Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fair Port, Crop Ready (The Prequel)

The flood waters in England are receding, and the proper British getting on with it, shoveling out the damaged homes and inns. The sun has reappeared, however reluctantly, over weirs and moors. And the show will go on! Fairport and its thousands of friends will soon occupy the drying-out grounds of Cropredy once more...

I fly out on August 3rd, so I get to send this bloggin' stuff on leave too for a couple of weeks, lazy sod that I am. But first here's just one more bit of old Fusion writing, since it relates to some of the music that lies ahead in England:

By 1970 or so, the great Fairport Convention line-up including Sandy Denny, Ashley Hutchings, and Richard Thompson had splintered, and the other, and newer, guys had rallied behind fancy folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick. So, from June 1972, my review of A&M 4333, Fairport's then-new album "Babbacombe" Lee (and my opinion of the discs cited here would still hold today, except that Angel Delight yielded many Fairport old favorites as the years went on)...


Hard on the heels of Fairport's recent Angel Delight--a somewhat lackluster jumble of jigs and clogs rumored to have been released without the group's consent (and certainly advertised in a slipshod manner with even the song titles confused)--comes this odd accumulation of programmatic folky-rock called "Babbacombe" Lee. (Arriving almost to the day with the announcement of Simon Nicol's departure from the group, the drafty jacket even has a drawing of the boys with Simon standing apart--shades of Last Time Around!) I say "programmatic" because the songs all concern one John Lee, evidently a real man who was arrested for a murder he didn't commit. Convicted posthaste on circumstantial evidence and condemned to death, Lee was later unexpectedly reprieved when, on the morning of his execution, the gallows failed three times to function. Lee then lived on behind bars for twenty-odd years more (consignment to a worse tomb, he commented afterwards) until his final parole.

A bizarre tale indeed, and a curious choice for a "concept" album. Or is it? An 1880's setting, existential angst, a "terrible ordeal" (as the notes proclaim), an implicit message calling for prison and juridical reform--"Babbacombe" Lee has them all and more. The "more" fortunately being a disc-load of good, varied, invigorating music--plenty of mandolin and fiddle, vocals from all four Fairporters (for a welcome change), a multitude of intriguing and melodic, if untitled, songs.

The guys have clearly put in many long hours shaping these story-songs, polishing the lyric content to a glossy, yet feeling and intelligent gleam, especially the second side's Death Row ballads ("Dying's very easy, waiting's very hard"). I was prepared at first to be bored, since concept albums have become such a goddamned glut and drag. But now I'm most glad I listened and really heard. A distinguished, and enjoyable, piece of work from a group still to be reckoned with, split or no. So don't let the bland packaging put you off--don't pass "Babbacombe" Lee carelessly by.

(And if you can find it, get the English import called No Roses, by Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band--which is Miss Collins and, mostly, the old Fairport crew reunited for a folk-rocking good time that harkens back to watershed albums like Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief.)


Back to the present. As fans of Fairport know, Sandy died after a fall, Richard built a great career as songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire, restless Ashley became a one-man force for preserving English music of all eras, and Swarb led a version of Fairport for several more years, until the band sort of petered out... except that it didn't.

A new/old Fairport reconstituted itself with Simon back, and Dave Pegg, and Dave Mattacks, and various front men on guitar or fiddle or whatever, and the boys gathered for a nice Weekend in the Country, which became a yearly event, which grew to be three days of Fairporters old and new and their many musical friends and friendly rivals, and new albums appeared every year or so, and the band rolled on!

Forty years young this May, and up to nearly 30 years of Festivals, mostly called Cropredy. And all survivors are back this year for a special on-stage playthrough of Liege and Lief (the single most influential English rocking folk album of all time), as well as the usual all-hands-on-deck Saturday night with Fairport.

And I'll be there.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I'm Tore Down (Part 3)

Bluesman John Hammond briefly had Jimi Hendrix as his lead guitar player, but then Jimi headed for England (see most recent post below)...

"That summer of 1967 I went to Atlantic and told them about the stuff we'd cut earlier for Red Bird. They were interested and bought the tunes and my contract, and used them on the album I Can Tell in the fall. We also cut Sooner or Later then, but it wasn't released till the next year."

From 1967 until last year ((article dates from 1970)), Hammond was just playing anywhere he could, Chicago, both coasts, some festivals--sometimes alone, sometimes as John Hammond and His Screamin' Nighthawks, though the only other mainstay in that time was drummer Charles Otis.

"Let me tell you about him," says Hammond. "Charles Otis is a legend in his own time. He began playing at sixteen in New Orleans with Professor Longhair. Then he went on the road with Lloyd Price--he's on 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy.' He also played with Fats Domino, Little Richard, Huey Piano Smith, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, Otis Redding, The Coasters, The Dixie Cups, Alvin Robinson--in other words, everybody in r&b. In The Girl Can't Help It, Charles is the cat drumming behind Little Richard. He's 37 now, but he's ageless. He's had numerous offers from cats like James Brown, But Charles won't go out on the road anymore with anyone but me," concludes Hammond with obvious pride.

Atlantic made no further moves with Hammond, Otis, and whoever else, however, until last fall. "They sent me down to Muscle Shoals, and I think we made a monster--a meat package, no fat on it anywhere. This new guy Duane Allman's on guitar on four cuts, lead and slide. Now I've heard The Allman Brothers album and I don't like it much, but he played his ass off for this one." The new album, called Southern Fried, has just now appeared.

What are Hammond's future plans? "Well," he muses, "right now I could have an eight-piece band of the baddest cats in the land--all these New Orleans cats that are tight with Charles. But I still can't afford to keep a band like that together. But if I could, man, we'd make a shot heard 'round the world.

"If I can't get big money and big concerts," he goes on, "I don't know what will happen. I can't keep going on the road ten months of the year much longer. I've got a wife and kid now. She's a woman, she knows I'm a musician and she's strong; but this year starts my ninth year. I've played everywhere, I've worked hard, I've got all the credentials--now I've got to get into the concert scene."

Hammond listens in silence for a moment to Little Walter blowing blue and lonely in the background, then says, "I've never been in a strong bargaining positions with the record companies. I've never got any front money at all, so they were never forced to put any promotional hype on my albums. Even this new one--Atlantic says they'll push it, but it's all on faith at this point.

"It's hard not to be bitter, but I'm not. I've met and played with so many incredible artists--I've gotten to play with all my idols, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. Listen, I shared a bill with the Wolf one time, and he used to call me back out every night. He said, 'Damn, oh you got a lot of heart, John.' A black person can see that I feel what I'm doing--that I'm not just imitating. Because of my family, I've just known so many black musicians in my life. Like my middle name Paul--I'm named after Paul Robeson, my godfather. But it's never been, like, being part of a white group looking on a black culture. I've just been there, so I'm not ill-at-ease now wherever I go. I get hassled more by whites," he adds bitterly, "than I do by blacks."

And as a result, Hammond's manner seems a strange mixture of shyness and egotism--of courtly politeness on one hand and occasional nervousness on the other (evidenced possibly by the slight stutter that shows up in his speech, though never in his singing). So many of his friends and one-time back-up men have become astounding successes, and so many white critics have accused him disdainfully of something akin to "blackface" mimickry ((Greil Marcus is one over the many years who never cut John any slack)), that it should be no surprise to find Hammond somewhat defensive in his pride and confidence.

"People think I've had all these inroads in music because of my father," he says. "He's really a spectacular man, and I got to hear the music because of his position. But I've done it all myself. I wanted to be on my own, making my own living, making my own mistakes--and I have been since I was eighteen. In fact, there was a time when my father tried to discourage me from music.

"I began playing because I loved the blues, I loved all these black musicians who are truly great figures in American culture. And I wanted to help propagate, help continue the life of this stuff that was going out of style. I knew I could do it, and I have--I know I've turned a lot of people on to this pure art form, this roots thing of American culture. And a lot of black artists have benefited, so I feel good.

"The blues is comin' back," he says, " and comin' back pure--the basics, the truth. It's so real, it makes some people embarrassed. In today's age of super-technology when there's no feeling and very little thinking, the blues is a shot of pure energy."

He stops and gestures into the gathering waves of sound from Little Walter's harmonica. "That's so real, man. That's his heart you're listening to."

It's over. John Hammond, bluesman, heads back to the motel and then to his last night at the Medicine Show--still on the road, still paying his dues, still working and waiting.


