Time” and Foreigner’s “Hot-Blooded.”

The first line follows the harmonica intro: “I come from down in the valley.” Right away, the words are infused; “Valley,” like the valley of death (or failed dreams) and, in contrast, valley of life and fertility. The second line follows: “They bring you up to do, like your daddy done.” This line also has a double meaning, addressing occupations but also teenage pregnancy and the shotgun wedding. Your dad got your mom pregnant when they were teenagers, and you will do the same thing. Until the ’70s when birth control became widely accepted, this was pretty much the way people lived. No one got to fulfill selfish dreams or travel the world trying to “find themselves;” they were too busy trying to pay the rent and keep the kids fed. The middle class was built on such a dynamic. You didn’t get to sit around thinking about life. You were pressed into manual labour and made feel less of a man if you weren’t sweating your ass off all day for your family. Of course all this often culminates in a dark existence, as it is played out in the song.

In the second verse we get the big line: “Then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all she wrote.” The use of the name “Mary” in the context of pregnancy has biblical undertones, and the catch phrase “all she wrote” also has a broader meaning of Mary’s opportunities being essentially wiped away after getting the news that she’s expecting a baby. For his 19th birthday, the narrator gets “a union card and a wedding coat.” Neither of these things is by choice. He’s given them by society. It’s his duty now. It’s not about him anymore. Mary’s sacrifice is under her sweater in plain view of the town; the narrator’s is in his forced new way of life. They go to the courthouse and the “judge put it all to rest.” The judge is not creating a union between two people here; he is signing the death certificates of their freedom and life dreams.

In the midst of this we have a chorus that changes slightly as it moves through the song. The river: an age-old primordial symbol that we intrinsically know as representing time, movement, fertility, fluidity, change, cleansing. In the first chorus they go down the river and dive in, reveling in the freedom of being able to do that on a whim as lovers. But this attraction and connection leads to the pregnancy, which is cruelly ironic in its outcome. Yet, the second chorus has them going to the river again after the wedding and diving in. The river is still flowing. They may be trapped in their new existence, but they’re still young. And this is where the faintest bit of hope creeps into the lyric. Just because they are forced into a marital union so early doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work out. Springsteen wrote this song about his sister and brother-in-law, who are still happily married – like millions of other couples from that generation who lived this exact story. The narrator is his brother-in-law, so when Bruce sings “I remember riding in her brother’s car…,” the brother is Bruce himself.

So the narrator gets a job in construction but finds it hard retaining steady work. This is a recurring theme in Springsteen’s Reagan-era songs where the initial decline of a labour-based economy starts to show itself in America. Apathy also creeps in here when the narrator acts like he doesn’t remember, and “Mary acts like she don’t care.” This is an act of compassion on her part, so as to not address the reality of their abbreviated lives and thereby shed too tragic a light on that reality. The narrator then gives a sensual image of Mary’s body “tanned and wet down at the reservoir” and holding her close “just to feel each breath she’d take.” Those memories “come back to haunt” him, mostly because the relationship will never have that innocent intimacy and raw fire it once had before the baby came along. These lines are followed by perhaps the most haunting of all the lines in the song: “Is a dream a lie that won’t come true, or is it something worse?” That line is the one that crawls up the back of my spine as I sit there in rush hour traffic with the world going on around me. “Something worse?” What is he talking about? It doesn’t matter. The mere open-endedness of that line alone is horrific in its ambiguity.

In the last chorus they go back to the river, but it’s dry. The symbolism is thinly veiled here. We know what the cracked, dry riverbed represents. The past is gone. You can never get it back. However, as I mentioned before, there is light here – as weak and diffused as it may be. Springsteen sings, “Down to the river, my baby and I.” They’re still together. They made it to the other side. They are still traveling on the same road. They no longer need the river. It brought them together and is now flowing inside them in a singular path. Therefore, in the darkness of “The River” we actually see some light; we see some hope. It’s hidden in the little words, the passing lines, the details of the lyric. Just like life itself. This song, in all its apparent sense of hopelessness, is actually a plea to accept life with all its ups and downs and to take solace in the obscure, sometimes hard-to-detect beams of light that exist to guide our way through the darkness as we inevitably come upon it throughout our lives.


