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Here to There: Remembering Steven Fromholz

The two faces of Frummox: Dan McCrimmon (left), and Steve Fromholz

Steven Fromholz, one of Texas’ finest songwriters and the poet laureate of Texas in 2007, died Jan. 19 at the Flying B Ranch near Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo, Texas. Fromholz, who lived in the area, was heading out to hunt feral hogs with his girlfriend when a rifle in a case but unzipped at the bottom was being transferred from one vehicle to another. He was 68.

We’re going to remember Fromholz’s life and music on Sunday, Feb. 9 during a special Roots & Branches (9-11am MT KGNU 88.5 FM or kgnu.org), when I’ll be joined by Dan McCrimmon, the other half of a group that called itself Frummox, which is where I first picked up on the Fromholz story.

I can’t remember exactly when or where I was when I picked up an album called Here to There by Frummox. I do recall that it was already in the bargain bin. 1970 or 1971. Weird name for a group, I thought. Frummox? The cover was enticing — a big fella, about two sizes larger than life, with a young Buffalo Bill beard and haircut standing on the prairie in front of a mountain range standing tall and proud looking off into the distance. It didn’t look real, though; the mountains looked like the Tetons, and the whole thing looked like it had been Photoshopped, though this was decades before Photoshop.

On the back, with the desert as background in an equally altered photo, was another fella in a jean jacket, beardless, bespectacled and looking in the opposite direction of the Buffalo Bill guy. For me, it was the first outlaw album, first real Texas album, but before Willie and Jerry Jeff made Outlaw a movement and put Austin on the map as a music destination.

The cover drew me in, but what sealed the deal for me was a title on the back. “Song for Stephen Stills (High Country Caravan).” If a guy who looked like that wrote a song to one of my favorite songwriters whose first solo album was currently lighting up my Circle of Sound stereo system, I was willing to spend a buck to find out what he sounded like.

Ah, what I got for that dollar. It began a lifelong appreciation for Here to There, one that continues today. The record is a little schizophrenic with no real cohesive sound, but I can’t think of a better album about life on the plains of Texas or Kansas that also manages to capture that high country caravan feel of Colorado, too. As a guy who discovered Frummox out on the Great Plains and later made his adopted home in Boulder, Colorado, the album means even more. There is a reason for Here to There’s dual identity, and a connection to my adopted hometown, or more specifically a tiny community called Gold Hill, eight miles west high in the foothills, where Steven Fromholz, the bearded guy, was living when Here to There was conceived. We’ll find out more about that story on Sunday morning.

So I didn’t know anything about Fromholz or Dan McCrimmon, the guy with glasses on the back cover, at the time. The first song, “The Man With the Big Hat,” has always been one of my favorite go-to Roots and Branches songs, for shows about Texas, or storytellers, or travel. It’s a killer riff, killer song, and few have ever heard it. Gil and I have learned, recorded and performed a rough version of it when we got hot on the song. I have played it on Roots & Branches several times, on various shows about cowboys or Texas or traveling.

The album begins with McCrimmon, sounding like he’s in a bar in Arizona on a sultry summer’s day, setting up the song, which is about meeting a larger-than-life fella in a bar who tells stories of being a cowboy on the plains, “working for Wells Fargo and the coming of the trains.” It is recorded perfectly, with a crack band and a steel guitar, which back then was just beginning to tickle my fancy after hearing Stephen Stills’ playing the steel on Judy Collins’ version of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” and catching the Flying Burrito Brothers live in Lincoln, Neb., with Sneaky Pete Kleinow giving me an intense lesson in the atmospherics of that fabulous instrument that boggled my little brain.

The first song on the second side is called “Texas Trilogy,” and it’s a three-song pastiche of life in a real little town in Texas called Kopperl along the Brazos River in Bosque County. Its imagery and poetry were probably among the reasons Fromholz was chosen Poet Laureate of Texas for the year 2007. (Here’s Fromholz’s own story of how the Trilogy came into being.) Lyle Lovett recorded a great version of the Trilogy. One song, “Texas Legend,” was fodder for this Missouri kid.

Elsewhere, the song named for Stills was a great one, too. Michael Murphey recorded “High Country Caravan” for the Flowing Free Forever album a few years later, in 1976. During that tour Murphey stopped in Kansas City, appearing at Memorial Hall. It was one of the first times I got to go backstage, where I found Murphey to be accommodating and friendly as hell. I told him that I was working on “High Country Caravan,” and he handed me his old Martin, which I think he said he got from his grandfather — it’s pictured on the inside cover of Flowing Free Forever — and told me to sing it and he’d sing harmony. One of my favorite memories of the early rockcritter days.

