Sunday, December 2, 2007

Last Time Around (Part 2)

((Continuing with the Rick Nelson piece, we resume after the release of Nelson in Concert...))

During the next year, Rick and the Stone Canyon Band took to touring (with Tim Cetera in for Randy Meisner), even making it north to Seattle for a week's stay, at a suburban tavern/club called The Impact, which turned out to be a smash engagement with turnaway crowds for almost every performance--a major occurrence considering the Impact's size and setting. Located at the far fringe of Bellevue, that so-called "bedroom of Seattle," and populated mostly by car lots, out-of-work Boeing workers, and rising young executives ((no Microsoft millionaires yet!)), the tavern (which eventually failed) from without looked like a bowling alley or Army warehouse. I mean huge! and seating maybe a thousand inside.

Anyhow, here came Rick Nelson, and suddenly the place was doing sold-out business night after night. And the crowd's makeup was essentially the same for each performance, a freaky, fascinating array of curious college kids, scurvy c&w fans, oldsters drawn by their leftover Ozzie & Harriet memories, and--especially--legions of Ricky rockers clinging to the last vestiges of their fast-fading youth. (I plead guilty to the last charge.) The show the audience put on was almost as good as the group's high-falutin', hill-filtered rock: beehive-haired, pantsuited, giddy and giggling married women indulging their fantasies on the dance floor (and backstage); balding but sideburned husbands measuring themselves against a star image; bluecollar truckdriver types wondering "What in the hell am I doin' here listenin' to these longhaired punks?"; and all those faithful fanatics muttering aloud, "Why doesn't he sing 'Poor Little Fool' and 'Lonesome Town'?"

((I don't claim any prescience, but this reaction must have met Rick and the band everywhere they played, and it eventually led to him penning his amazing, frustrated, last great hit, "Garden Party," a year or so later.))

Nostalgia filled the air those nights like the chicken feathers around Alice Cooper. In fact, the applause for Rick's excellent new material, including several of his own songs from the still-forthcoming second album, was decidedly desultory when compared to the explosive outbursts that greeted each old hit redone. The group accepted that situation graciously, though enjoying much joking among themselves whenever called upon to deliver any past Nelson glory they hadn't already refinished, polished to a country gloss. Good humor carried the night, however, with Rick even waiting offstage to talk to the inane gaggles of (mostly) female fans.

My observations during those painful moments, plus a pair of interviews with the man himself--during which he reminisced openly and humorously about some distinctly un-Ozzie-and-Harrietish adventures--convinced me of his quiet individuality and innate goodness. (No scoffing, you cynical bastards!) After about twenty-five years in the entertainment world, fifteen of those as a star of some import, after all the changes and bullshit the music and film worlds put their people through, Rick Nelson really is--still is--a gentle man, the perfect image, nay, reality, of the decent, level-headed, All-American boy-next-door. Strange to find such a man still extant, but a pleasure.

As was his second new album, Rick Sings Nelson, which proved his prowess as producer and songwriter. ((I'll skip the full review to get to the best:)) "Sweet Mary" mixed droning and chilling electrics, driving steel, and on-rushing rhythm into a rock wall of sound excitement, while "Look at Mary" buried Rick's lead, added echoing harmonies, and then turned the bass and drums loose, heading down the highway straight east towards the Memphis Sun. ((I wonder who that Mary was...))

My particular favorite was and is "Down Along the Bayou," a swamp rocker as good as any of Creedence's forays in that area. In a quick two minutes, Rick's lyrics run the gamut from happiness to tragedy in his mock-traditional saga of a Southern kid who fell in with bad companions. Meanwhile, the band was just all-out getting off, loose and goosey, good and juicy, with a guitar blend that should have been bottled and bonded and given away free to anyone lost in the pop doldrums. Could have been a top single ((I still believe that)) but nothing ever came of it, nor of the whole album (in the U.S. anyway--Europe took some notice). Rick and the guys just rocked on, making people dance and smile and feel good, for another year.

And then came album three, Rudy the Fifth (Decca 75297), supposedly named for a brand of cheap champagne. Well, there's nothing cheap about the music within. Eclecticism is the watchword this time, with everything from baroque to gospel, Dylan to pop. I just keep puttin' it on and gettin' it on. ((skipping the details, to focus on some last observations again:)) ... Or the strings-and-flute-sweetened farewell of "The Last Time Around"--Rick's in impeccable voice, Pat's drums are prodding casually, Tom's solo wafts upwards on the subtle strings: "I know you don't believe in my philosophy/ But I thank you for the love you've given me/ This is my last time around/ And I don't know where I'm bound... (spoken) See you later, baby." Elegant shades of Tom Rush!

((One might consider this the song that summed up his life, given the eventual fatal plane crash... And the song next mentioned is another possible candidate:))

But outdone by the last track of all. Every once in a while a number comes along that has that instant shock/flash of recognition--it gets in your head and in your bones and promises to last as long as music itself. That's how I hear, and feel, "Gypsy Pilot." The arrangement leaves me numb and dumb--it's like the great-granddaddy of all electrical storms, shrieking and streaking and screaming, the steel zooming and crashing, the rhythm booming and bashing, and Rick's autobiographical lyrics ringing in your ears, building from cliche to philosophical stance:

When I was a young boy, my mama told me, "Son,
You got to keep it together, you're the only one,"
So I tried to see the sunshine and I tried to feel the rain,
But I just couldn't get it together, I was feelin' too much pain,
So I got myself a gittar when I was just a kid,
I played rock 'n roll music and I'm so glad I did,
'Cause now I see the sunshine, now I feel the rain,
And I just want to keep it together and I hope you feel the same...
When they claim my body, they won't have much to say,
"Except that he lived a good life, he lived every day,
I know he saw the sunshine, I know he felt the rain,
He loved everybody and he hopes you do the same."

Rick Nelson, folks. Still here, still rocking--rocking harder and better than ever, country steel or not. He's an original and he'll always be one. If you can't escape whatever prejudices may remain to you from Rick's old days of TV and such, then I pity you. You're missing some of the best music being put down anywhere.

So, be-bop baby, it's late but I can't help it--teenage idol Ricky-Rick-Eric is still for me just a little too much. That's all.

((One last memory: after the hit success of "Garden Party," Rick was guest host on Saturday Night Live, and the writers came up with a brilliant sketch; Rick keeps coming into some suburban kitchen back door, saying, "Hi Mom, I'm home..." just as he did on the Nelson TV show. But this time each kitchen turns out to belong to a different and unrelated Fifties family sit-com like Father Knows Best or whatever, and each wrong Mom reacts with dismay, forcing him to leave. Yeah, that pretty much summed up Nelson's place in the world by then...))

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