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.

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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.

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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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Reflections on John Hiatt, Part 1: “Icy Blue Heart”

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[This is first in a series of pieces I will be writing on American singer/songwriter John Hiatt, whose enduring songs have a way of speaking to the listener in profound ways.]

The songs on John Hiatt’s 1988 masterpiece Slow Turning possess an unending capacity to arrest my brain in a singular mood of reflection, fascination, and of course really bad attempts at hitting those soulful, yearning high notes that only Hiatt can truly wail with a hillbilly intensity rivalling that of Hank himself.

I recently realized after buying a vinyl copy of this album and reading the liner notes that my favourite producer, British genius Glyn Johns (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones), produced this (and Hiatt’s next record Stolen Moments – another favourite). This explains the continuity of sound and direction throughout this monumental series of songs, the most incredible of which is Track 4 on Side 1: “Icy Blue Heart.” First of all, this song has always been an easy sell to me because it’s in 3/4 time. I’ve always found ballads to be extra-potent in 3/4 time. As a songwriter I’ve utilized this time signature myself on a few songs, including one that many tell me is their favourite, called “Your Voice” from the Brothers in Stereo album. There’s something about the way it pushes and pulls that accentuates an emotional lyric so eloquently.

I’ve always liked “Icy Blue Heart” from the time I heard Newfoundland singer Sean Harris doing it in a St. John’s nightclub back in the ’90s. Harris has the range to do it justice. Of course, possessing a very limited range and shaky intonation, I’ve always appreciated a vocalist who could professionally yet emotionally perform a great ballad. Over the years I’d hear the song now and then, but other Hiatt material had always superseded it for me: “Dust Down a Country Road,” “Back of my Mind,” “You Must Go,” and others.

This Christmas my wife surprised me with a turntable (my old one was broken by household movers and as yet not replaced). I went to Fred’s Records to take a look through the vinyl, and I found a tattered copy of Slow Turning for $10. Getting home and throwing it on, I was brought back in time to the ’90s when I was a bachelor living alone, writing songs like a factory worker, and listening incessantly to all the great Americana songwriters: Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Towns Van Zandt, and of course Hiatt. In 1990 I bought Stolen Moments and saw Hiatt in concert at Barrymore’s cabaret in Ottawa. The show remains in my top five concerts of all time.

Over the last few weeks, Slow Turning has become my “shower” album – rattling the speakers on blistering volume while I scrub away and win imaginary arguments. Of course the inconvenience of vinyl had me at one point streaking naked with a face full of shaving cream across the carpet to put the needle back to “Icy Blue Heart.” The more I listened to this song, the more I realized the amount of elbow grease that had gone into its creation and fruition. First of all, the intro is uncharacteristically strummed on an electric guitar instead of the traditional choice of acoustic. On a Hiatt record, everything is supporting the lyric. Therefore, repeated listens made me realize that the staccato tremolo and trebly tone of the electric matches the frigid imagery throughout the song. It also supports the emotional ambivalence of the couple as they talk in a bar:

She came onto him like a slow movin’ cold front
His beer was warmer than the look in her eyes
She sat on a stool, he said, “What do you want?”
She said, “Give me a love that don’t freeze up inside.”

He said, “I have melted some hearts in my time dear
But to sit next to you, Lord, I shiver and shake
And if I knew love, well, I don’t think I’d be here
Askin’ myself if I’ve got what it takes.”

[Chorus:]
To melt your icy blue heart
Should I start?
To turn what’s been frozen for years
Into a river of tears

“These days we all play cool, calm and collected
Why, our lips could turn blue just shooting the breeze”
But under the frost, well, he thought he detected
A warm blush of red and a touch of her knee

He said, “Girl, you’re a beauty like I’ve never witnessed
And I’ve seen the Northern Lights dancin’ on air
But I’ve felt the cold that can follow the first kiss
And there’s not enough heat in the fires burning there.”

For the whole first verse all we hear is the loosely-strummed electric and Hiatt’s delightfully nasally, reverb-drenched vocal. For the second verse, the drums and bass come in with a mix of gentleness and authority. This sparseness carries through the first chorus, which sets up the intro to the second verse where we hear virtuoso Sonny Landreth’s tasteful bottleneck slide. Landreth punctuates the whole second verse, weaving underneath Hiatt’s poetry and infusing it with shiver-inducing emotion. If that’s not enough, Bernie Leadon shows up in the third verse with his chugging mandolin. Both he and Landreth intertwine under the second chorus, displaying a mutual respect for each other’s style of instrumental expression. This is popular music arrangement at its very best, under the watchful eye of Johns and executed by veterans accustomed to injecting their magic into an already-great song and pushing it into the emotional stratosphere.