And Here to There was one of those albums that I kept finding in the dollar bins. I bought as many copies for 50 cents or a buck as I could find and distributed them to friends and tried to push the album to anybody who would listen. It was just one of those records that I thought everybody missed and it was my duty to change that. There have been many of those over the years.

I followed Fromholz’s career sporadically. Though we never saw him in the many years we went to Austin for SXSW, Gil and I went up to the Gold Hill Inn probably 15 years ago and caught Fromholz, who lived up there back in the Frummox days. So did Stephen Stills, whose music company was conspicuously called Gold Hill Music. Fromholz said that night that he added Stills’ name to get his attention. He did, too, and wound up playing in his band for awhile. He also played on Rick Roberts’ solo record that he recorded in Boulder before joining Firefall.

On that night up in Gold Hill, Fromholz had to perform another of his songs of which I am particularly fond, “Bears,” three times. Twice for the crowd and once more for one of the cooks, who didn’t get to hear it the first two times. He could have sang it again as far as I was concerned. He was gracious and accommodating as he told stories of his days in Gold Hill, as much raconteur as musician.

I have performed “Bears” in public many times, most notably in several towns around the state, when I would provide the opening act for a lecture tour developed and given by Billie through Sinapu titled “A Year in the Life of a Black Bear.” Love that last line: “They just don’t come no better than a bear.”

Sunday, we’ll remember the life of Steven Fromholz. Thanks to Dan McCrimmon for making this possible. He’s continued to play live, and he will on Sunday, and is a luthier in Littleton, Colorado. Check out his fine music and instruments here.

February 8, 2014   No Comments

Self Portrait, Rock Criticism and Me

With the release of Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10, there’s been yet more endless analyses of how awful Bob Dylan’s original Self Portrait album was. I have always been amused by the kerfuffle over this one.

Well, not always amused, I guess. I was 23 years old when Self Portrait was released in June of 1970. It was an exciting, strange time in my life. I can’t remember when I began actually subscribing, but I was beginning to read Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone pretty regularly. A bit later I started a fortnightly ritual: As soon as it arrived, I would roll up a joint and smoke it while I devoured Rolling Stone cover-to-cover.

I had also just bought (and devoured) a paperback copy of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, the first book where someone else articulated the kinds of things I was thinking about the music that had helped changed my worldview. During the spring semester, for a Recent American History class, I had completed a twenty-page essay, titled A Compendium of Rock: The Medium And the Message, after a McLuhan book, The Medium is the Message, that was popular my last years in college. The paper was all about rock music and its importance to me and my generation.

My friends and I were beginning to use rock music as a filter through which we could see the world, enough so that we fancied ourselves a kind of karass, vaguely interpreting a notion from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, another popular tome of the time.

And I was in the midst of my exit from the Lutheran Church-Mo. Synod. I would last another year, through a teaching stint in Roselle, Illinois, that finalized my decision to leave. Crazy as it seems now, less than two years after I started playing guitar, I was heading out to make my way as a musician. That wouldn’t work out so well, and I was almost five years from first being published. And though I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was beginning to think like a critic.

I loved Self Portrait right away. And when I read the reviews, as we’ll see shortly, I was really pissed off. I considered a letter-to-the-editor but chickened out and wound up sending my thoughts in a letter to my friend Frank Kresen, who was in Japan at the time — he had joined the Prince of Peace Volunteers to teach English in Hokkaido. It accompanied a reel-to-reel tape of the album that I copied with some equipment I checked out at Concordia Teacher’s College in Seward, Nebraska. He replied, equally enthusiastically, that the album was a look at Dylan’s darker side as he interpreted the songs of others. But it was our little secret, because the rest of the world seemingly hated it.

Here’s the part of the letter where I write about Self Portrait, which I now realize is the very first piece of music analysis I ever wrote. Reading it again today, many of the elements (literary references, righteous indignation) that became, for better or worse, my style are all in there.

I was sitting here with Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait and the new Rolling Stone review of it, written by the whole staff, who ripped it miserably. Now I’m reading the review of each song as it plays, listening with avid interest because Bob Dylan never ceases to amaze me. Paul Williams, in his book Outlaw Blues (which I got last week, a memorable work), quotes Dylan back in 1966: “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung. The word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound.”

But the musical “experts” at the leading rock periodical still insist on looking to Dylan as the leader, the spiritual god to which we all must lay our alms for the wondrous word on what’s happening. And what say I? Leave the man alone, and accept him on his own terms. He loves country pie and Nashville skyline rags and he seems pretty happy, so why not enjoy him for what he is, and not what you want him to be?

The LP for me, then, is just what it portends to be, a self-portrait of a man musically. The cover tells the story, and the inside photos, including the session- and farm-locale shots, further reflect on Dylan’s tranquility. (Is that his farm he’s standing in front of?)