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Meeting a True Starr: Ringo and His All-Starrs at Casino Rama

IMG_5252_LR-2“Here, pass me the camera,” says Ringo in his charismatic Liverpool accent to guitarist Steve Lukather who’s trying to figure out my large, clumsy Canon DSLR camera. “Here’s how you work it. You hold down the button, see?” Ringo takes the camera and shoots a close-up of Lukather’s face and shows him the screen. “That’s how it works.” He passes my camera back me. I say to him, “Do you own a Canon, Ringo? How did you know to hold down the button in Live View?” But he’s already distracted by somebody else’s question, so I just happily let it go. Ringo’s official photographer Rob Shanahan leans in and says to me, “Cool. You have an original Ringo Starr photo in your camera. Of course no one will believe you.” We both laugh.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shanahan.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shanahan.

My friend Barry Canning and I are backstage pre-show at Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band’s June 6th inaugural show of their 2014 summer tour at Casino Rama in Orillia, Ontario. Yes, we are hanging out with Ringo Starr. Yes, he just used my camera. Being friends with Steve Lukather, I feel lucky enough as it is to be hanging out with him before the show. Luke is a huge star in his own right and a looming presence in rock guitar history. (I wrote about my friendship with Luke in this article from 2012.)  To our surprise, however, he has arranged for his friend Ringo to come say hi. And sure enough here is Ringo Starr, right in front of us, bumping elbows, making small talk. We get a few photos. We joke a bit. And then he’s whisked away to prepare for the show that’s about to start in about 30 minutes.

The photo that Ringo took of Steve Lukather.

“All I’ve got is a photograph”: The photo that Ringo took of Steve Lukather.

A few minutes before Ringo walked in our green room, we had heard a big roar of applause in the neighbouring room as the meet-and-greet winners greeted Ringo’s entrance. However, when he came in to greet us, we were so desperately attempting to be cool that we just wore huge grins, saying “Hey Ringo” and trying to be as calm as possible. “I’m a musician too,” I told myself. “I can’t behave like a school boy here.” But on the inside I was admittedly freaking out. This, after all, is an ex-Beatle. One of the fab four. Four. That’s all there were. And they changed the world. The world. And one was right here, talking to us. Somehow a Beatle’s destiny had led him to a pair of Newfoundlanders in a green room at Casino Rama. And more incredulous, of course, is how our destiny had led us to be standing in front of Ringo Starr, whose backbeat we marched to throughout our formative years as musicians pouring over every Beatles recording we could find.

Ringo wowing the crowd.

Ringo wowing the crowd.

As the road manager came in and gave everyone a 30-minute call, Barry and I bid farewell to Lukather (thanking him over and over for introducing us to Ringo) and made our way to our seats. A little after 9pm the band walked on to great applause as everyone strapped on instruments and made adjustments to equipment. All-Starr Todd Rundgren, in an enthusiastic circus master’s voice, introduced Ringo as the ex-Beatle sauntered casually out onto the stage to a roar from the audience.

Ringo with the All-Starrs.

The All-Starrs.

The band broke into Carl Perkins’ classic “Matchbox,” one of Ringo’s well-known Beatles lead vocal features. Next up was my personal Ringo favourite, “It Don’t Come Easy,” followed by one from his latest album Ringo 2012 called “Wings.” Ringo then passed vocal duties over to Rundgren, who delivered a version of his hit “I Saw the Light” in his classic Philly Soul voice that was every bit as potent and powerful as the original studio recording. Rundgren then introduced ex-Santana vocalist/organist Greg Rollie, whose expressive voice was joined by the other musicians in a unison vocal for the classic “Evil Ways.” At this point of the show, guitarist Steve Lukather got to stretch out a bit and show the crowd his mastery of the fretboard as he went from fast flourishes to slow, melodic passages all in the blink of an eye. Lukather’s approach has it all: the passion of Hendrix, the bending perfection of Clapton, the whammy bar zaniness of Jeff Beck, and the bluesy groove of Jimmy Page. Lukather’s style is perfect for the Santana material, and only he could rightfully own that spot in the absence of Carlos himself.