This lyric is on par poetically with anything I’ve ever taught as an English professor. I often impress on students the power of contrasting language, and in the first verse we get expert examples right off the top. “She came onto him, like a slow moving cold front.” Coming on to someone is usually expressed in terms of warmth and speed. Hiatt flips it around, using ominous weather to symbolize the interaction. He follows it up with an image of a cold beer in the man’s hands, which all of sudden appears warm in comparison to her cold, unfeeling eyes.

The man is faced with a woman who’s been hurt so much that she’s been “frozen for years.” When something is frozen, it’s in limbo. It’s sometimes dead. It doesn’t have any circulation. It is shut down. This is not a adolescent break up. This is very much an adult hurt, the kind that changes people’s lives and often dictates their fate. Hiatt sets up a man who’s questioning whether he’s “got what it takes” to melt the layers of ice that separate (and also protect) her from the pain of romance. The “river of tears” that the man is endeavouring to induce is the torrent of repressed inner turmoil. Hiatt sings, “These days we all play cool, calm, and collected. While our lips could turn blue just by shooting the breeze.” This is assumedly spoken by the man, but it’s also pointed at the listener by the songwriter as a commentary on modern romance and the tendency of people to keep their cards close to their chest. But then he follows up these lines with the best ones of the song: “But under the frost, well, he thought he detected a warm blush of red and a touch of her knee.” Using the warm “red” to counteract the cold “blue,” Hiatt starts to tip the scenario in favour of the thaw. “The touch of her knee” is a specific, magnified image that makes the listener picture the couple getting closer as they talk – eventually touching knees under the bar. Lyrical magic.

In the third verse the man gives her a compliment on her looks: “Girl, you’re a beauty like I’ve never witnessed, and I’ve seen the Northern Lights dancin’ on air.” The beauty of the Northern Lights in a freezing cold climate has always been a great juxtaposition, and Hiatt uses it beautifully here. Following it up with a line about the coldness of a first kiss, he articulates the fear of rejection a person can experience before going in for that kiss. The nature of the first kiss always speaks volumes about the feelings of the recipient. The last line of the third verse works in several ways. When he sings, “There’s not enough heat in the fires burning there,” is he referring to the man or the woman? Probably both. There’s not enough in her to sustain the heat needed to thaw the ice, and he may not have enough in himself to thaw it either. He seems unsure whether not he even wants to attempt it. Like many great songs, we are left to decide for ourselves what happens. Are they able to melt the ice? Is it just a brief encounter that leads nowhere? It doesn’t matter. Hiatt’s goal is to place the listener right there on the bar stool next to the couple and observe the fused exchange. Some of this dialogue could be internal, some could be spoken aloud. Either way, it’s an expertly crafted song that does its job of capturing a common human experience.

Those who minimize the importance of imagery and metaphor in song lyrics are missing a key component in the enjoyment of popular music. Those who love John Hiatt love him for his uncanny ability to paint a scene so vividly with words that we are compelled to listen over and over as the genius unfolds line after line. It’s been years since I’ve repeatedly put the needle back to a track on a turntable, much less mid-shower or mid-shave. Although I have to admit, as I write this I’m taking advantage of the “repeat” function on my Ipod as the song plays over and over. I do need to shower right now, though, so I think I’ll switch back to the turntable, set up Track 4, and turn it up loud enough to be heard through the shower curtain. Plus, the falsetto in the chorus sounds way better bouncing off the bathroom tiles as I act like I’ve got what it takes to sing this song with authority. No one’s home, so perfect.

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Lou Reed, 1942-2013: A Casual Fan’s Lament

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I won’t pretend to know Lou Reed’s catalogue inside out. Like many, I know him for his highlights: the well-known Velvet stuff that got covered by other, more famous artists, the New York album that cancelled out all that was bad about 1989, and of course “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” But when all is said and done, I don’t believe you have to know Reed’s music inside out to know his genius or to feel the weight of his absence from this world.