And the music? Well, for me it’s very pleasant, a pleasing change from a world that looks dismal indeed.

And poor Rolling Stone, they can’t believe that the mighty Allah can blow his lines. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a mess, they say. I disagree totally. So what if the words aren’t right? Dylan’s vocal is superb, and the Band is magnificent. But Greil Marcus is totally disillusioned. Man, can’t you just let it be?

“Living the Blues” is superb, much better than the Great White Wonder (ed. note, the very first bootleg album) version, good feeling and emotion. “Copper Kettle” is magic. Likewise “Belle Isle.” “Kettle” almost takes me back to old Missouri in 1800 and misty lakes and rivers before technology. “Belle Isle” is unusual for Dylan, a knighthood in flower song – maybe he read Ivanhoe or Sir Walter. The only song I really don’t like is “Early Morning Rain.” The vocal sounds lifeless.

But “The Mighty Quinn,” “Minstrel Boy,” and “She Belongs to Me,” all from the Isle of Wight, are very alive and well, thank you. But I suppose Greil Marcus can’t stand mistakes, damn perfectionist.

The Nashville cuts (that is, the country songs that Dylan didn’t write) are great in their own way. I’ve grown to like that kind of music.

So, Mr. Dylan, I say bravo, good job, thanks for giving me some joy. Greil Marcus — go to hell. Try to enjoy some good country music. Don’t impress us with your criticism.

Many years later, in 2002, I wrote a review of Self-Portrait for Stereophile magazine’s annual Records to Die For section. The deal is that you get 100 words each to describe two of your favorite albums — records to die for. For that year I chose a Doug Sahm live disc and Self Portrait.

The only real problems with Dylan’s most misunderstood and unheard album are the timing and the title. Were it released as The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 in 2002, it might not have dismayed critics and confused most of the rest of his audience. Dylan has long claimed it was his response to unauthorized, bootleg recordings, and that description fits — from the scattershot sequencing to the wildly eclectic repertoire. Given the current Dylan penchant for unpredictable covers in his live show, mixing up country ballads, folk standards and contemporary favorites and a sprinkling of his own songs seems downright rootsy. Most interesting is that except for his voice, Self-Portrait isn’t much different from his onstage act today. What goes around comes around. Self-Portrait takes us full circle.

I rest my case.

September 4, 2013   No Comments

Waging Heavy Neil

I was at Oskar Blues in Lyons the other night, and an acoustic quartet performed an exquisite version of “Harvest,” introduced by the singer asking, more than once, “what does this song mean?”

I felt a little like that after finishing Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider Press), a generous, rambling slog through the peculiar brain of Neil Young, filmmaker, model train guru, hater of mp3 sound, lover of old Cadillacs, and, oh, yeah, one of the foremost songwriters and singers of his (my) generation, and the author of “Harvest,” which he doesn’t explain.

I have read a lot about Young and listened to countless hours of his music, and, back in the rockcritter days, alternately praised and thrashed him over the years. (Full disclosure: I’m a big enough fan that I once wrote a column “The 15 Worst Songs Neil Young Ever Wrote.” And here are a couple of recent reviews of Denver shows, at Wells Fargo Arena in 2007 and Magness Arena in 2009.)

But Waging Heavy Peace just tickled the shit out of me, all five hundred often repetitive, desultory pages. Young is obsessive, impatient, curious, difficult and impulsive, often at the same time. He ambles through his life like a locomotive through one of his massive, museum-quality toy train layouts on his California ranch. He writes with great passion of trying to gain perfection in the way model trains slow as they climb hills, of the power of sound and intricacies of his electric guitars and amplifiers, of the biomass fuel that will allow all those old Cadillacs we’ll be driving around in to get 100 miles to the gallon or his Pono sound system that he argues will give digital music the same power as analog vinyl album once did. And yeah, he shares a few stories about the music he made that all of us carry in our DNA by now.

Given the meandering style and day-to-day detail in the book, I’m guessing there was no editing involved. If you’re expecting a chronological dissertation or explantion of his songs, you might be disappointed. “If you are having trouble reading this,” he even warns at one point, “give it to someone else.”

His arguments about sound quality and how digital files fail listeners are persuasive, even if their frequency makes them begin to sound like commercials. But this issue particularly bothers Young. “I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of mp3s or some other source of bad sound grating on my nerves and affecting my conversations,” he writes. “I will not rest until the impact has been made and Puretone (later Pono) or something like it is available worldwide to those who love music.”

The title even refers to his battle against bad sound quality. When someone asked him if he was waging war on Apple, he said no, but he was waging heavy peace.