The irony of this 1970 article, of course, is that it could have been written yesterday or a year ago, because the language and ideas expressed (especially in this third part) are still pertinent over 35 years later. Though his hair is graying and he's recognized as a major founding figure of the post-Chicago blues scene, playing and singing for nearly 50 years now, John Hammond is still out there scuffling, shifting from label to label, cutting fine albums with tunes ranging from Robert Johnson to Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry to Tom Waits... and maybe still hoping to hit it big.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My Time After A While (Part 2)

Hammond's career took off when he got a rousing reception at the Newport Folk Festival. We resume there...

"I cut Big City Blues in the winter of '63. This guitar player named Billy Butler who'd played with Bill Doggett on 'Honky Tonk' got a band together for the date. After that, Vanguard booked me into the Village Gate. I had Eric Gale on guitar, Jimmy Lewis on bass, and Rob somebody on drums--we were the first electric band to play there other than jazz. This was January of 1964, when The Rolling Stones had first come over to this country. They came down to dig us at the Gate, and I got to know them, mainly Brian."

Hammond was gigging all over by then, including several jobs in Canada. "I met these guys called The Hawks," he goes on, "and sat in with them on a few jobs. I was playing with them as their group, only in a jamming capacity, but we got to be very good friends. The Hawks at that time looked super-straight--crewcuts, immaculate suits, all that. But they were actually totally wild, really far-out cats. Some of the things they used to do with girls at those ((early rockabilly singer Ronnie)) Hawkins parties I can't tell you!"

How do you feel about their different image and pre-eminent success as The Band? "I'm really happy for 'em," Hammond answers. "Those guys are so talented, they can play any kind of sound there is. What you hear on their two records is just one facet of what they can do. They're makin' real money now, and that's what they always wanted--to get into a position where they could call the shots. God knows they've earned it.

"Anyway, in the summer of 1964 I got together all these cats I'd known, including The Hawks. Bloomfield was on piano because Robbie was just so dynamic on guitar, and Michael was not playing like he is now. In fact, Michael learned some things from Robbie. I got them together--not too many people know that. But," he shrugs, "it's not important anyway.

"Vanguard got very uptight about the date because we looked so sloppy and they didn't know any of these guys, so we had to do it all in one session, and get it on the first or second take with no overdubbing. I really had to hustle to get Vanguard to release it at all ((his fine album So Many Roads))."

Hammond pauses to light another cigarette, then resumes: "I've really played with some fantastic cats--like, Johnny Littlejohn had a trio going in Chicago. Bloomfield introduced us in '64, and then we played some jobs together in the East for about two months. The whole problem was I had this duality thing going--I was soloing, but I was also trying to get a band together. I kept trying to make something happen between myself and The Hawks. So many near calls, but...

"Finally, I went over to England in the spring of '65. I played twenty dates or so over there with bands backing me up like Graham Bond's and then John Mayall in London. Listen, Clapton was playing, Spencer Davis, Winwood... I got to meet and play with all those cats. It was really fine."

When he returned to the U.S. in the summer, Hammond left Vanguard and signed with Leiber-Stoller and a label of theirs called Red Bird. "I got Robbie for the session and Jimmy Lewis; and Leiber-Stoller knew Charles Otis who'd been playing all over. Then I got Bill Wyman for a couple of numbers. Brian Jones was there too, begging me to let him play hamonica on the date, but I told him the harp was all mine. Dylan showed up at the session too--Bob and I had been friends since 1961, and I'd introduced him to The Hawks.

"We cut two singles and some other numbers. The deal supposedly was to be this unbelievable promotion by Red Bird--magazines, TV shows, the whole shot. But then the owner of Red Bird just decided it wasn't going to happen. Man, I was zapped. Just when were getting things together and everything looked so rosy, bang!

"That was it. I sold everything I owned and left the country. I said I was never going back." Hammond split for Europe and spent half of 1966 wandering across the continent, finally winding up in Turkey for some months. He underwent a particularly painful experience there--one which he refuses to talk about, but which persuaded him to return to the U.S. after all. "I came back at the end of summer with my tail between my legs," he says.

After a trip to the Orient with a friend, he wound up in San Francisco for a few days, where he went to see a flashy new band called Jefferson Airplane (in the pre-Grace era). "I looked up on stage and there was this cat on guitar I'd known at college, Jorma Kaukonen. He invited me up on stage to play with them. It was really strange--I was just off the plane and was completely straight. I was wearing a suit and tie, had this San Francisco Giants baseball cap on my head, and was smoking a cigar. But we did it, and the audience went wild."

The occasion convinced Hammond to go back to New York and get his own band together, this one called The Blue Flames. "I met this guy named Jimmy James who was playing stuff off my So Many Roads--he was playing Robbie's parts, but better! I said, 'Wow! I got to get him into the band.' And we also had Randy Wolfe, who calls himself Randy California now. ((of the band Spirit)) And Jimmy James, of course, was in reality Jimi Hendrix.

"We played the A Go-Go and had celebrities digging us every night. Again it was going to happen. But then Jimmy was offered this job in England behind The Animals. He asked me about it, and I told him it sounded like a good thing."

He adds somewhat ruefully, "The next thing I knew it was The Jimi Hendrix Experience!"

((A good place to pause again. Hammond was snakebit for luck way too many times. Next time, he reflects on that and tells us about drummer Charles Otis--oh yeah, and an obscure slide guitarist named Duane Allman.))

Sunday, July 22, 2007

John Hammond, Bluesman (Part 1)

Once there was a fine Boston-based rock-and-politics magazine called Fusion. It survived for several years in the late Sixties and early Seventies as a solid rival to Rolling Stone. Among those writing for it were Robert Somma (Editor), Michael Lydon, Paul Williams, Robert Christgau, Lenny Kaye, Sandy Pearlman, Nick Tosches, Jonathan Demme, Robert Gordon, John Gabree, and William Kunstler. The magazine even published Peter Guralnick's first book.

As far as I know, Fusion has vanished into rock history now, but I published a few decent pieces in it, and I intend to resurrect a couple of them over the months ahead, starting with my portrait of white bluesman John Hammond, Jr. (not really Junior since his middle name Paul was not also his dad's, but usually identified that way)--still going strong today though not much more financially successful now than he was back then. The article's title was "Songs of the Road."

John Hammond, Sr. is one of the few giant figures in the recording industry. His efforts in discovering, recording, and monitoring neglected or future musical talents has long been legendary in a business short on memory. As an executive of Columbia Records and as the man best known to the rock generation for having signed up Bob Dylan, John Sr. is, in the words of his son, a "spectacular" man, one whose grace and tact are as obvious as his concern and intelligence.

So how does it feel to be John Hammond, Jr. when the year is 1970, when the really big brass rings are mostly gone and it isn't 1960 and there aren't any clubs or people left who haven't heard about Chicago Blues or Joan Baez or civil rights? Where do you go when all the months and years have slipped by and the lives of friends are measured in words like career and culture hero...

The club has character, atmosphere, as they say. No perpendicular sign outside announces its presence, only the word "Tavern" and a couple of beer ads in the dingy front window. But a chain just inside the door (due to the cover charge) suggests that this is no working man's beer-parlor; and once you dig that, you got it all. Band sound and crowd drone; ceiling looming down over parallel layers of spilled Oly, wall-to-wall bodies, and cigarette/pot haze as thick as catatonia; walls and supports decked out with such jagged addenda as mammoth deer antlers, a copy of Goya's Naked Maja, bare and glaring red lights, a vast, ragged U.S. flag, and posters proclaiming the very man now performing on the non-stage over at the left.

Clearly, the word has gone out: John Hammond's in town for three nights, and the Medicine Show Tavern in once again the place to be. (Concert halls and discotheques may control live rock these days, but the Medicine Hall is trying to make it--in backwater Seattle!--by booking in blues people: Lightnin' Hopkins and Son House in recent months, and now white practitioner John Hammond.)

Hammond's Blues Band--blacks Harry Holt, bass, and Charles Otis, drums, plus the man himself on vocals and small electric Gibson--is into the second set of the evening. All three musicians wear suits and ties, but there's no mistaking them for businessmen. Holt's bulging natural and sly smile peer around the neck of his bass, while Otis hides behind his shades and flickering sticks and his well-earned reputation as one of the best r&b drummers around. Hammond's looks are more complex: a bit of the Jagger leer framed in long dark hair, but an angular and gawky body like a high school basketball star--and the sounds issuing from his guitar and throat are flat-out black.