Reed’s death today sparked a train of thought in my mind, as I read the hoards of comments on the Internet. Most of the commentary was reverent and respectful, while a few remarks were along the lines of “but what has he done lately?” or “his career was down the tubes long ago.” Those who can minimize Reed’s contributions must be incapable of critical or even imaginative thought when it comes to his place in rock history (and mass culture in general).

When I think of rock and roll, I see it as a big mansion – a complicated but majestic structure that started out as a sturdy little shack and slowly rose to palatial proportions. For anything to endure and withstand the elements, it has to be built on a solid foundation. Once the foundation is set and the pillars are in place, everything that resides inside this house is safe from the elements. The foundation and structure is what makes everything else able to exist and thrive within this palace. It becomes a self-supporting unit.

We know who makes up the metaphorical foundation: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, and more. Then as the ‘60s emerge we see more pillars constructed: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, The Who, etc. Already a strong structure, this mansion would see even more support as the ‘70s wore on, in the form of Neil Young, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, and many more. Wedged in there among the third generation of pillars is Lou Reed, whose musical output actually started in the ’60s but would see its full influential fruition in the ’70s and into the ’80s. This is why the world is reeling today over his death. Because you can feel the foundation creak and bend in his absence.

A big part of being a rock and roll musician is putting every ounce of yourself out there in hopes of a desperate connection through the rough, tangly medium. And this is what Lou did. That was his place in rock. Leave it to Lou to get the mass public unknowingly singing along on AM radio to a song about a transvestite. All they heard in the lyric was “wild side” anyway, and that’s all that mattered. Someone was taking them to the wild side. Out of their mundane lives. It was real, it was naughty, and it was catchy. Rock and roll.

With Lou you always got the sense that it was really him. Your bullshit radar never went off when reading interviews with him or seeing footage of him in concert. I’ve read interviews where he’s come across as “difficult,” but the questions asked of him were always enough of an excuse for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t send in the rookie to talk to Lou.

I  always loved looking at photos of the “older” Lou Reed. He came across as a man without a telephone or television, as if he’d been completely disconnected from any outside influence since 1977 as regards fashion or general disposition. Maybe he was smart enough to know that this was his best chance of retaining an original image, but somehow I doubt he ever took himself that seriously. And I think in the end that’s what everyone is truly mourning about Lou Reed: his honesty. We don’t have enough of that in rock and roll anymore; hell, we don’t even HAVE rock and roll anymore. Maybe that’s ultimately what we are mourning. But either way, the world recoils at the loss of Lou Reed because his place – helping to hold up and support the hallowed genre of true rock and roll – is now vacant; looking around us, do we see a worthy successor? No. We just see a lot of other aging, cracked pillars whose final encores are also very near. The second decade of the new millennium will see this grand structure collapse as it loses its reinforcement.

For some reason it feels like Lou is the shaky domino in this line of influential and groundbreaking musicians, about to set in motion a freefall of heroes into the hereafter. In this way, we mourn Lou as well as what is imminent regarding his peers. The mansion is now tragically full of pretenders, contest winners, and business tycoons. All we can do in such moments is celebrate the authenticity and heart that went into Lou’s life and music, and at the same time strive for that in our own lives. In the end, that’s probably all he wanted to achieve by sharing his words and music with us anyway.

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Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” Gets a Second Chance on Breaking Bad

L-R: Evans, Gibbins, Molland, Ham.

Last week I got a text from my bandmate Andrew Boulos that simply stated, “Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ was used for the final scene in the finale of Breaking Bad tonight.” I laughed to myself because this 1972 Badfinger hit has been on our cover band’s setlist since we got together three years ago. In fact, it’s almost been bounced off the setlist a few times due to new songs coming in and a few of us thinking it wasn’t really going over with the crowd. I’ve always loved the song, and singing the lead vocal and harmonizing with my guitarist bandmate Chad Murphy never gets old. It’s got such a great swing to it, and the half-time bridge (“what can I doooooo, what can I sayyyy”) is delightful. I always push for it to stay on the list when the subject of dropping it comes up. After the Breaking Bad finale news, I doubt I’ll have to fight for it to stay anymore. The next gig should be interesting. This song has always gotten a lukewarm response. I predict it will be different this time, seeing that 10.3 million people viewed the Breaking Bad finale and the song is currently #27 on the iTunes sales charts. I listened to the song myself about 8 times today. It’s as addictive as Walter White’s blue meth.