In a sense, Young’s is testament to the notion of being able to control your own life. All of us want to do that, but few have the option to actually make it happen. “I will use my own money when I shouldn’t because I hate waiting,” he writes. “That may be why I spent so much money and built so many things. I just like to do it myself. I hate waiting for approval, because I have my own Approve-o-Meter. It works like a charm.”

But what I really admire about Young is his sense of nostalgia, his respect for the past and his absolute devotion to his family, his collaborators, his friends, and his infatuation with trying to make things better for himself and others. He writes warmly and openly about long-time collaborators he has lost along the way, especially Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and David Briggs. I knew of his model-train obsession and association with Lionel, but his stories of building a transformer so that his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, could run a model train are more moving than any of the revelations about the music.

“I accept that I cannot have every dream come true at once. Life is too shoet for that,” he writes.

That doesn’t mean he won’t stop trying.

March 6, 2013   No Comments

We Watched a Man Named Armstrong Walk Upon the Moon

Neil Armstrong (NASA image)

Neil Armstrong: August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012

Black boy in Chicago
Playing in the street
Not enough to wear
Not near enough to eat
But don’t you know he saw it
On a July afternoon
He saw a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Young girl in Calcutta
Barely eight years old
The flies that swarm the market place
Will see she don’t get old
But don’t you know she heard it
On that July afternoon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon

The rivers are gettin’ dirty
The wind is getting bad
War and hate is killing off
The only earth we have
But the world all stopped to watch it
On that July afternoon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Oh, I wonder if a long time ago
Somewhere in the universe
They watched a man named Adam
Walk upon the earth

– “Armstrong” by John Stewart
From the LP Cannons in the Rain (March 1973/RCA Records)
Listen to the song here.

August 27, 2012   No Comments

You say Grossman; I Say Goldman

A sharp-eared listener (thanks Ginger) caught me calling the notorious manager of Bob Dylan and the Band Albert Goldman during the Levon Helm tribute program on KGNU.

Everybody knows it’s Albert Grossman.

Albert Goldman

Both of them were about the same age; Albert Grossman was born in 1926, Albert Goldman about a year later.  Each had some connection to rock and roll, and both were almost equally reviled for their efforts in that regard.

Albert Goldman was a teacher and an author, and it was his efforts in the latter that earned him the disdain of rock cognoscenti. His biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon dared to look down the subjects, instead of up. Each book had its flaws, but it was his disdain for two pop superheroes that pissed off most who read it. His biography of Lenny Bruce isn’t as reviled. His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.

I would certainly recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley over Goldman’s, but after reading Tim Riley’s exhaustively researched Lennonbio, I don’t think Goldman, though he makes some rather ludicrous assumptions, was that far off the mark about Paul McCartney’s songwriting partner.

Albert Grossman circa 1966

Albert Grossman was once the most powerful manager in the music business, and a model for an entire breed of manager that thrived beginning in the 1960s. He was, as promoter George Wein told author Fred Goodman in Mansion on the Hill, “a strong, one-way street. He was a brilliant man and a good man in his way, but a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And though he was militant about protecting his “artists,” his arrogance generally drove away all his clients, including Bob Dylan, whom he famously managed from 1962-1970.

But the most interesting thing is that both men died on jets heading from the U.S. to London,  Grossman of a heart attack Christmas Day 1986 aboard the Concorde at age 59 and Goldman on March 28, 1994, aged 66.

As it turns out, I walked past Albert Grossman once. It was forty years ago this month. I was in Chicago, May 1972, at a Peter Yarrow/Lazarus concert. After the show I saw this fellow standing near the doors cupping a cigarette in his hand who, as best I could figure, looked like Benjamin Franklin. I wasn’t sure it was Grossman, but since he created Peter Paul and Mary, it seemed right. Years later I began reading other descriptions of him as looking like a certain bespectacled founding father.

May 16, 2012   No Comments

John Lennon: A Life of Contradictions

When I was a child, my uncle Jack, who was my guardian at the time, would tell my brother and me, “do as I say, not as I do,” as if that were a way to excuse his own excesses and remain an authority figure.

That’s kind of how I feel about John Lennon after reading Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion 2011). After 661 pages and almost 100 pages of footnotes, Lennon comes off like Uncle Jack, insecure, deeply flawed and seemingly incapable of controlling his worst instincts. Except that Lennon created music that has become part of my own soundtrack.

Lennon and the other Beatles were heroes of my youth whose music, style and attitude helped shape my own thinking and life. His murder devastated me, enough that it took years to be able to listen or appreciate his music again. Trying to separate the myths from the reality of Lennon’s complicated life is a formidable task, and Riley has given considerable time and energy to the project. Just using “The Definitive Life” in the title sounds, well, definitive.