Steve Lukather.

Steve Lukather.

Luke stayed in the spotlight for the Toto hit “Roseanna,” sharing the lead vocals with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham who reached successfully to hit the impossibly high parts in the second half of the verses originally sung by Toto’s Bobby Kimball. Richard Page from Mr. Mister then delivered his massive ‘80s hit “Kyrie” to an enthusiastic audience response, hitting the high notes just as smoothly as his did in the studio 30 years ago. The show rolled on and gained momentum as the group of musicians delivered hit after hit, with Ringo playing along with ace studio and live drummer Greg Bissonnette while asserting himself vocally on his best-known Beatles and solo material. Ringo was kind enough to let Richard Page deliver a brand new song called “You Are Mine,” a touching ballad with a poetic lyric and creative arrangement that was expertly handled by all the pros onstage. It was a great balance that kept the energy up throughout the show. Rounding it all out with “A Little Help From My Friends,” the band left audience pleased and fulfilled.

Rundgren joins Rollie at his mic while Ham plays harp.

Rundgren joins Rollie at his mic while Ham plays harp.

It’s admittedly hard to write an objective review of a Ringo Starr concert when you are friends with the guitarist and you’ve just been introduced to Ringo himself. However, this concert and its musicians need not be objectified or critiqued anyway. Their collective musical history and sustained talent throughout the years render them beyond reproach, as the concert proved in spades. If you’re lucky enough to catch the tour as it rolls on throughout June, you’ll understand what I mean. Just don’t plan to get a whole lot of sleep for a few nights afterwards if you happen to meet Ringo Starr.

L to R: Barry Canning, Ringo, and me.

L to R: Barry Canning, Ringo, and me.


Filed under Current Events, Music

Five Reasons Why Neil Young Should Never Have Joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash

Crosby_Stills_Nash_and_Young_1970I always get a kick out of people who say they prefer CSNY over CSN. Why? I’ve never figured out the Y in CSNY. Neil Young is an incredible songwriter and solo artist in his own right. He’s one of my favourites, actually, and a big influence on my own songwriting. However, he should never have joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They always should have remained separate entities. And here are five reasons “Y”:

 1. He barely contributed vocally.

While he’s definitely a great singer in the way of emotion and power, his ability to sing consistently on key with others in the traditional tight style of the Everly Brothers or The Beach Boys is fairly limited. Even CSN knew this, and they valued their tight harmonies over everything else. That’s why on CSNY recordings Neil’s voice is hardly ever featured in a harmony context. For example, on CSNY’s debut album Déjà vu, Neil doesn’t sing on “Carry On,” “Our House,” “Teach Your Children,” or many others. In fact, his songs for this record were recorded in a separate studio and brought in to be added to the main album mix. So the argument that Neil adds a vocal element to the band is simply without merit. And in a live context, he did the same thing. He often only sang on his material, hanging back in the shadows and chugging on his Les Paul during the other songs. In a nutshell, the vocals on the first CSN record were sparkly, strong, ethereal, and magical. They were fully-formed, with no room for a fourth voice. And on CSNY’s Deja Vu, it was mostly still CSN creating the vocal magic in the studio. Neil simply used the others as background singers for his compositions.

 2. His guitar skills were redundant.

With powerhouse guitarist Stephen Stills in the band, is there really any need for another lead player? When CSN were getting ready to tour their debut 1969 self-titled album, their record label execs thought they needed a little extra firepower for their live shows. So they suggested Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil. Surprisingly, CSN agreed and asked Neil to join. An odd choice, given Stills’ mastery over his instrument and capability to command the stage in this regard. I have to mention here that Neil’s guitar intro on “Woodstock” and his work on “Ohio” are worthy of mention, but in the grand scheme of things his guitar contributions to CSNY were fairly minimal. Stills is without a doubt the most underrated guitarist in the history of rock, and having Neil around at any given time has furthered hampered Stills’ ability to prove himself in this record. Neil and Stephen’s legendary live guitar duels were often actually wank-fest ego competitions that deteriorated into feedback wars, leaving the audience more bewildered than blown away.