At 27, John Hammond has been scrabbling and scuffling on the road for over eight years. Aside from maybe Dave Van Ronk, he was the first white blues performer to get on record (in the rock era at least), both as country acoustic and then later as big-city electric; and his eight albums have even featured members of The Band and The Stones on occasion. But the chart sales have always managed to elude his grasp. So, although Hammond's deep involvement with black blues has served as the model for many young whites, performers and listeners alike, widespread popular recognition has not been his.

The audience at the Medicine Show at least voices approval--a couple of hundred hip kids, whooping and whistling and cheering wildly. The set opens with Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied," all bottleneck strains and machine-gun drums, then moves into John Lee Hooker's "Sugar Mama," with Holt's bass heavily pronounced and Hammond getting into some wah-wah. He's really working out now, really going through changes: arching his body around, shaking the hair and sweat streamers back from his eyes, attacking the mike with his slack-jawed, explosive vocal delivery, as thick and slurred and black as two-days-old coffee.

Close your eyes and it's a South Side Chicago bar. There's "Mojo" and "Forty Days" and a "Cross Cut Saw" that stutters and booms with harsh guitar--and then "Spoonful," creeping in slow and evil and deadly, with Hammond outdoing even the Wolf, adding his own gutty and gritty inflection to those famous opening words: "Could be a spoonful o' coffee, Could be a spoonful o' tea..."

When fatigue and an increasingly erratic sound system finally bring the set to an end, the John Hammond Blues Band exits through cascading applause. Once into the tavern's combination storeroom-office-sound booth, Otis and Holt wander off to quench their thirst, but Hammond settles down to demonstrate acoustic bottlenecking techniques to a pair of inquisitive fans. he seems tired but pleased with the band's performance; and he agrees to do an interview the next afternoon.


At that time, Hammond arrives resplendent in jeans and a pythonskin jacket ("I'm not up to the pants yet"), armed with a mug of coffee and a pack of Camels, apologetic for his slight hoarseness, the result of having sung every night for over six weeks. With a disc of Magic Sam playing in the background, Hammond launches into a near monologue on gigs and people and dues:

"Robert Johnson was where I started. When I was 16, my father ((see intro above)) played me a record of Johnson's 'Terraplane Blues.' Something clicked in my head. That's when I became a blues singer."

Lightnin' Hopkins was another formative influence, but Hammond was playing only for himself and for friends--in the Village and during one wasted year at Antioch College--until early '62. "I had a job at a hotel in Florida, busman, roomkeeper, maintenance man, and in the off-time I was practicing guitar. I'd go into this little town, Boca Grande, and stand on the street corners playing for the black people in town. I met this cat Albert McCall who encouraged me and showed me some stuff on harmonica--I'm sure he's still playing there at the Phosphate."

That spring he began playing the club circuit in L.A.--the Satire, the Insomniac, the Troubador, the Ash Grove. After a stop in San Francisco, he moved on to Chicago in the fall. "I met up there again with John Koerner and Dave Ray, and we drove up to Minneapolis in this old hotrod V-8 Ford I had. Got a job playing with Koerner at Matty's Bar in Minneapolis. We had this duet thing going--two guitars, two harmonicas. I got to know those guys very well."

Then on to Gerde's Folk City in New York, where he attracted enough attention to get a contract from Vanguard Records. Hammond cut an album that winter, but Vanguard didn't get around to releasing it until the following September. Meanwhile he was playing dates up and down the East Coast; remember those innocent days when a white kid playing black music was still something remarkable?

Hammond continues, "Then I was asked to the Newport Folk Festival. I went over well and made some friends." He's being modest. His performance was actually an astounding success; just listen to the black artists cheering Hammond on in the background of "No Money Down" (on the first Blues at Newport album)....

((I'm splitting the article there for now, but with one bit of added info: Hammond's father was the man who staged the famous Spirituals to Swing concerts in 1938 and '39; and he tried to track down Robert Johnson to bring him up to NYC for the first one, but Johnson had been murdered by then. Younger John's connection with tragic bluesman Robert was in a way made back in 1938! Next time: The Band, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and a certain Jimmy James...))

Thursday, July 19, 2007

It All Comes 'Round Again

In early August, I fly over the waves to London, to join the latest Yank tour gang--sponsored by Festival Tours actually, based in Southern Collie-for-neeya--bound for Banbury and Cropredy, and the 40th Anniversary Reunion of Fairport Convention, with the early Liege and Lief-era group (minus Sandy Denny) gathered once again to celebrate folk music and the musicians' own survival!

Those coming back to Cropredy 2007 to play that great classic, the single most important English folk-rock album complete, would be: complex guitarist and genius songwriter Richard Thompson; Albion Band master, the ever-restless dancing-bassman Ashley Hutchings; genial stalwart and welcome rhythm guitar Simon Nicol (the only one to hang with Fairport for most years since the original days); Brit session-drummer extraordinaire Dave Mattacks; and ailing-but-game fiddler Dave Swarbrick, better known as "Swarb."

A few decades on, of course the five players have their own other bands and projects, but the Cropredy call goes out and, every few years, back each one comes again for the annual do, to play for hours and maybe still get choked up (like every fan in the huge crowd) when it comes time to end the night, and the latest festival, with "Meet on the Ledge."

The year I went, way back around 1983, was the first such trip organized by Nancy Covey's tour business, and I can't remember how I heard about it happening. But damn I'm glad I got on board--the group was a small manageable size, the music went on night after night, culminating at Cropredy, and then we all traveled on to Scotland for several days at the bustling and senses-boggling Edinburgh Festival. What a great two weeks!

And then there was the behind-the-scenes intrigue... Ex-Fairporter Richard Thompson had just split from his wife and singing partner Linda Thompson as a result of his having fallen head-over-heels for Ms.Covey, so we sort of caught glimpses of RT hanging around our tour even when he wasn't actually playing! We fans tried to be cool about it, but the gossip and ga-ga amazement ran rampant. Still, it was Richard and his band performing his own rocking new album, Hand of Kindness, plus Fairport's many hours of music at the Festival (captured on a two-cassette pseudo-bootleg called The Boot) that sold us all. Fairport forever!

I have no good excuse for never having gone back in the quarter century since... only the changing aspects of one's life. I met a new woman who became my wife the year after we'd traveled the world during 1986 and '87, I struggled to find enough freelance work, I wound up owning a bookstore for over a decade, the money was never there, my kids and ailing parents needed attention, etc. But, really, I could have made it happen.

I think I just felt that I'd been there and done that, and it had been so special, why risk trying to do it again? Yet this year, with Liege and Lief to be played complete for the first time ever, with the main original band reforming for this 40th year, with me being 64 almost 25 years later... when if not this year?

I'll likely have more to write come mid-August, but for now, here's the poem I wrote after the splendid visit to Edinburgh that first tour so long ago...

From Arthur’s Seat

From this high hill, Auld Reekie falls away
In spreading arcs of sooty stone
Like Stella-painted parallels in grey,
The Gaelic heritage pared down
To cobbled streets and buildings streaked to black
By centuries of soft-coal smoke.

Below the castle walls of history
Edinburgh hides its cultured light
Under a bushel, smudged by this low sky
Leaking light dabs of liquid slate.
No misty spray can scrub its stone, nor yet
Dampen the spirit of its fete.

Whirling in chambers of the singing line,
Through halls of grand dramatic gestures,
Young scholars put off hard Knox for a time
To dance a mad reel with their masters;
And tourists prowl dank cellars of the Fringe
Transformed to something rich and strange:

Shakespeare of course, both mime and costume play;
Ossian, Fisher-folk, and lieder;
Symphonies, comedies, corps de ballet;
Ibsen, Blood Wedding, and Aida;
Noir films and color, Old Jazz versus Newer…
Festival cups run, aye, well o’er!

Over-enlightened, culturally shocked,
I’m up to here in Burns and Scotch,
Jugglers and cabaret, music and Brecht
And Mackintosh… It’s just too much,
Too many good things all at once; and thus
My steep retreat to this still place,

To silence well befitting a high seat
Of wisdom, so withdrawn yet near.
No purple heather holds the hill this late.
Thistle is missing. No Scots burr
Pricks at my thumb, or ear. And here no quaint
Kilt-wearing sort will curb my rant.

King Arthur might have fought here; my namesake,
Northumbria’s ruler, may have lent
The town his name; but I could sooner break
Salisbury Crags as comprehend
How canny Scots combine their “enterprise”
With Socialist priorities.