In 1969 The Beatles took interest in this young, obscure English band (called The Iveys at the time), signing them to their Apple label and funding their recordings. Lennon came up with their name, McCartney wrote their first hit, “Come and Get it,” and Harrison helped produce their second album, 1971’s Straight Up (you can hear him playing slide guitar on their hit “Day after Day”). Midway through the making of  Straight Up Harrison bowed out due to demands of the Bangladesh project and Philly producer Todd Rundgren stepped in. It is his expertise you hear on “Baby Blue.” The young producer molded this natural hit into a radio-friendly masterpiece. (Note: The 45 single did see a remix at the hands of Jimi Hendrix mastermind producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, who fattened the drum kit and guitars.) Obviously the attention paid to this song is a testament to the hit potential these producers heard in it. Yet it only made it to #14 on the US Billboard charts, and it wasn’t released in the UK as a single at all. This showing lagged behind the other two hits they had around this time,  1971’s “Day After Day” (#4 on US Billboard) and 1970’s “No Matter What” (#8 on US Billboard).

This is the beauty about a great song: it has an unlimited shelf life. It can go decades languishing in the shadows of people’s record collections and playlists, and all of a sudden one single large-scale exposure sends it skyrocketing back into the minds of the people who remember and into the welcoming arms of those new to it. I can’t imagine what it would be like watching a TV show and having such a great song come on, only to find out that it was recorded 40 years ago. Of course this leads one to search out other songs by the artist, and this is what’s happening with the Badfinger catalogue right now as the music business scrambles to retrieve the dollars that the public is currently throwing at it.

Sadly, the personal history of Badfinger rivals the emotional darkness of the show that helped in its resurgence. A simple Wikipedia search on the band will tell you that two of the four members of Badfinger committed suicide decades ago, and a third has since died. Only Joey Molland, the lead guitarist, is still with us (and performing under the name Joey Molland’s Badfinger). Lead singer and principal songwriter Pete Ham (who penned “Baby Blue” and most of the other hits, including the oft-covered “Without You”) took his own life out of sheer desperation in 1975 following news that Badfinger manager Stan Polley had stolen/squandered all the funds after the band had spent years slogging it out on the road. According to the book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger (2000), Bass player Tom Evans was with Ham the night he took his life. They were out drinking, and shortly after Evans dropped him home at 3am Ham went into his Surrey garage and hung himself. In his suicide note, he called Stan Polley a “soulless bastard.” Tom Evans followed Ham’s tragic lead in 1983, devastated over his bandmate’s death and unable to cope with the lingering sadness. (Drummer Mike Gibbins died in 2005 at 56, in his sleep.)

Despite Badfinger’s initial successes, in the grand scheme of things they are a footnote in rock and roll. Many know the songs and the group name, but few can readily match them up. Most hear a Badfinger song on the radio and say, “great tune. Who sang that song again?” Of course the main reason for their footnote status is that Ham died at 27 – much too young to leave any sizable musical legacy. So Badfinger’s catalogue gets indexed next to the others in the 27 club with limited output: Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt, Amy, etc.

In light of the tragic events surrounding Badfinger and their unreached potential, it is truly satisfying to see one of their songs peaking through the clouds of obscurity and making its way into the iPods of a new generation who obviously enjoyed the way the lyric and groove worked with Breaking Bad and its sordid, horror-comedy derangement of a plot. Taking into account the dark themes surrounding the reality of the band’s personal lives, we can readily see why it’s such a good fit.

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Barney Bentall: Revisiting a Canadian Rock Legend

Photo by Rebecca Bollwitt

Photo by Rebecca Bollwitt

Being an adolescent rock musician in Canada during the ‘80s meant that many of your heroes were homegrown. MuchMusic featured a slew of new Canadian acts that would later become legendary. Yes, you emulated the Beatles and learned Who covers for your basement band. But you also had Blue Rodeo, The Hip, and 54-40 songs in your repertoire. Singers like Bryan Adams, Gord Downie, Kim Mitchell and Jim Cuddy were just as big on your radar as any American or British singers. And when they came to town it was an important event. You went, you studied their moves, and you went back to the woodshed to keep practicing.