 3. He’d proven himself to be unreliable in Buffalo Springfield.

In 1965, Young and Stills met on the road in Canada while on the bar circuit; they immediately formed a bond. In 1966 they met again during a chance encounter in L.A. and formed Buffalo Springfield shortly thereafter. However, it proved to be an ill-fated venture as Neil was always quitting and rejoining. After two short years, the band broke up under the strain of Neil’s mood swings and unreliability. So it would stand to reason that a year later, in 1969, Stills would be very reluctant to once again subject himself to Neil’s unpredictability. But somehow Neil managed to charm his way back into the fold, impressing Nash during a casual meeting at a diner in New York City. So despite his track record in the Springfield, he was welcomed into CSN with open arms. Of course Neil would soon pull the same stuff on CSN that he did on the Springfield. CSNY barely made it a year before it imploded under Neil’s incapacity for committing to the group. He even inexplicably refused to be filmed for the movie Woodstock, so he and none of the songs he played during that legendary performance made it to the film. Stills was also going off the rails at this time due to heavy drug use, and this also contributed to the early breakup of this band. But Neil was never truly committed to CSNY from the start anyway, and he concentrated on making Harvest during this time instead of carrying on with CSNY. In turn, the others fragmented as well to do solo and duo projects.

4. CSNY’s recording output has been very minimal.

People often rail on about the greatness of CSNY albums, when in reality they only released three studio albums in a 40-year span: Déjà vu (1970), American Dream (1988), and Looking Forward (1999). Relative to CSN’s output, these albums did not produce much in the way of hits or enduring songs relative to CSN, especially the latter two. The title track from American Dream (penned by Neil) saw some chart action,but the album was not well-received critically. The first CSN record and 1982’s Daylight Again are far stronger albums than any of the three CSNY recordings. Even the 1971 live CSNY album 4-Way Street is drawn out and rough around the edges (and not always in the right way), due to Neil’s insistence of “no fixes in the mix.”

 5. Neil’s an Asshole.

The way Neil has treated his brethren in CSN over the years is nothing short of cruel and abusive. He bailed soon after the 1970 Déjà vu tour; he jumped ship in 1975 just before the proposed CSNY Human Highway album was set to be recorded; he got Crosby and Nash in to sing on the album Long May You Run only to erase their vocals afterwards and turn it into a Stills/Young record; and on that 1976 tour with Stills in support of that album, he bailed halfway through with no warning at all. He left everyone hanging and just drove home. Even as recently as 2011 Neil was screwing with Stills. Neil had the bright idea to reform Buffalo Springfield for a tour, so Stills dropped everything in CSN to set a year aside for the project. Crosby and Nash booked a duo tour to keep busy while Stills was doing the Springfield reunion. Guess what? Neil pulled the plug at the last minute (citing loss of interest in a “nostalgia” project) and left Stills in a lurch. In an interview, Stills said that Neil’s change of mood almost caused Stills to go bankrupt due to loss of anticipated live earnings that year.


So there you have it: five good reasons why these two entities should have remained separate. Neil certainly got the lion’s share of benefits from this precarious and sporadic musical arrangement, while CSN were often left in a lurch or thrown off their course by a wavering Neil and his devil-may-care approach to others in his professional life. Why CSN put up with Neil over and over in this regard is actually somewhat obvious: when it’s CSN, it’s theatres; when it’s CSNY, it’s stadiums. So the lure of Neil in the band is always an understandable one. But seeing CSN live in their original three-piece glory is proof in the pudding: it’s the way they were always meant to be, without the extra baggage of another ego weighing them down. Don’t get me wrong: I’m well-aware of the egos already contained in the CSN maelstrom. However, Neil’s presence never made sense to me for all of the reasons above. Hopefully after Neil’s last shaft to Stills over the aborted Springfield reunion, they will finally cut the cord and keep Neil away from CSN as they put in their final years on the road and in the studio.