Most biographies spend little time on childhood, but Lennon’s is worth looking into, and Riley does a great job of tracing his early life in Liverpool: his incredibly dysfunctional family, his fortuitous early hookup with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the formation of the band, the three trips to Hamburg and their residency at the Cavern Club.

This is easily the best historical narrative of the Beatles’ rise, success and dissolution that I’ve read (and I’m looking over at about three dozen Beatles books on my shelf here in my office). Listening to the recordings that survive of their last Hamburg trip (packaged now as Live From the Star Club), it’s easy to understand Riley’s persuasive case that the Beatles created themselves on those scuzzy stages, both the music they engineered out of the riffs, rhythms and harmonies of American proto-rock/soul and the smiling, smirking, smart-alecky attitude that made me to want to adopt a new lifestyle paradigm at age 15.

Riley is at his best when he’s writing about the music itself. Author of Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, he spends a breathtaking chapter weaving the Beatles and George Martin’s production skills into the rich patchwork of innovation that characterized 1960s rock. His interpretations of Lennon’s songs, though subjective, are always provocative. Though he obviously believes that Lennon was the more serious creative force in the partnership, he is generous in recognizing the special relationship between Lennon and Paul McCartney, McCartney’s many contributions to Lennon’s material, and vice versa, and how even during the band’s dissolution, Lennon and McCartney remained committed to each other’s music.

But back to Uncle Jack and Lennon. “Do as I say, not as I do” pretty much sums up Lennon’s life. Blame it on his childhood or his insecurities (both of which Riley makes a case for), but too often Lennon just doesn’t come off as a very nice guy. Riley doesn’t try to cover over the warts, showing us time and again that what Lennon said and what he did were in complete contradiction, whether it was preaching peace and love but treating even his friends and associates with callousness, or preaching family and fidelity while cheating on the “love of his life.” Riley makes a somewhat persuasive case that Lennon was growing up in his last five years, but not enough to make you believe he really was, as he put it, starting over. And I found myself scratching my head in a few places where he interprets, sometimes without attribution, Lennon’s thought process, and I kept thinking that the word “perhaps” could have been used a bit more often when ascribing motivation.

That’s a minor quibble. Making John Lennon human didn’t change my view of his musical contributions or impact on my own life. If you’re a Beatles/Lennon fan, you really have to read this one and judge for yourself.

January 22, 2012   No Comments

Johnny Otis’ Other Hand Jive

Johnny Otis died Tuesday. He was 90. The great bandleader and songwriter was also an impressive visual artist, and I spoke with him about it in 1995 for Blues Access magazine.

They only met briefly, long, long ago. But Johnny Otis hasn’t forgotten Mr. Charlie or his dogs.

"Mr. Charlie's Dogs" (click to embiggen.)

“It was on one of our trips down South in Mississippi. We pulled into a rural gas station/restaurant. It’s 1950, and here’s a big bus painted with all kinds of carnival things – Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan, Little Esther, all that stuff in bright red colors.

“A young guy was running the gas station. It shook him up – all he saw was a bunch of black people getting off the bus. I saw him run in and make a call on the phone. I don’t know what he thought this was – the invasion of the rhythm and blues creatures,” Otis is saying during a phone interview in between bites of the leopard shark he’s munching at his Sebastapol, California, home.

“Right quick here comes this big honky with two terrible looking dogs,” he continues, emphasizing the word terrible. “We got back in the bus, and he just looked at us, and we froze. He just walked around us. The dogs looked at us and growled and growled. Oh, he loved the way he was terrorizing the black folks. I had a P-38 under my belt, and I thought, ‘If Charlie gonna start any shit, I’m going to take him with me’.”

“I remember him standing looking at us with a grin, then he pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. It’s that image that’s in my mind. We got our gas, and we left. That was it. We always referred to that as ‘Mr. Charlie’s Dogs’.”

It is a story worth retelling, but you won’t find it in the Johnny Otis songbook. He rather chose to remember Mr. Charlie’s Dogs in a 1986 acrylic-on-canvas painting. It’s in Colors and Chords (Pomegranate Artbooks), a new book on Otis’ art. “Mr. Charlie’s Dogs” is on the cover of this issue.

To his considerable achievements over the last half century – as bandleader, musician, hit songwriter, community activist, organic grocer, occasional preacher – be sure and add visual artist.  Otis’ talent has manifested itself, especially during the last 10-13 years, in paintings, lithographs and sculpture detailing contemporary black lifestyles, his music milieu and socio-political themes.

“Painting was something I just did, mostly as therapy in between gigs,” he explains. “What are you going to do when you’re off for a month? That happens in the music business. Can’t go fishing all the time.”