But stuff that lot: let politicians glut
Their sense on culture like the rest
Of us this August month, and forget that,
Below the Border, worlds exist…
Now from down Holyrood, tunes of some folk
Drift up the air like whisps of smoke,

The spirit of Auld Reekie rising still,
Putting an end to my complaining.
A sudden spear of sunlight splits the pall
Of cloud, magicks the mist to gloaming,
And sparks the wet rooftops to blazing gold.
Edinburgh sheds its cloak of cold

As skirling pipes announce the night’s Tattoo.
I’ll tak’ ma heels doon frae these hielands,
Fling ma’sel’ into festive ballyhoo,
And find some bonny lass whose slogan’s
Scotland’s advice to hearts lost here on tour:
“Noo grief’s awa’, dinna be sa dour!”

Monday, July 16, 2007

Out of the Past

Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Raoul Whitfield, and Paul Cain... hard as nails; accustomed to pain.

Ross Macdonald, Jonathan Latimer, Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy... black of humor; strangers to joy.

David Goodis, James Ellroy, Lawrence Block, and Richard Stark... do their best work in the noir dark.

Joe Gores, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke... down these mean streets they go to work.

Maybe you can forgive the dumb rhyming; I just decided that all the names--a selective sampling only--got boring when presented simply as a list. The point is: where would American mysteries be without hardboiled detective stories and dark crime books?

I for one wouldn't be reading much. I say thank God for all the tough guys (and gals) who chased the frontier as it moved West, who built the country town by town and acre by acre, and who then eventually showed up as heroes of various sorts in the pulps. Back in the Twenties and Thirties those dime mags were full of high spirits and low deeds, rugged characters and rotten criminals. And Black Mask struck gold with tales of private eyes and railroad dicks and ornery reporters, giving birth to an entire industry that's still going strong 80 years later.

In fact, our American style of semi-literate detecting, whether by shamus or cop (or now forensics expert!), has found willing readers and author acolytes all over the world, from Scandinavia to Australia, from Sicily to Thailand and beyond.

I've collected hardboiled detective fiction for fifty years, and that's why the bookstore I had was (and on-line still is) called MisterE Books. My Master's degree in Lit? Pshaw. I'd rather read Joseph Shaw's picks for Black Mask, Ian Rankin's Rebus roaming Edinburgh, and the latest Arkady Renko novel by Martin Cruz Smith.

One day a few years back, I amused myself writing a ballad about one not-too-bright hardboiled p.i., and here it is, my tribute to the world as seen by Hammett and Chandler and Macdonald and so many more:

Affair Noir

It was an undercover op:
me and this leggy dark-haired frail.
Said she could use a private cop
could keep his trap shut, stick a tail.

I prize my rep--flip, hard-boiled dick
quick with the gat, head like a sap.
Who pegs a ritzy dame that slick
to set me up to take the rap?

"We never sleep," I bragged. "This eye's
your boy from here to Poisonville."
"I go for guys," she says, "crack wise;
so leave us give these mugs the chill."

We cruise top spots that price me woozy,
check out the waltzers' brand of hooch.
In the clinches the kid's a doozy:
we drop the caper, swap a smooch;

she's class, all silver masked in black.
I feel like the heel among gumshoes.
Next thing I know we're in the sack,
investigating without clues.

Now, I'm no crummy keyhole peeper;
I know my way around a bed--
ready to fire my Little Sleeper,
high-caliber, with special lead.

But this babe calls a spade a spade.
Moves like a dip. Tricks on the pick-up.
Countering all my plans best laid,
flops me unfit for frisk or stick-up.

Caught dead to rights, I need a stall;
yawning, "We aim to please." "My eye,"
she yaps; "this time, you take the fall."
Too late: I'm out, the wrong goodbye,

down for the count, the wee-small shift.
A long ways off I hear a hissing:
"You owe me one, you lousy stiff!"
But I'm out chasing persons missing--

dreaming I'm on the trail of Truth,
notched with an itchy trigger finger;
competent op, so cool and couth
lucre escapes, but ladies linger...

Awake, she's gone. A mash-note greets:
"Farewell, my loser"... the kiss-off; terse.
"A man must go down these mean sheets;
no reckless dick, or vice versa."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Flash and Frazetta--Rooney and Rainier

Comments from readers sent me to YouTube for a quick look at a few of the old Rainier spots, and doing that reminded me of a few things I forgot to include last time:

Regarding Mickey Rooney... The Mick was so popular in general that he appeared in spots for three or four years straight. (He actually talked about himself in the third person, discussing things "Mickey Rooney," the film/television personality, would or wouldn't do!) One ad I had forgotten--because it wasn't particularly memorable--presented Rooney as a crusty old mountain man confronting a gunfighter/gambler in an Old West saloon. (We got to go to Arizona to film that one!)

And the Nelson Eddy spoof actually was shot in two versions--Mick and his wife (who played our Jeanette MacDonald) together sang our parody of "Indian Love Call," at the end of which Mick poured her a beer. The straight version had him pouring into a schooner she held, and we shot that a few times to pick the best takes; the other version had him carelessly pouring the beer down her dress instead. The trick was, we put both versions out for broadcast, having the stations play the straight one most often, then rotate-in the comic one every once in a while. A bit of trickery to keep our viewers confused, amused, and maybe more attentive!

And there were two rather "difficult" spots that I neglected to mention. One that we called "the horizontal pour" showed a small table and chair in a room; but all furniture was fastened to the floor, and the room and camera were mounted on a rotating axis (much like a famous Fred Astaire set that allowed him to dance up the walls and onto the ceiling), so the guy seated at the table could pick his Rainier bottle and beer schooner up from the table and then (as room and camera rotated ninety degrees) pour his beer seemingly sideways into the glass.

Our other engineering challenge was a take-off on TV spots back then that used continuous rows of toppling dominoes which, once started, would go on tipping over sequentially, flowing in some pattern for 30 seconds. We hired an engineering firm to put a slight edge-crimp on about 2600 Rainier bottle caps that we could also stand on edge in rows. These, we hoped, when toppled and sent rippling onward, would create a giant version of the somewhat calligraphic Rainier R.

I was one of the lucky sods who had to place each and every cap painstakingly into position on the 12-foot-wide translucent surface; we "cappers" often wound up lying on our stomachs and reaching down from scaffolding above to line up the ones impossible to place from outside the circle. As I recall, the caps crew put in about 30 man-hours getting set. As a result, we all rather dreaded the actual moment of shooting, because if anything went wrong... yes, 30 more hours to set up for a second take.

We also realized that one leg of the R would have to be tripped separately, halfway through the spot, before the overhead camera zoomed out far enough to show any crew person involved. I was chosen to use the small rake that would start that leg's first row of caps falling, and we rehearsed many times to be sure I had the cue to reach in at the right moment.

Came time to shoot, there was palpable tension around the set. One chance to get it right... or start over. As the music began (we were using a happily upbeat, carefully rewritten parody of Cole Porter's "You're the Top"), a finger toppled the first cap, and the next ones fell, and on they went... and I reached in and pushed the leg row and moved away quickly... and the bottlecaps kept falling, and every damn one of them fell as intended, right to the last one--30 seconds of heavenly bliss for all of us. We leaped and cheered, we hugged and high-fived. We'd gotten it!

We had many pleasant moments (as well as long days) shooting all those television commercials, a dozen years' worth, but this time out I actually had wanted to talk about Rainier's posters. So time to shift gears ("Rrraaaiiii-niieeerrr")... er, topics...

The posters we created usually were meant to support the latest TV spots, basically functioning as souvenir production stills (like the Rooney scene I included with the first Rainier posting below). As such they might be visually arresting, or puzzling, or sometimes just boring. But the designers working at Heckler or hired from outside also fashioned a few posters that were stand-alone items.

Two of those that were vaguely interesting, good enough without being really compelling, were parodies of a National Geographic cover, with the usual yellow frame surrounding a scene of giant bottles, and a supposed Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell (with sports fan seated in front of TV and his pet mountain goat at his side with a sixpack dangling from its neck St.Bernard-like). The Post parody was a good concept, but sadly the illustrator hired couldn't duplicate the style or look of Rockwell.

Two others that did come off have a more complex backstory. As millions of his fans know, Frank Frazetta was a painter whose powerful illustrations for paperback and magazine covers would guarantee sales in the hundreds of thousands--think of all the Tarzan and Conan books of the Seventies, and all the other artists who were paid to create covers that just looked like Frazetta had painted them.