One of the influential artists in this canon of ‘80s and ‘90s Canadian Rock is undeniably Barney Bentall. Along with his band The Legendary Hearts, Bentall had a string of roots rock hits that rivaled or surpassed many of his peers. One after the other, these superbly-crafted gems graced the airways in grand succession: “Something to Live For,” “Come Back to Me,” “Crime Against Love,” “She’s My Inspiration,” “Do Ya,” and more. Bentall was our northern version of Tom Petty. The tunes weren’t exactly complicated poetry, but they spoke to you; the music wasn’t Rush, but it still had solid arrangements and interesting changes. It was quality Canadian music, and Bentall enjoyed the fruits of his labour – playing to packed houses all across this vast country and enjoying true bonafide rock royalty status.

As the ‘90s creeped toward the new Millennium, we started to hear less and less of Bentall. Unbeknownest to many, his disappearance from music was voluntary rather than the cause of waning success: he started a cattle ranch. Being a husband and father, this was no doubt a refreshing change from the fast pace of recording and touring that can sometimes wreak havoc on one’s personal life. Not knowing this at the time, I just assumed he’d gotten sick of the business in one way or the other and just got into something else. Turns out I wasn’t too far off, really. Meanwhile, I continued to enjoy his hits as they received regular rotation on classic rock radio and in the setlists of local cover bands.

Bentall, as we knew him at the peak of his success in the early '90s.

Bentall, as we knew him at the peak of his commercial success in the early ’90s.

About a week ago I got a call from my good friend and fellow musician Cory Tetford, who is originally from Newfoundland but now lives in Nova Scotia. He said he was coming to St. John’s for a few days and needed to borrow a guitar and an amp for a few shows he was doing….with Barney Bentall. I perked up right away. Wow, I thought. That’s pretty friggin’ awesome. (Digression: I was once in a band that opened for Bentall at the Delta Ballroom in 1994, although it’s all a blur and it turns out he remembers way more about the gig than I do.) Cory had gotten to know Barney through playing with Alan Doyle, who had Barney’s son Dustin doing the opening slot on his tour in support of Doyle’s first solo album, Boy on Bridge. Somewhere along the way Barney and Cory became acquainted, which led to Barney asking Cory to accompany him on some shows here in St. John’s for a private event as well as a club gig at the Ship Pub.

Cory dropped by the house last Thursday and we retired to my music room to make a bit of noise and suss out what he’d need for the shows. He took my Gibson J200 and my old Fender Tremolux amp, which he thought would be perfect for Barney’s stuff. I said to him, “You know, Cory, if this were 1993 and you’d gotten this call you would have had to wear a Depends diaper for three days afterward.” He laughed and agreed. “I know,” he said. “I still feel blown away by being asked to do it.” And of course he very well should be. As we age, sometimes we lose that giddy feeling that comes with musical opportunities. But here we were, both very much adolescent school boys again as we discussed the excitement of Cory playing with one of the legends of Canadian music. I congratulated him on the gig and sent him on his way with the gear, telling him I’d see him at the show Sunday night at the Ship.

I had my own gig on the weekend, playing cover tunes at Martini Bar on George Street with my buds in the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band. The place is usually packed, which makes for fun gigs with lots of energy and good vibes. Toward the end of the third set on Saturday night I found myself knee-deep in a lead solo during ZZ Top’s “Gimmie All Your Lovin’” when Cory popped up next to me side-stage, making all kinds of faces and shagging around – in typical Cory fashion. After the song was over, I went over to say hi and he whispered in my ear, “Hey man, is there any chance of getting up for a jam?” I was just about to pass him my guitar and let him sit in the with boys when he continued: “Look behind me. It’s Barney. He’d love to play a song with you guys. I looked behind Cory and there indeed was Barney Bentall, smiling ear to ear and giving a good-natured nod. Yikes. I said to Cory, “Yes…by all means, let’s do it.” I went straight to the microphone and proudly announced: “Ladies and gentleman. We have a special treat for you tonight. Canadian rock legend Barney Bentall is going to join us!”

The crowd erupted in surprise as Barney and Cory walked on stage. I handed Barney my guitar and he thanked me, going straight to center stage and adjusting the mic stand while greeting the audience. An old pro. I just stood there off stage, quietly admiring him. How many hundreds of times had he fronted the Legendary Hearts like this, all over North America and elsewhere? It made me feel like a rookie in relation to all he’d done. Cell phones were held high to take pictures and shoot video as Barney and Cory settled into their unfamiliar instruments. After a minute or so of informal deliberation about keys and such, the band launched into “Something to Live For.” The place went nuts.