His active art life dates back to 1945, when he began sketching cartoons of band life for fun. “As we would be riding along in the bus, I would just sketch a little something funny, and everybody would laugh. And it turned into a request program about what happened the night before, something naughty or something sexy or something ridiculous. Most of them have bit the dust by now except for the ones in the book.”

Colors and Chords offers a couple of works, including the brooding, moody “Nat Turner” oil painting, from the early 1960s. Then Otis didn’t paint for a long time. “The only time I feel really emotionally inspired to do any artwork is when I’m in music,” he admits. “When I’m out of music, shit, I’m miserable.”

The late 1960s and early 1970s were lean years for the Johnny Otis Band. “That was when the British Invasion occurred, and we couldn’t get a goddam job. We weren’t working with the band for a stretch of years. As I think back, coincidentally, I didn’t do any art work to speak of, either.”

It wasn’t until 1979 that we went back to art in earnest. “We were working again,” he says. “We were playing all the time.” And Otis went on a tear, creating in many media, echoing Picasso and cubist painters and native African styles in his brightly colored, primitive, plastic and wood sculptures. Being immersed in music also stimulated his visually creative style.

“I went into an art store to buy a little pad of paper, pencils and pens, and I see all these colors, all these paints, and I said, ‘Shit.’ They were a magnet. It just happened like that.”

Otis believes that music and painting and sculpture have much in common. As a major chord is made up of the tonic, third and fifth notes, he sees the same triad in the three primary colors. And as you find out in music, there are new, interesting shading possible by mixing the colors or the chords.

That thinking can be readily seen in a whimsical oil painting of a band called “Olive and the Primaries.” “These are not true-to-life characters,” Otis says. “These are composites of musicians I’ve seen and heard. Olive’s breasts are shaped like olives, and the members of the band have faces in the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.”

Some other Otis paintings – Boogie Stompers,” “The Blues,” “Little Esther” and “Silas Green” – capture the immediacy and intimacy of the Otis band itinerary: fairgrounds, juke joints and clubs of the chitlin’ circuit. Otis rarely focuses on the star, instead weaving a wealth of detail, from the Super Dog stand in “The Blues” to the long, gold watch fob dangling from the waist of the dancer in “Little Esther.” That comes from the unique perspective he gets as bandleader; while we’re watching the band, they’re checking us out, too. “From my vantage point at the piano and up on the bandstand, I see a panoramic view, left to right – the bar, bartenders, dancers, waitresses, patrons, hangers-on.”

Like any artist, Otis doesn’t want to talk much about what motivates such work. “How do I know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I do whatever strikes me. I don’t have any boundaries about style. I just like to throw that shit around on the canvas and paint.”

Still, he’s giggling with anticipation at his next work. “The cartoon I’m going to do tonight is for my fishing buddies. One of us was charged with fixing the bait, and he fucked up, and we were so mad.” He laughed again.

Besides his current fishing jones, Otis is particularly proud of his band, which is working regularly on weekends at a local supper club called Lena’s and choosing assorted dates elsewhere. “The band is so strong,” he enthuses. “Every instrument has an exceptional person, and the singer is great.”

That he’s so excited about music should mean that he’s painting or sculpting again, but during the hot summer of 1995 Otis chose fishing. He prefers cooler weather so he can fire up a little wood stove in his home studio, where he’s working on a couple of large-scale paintings “If I can keep the pot belly full of wood and coals, I can paint for a long time.”

We received a letter from Otis soon afterwards and published it in the magazine:

I really like Blues Access a lot. Thanks for the article on my art. The bright colors on your covers is a good format. It makes the publication stand out against other magazines.

I hope the page-after-page of ads means you’re enjoying commercial success. And if you’re that successful, I think we should arrange a loan. Two or three hundred thousands dollars should be about right. Let’s do it in small bills — in cash, OK? And no IOUs please, because I’m allergic to paperwork.

If you ever get up to the California boondocks, let me know and we’ll hook up.

Johnny Otis

Sebastapol, CA.

January 20, 2012   No Comments

Jonathan Richman & the Morells Parody Hall-KC April 28, 1982

For some reason, I came to this show thinking that I was going to see Richman and the Morells, at this point in time my favorite live band, putting their collective energies together onstage. I should have known better. As my friend Joe Klopus puts it, Richman is always alone. Even back-up musicians are incidental. And it was really about the Morells, all Richman fans, wanting to turn Midwestern audiences onto his unique music, most of it released on the delightfully titled Beserkley Records.

So on this night the Morells, generally the headliners when they play Parody Hall, come out and kick ass for a couple of hours, working the audience to a frenzied peak, bassist Lou Whitney leading the descent into musical bliss.