Filed under Music

Dire Straits’ “In The Gallery”: An Indictment of Art as Commodity

20121028230000!DS_Dire_StraitsAlmost exactly to this date twenty years ago in 1994, I was living in a shared house in an area of St. John’s called The Battery. I didn’t have much to call my own besides a guitar and a bed (I probably didn’t even own the bed). But in all my travels and moves in that era of my life, I did manage to hold onto one thing: my old Sansui stereo system. Given to me by my father, this old Japanese stereo emitted a warm, bassy response through a set of old laminate speakers. I had set these up on either side of my bed, and I would lie there for hours listening to my favourite albums. One record that received a lot of play on that Sansui stereo (which I still own) was Dire Straits’ debut. I must have listened to this album a hundred times in that little room on Battery Road back in the spring of 1994, and the sarcastic bent of the album’s lyrics and the snarl of its guitar tones suited my moody disposition to a tee. This is why it still holds a lot of nostalgic value to me. But long before 1994, this album was spinning on turntables all over the world as thousands marvelled at this brand new band’s potent sound.

When Dire Straits released this remarkably fully-formed debut album in the fall of 1978, listeners were taken aback by frontman Mark Knopfler’s guitar chops and of course his eerie vocal resemblance to Bob Dylan. In fact, many thought that the lead radio single “Sultans of Swing” was Bob himself. Obvious influences aside, Dire Straits’ debut album was an unique crossover of blues, pop, rockabilly, and flamenco. Knopfler’s cutting, yet nimble Stratocaster tones sounded more like a 60-year-old blues or jazz player from Chicago than a 29-year-old Englishman with Scottish roots. The music industry took note, and within several years Dire Straits became a major touring act that eventually carried itself into the mid 90’s with worldwide acclaim before disbanding.

Soon after the release of Dire Straits, Dylan hired Knopfler to play guitar on his 1979 album Slow Train Coming, and ace studio band Steely Dan hired him for a guitar track on their 1980 album Gaucho. Knopfler even ended up producing Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels. But thankfully through all of this hoopla about his guitar skills, he chose to remain focused on his original band. Equally talented as a songwriter, Knopfler’s guitar skills sometimes overshadow this otherwise obvious fact. But true fans of Dire Straits remain well aware of the poetic lyricism of the band’s music. The finely-crafted lines just seem to flow out of Knopfler’s gravely vocal cords like a mixture of beat poetry and free-form jazz. It’s no surprise then, really, that Knopfler taught English Literature in college before forming Dire Straits in the mid ’70s.

We all know that “Sultans of Swing” sold the debut album to the public, but to ignore the other material on this debut record is to do it a great disservice. The lyrics on this album are especially good. One particular song that deserves a closer look is Track 7, “In the Gallery.”

Anyone familiar with the contrasting worlds of art and commerce knows that the two make for strange and sometimes unfortunate bedfellows. In this song we meet “Harry,” who’s a sculptor. The main gist of the song is that he doesn’t get the recognition from the arts community that he deserves because of the medium in which he chooses to create. Sculpture is traditionally not as accessible or recognizable an art form as the more straightforward “painting on the wall” idea of art. As the song proceeds, Harry passes away and his work is then predictably accepted and celebrated in typical post-death artist fashion. Yes, it’s a common story across all genres of art. However, the way Knopfler crafts this lyric is what makes this song stand out as a scathing commentary on the fickle nature of art and commerce.

The song starts with a funky, choppy minor-chord blues riff. Knopfler sings:

Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse
And a fine coal miner for the NCB that was
A fallen Angel, Jesus on the cross
A skating ballerina, you should have seen her do the skater’s waltz

Knopfler is describing the types of sculptures that Harry made, using images loaded with symbolism relating to art. The bareback rider represents the artistic freedom of the sculptor; the coal miner is a symbol of the labour of art (“NCB” stands for the corporation National Coal Board, suggesting Harry may have been commissioned for this piece); Jesus symbolizes the sacrifices necessary to devote one’s life to the creative urge; and the skating ballerina nicely represents the grace of the piece and the beauty it emits upon completion. Sculpture is tangible art; it has structure. The lyrics here reflect the presence that sculpture can evoke when viewed and admired.