Well, we decided that Rainier should have a Frazetta too, a scene with our Conan-the-Barbeerian hero riding a giant bottle, the two of them confronting a huge Sasquatch. Since I was a comics collector, I was picked to make the contact with Frank and try to get him interested. Working through Russ Cochran (E.C. Comics reprints publisher and quasi-agent for Frazetta), the negotiations began. At first the popular painter expressed interest and indicated a willingness to fit us into his schedule. But some months passed, and suddenly the sales of Frank's own posters were skyrocketing, and he was getting offers from Hollywood (remember the poster for Clint Eastwood's film The Gauntlet?), and our puny advertising job didn't look as interesting or lucrative.

We gave up on Frazetta himself, and I brought my friend William Stout on board instead. Bill was then a Los Angeles-based illustrator and sometime movie designer (these days he has grained renown as a painter of dinosaurs, the flora and fauna of Antarctica, and other natural history subjects), and as a major Frazetta fan himself, he was quite willing to paint our poster image. Bill and Heckler worked out a design, and rough sketches, and then he went to work. The final painting was better, maybe more Frazetta-ish, than I think the boss had anticipated. (And like some of the other posters we did, the brewery sold or gave away all copies rather too quickly, and wouldn't usually reprint.)

(This is the point at which I should demonstrate how well Stout carried out his "Freshetta" assignment, but I can't find my own copy of the poster! Maybe a copy exists on-line somewhere, but I'll just leave that to the computer experts. In its place I've added a piece of Stout art with a vaguely similar concept: hero on beast confronting monster.)

Finally, let's revisit the "Fresh Gordon" science fiction commercial I talked about last time... Heckler planned a poster to accompany that ad too and took some possible photos during the shoot. But Jim Foster and the Rainier people nixed it completely. I was convinced that the brewery was missing a bet, given the great popularity of sci-fi movies and novels; and I persuaded Jim to give me the rights to print and sell the "Fresh Wars" Rainier poster; they'd get all the publicity, and I could make a little money, maybe.

I asked a friend in the comics business (Rod Dyke of Golden Age Collectibles in Seattle's Pike Place Market) to put up half the money, and we proceeded. The result can be seen above. With no advertising or publicity, Rod (and a couple of other comics shops he distributed to) sold all the posters just by displaying them at their stores. Oh, it took a while, with Rod grumbling a bit, but they all sold eventually; now they're just a part of Rainier history too...

I'll end this simply by quoting the sci-fi pulps text added to the poster, which can't be made out in the tiny version above:

"Retro rockets firing, Fresh Gordon jockeyed his MFR-80 spaceship down onto the arid, dusty surface of planet Bungo.

"Then, aided by his thirsty companions of so many years, Fresh broke through the belligerent throng of alien vizki and d'jin, forging a path straight to the barren world's lone outpost of galactic civilization, the B'aarli Maltina. There the beerless company at last espied the liquid treasure for which they had quested so long--Mountain Fresh Rainier.

"Even Bing the Brewless was overcome. 'The Beer That Conquered the Galaxy' soon quenched five more parched throats."

An asterisk in the text let people know that "Fresh Gordon" was none other than "the incomparable Buster Crabbe."

Yeah, those were the days...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Rainier Beer: Television Ads

Working on the Rainier Beer account? You call that work? Well, as I wrote in the very first posting, I feel I've had a lucky life--mostly as witness, once in a while as active participant.

For a dozen years from 1973 to 1985, I was the official writer-producer for all the Rainier Beer ads released during that stretch of time--each year three-to-five radio ads, maybe a half-dozen TV ads, up to a dozen print ads, and whatever other support material was needed. (I especially enjoyed the sales films we were charged to create each year as a framing device to introduce new television ads... proudest of the one I wrote and produced that had a portly Alfred Hitchcock sound- and lookalike as host, pontificating at length about various cinematic matters, including suspense, while a bomb ticked away under the table next to him!)

Around 1971-72, the Rainier Beer Company (based in Seattle) got in touch with the creative group then called Heckler-Bowker to ask them to help pull Rainier out of its puny-sales doldrums. Terry Heckler, the reticent genius designer and concept man extraordinaire, convinced them to try doing totally off-the-wall ads that would become conversation pieces.

With some trepidation, the Rainier bosses agreed... and within six months regional beer sales were rising at a totally unprecedented rate, which then generated an astonishing high market share for many years. This success was the direct result of a television spot called "Frogs" (on the air and generating nationwide attention nearly two decades before Budweiser stole the idea) and a couple of lesser pieces that downplayed the beer itself and instead gave viewers something to laugh or scratch their heads at. Those early ones included the frogs croaking "Rainier," while mosquitoes added "Beer"; a female Liberace type whistling a Rainier ditty; a garish video parody of Lawrence Welk, his bubbles, and his middle-aged ballroom dancers; plus the ad that soon became the greatest single success of all, what everyone soon called "the Motorcycle Spot."

First, a bit more scene-setting; as I stated in an earlier posting, the original writer and H-B co-owner had abandoned ship by early 1973, leaving recently hired me as the writer in charge. Offered up as the buffer between Heckler, Rainier's canny marketing manager Jim Foster, and whoever was on board as support for any particular ad, I also quickly became the account lead, chief bottlewasher, and general patsy. But I also got to write everything that the boss didn't supply himself, meaning I handled all radio and print, plus scripts for the TV ads, a few of which I'd also conceived.

We served other clients too, of course, but it was Rainier that made Heckler Associates famous in the world of advertising, back when almost all ads were still straight and boring, maybe two decades before everyone attempted to be clever, utilizing later gadgets like video imaging and computer animation. We had shoestring budgets and no video tools to speak of, back then, but we did have lots of gumption and eager-to-cooperate production houses (most importantly Kaye-Smith led by director Gary Noren for the television ads, and Bear Creek Studio owned by producer Joe Hadlock and his business-brains wife Mannie, for the audio), not to mention a pretty free hand at dreaming up the concepts.

Over the dozen years we did a string of ads using giant, tilted-horizontal, running beer bottles (older readers may remember Merrill-Lynch's bull that was always "Bullish on America"; Rainier's bottles were "Beerish on America"), some of which also featured Mickey Rooney as a bottle hunter. (The Mick in other spots was also a rowdy cheerleader and then a Nelson Eddy singer who poured beer down his Jeannette MacDonald's bodice!) And there were dozens of visual or audio parodies--of The Twilight Zone, a great b&w Casablanca, Elvis, Ray Charles, Devo ("Is this not beer? It is Rai-nier. B-E-E-R!"), Tom Waits, the song "La Bamba," the Johnny Burnette Trio, the Supremes, and so much more. My Rainier Beer "Greatest Hits" reel in fact was a demand item for years, even helping raise money at school auctions (go figure)!

But I want to focus on a few TV ads that gave me some extra pleasure, or headaches, or both. The Motorcycle Spot, for example, really was the all-Northwest all-time favorite. Very simple: camera looking down a straight back-country road, nothing in sight, then gradually a spot becoming a motorcycle coming straight at the camera, passing close, flash-pan to follow it tailing off toward a looming Mount Rainier--and all the while the shifting gears have been keening/singing, distantly at first, then louder and louder, "Raaaaiiiii-niiieeeerrrr... (zoom by and receding sound) Beeeeerrrrrr..."

Looked amazingly simple, but of course there was much going on behind the scene. Building the soundtrack, for example, we found that we could not stretch the words out over the full 30 seconds, had to settle for 20-plus to be understandable--which meant the visuals had to not show any bike at first. Then trying to capture the actual motorcycle shot we found that we could not pan fast enough as the bike passed, so we had to make a hidden cut during the pan. And neither the weather nor the motorcycle itself cooperated at first--we had to go out filming on three different days to get the bike actually operating properly, at a time when Mount Rainier was also visible!

And, finally, I had the perfect visual tagline to be supered over the end-of-spot receding bike: "Geared for Thirst." But neither Heckler nor the Rainier people were willing to give up the bland accepted slogan "Mountain Fresh to Go," so my tag never appeared. Anyone reading this now has the real scoop of what should have been shown!