After the set is over, everybody is hot and sweaty and obviously still ready to rock, and on comes Richman with just an electric guitar turned down singing some song about “Bermuda.” The audience is confused from the get-go. Some are walking around the dance floor, while others are sitting on the front of the stage drinking, talking, drinking, talking, paying no attention to the headliner. A hardcore group of Richman freaks can be spotted in the seats in the front middle, calling for favorites. The dancers don’t know what the hell to do.

There are plenty of Richman dissenters in the crowd, but at least they didn’t boo or heckle the guy. Richman seems oblivious to the fact that people come here to dance and sweat. He just goes from one song to another in his shy, graceful way.

Most of the dissenters left, and about thirty minutes into the set, the uninitiated were bouncing along with Richman’s eccentric, slightly warped, simple, moralistic songs. Not dancing, but almost …

As the set wore on, a theme emerged. One song used “someone you love, someone you care about” as the chorus, another called “Affection” was about how people don’t really communicate easily with each other and that he feels isolated and that this whirling mass of humanity is overpowering him. And yet he just sings on, and he completely wins over the remaining crowd. A very gutsy performance.

Among the songs he played on this night were “Rockin Robin,” “Egyptian Reggae,” “Ice Cream Man,” “Here Come the Martian Martians,” “That Summer Feeling,” “Trust Your Friends,” “Something You Love,” “Abominable Snowman,” “Neighbors” and “Tahitian Hop.”

I talked with Richman for a couple minutes just before he went on, and he said he met the Morells backstage at a Steve Forbert show in New York (the Morells backed Forbert here one night) and that he had been corresponding with guitarist Danny Thompson ever since. Thompson invited him to work with them if he ever wanted to tour the Midwest, and he took them up on it.

It has been a couple of years since his last album, and he said he had severed all ties with Matthew Kaufmann and Beserkley Records, his label of many years, and hired another manager and was working on a new record deal.

“He and I have differences about business,” he said as he leaned away and smiled as the Morells banged out “Jackson” about ten feet away. I asked him about a recent bootleg on Mohawk records, and he made a motion with his boots, leaned over and said he’d like to break the owner’s head. “I don’t get any royalties for that stuff.”

(This is one in a continuing series of recollections and notes I made while covering music for The Kansas City Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.)

June 30, 2011   No Comments

Hound Dog Men: Leiber and Stoller’s Story

When we think of the great songwriters of the 1950s, we usually concentrate on Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Leiber-Stoller doesn’t immediately come to mind. I didn’t even know their first names – they have always been Leiber-Stoller to me.

All that changed after reading Hound Dog: The Leiber-Stoller Biography (Simon and Shuster 2009), written with David Ritz. Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were at least as important as songwriters as Berry or Holly, but like their first names, we don’t remember them because they weren’t performers.

Both of them grew up on the East Coast, but they didn’t meet until they had moved to Los Angeles, and their partnership, which began in 1950, has lasted through many decades, if their popularity and creativity pretty much dried up by the 1970s. But they will be remembered for the many songs they wrote for the Drifters, the Coasters and other great doo wop groups of the 1950s.

They were young Jewish men completely enchanted with black music. Stoller, a pianist, studied jazz and classical music and wrote all the music for the team. Leiber was a lyricist literally without peer at the time, and the pair created some of the most fascinating songs of the era: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Kansas City,” “The Chicken and the Hawk,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Along Came Jones,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Little Egypt,” “Stand by Me,” among them.

Oh, yeah. And “Hound Dog.” “You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog,’“ Atlantic Records co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun told them. They knew he was right, naming their autobiography after the song and highlighting the quote on the first page.

One thing not many know is that along with their songwriting skills, they were involved in producing records before we came up with the term “production” in the making of records. Listen to the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” and read how they came up with the recording. The Cups were in the studio to put final touches on a song they recorded a few days earlier, “People Say,” and warming up their voices with the old Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko.”

Stoller writes, “We decided to cut it there and then. No band was present … Jeff (Barry) and Ellie (Greenwich) picked up a coke bottle, a plastic bowl and a few can openers. That became the percussion. There was also a souvenir kalimba box from the West Indies, a sort of giant version of an African thumb piano. I found a way to tune it and used it to play a bass line. The Dixie Cups sang the song with tremendous feeling and authenticity. When we were finished, we loved it … We had another Top Twenty hit.”

There are plenty of stories like that one in Hound Dog, their on-off involvement with Elvis Presley and Col. Parker, their experiences with everybody from Phil Spector to Shadow Morton to Norman Mailer, as well as many other stories about the early days of rock and roll. And I finally got their names right.

April 5, 2011   No Comments

Bob Dylan’s Modern Times and Tell Tale Signs

We'll be celebrating Bob Dylan's 70th birthday (it's May 24) early on Roots & Branches April 3.

