Friday, May 23, 2008

Not on the Cover of Rolling Stone

I used to write for Rolling Stone, that now-disposable but once-upon-a-time bible of the youth culture. My limited involvement was off and on, 1969 to 1971, working as a freelancer a thousand miles from the magazine's San Francisco empire. I submitted reviews only (got no feature-story assignments), mostly of LP records--though I did also get to sound off about a terrific early history of rock and roll called Rock from the Beginning, which was then reissued later as (I kid you not) Awopbabaloobopalopbamboom (haven't checked the spelling of the title, originally a musical shout by Little Richard), by wildman critic Nick Tosches who later wrote bios of Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, and obscure Southern white musicians, as well as petty-Mafia crime novels. (I mention this book mostly because it's one I forgot to list in my roll-call of sort-of book appearances; the trade paperback of Tosches' book quoted my review, but since I was a writer with no reputation, the publishing company omitted my name and just sourced Rolling Stone. Sigh... the profits of fame.)

For a time, I was happy to have album reviews appearing in RS, especially discussing LPs I felt a special musical connection with, and some pride in having been the writer who got to tug on the public's coat about this or that artist/album. For example, my first accepted review was a rave for Zydeco master, accordionist extraordinaire Clifton Chenier, tagged to his third album on Arhoolie, Black Snake Moan (no relation to the garish and controversial recent film). But I made a point of giving a bigger shout-out for his debut album, the masterpiece called Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. I'd been swept away by Chenier a year earlier when I bought that first LP, and for a few years I would play it for all dinner guests to test their response; only those who loved it got invited back! Black Snake was fine but not the stunner the other was, and still is, today.

The Chenier review appeared in the same issue with my (also positive) review of Otis Redding's posthumous album Love Man; he had recorded an amazing number of individual tracks in the weeks before his death in the airplane crash, tracks which label Stax got to issue posthumously and successfully. This fourth such LP still had great soul tunes like "Direct Me," "Higher and Higher," "I'm a Changed Man," and the title track which includes: "I'm six feet one, weigh two hundred and ten, Long hair and pretty fair skin... Which one o' you girls want me to hold you? Which one o' you girls want me to kiss you?" Had Otis still been alive, I guarantee you there'd have been some willing takers!

In subsequent reviews I mocked the hype surrounding the Blind Faith supergroup and album; gave grudging approval to heavy white blues bands Free and Fear Itself (ending that review "If only these were the last of them"!) and ho-hum quasi-approval to Janis Joplin's album Kozmic Blues; had back-to-back examinations of releases by the Byrds, Steve Miller band, and Elvis live in Vegas (only the Miller got a positive review, even though I've been hooked on Presley since 1955); had loads of fun with the debut albums by Leon Russell and Boz Scaggs; and so on.

Too much of this nostalgia crap gets boring, of course, but I would like to resurrect the two longer reviews I was proudest of--imagining, hoping, that I had some small part in the ascendancy of the Blues to its acknowledged permanent place in American roots music...

Appearing in issue #48 (December 13, 1969, important for its long interview with Miles Davis), was my take on the two-record set called Memphis Swamp Jam, recorded in that steamy city by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records and then leased (I guess) to label Blue Thumb for wider distribution. This release gave Rock era coverage to some of the oldtimers of the Blues--Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell, Sleepy John Estes, and others--and I was both pleased and amazed that such had occurred, even though some of the performances taped weren't really comparable to the Blues guys' earlier days. But at least they were getting Rolling Stone publicity. (And my review was printed as a full page with photos!)

Quoting a bit: "... the Memphis blues scene has always been special, a kind of middle-ground way-station between the Delta and the North, producing blues that were rural-strong yet urban-polished--all the way from W.C. Handy and 'the birth' back in the Teens; through the romp-and-stomp decades of Frank Stokes and the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers; to the heyday of Sun Records with its white rockabilly blues in the Fifties; and finally to the sweet soul-blues of the Stax-Volt team in the decade we're about to depart ((the Sixties, that is)).

"Blues with a difference: besides jazz, jugs, and salt-and-pepper seasoning, there've also been the popular songsters like Furry Lewis and the 'Big Mama' shouters like Memphis Minnie... ((and getting to the review proper)) Strachwitz gathered about a dozen of those unfit-for-TV black bluesmen, holed up with them in a garage or studio or something for four days, and finally emerged with enough tapes to produce this beautiful result--two records, 20 selections, in a variety of blues moods and styles ranging from Afro-rhythmic to juke-disjointed..."