Our biggest TV production of all involved the running bottles. We'd already shown them solo and in herds (sixpacks? cases?), when someone came up with the idea of using them like the famous bulls of Pamplona (another idea stolen from us years later). The upshot was we staged a major happening in Seattle's Pioneer Square, with scores of milling fans all awaiting the arrival of the beers. And when they did suddenly show up, everyone had to scatter to escape their onslaught. As scriptwriter I had a great time drafting the on-camera newscaster's 30 seconds--stalling historical text followed by sudden frenzied reporting! "Why do the Rainiers run...?" indeed.

Another spot I remember fondly was a Rainier Light take-off mocking some other beer company's reliance on athletes as spokesmen. Ours showed a cute housewife opening a Rainier Light for herself while cheerfully telling the camera how much she likes all those burly guys advocating Light beers; but as she says, "You don't have to be macho to enjoy Rainier Light..."

Just then, her off-screen husband yells rudely, "Hey, Marlene, get me another beer!" And she explodes back at him, "GET IT YOURSELF, BOB!" (Viewing the footage in slow motion, we amused ourselves marvelling at how angry and distorted and reddened her face was for a slowed-down second.) Then immediately she is calm again, addressing the camera to finish her interrupted thought: "Sometimes it does help, though."

The audience loved it for the amazing performance by the actress and the in-your-face feminist approach in general. But I cherish it also because it's my voice off-camera yelling at her--the best of several uncredited appearances in Rainier spots. (I was handy, of course, pretty much unpaid always, and not allowed to collect residuals!)

The fourth TV ad I want to mention came during 1978, Rainier's 100th-year anniversary, which Heckler cleverly dubbed "The Beercentennial." The special-year ads revisited Rainier's Northwest history, had a brewmaster blow the heads off full schooners like birthday candles, and more.

But we went forward in time too, crafting a science fiction ad that in short order gave the viewer the black monolith from 2001... which turned out to be the facade of the Star Wars bar... and as we push through the doors and on through the rowdy alien crowd we find a back booth and table around which are seated aging lookalikes for Ming the Merciless, Dr. Zarkov, Dale, and Flash Gordon. The supporting characters were local actors, but playing our "Fresh" (as we renamed him) was the one and only Buster Crabbe, the original movie-serial Flash (Tarzan films too), older and greyer but still very much the handsome hero.

Like Mickey Rooney on his best days, Crabbe was full of great stories and definitely fun to be around, still muscular, still swimming great distances every day, still flirting with the women.

And it's Fresh Gordon that brings me to an important aspect of Rainier's advertising that I haven't talked about--the posters we produced to promote the beer. I'll discuss a few of them next time...

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Parsons and Hillman, Reaching the End

Part Five of extended interview; see previous portions below. Gram Parsons emerged from the bathroom towelling his long hair and quickly reassumed the lead in our conversation, his ideas decidedly more fanciful ...

GP: I'd like to do a ((television)) series about The Flying Burrito Brothers. They could bring the cowboy thing in if they wanted--of course they would, to make it sellable. Like a hip Monkees... if you don't mind me using the word "hip" or the word "Monkees." Cowboy Monkees... no, Cowboy Monsters, that's what it would be! But I'm serious. I mean, if we wanted to do one week about pulling off a big bank robbery--a really deluxe, super bank robbery--whereas the Monkees never would have done a thing like that; they were never serious the whole time. One week we're into horror shows, the next week we're actually making some chick. Romance! Next week, train ride; next week, giant rodeo; next week, clothing trip. You get it? By "clothing trip" I mean sort of set up a hip commune, but real life--tranche de vie. "A Slice of Life with the Burrito Brothers..." Burrito Brothers Pie we could call the series.

Country Pie...

GP: Country Pie, and each week we'd take a different slice.

CH: The Burritos at Knotts Berry Farm...

GP: And we could do documentaries--a show that was just about freeways, a show that was just all of us driving, freaking out.

Do you own any property? ((me trying to reestablish some order to the interview)) Chris was saying he owns some land.

GP: Yeah, I own some land in Florida. It was left to me; I didn't buy it. I've lived near enough to it to know I wouldn't want to live on it. It's a citrus grove.

CH: ((restless)) You got a bathtub?

GP: You mean in your deluxe suite you got a color TV and no bathtub? Great. Me, a bathtub and no maid. We could even do a week on this hotel, staying in the crazy hotel where the bellman's coming down from his Methedrine shot or something. He was really a ghost, man--"Aw right, I'll get it for ya..."

Where do y'all go after this?

GP: Back to L.A., back to record.

What were the particulars of your joining The Byrds and then of your leaving, which was connected to that trip to South Africa?

CH: Ah could've murdered him that day.

GP: ((exaggerated accent)) Ah joined with a friendship an' left with a argument.

CH: I remember that day, just as good as I can see daylight.

GP: It was a year ago exactly. Roger ((McGuinn)) said, "This is the anniversary of South Africa."

CH: I was duped into goin' myself, and I didn't realize that. Nothin' good happened except that they had real good grass down there. No women. No... ((stops))

Let's get heavy for a minute. What was the word you were using earlier? Let's get profound. Here you are out of backwoods Georgia... not just backwoods Georgia, but the whole idea of you refusing to go to South Africa probably surprised a few people.

CH: Yeah, you know what he is--a "redneck racist."

GP: Somethin' a lot of people don't know about me, I was brought up with a Negro for a brother--I was brought up with a spade brother. Like all Southern families, we had maids and servants, a whole family that took care of us, called the Dixon family. Sammy Dixon was just a little bit older than me, and he just lived with me. He wasn't paid for doing it. His older sister was paid for cooking, and his oldest sister was paid for being the maid, and his mother was paid for cooking and doing the laundry. He just grew up with me. I learned at a real close level that segregation was just not it. It comes in my mind, lots of things, why I didn't stay with country music and I went on and was, like, a folk singer. I pictured myself as a sort of male Joan Baez at the age of 16; I was singing protest songs, things like that. I think I was hip to how carried away I had gotten by the time I graduated from high school. I had cooled off...

But you still went to Harvard for one quarter.

GP: That was the result of running away, in the "Bomb" phase, running away to the Village at 14, 15, 16... getting hip to it... then returning and settling down. Then at that time, I got into bluegrass. One of my favorite records was one the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers did--that was Chris's group, and I would have given my left knee to have been in that group. Of course, I didn't know he was in it. Then the Dillards were another of my favorites. Because they were young, and I'd say, "God, I'm old enough that I could be in one of those groups, man. Boy, are they far out." They weren't doing that protest number, that resistance sort of number; they were just slappin' down music. I suppose since then I've just gotten into performing and the technology of it--a thousand percent more than I was.

What are your feelings about the South?

GP: It's not a nice place to live. If you're gonna live there, you got to do or die. I wouldn't go back there for any amount of money. The climate's great--North Carolina, Blue Ridge Mountains, man, whew! Fantastic! Virginia's all right; Charleston, South Carolina, is Deep South; New Orleans has a nice climate. Anywhere you get that's close to a city like New Orleans, they're not the kind of people you want to live around for very long. They can be fun for an evening--for one drunk, two drunks. It all just circles around in my head--the North and the South, the Civil War or Uncivil War, and where the South is at and where the North is at. But I can't get it all straight in my mind--bein' from the South, what a difference it's made. The South is less affected in a way; it's less organized, it's harder to understand in some ways than the North. It's not a matter of it being ethnocentric. The people down there are... ((stops)) Oh, I don't know, I just can't say, I just can't say...

((and sadly that's where my notes and the interview ended))

The Burritos with Chris and Gram went on for another album and a bit more, then Gram headed off for some sort of cosmic karma drug life with Keith Richards. When I saw him at Altamount later, he was already pale and puffy and pretty much out of it. As all fans know, he worked to straighten out (some), teamed up with an unknown folkie named Emmylou Harris, and then died suddenly and tragically, his coffin shortly thereafter road-manglered and Viking-burned.

Chris hung in for a while after Gram's early departure and then split off to discover his incredibly varied creative life ever since, with Stephen Stills, Byrds semi-reunions, solo albums, the Desert Rose Band, bluegrass, great vocal duets with Herb Pedersen, and more--still going strong and sounding great in 2007.

But there is a strange P.S. to my brief acquaintanceship with Gram. In April 2000, my wife and I and another couple headed off to (pre-Katrina) New Orleans for the ever-phenomenal Jazz and Heritage Festival. The music was great that year of course but not really relevant.