Bentall with Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, Cory, and Andrew LeDrew at Martini

Bentall with Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, Cory, and Andrew LeDrew at Martini (Photo by Sharon Mackey)

At this point I have to mention Bentall’s appearance. A tall man, he is as lean as he was in his 30s and looks in tiptop physical shape. He’s understandably lost a bit of hair since the early ’90s, but he still has his trademark sideburns. He’s now 57, and I guarantee you he bears no resemblance to most men his age. Not that it would have mattered had he shown up a completely different individual physically, but to see him after all these years still looking vibrant and vital just added to the excitement for us and the crowd. Finishing the song and basking in the thunderous applause, Bentall leaned over to Cory and they quickly figured out another classic to play: “Come Back to Me.” We all got on stage for this one, proudly chanting the chorus next to him as the audience joined in. He looked around at all of us and beamed, saying into the mic, “Man, these guys are good.” What an experience. Here we all were, jamming with a major Canadian hitmaker and musical influence; better yet, he had shown up to the club with one of our good buddies.

After the second song was done, Barney and Cory exited the stage to handshakes and hugs all around. The band did our last two numbers for the night, and the DJ took over as we packed up our gear. We each got a chance to have a moment with Barney, who is as nice in person as his persona projects in his music. He has no pretense whatsoever, just an aura of goodness and enthusiasm. After a short time we all bid our farewells and went home, saying we’d see him and Cory tomorrow night at the Ship.

Bentall at the Ship. (Photo by Chris LeDrew)

Bentall at the Ship.

The next night when we got to the Ship, our guitarist Chad Murphy’s father Allan had secured us the front row of tables. It was 4/5 of the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, along with my wife Michelle, Allan, and Chad’s sister Alanna. Around 9pm Cory walked on stage, followed closely by Barney who looked pretty much exactly like he did the night before: blue jeans, brown Blundstone boots, black t-shirt, and black vest. His brown leather jacket hung nearby on a guitar stand. It was a simple, stately look totally in line with the Barney Bentall we knew in the Legendary Hearts era. He had two acoustics – a newer custom model in standard tuning and an old Martin orchestral in DADGAD (folk tuning). Cory had his trademark Orange Gretsch, a pedalboard of tricks, and my Tremolux. Together they launched into a pair of newer Bentall songs.

I wish I had to take a pen and paper with me to make note of specific lyrics and titles, but being in fan mode I’d sort of forgotten that I’d be writing about the show. I can best describe the songs as emotional and haunting, which is a bit of a departure from Bentall’s hit output of yore that featured a mostly upbeat rock style. This is not a complaint, of course. It is crucial that an artist develop and transform his/her style; otherwise, there’s nothing there but rote memory and rehash. So it was fitting that Bentall start the show with songs that represent who he is now as opposed to who he used to be.

Cory Tetford, sporting one of his famous "guitar faces."

Cory Tetford w/ Bentall at the Ship, sporting one of his famous “guitar faces.”

Having said all that, Bentall is also not blind to the reality that people also came for the hits. So several songs into the set, he gave the crowd “Come Back to Me” as an early treat. It incited a big singalong that planted a huge grin across Bentall’s face as he let the crowd take over. Also, to our utmost delight, Bentall acknowledged us on the mic by saying, “It was great playing with the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band last night. Too bad we didn’t have that same setup here right now!” I looked across the table and it was all wide smiles from the guys.

Throughout the rest of the first set, which lasted about an hour, the pair played some more of Bentall’s newer stuff and a classic or two. Bentall repeatedly acknowledged the greatness of his onstage companion, saying that Cory is an inspiration to play with and an incredible talent. Cory’s reverb-drenched, swelling Gretsch vibrato tone wove its way around Bentall’s material like a silk scarf around a marble statue. Cory hadn’t had any time to rehearse much of the spontaneously-arranged show, so he relied on pure instinct and improvisation to accompany the songs. The result was astounding, and several of his solos and passages were acknowledged by roars of applause.

Boulos and Barney outside the Delta, retrieving Bentall's CDs and "cruising for chicks."

Boulos and Barney outside the Delta, retrieving Bentall’s CDs and “cruising for chicks.”