And so on. Anyway, Rolling Stone got the message, and soon I was given a second plumb assignment, the full-scale review of a new Vintage Series of Chess Records albums offering rare or unissued tracks dating from the postwar period, recorded for Chess/Aristocrat/Parrot 78's. The initial six albums included reissues of two rare and classic Chess LPs (collector-market expensive, even in 1970 dollars) by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus four new releases devoted to sessions by Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Albert King, Otis Rush, and John Brim--a veritable feast of electrified Chicago blues.

So, from issue #50 (January 21, 1970, still remembered for the excellent, in-depth coverage of the era-killing Altamont Festival), I offer a few excerpts... "Hear Muddy, back when he was still more Mississippi than Chicago, wailing on 'Hoochie Coochie,' 'Rollin' Stone,' 'Honey Bee,' 'I Just Want to Make Love to You,' and eight other mojo workouts, while the Wolf chokes and moans through 'How Many More Years,' the 'Smokestack Lightnin' ' that every white blues group has stolen, 'Evil,' 'Forty-Four' and more..."

Harmonica giant Little Walter "was the man--the harp genius whose easy-going but pungent style became the Chicago mainstay, and from whom everybody from Junior Wells to Paul Butterfield took his chops.... two tunes that really jump, 'Oh Baby' and my favorite, 'Mellow Down Easy,' with harp and semi-African drums just naturally laying you in the groove, down and dirty..."

"For Parrot, King's singing was light and uninteresting, and the guitar sounds like somebody else was playing--one of those standard, characterless blues guitarists... Then you get to 1961, and damned if it ain't A. King after all--mellow yet forced-out vocal, his straight-arrow guitar splitting the bull's-eye every time..."

Southpaw guitarist Otis Rush "makes it all the way to the top on the basis of his vocalizing, which manages to be strangled and painful, precise and lovely all at once... The two that matter most: 'All Your Love,' a remake of his earlier Cobra hit--city blues with solid Latin rhythm--and the all-time classic, 'So Many Roads.' "

The album by Sonny Boy Williamson features his "wild, punchy-boxer singing, his wry and witty lyrics, and his spare, seemingly casual harp technique (on the road to Bob Dylanesque, as opposed to Little Walter's saxophone-complexity). Dig... the weird, sexy 'Santa Claus,' as ironic in its way as his brilliant 'Fattening Frogs for Snakes'; and the album's closing number, 'This Old Life,' mournful and moving, on the order of 'Mighty Long Time,' cut lo these many years ago for the now-defunct Trumpet label..."

Elmore James "is as justly famous as Brim is unjustly unknown. Refining Robert Johnson's bottleneck style, James perfected a sound which has long-since entered the blues tradition... a slowed-down version of the Johnson-James standard, 'Dust My Broom'; an infectiously happy jump-tune, 'Madison Blues' ('Put on your Madison blue shoes')... and the fifth number is Brim's earlier Parrot gem, 'Tough Times' (with Jimmy Reed in a rare appearance blowing back-up harp).

" 'Tough Times is here once more...' That's the way Brim sang it in 1953. Since then, the blues have fallen on even harder times--but you'd never suspect it from Chess' memorable Vintage Series... a rare chance to hear the real Chicago blues."

(Dazzle 'em with your footwork, says I! Well, the real dazzle was the photo-rich layout presenting my Chess review.)

But I stopped writing for RS a year or so later, moving on to Fusion (East Coast, with Boston attitude) and then other West Coast magazines, where I could regularly do interviews and longer pieces. Still, I quit the rock-crit game altogether in the later Seventies; I'd had a fun ride, got thousands of free records (those were the days!) and some concert tickets, and a certain writer's cachet. But I also very belatedly realized I didn't actually feel comfortable issuing my non-professional edicts; who was I to tell someone else what to listen to?

I'm older and grumpier these days, happy to gripe and state my opinion on almost anything, at the drop of a hat. But too cynical and jaded, even so, to write for today's puffery-oriented Rock mags. I-Pods? Down-loading? Phooey. Give me the glory days of Long Play records, and the rediscovery of the Blues.


Mr. Natural said...

Some Memphis Minnie and Furry Lewis Videos.

IWitnessEd said...

many thanks, mr. natural!