We four were staying at a house near the park owned by, as we soon discovered, Bonnie Parsons and her later husband Sal Fazzio--Bob Parsons' widow, that is, Gram's stepmother, remarried again years after the Southern Gothic deaths and financial maneuvering that took Gram from Georgia and Florida to New Orleans and then the world. Bonnie was charming (Sal pretty much monosyllabic or uninvolved), telling us stories about Gram and lamenting her alienation from other surviving family members. I still have the card they gave us to get back in touch if and when we returned to the Big Easy.

But life's never that "easy," is it? September 11th came, and family duties as my parents were declining, and then the hurricanes hit the Louisiana-Mississippi coast, and the damned useless Bush Administration--to coin a phrase--bailed on 'em.

I don't know if Bonnie was still there at the time, or if her home survived the flooding. Maybe I'll dial that phone number one of these days...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Hillman Alone, Interview Part Four

To reiterate the basic info, the place was Seattle and the year was 1969. In the hotel room Gram hit the showers, and Chris and I talked for a while...

I don't want to ask old, tired questions, but you've been in the rock scene for about five years now--are you glad? Are you tired of it?

CH: Yes, I'm a little tired. But on the other hand, it's changed so much. The pace has gotten so fast. It's not new and fresh like it was four years ago. There's so many groups, so much goin' on. But now it's just starting to go down, the whole thing. Madison Avenue got a hold of the whole thing, and record companies are just squeezing it dry--promoting this group and that group, and half of them don't even make it. ((half? guess those were the good old days!)) I'll tell you, man, I just want to get some money and beat it. If I ever play music again, it will be in a bar for twenty bucks a night--really--just to play, 'cause there's no pressure there and you can actually play. I mean, I figure most musicians in the scene actually only spend about half their time playing. The rest of the time is full of bullshit--record producers and record companies, managers and all that. ((the "all that" probably including journalists!)) If I did it all over, I'd just go into a bar and play.

I've got a friend here in Seattle who is a pretty good guitar player, but he decided a long time ago that he just didn't want to go through it all. I guess he has killed off a little of his talent by just sitting around, but at the same time he has kept out of the whole thing.

CH: I'm sorry I didn't save some money, you know?, when I had the chance. But I had a good time and that's that.

I can't imagine that your career is over by any means, 'cause the Burritos ought to be big.

CH: Personally, I don't like to live in cities. I really don't like crowds. I want to get my own little place; that's what I'd like to do.

Have you got a place you want to settle picked out?

CH: I have fifty acres in New Mexico. So someday I'll build.


CH: Near Taos.

Where all the people have moved back to the country now lately...

CH: I don't know. There's no hippies around where I live. ((laughs)) They don't like hippies down there.

I know they don't; I've been reading about that.

CH: I mean people who are on the streets, hitchhiking. But it's a good place.

How far along are you-all in the next album? Have you done any recording?

CH: We've cut three things, but I think we're going to end up doing the whole thing live instead of doing it in the studio.

Did you do the first one track by track, or "live" in the studio?

CH: It was done live, singing and playing at the same time, mostly. A couple of them were overdubbed. But that's about all, nothing else.

You could tell out there today that you were playing the same music.

CH: That's one of our whole things, you know--no extra bullshit, man. It's us playing... funky... just us. The only person we'd ever use is Clarence ((White; see previous segment)) on guitar. We've tried--we had Leon Russell play piano with us once, and it just wasn't the same, you know, as the five Burritos playing. It was just something alien.

Does Gram play the keyboards on the album usually?

CH: Yeah, that's what he overdubs. Or he'll put the piano down with everybody else.

You concentrate on guitar?

CH: Yeah, rhythm guitar. We either sing it then or sing it later.

That honkytonk song you opened up with... will that be on the new album? ((possibly was "Close Up the Honkytonks."))

CH: I don't know what we're going to cut. That's like standard stuff.

Oh, that's right, you mean if it's live. I didn't recognize the song. Is it yours?

CH: No, but we'll do six originals and six standard songs. We use that song in our sets all the time... Buck Owens.

Pretty nice, I should have known it... Buck Owens. What country cats do you listen to?

CH: I like Buck--I like his earlier stuff better than now. I don't know what he's doin' now; he's into some weird bag. But I like Wynn Stewart.

Wynn Stewart... I know his name, that's about all.

CH: He's had some really good records. George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis are doing good stuff, and Johnny Bush, Kitty Wells...

Because you're into country yourselves, is that who you listen to mostly these days?

CH: That's how I started playing music, you know. When I was 14, it was the same people--Kitty Wells, whoever was goin' on then. Mostly bluegrass too, like the Stanley Brothers, early Flatt and Scruggs. And I was playin' in like hillbilly bars when I was 17; I had a fake i.d. That's what I grew up on. I'm not from the South, but that's what was goin' on in our house. I played it all the way up until The Byrds, then started out playing bass and doin' all this other shit, and I just got completely out of it. I forgot all about it, until I met him ((Gram)) and, bang, we started doin' it. Because I always used to want to find a cat to sing with. That's how I used to sing, with one guy, when I started out... tenor and lead. ((Herb Pedersen, I hear a voice calling!)) I listen to rhythm 'n blues too. I don't really follow the current rock 'n roll unless it's on the radio--FM, whatever you call underground. I hear Crosby's album a lot on the radio. But Taj is my favorite... he's my favorite. I can listen to that album he cut all night, the second one. And I've heard some stuff he's cut for his third album. He did "Six Days on the Road"--you know, that truck-drivin' song. Incredible, yeah, really funky. It's gonna be a good album. ((pauses to reflect for a moment)) It's just not the same. The Whiskey a Go-Go, the Strip, it's just gotten so crazy. Thousands of kids, you know, and not the same kind of kids--scruffy, funky kids. There's a lot of violence goin' on all over. All the nice scene's been squashed out, and dirt came over it.

It was like the Monterey Pop Festival was sort of a peak, and it's been sort of slipping back--at least the scene with the people has been slipping back--ever since.

CH: Yeah, that's a good place to pick. It's just gone downhill.

How did you make your break with The Byrds?

CH: I just quit. We had a crooked manager at the time too. I was just sick of being in The Byrds, of being a Byrd. It wasn't the same as when the five started out, or even the four, the original Byrds. It got down to me and McGuinn and two other guys that we hired on a weekly salary. It was bullshit, you know; it was really stale. We had a bad producer and a bad record company. So I just got fed up one day and quit. I couldn't take it any more.

Wasn't ((Gary)) Usher producing you in those days?

CH: I don't like his work. You see, we ((Chris and Gram)) got together, and he moved in for a while. We started singin', we started formin' this idea, and it just happened, you know. We started out, bang, out of the cannon. We had a little money from the company, the record company ((A&M)), an advance and everything. We had direction, where we were going to go--but had the wrong managers. Mishandling the whole thing, telling us lies, steering us this way. We stumbled and tripped and fell back to L.A., because the original thing was we worked our way across country to New York, to go to England, where they were waiting for us. We're really very big in England, you know; we've never been there, but we're always in the paper. So we get to New York, and the managers haven't gotten the work permits. We had to turn around and come back here, starving and in debt. We'd burned a lot of bridges when we left. Phone company bills... we come back and, bang, they got us. It's been one setback after another. We're finally getting on our feet, I think. Then Clarke ((drummer Mike)) breaks his leg one night. Ethridge got busted--he just got out of that--so Michael breaks his leg. Little things like that, setbacks. But we got good managers now.

Did you pick these guys originally, or did the company pick them for you?

CH: Gram knew this guy, Steve Allsbury, and as we started along in the early stages it was just me and Gram. It just worked into where Steve was the manager. He made mistakes--not on purpose; he just didn't know what he was doing. He bungled--he didn't follow through, he didn't answer phone calls, he didn't mail out things when he was supposed to. That really blew it. Then again, we've had rough times in the studio, when we can't get together, just like any other group. But there's magic in the group when it's together. Boy, there really is. And it's gonna happen, I know it is. It's just no bullshit--straight-out, honest, we mean what we're doing, we're not jiving. That stuff just ruined rock 'n roll. I mean, I respect Hendrix as a musician, he's a good musician, but all the other cats that are on the bandwagon are using that as a gimmick. Gimmicks come into the thing, and it just destroys it. San Francisco, that whole bunch of bullshit ((hippies, Summer of Love)) wrecked it too. I mean, there ain't one group up there... I may sound like a hardass or somethin', but there really isn't one group up there worth shit. Maybe people that moved there... like the Youngbloods moved there, and I love that cat singing, Jesse ((Colin Young)), he's a beautiful singer. And ((Michael)) Bloomfield lives up there, he's a good musician. But the groups that came out of there full of all the jive... ((Jefferson Airplane? Moby Grape? The Grateful Dead? who knows? Chris broke off his rant as Gram emerged from the bathroom))

You're ready to take on the world now, huh?