It’s perhaps helpful here to mention that Harry was a specific person that Knopfler knew personally. His last name was Phillips, the father of Knopfler’s some-time musical collaborator (Notting Hillbillies, etc,) Leeds musician Steve Phillips. So it’s safe to assume that this song comes from Knopfler’s first-hand observations of Harry’s creations as well as his struggles to be accepted in the arts community, or “the gallery.” In the second verse, Knopfler carries on to give us more of the story:

Some people have got to paint and draw
Harry had to work in clay and stone
Like the waves coming to the shore
It was in his blood and in his bones

The key element of this verse is the key phrase “had to work.” Just as Leonard Cohen famously stated about poetry being less a choice than a “verdict,” Harry did not choose sculpture; it chose him. This is an essential element in this song because it works as a juxtaposition to the commercial side of art. The contention is that artists create as an extension of who they are, as opposed to creating as a career choice. “Like the waves coming to the shore,” his creative compulsion is as natural as the ocean tides.

Next Knopfler sets up the social dynamic of Harry in relation to the art community, by which he wasn’t accepted or taken seriously. The images of “toys or strings of beads” communicate the worthless and childless nature of his art in the eyes of the trend-makers. Not only can’t his work be in the gallery, but HE can’t be in the gallery. This is interesting in that it ties the art to the artist and shows how often one cannot be separated from the other.

Mark Knopfler in 1978. (Photo by Danny Clifford)

Mark Knopfler in 1978. (Photo by Danny Clifford)

The lyric then takes a sarcastic turn, commenting on an artist who is so “avant-garde” that an empty canvas is factitiously presented as a credible work of art that is accepted by all the phonies and fakes who “decide who gets the breaks.” Knopfler is referring to artists who get to present their works in the galleries frequented by money people and patrons of the arts who line the artists’ pockets with enough money to continue to create unabated by financial woes. Of course, half goes to the dealer. Therefore, there is obviously a lot of manipulation at play with regard to artist hype. This is where the subjective nature of art meets the suggestive nature of the dealer.

And then you get an artist says he doesn’t want to paint at all
He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall
The birds of a feather all the phonies and all of the fakes
While the dealers they get together
And they decide who gets the breaks
And who’s going to be, who’s going to be
In the gallery, in the gallery

Particularly interesting is the line about the dealers getting together. It is quite like the music business in that a network of hype helps everyone make money. If a whole network perpetuates the hype, it creates a “reality” (however artificial) that increases the monetary and social worth of the artist and his/her art. When it comes to visual art, it’s extremely subjective – which increases the chances of being able to convince people of the pieces’ worth. So being “in the gallery” means being sellable; more importantly, it means being willing to be sold. This has always been a precarious place for an artist to be. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it is an artist purgatory in many ways.

After a delightful guitar interlude (the song clocks at a decidedly anti-commerical 6:16), the lyric reenters with a proclamation of Harry’s refusal to compromise for the sake of being accepted as a sellable commodity. He sees it as a lie to do so. And of course, we predictably see the artist pass away as an unknown, thereby creating the most perfect of all sellable tales in art: the dead artist “discovered post-mortem.” Knopfler calls the dealers and art buyers “vultures,” swooping in to feed off Harry’s corpse by turning his art into a commodity. He ends up “in the gallery” after his death, a much easier feat because of the dealers’ assurance that the buyers will flock to this authentic art – borne of “true suffering” in obscurity.

No lies he wouldn’t compromise, no junk, no string
And all the lies we subsidize that just don’t mean a thing, thing
I’ve got to say he passed away in obscurity
And now all the vultures, they’re coming down from the tree
He’s going to be, yea he’s going to be
In the ga-gal-gallery
Gal, in the gallery

This last verse has probably the most poignant of all the song’s  lines: “And all the lies we subsidize that just don’t mean a thing.” What an indictment of art as commodity. This of course can be attributed to any form of art, not only visual. Just look at the music and movie businesses. It’s evident that business people ultimately “decide who gets the breaks,” and we also see the commodification of death in famous actors and musicians. Dire Straits’ “In the Gallery” may be a song about a sculptor, but it speaks on a much larger level about the precarious nature of art when manipulated for consumer consumption and capital gain. Of course, this song also has a great groove and a wonderful guitar outro…so it’s worth the listen even if you don’t like lyrics. But you can be rest assured that the words of this song are anything but filler for Knopfler’s tasty guitar licks. Some would argue that it’s the complete reverse.


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