On break, Bentall realized he’d forgotten his CDs at the hotel. Our bass player, Andrew Boulos, was Johnny-on-the-spot with a car and drove him to the hotel to retrieve the CDs. Boulos posted a photo on Facebook of him and Barney in the car, with the caption “Barney Bentall and me cruising for chicks.” Classic.

During the second set, Bentall played some Bluegrass material from his new band The High Bar Gang, who are currently working on a new album. Of course, he treated the audience to a great acoustic arrangement of his first and biggest hit, “Something to Live For,” the song that started it all way back in 1987 when MuchMusic introduced Bentall to the country.

After the show we all went backstage to thank him and Cory for an unforgettable night of music. Once again, I was struck by Bentall’s forthright generosity and kindness. He gave me his latest CD Flesh and Bone (2012) and told me to get in touch if I wanted to chat about the new album.

Cory and Barney at the Ship.

Cory and Barney at the Ship.

Hopefully Bentall likes Newfoundland enough to return more often. He’s penned two tunes about the province already – one about Signal Hill and one about L’anse Aux Meadows. And he played a Ron Hynes cover during his show. As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to love the guy.

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September 30, 2013 · 11:24 pm

The Waterboys’ Mike Scott Challenges Ireland’s “Arthur’s Day” in Song

(Photo by Paul McManus)

(Photo by Paul McManus)

Since 2009 Ireland has been celebrating the Guinness tradition with a company-created event called “Arthur’s Day.” Most participants, in typical sheeple fashion, go about the celebration with a blind eye to the reality of corporate aims to drive the Guinness brand deeper down the throats of those in Ireland and around the world. Mike Scott of The Waterboys is known to be anything but a glad sufferer of fools, and in song he has unearthed many a human folly; he makes us think. As a gift to all critical thinkers, Scott recently took advantage of the internet’s immediacy to post a satirical protest song (arranged fittingly in the traditional vein and performed with feigned drunkenness, a la Shane MacGowan) about the ridiculousness of this event and how it serves to perpetuate a false stereotype to the world that the Irish are nothing but rowdy, loutish consumers of the dark stout. (Click here to check out “A Song for Arthur’s Day.”)

It is indeed this type of critical thought that is missing from the lyrical content of today’s well-known songwriters, with most being content to play the game and not offend anyone lest a career opportunity be missed somewhere along the way. This is the appeal of Mike Scott: ever vigilant and ready to call out a scam or hypocrisy.  He reminds us in one of his most recent songs, called “Still a Freak,” that he’s not about to let go of his youthful idealism (“things disappear, but I’m still here”) and conform to what he sees as an increasingly cookie-cutter society bought and sold by the dark side of capitalism. And in “A Song for Arthur’s Day” he does exactly the same thing. Sure, the main message in the song is that he finds the event to be a total corporate scam; however, his underlying message is thus: “Not enough people are speaking out anymore, in song or otherwise, about important issues that need to be criticized and analyzed. I don’t give a fuck; I’m saying something. And here it is.”

The Irish press has come on board in support of Scott as well. Eamonn McCann in the Belfast Telegraph sings Scott’s praises about the new composition in his article “How We Bought Into the Scam That is Arthur’s Day”, stating the following:

“…[P]erhaps [Scott’s] greatest-ever service to music and to society is represented in the release this week of Arthur’s Day:

‘We’ll reinforce the stereotype on Arthur’s Day/That the Paddy is a guttersnipe on Arthur’s Day/A bestial dog just up from the bog no manners in his head/We’ll drink and stink and curse and worse and soil our sodden beds/On Arthur’s Day.’

Has there ever been a scam like Arthur’s Day, as contemptuous of the people it targets, as disrespectful of the culture and especially of the music it misuses to make its play, as depressing in the extent to which the people made fools of simper with pleasure and cry out for more?”

McCann points out that alcohol-related deaths in the North of Ireland are three times that of all other drugs combined. Therefore, he sees a major problem in the event’s tendency to use “an instantly recognisable, stereotypical image of Ireland to create a phony occasion of celebration for branded export around the world.”

There is a charity related to Arthur’s Day, called the Arthur Guinness Fund; however, the ambiguous nature of its description on the Guinness website as a charity for “social entrepreneurs” makes it an unlikely reason for critics to relent. So raise a glass (just kidding) to both Scott and McCann for doing their duty as scribblers and shedding light on the major sociological problems inherent in this annual event. Maybe it will help curb the event before it gets woven into the vernacular of Ireland and elsewhere.

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