((his answer? find out next time in the final segment))

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Parsons and Hillman, Part Three

So your intrepid interviewer next inquired about the Burritos' (later much-honored) pedal steel guitarist, Sneaky Pete Kleinow...

Can we talk about Pete for a minute?

GP: I'd love to talk about Pete.

CH: He's been playing steel for ten years. He's from Indiana originally; he migrated out west.

GP: He also made most of the special effects that were used in Outer Limits. ((Sixties sci-fi TV show))

CH: He's an animation expert.

GP: He played the music in front and then he did the other thing on the side, and he went back and forth. He's a true-to-life maniac. He's 34; he's got a daughter who's 15 and sings country music and can take his steel apart and put it back together--she's just as crazy as he is! He's got a son that's 14 and went on the road with us, that can drug any of us under the table. And Pete himself doesn't need nothin'. He's on the natch.

And here he comes now...

GP: The Maharishi of country music, here he is now, Peter Kleinow!

CH: Beat it, Sneaky. Take a powder.

GP: Tell him ((meaning interviewer)) what you did with Projects Unlimited.

SP: I ran them out of business. I joined these guys, and I'm workin' on them... I used to be special effects, in the animation business; used to do all kinds of movies for George Pal and Outer Limits.

Well, are you still in animation?

SP: No, I'm just keepin' it in case these guys fire me next week; then I can go back to it.

GP: He does all the hirin' and firin'. I don't know what he's tellin' you.

SP: Well, if I can't do somethin' without workin' at it, I won't do it.

GP: He's the original country musician-administrator.

SP: Lazy Bones and the Burrito Brothers.

GP: When any of us are trying to figure out what's the basis to what we're doin', we always talk to Pete.

SP: Well, if you'll excuse me... ((repeating his earlier quick exit; as Gram says below, Pete was focussed on repairing his steel))

Chris E: Sneaky. He done snuck off.

I get the impression it's the music he's interested in. This external stuff like a reporter asking questions...

GP: Not at all. The music is what he's interested in, but he loves to talk when he's got the time.

Chris E: He and Michael Saul get along real well... ((Saul)) sat in with us in New York and played every song we play just perfectly.

GP: He's the one cat that's sat in with us that didn't make mistakes.

CH: ((reminding them of another)) Richard Greene...

Chris E: Aww, that guy, fiddle his ass off. But Michael Saul, him and Pete got along so good they just ran all over New York together. Went to restaurants together, got drunk together, just had a ball--and Pete doesn't even drink, so they really got along.

GP: He'll have some of that good, what is it... ((phoney French)) Pea-not Nwah?

Pinot noir?

GP: Yeah. And he'll tell you all about the steel guitar--all the ethics of it, the mechanics of it and everything. But he's just so mad now tryin' to get it fixed. He's got a funky old steel, you know. It's funkier and older than the funkiest, oldest Telecaster ever made--an old, old Fender steel that has... well, you notice on "Dark End of the Street" how much it sounds like a Telecaster. It can me made to sound that way. And we have such a time getting people to understand our specific equipment difficulties and the sounds we're trying to make.

Yeah, because everybody's used to working with Ten Years After and that kind of Blues thing.

((Gram makes guitar sounds with his mouth))

CH: All the groups sound like that shit. All of them doin' that stuff.

I've been listening to black Blues for like ten years, and it took me about five years before I'd listen to any white groups play. And now it's all the same, it seems.

CH: The best group is Taj Mahal. Taj feels the music, and he can sing.

GP: And Indian Ed'll lay more guitar on you than any of them Blues guitar people you can name. Indian Ed ((Davis, who died of an overdose a few years later)) is the cream of the crop; he's better than Clapton and Hendrix put together.

Seems to me The Byrds made some noise ((meaning bluesy or experimental guitar)) in their time too.

CH: Yes, but there was some sort of context to the music--not just "turn up to 10 and jam in one chord, one key, E..."

GP: I used to know the Injun back before Bonnie and Delaney got together with the Main Street Blues Band--as they ((Indian Ed's group)) were called before they joined them.

((fiddling with tape deck I lost some conversation about Seattle and also about Bo Diddley, who appeared as did the Burritos at the Seattle Pop Festival; resumed with a question for Ethridge))

How did you get over to L.A. from Meridian? What were the steps?

Chris E: I flew. ((laughter all around)) Really, I was playing with this group in Biloxi, and I met this cat, and he brought me out. I played session stuff with different people then for about a year and a half. Then I joined the Burritos.

GP: We could get real profound, but I guess Rolling Stone doesn't like that. They like the hillbilly side... sit around and talk like ol' Bonnie and Delaney: "Waal, mah ol' gran'mama down there, she cooks the best Hoppin' John anybody ever made. You don' know what Hoppin' John is?" But I really got off livin' with some guys over in England--with Keith and Mick of the Stones, diggin' things that are profound about where music's at and where it's goin'. I can't ignore things like that, you know. If everybody wants to think we're simple, that's fine. And if everybody wants to think Bonnie and Delaney are simple, that's fine. But they're not, and neither is Leon, who is a very big part of that album. But there are guys that didn't join that band, that left that band, that were with them back then, that could be the band that, like, Rolling Stone was projecting them to be... J.J.Cale, Jimmy Karstein, Junior Markham, and Carl from Bonnie and Delaney--put them together with those horn players that Markham knows, and you got yourself a funky white band. You got yourself some people who don't know nothin' except the bottom of a beer can when they see it through the hole, you know?

Chris E: They're all just good people. Bobby Keyes...

GP: Bobby Keyes is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the first time Junior Markham turned him on, Bobby called Junior a "homosexual" and a "dope-pusher." That's how funky and down into it Junior is, man. He's just there. And that's why everybody hates him--why he's gotten all those knife and shotgun scenes.

Chris E: Shoulda heard the song Leon wrote about that, played it the other night down at the session. I didn't believe it... ((sings)) "There's a shoot-out on the plantation... da da da da da-da... Junior better run, 'cause he ain't got nothin' but a knife, and Gary's got the gun." Gary Sanders, cat that went back down to Galveston.

CH: That came from woman problems.

GP: "Woman poisonin'," as Junior Markham calls it. Junior Markham and the Tulsa Rhythm Group would be the wild flower group. Bonnie and Delaney would be... ((I still don't know what he was getting at here.)) They're not the simple people everyone thinks they are; they been around a long time. And so have we, but our past is more difficult to hide. And it sort of flashes out. "Waal, uh-hum, how about the old Byrds?" They were never into The Byrds to that extent. They're more into the Burrito Brothers.

How did you come up out of Waycross?

GP: I just started runnin' away from home at an early age. I was scared to death of Waycross. My father's name was "Coon Dog," and he was really into it.

God, I guess.

GP: "Coon Dog" Connor--Connor was my original name. I got adopted later on. But he lived in the woods and was from, like, Columbia, Tennessee, and taught me how to dig it. And I dug it as long as I was with him, but he passed on early. When I was about 13, I got my new parents--Parsons now. My family's from New Orleans, and it's much more acceptable. But when I was a Connor from Georgia, I didn't like it too much. I moved from Waycross down to Florida. Parsons came from New Orleans and moved my mother down to Florida. And then she died. He just moved back to New Orleans a few years ago, and that's my home now. That's where my Mon and Dad live.

((Gram here has skimmed over a complex Southern Gothic snarl of families and deaths, which later also claimed Bob Parsons, the stepfather who adopted him. As though discomfited by the family talk, he decides to go clean up... and I foolishly tried to ask a few hurried questions while he was preparing to head for the shower.))

Where do y'all live now?

GP: Livin' in Beverly Glen, near David Crosby.

When did you form the Submarine Band?

GP: I formed the Submarine Band when I was at college. At Harvard. I dropped out my freshman year.

((He then said some friendly words about the man who had become his mentor and friend, Harvard's freshman dean the Reverend Dr. James E. Thomas--which I failed to get on tape. And I said something about the performance clothes he was going to put on later.))

Speaking of Nudie, how much does one of those fancy suits cost?

GP: Starting about $350, anywhere up to $10,000.

((With that, he scooted off to the shower... a good place to end this portion. Next time, the long solo talk I had with Chris Hillman while Gram was gone.))