I just finished Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America,” a series of essays that looks at Dylan’s career, many of them about the later parts of it.  Like Wilentz, I have been fascinated at Dylan’s reincarnation after a period of confusion that lasted through much of the 1980s as a kind of minstrel, performing regularly as well as becoming involved in other kinds of creative expression.

Dylan is marking 70 years next month, so I put together a special KGNU (88.5 FM) Roots & Branches show for Sunday, April 3, 9-11 am MT that will argue that the last twenty years of Dylan’s career will be a period that be considered one of his most fruitful. (Download the show here until April 17.)

Nothing could possibly match the evolutionary path Robert Zimmerman took from the moment he first stepped onto New York streets fifty years ago in January to the release of Nashville Skyline nine years later. But he hasn’t done so bad of late, either.

In Chronicles Dylan relates that he realized by 1987 that he had been coasting, riding the laurels of his legend, performing erratically and releasing albums that seemed little more than pale reflections of his glorious past. He minced few words about his predicament, which coincided with an injury to one of his hands that he feared might end his playing days. “Always prolific, never exact,” he wrote, “too many distractions had turned my musical path into a jungle of vines.”

At the same time he writes that he realized that he would have to change the way he wrote and presented his music. “By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm,” he wrote, “which would give my songs a brighter countenance, call them up from the grave – stretch out the stiffness in their bodies and straighten them out.”

He also describes a musical numerical system, which I still don’t understand, that he says the guitarist Lonnie Johnson taught him. But for whatever reasons, things began turning around for him.

In 20 years, he’s released two albums of traditional songs (Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, four albums of original material (Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life) and eight editions in his bootleg series that includes a couple of three-disc sets. He published the first of a three-part memoir, Chronicles, which offered his own memories of his early days in New York City and two other periods of his life where he felt at a crossroads. He let Martin Scorsese direct No Direction Home, a three-hour-plus documentary on his life to 1966, that included two more albums of outtakes and other interesting material.

He wrote, directed and produced Masked & Anonymous,  an apocalyptic film that starred some of Hollywood’s finest acting talent. He curated and was host of Theme Time Radio Hour for three years, producing 100 hour-long programs that featured his obvious love for all kinds of music and American history and featured his oddball sense of humor. He let Twyla Tharp try to adapt his music for dance.

He plays about a hundred concerts a year, which isn’t an unusual number of shows except, it seems, in Dylan’s case, when it’s called the Never Ending Tour. His paintings are now hung in galleries around the world. He made Christmas in the Heart, a fantastic Christmas album and donated the money to charity. You probably wouldn’t have called Bob Dylan charitable in 1965, but you might today. He seems to have grown comfortably into old age with the same instincts and curiosity intact that have, except for a period in the 1980s, always sustained him.

And his most recent work, as Wilentz relates, recasts him as part of a long American tradition. In many ways, it’s no more than an extension of what he has always done. In Chronicles Dylan relates, as a voracious reader from an early age, how he dug into historical texts in friend’s apartments and the New York City Library. Early on he paid tribute to his heroes by copying them – his own tribute, “Song to Woody,” steals the melody of Woody Guthrie’s own “1913 Massacre.” Today, he finds different ways to connect with music and literature from, as Greil Marcus once dubbed it, the old, weird America, and spit it back out at us in different ways.

I think I make a strong case for his recent success, but the proof is in the music. Time willing, here’s the playlist for Sunday morning. The show will stream from kgnu.org, and I’ll post the link to the podcast Sunday afternoon.

Introduction, Bob Dylan Concert 2009
Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Disc 3.
Tomorrow Night, Lonnie Johnson Bluebird single
Tomorrow Night, Bob Dylan, Good As I Been To You
Money Honey (take 2), Bob Dylan Unreleased
Nashville Skyline Rag, Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline
Love Sick, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Not Dark Yet, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Tryin’ To Get to Heaven (Oct. 5, 2000, London, England), Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Marchin to the City, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Things Have Changed, Bob Dylan, Wonder Boys
Having Myself A Time, Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Disc 4)
Bye & Bye, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Po’ Boy, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
High Water, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone), Articolo 31. Masked & Anonymous
Down In The Flood (New Version), Bob Dylan, Masked & Anonymous
Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking    Bob Dylan & Mavis Staples, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan
Spirit On The Water, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Beyond The Horizon, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Cross the Green Mountain, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Checkers by Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour: Dogs
Sinatra and Kennedy, Theme Time Radio Hour: President’s Day
Dylan GPS rap, Theme Time Radio Hour: Street Map
Life is Hard, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life
It’s All Good, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life

April 2, 2011   2 Comments