Friday, September 25, 2009

The Drifter Did Escape

Sitting at the piano writing, dark glasses on his thin face hiding bags under his eyes, his hair wild, the mercurial Bob Dylan was tired, tired of himself and all his creations. The gigs were too many, the business too stressful, the drugs too plentiful. Fame was a trap from which he had to escape. But when? How? He had to work on new songs for Blonde on Blonde. First in New York for six sessions with Levon and The Hawks, but something didn’t work, didn’t jell. Now, here, in Columbia’s Nashville studio, surrounded by top notch country pickers and players. The room was so stuffy he could hardly breathe.

There was never a break. Tour dates on weekends, then weekdays in the studio. The 1965 tour became the 1966 tour, and though The Hawks had become his band, on salary, the booing and catcalling they received as Dylan plowed forward with his electric music was becoming too much. The Hawks were used to worse from playing bars, bottles thrown at the stage, fights in the crowd. That was just violence. This was pure hate. Levon Helm, tough as nails, had enough. After the first two sessions in New York failed to create magic, he was gone and a new drummer had to be found. Only Robbie Robertson made the trip down to Tennessee.

The pressures weren’t only in the touring and recording. Dylan’s contract with Columbia, his label for four years, since he was 20, was due to expire. MGM was dangling a million bucks at him to switch labels. And his publisher was clamoring for Tarantula, which was long overdue. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was on him every day about business. Why did he sign a book contract without any idea what he would write? The money of course. The pressure hurt so much. It was all pulling him down, and the drugs made it worse. Grass, speed (particularly Benzedrine and Methedrine), opium, hash, pot- they’d be sure to bend your mind a little. He experimented with LSD and cocaine. His behavior on stage signaled drug use, but he tried his best to deny it. He was a little boy, lost.

On the day after Valentine’s Day, Dylan sat working on a song for his new wife, Sara. They had married last November, and her pregnancy was kept under wraps. Sara was providing solid ground amidst the shifting craziness that was his world. He knew having children would change his life. Dylan, for all his counter culture image believed in marriage and family. Sara, a former Playboy bunny who Bob had met back in 1964, was so out of touch that she thought Dylan was Bobby Darin. She wanted to settle down as well, to give her daughter Maria, a product of her first marriage, a home. For both of them it was becoming clearer that outside family nothing held interest.

This song, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” laid it all on the line. He was ready to slow down the pace a little, just didn’t want to live that way anymore, the road, the drugs, the fans, all pulling him down. For the woman he loved he would give up his crown and his music, at least for a while. “My Arabian drums, should I leave them at the gate?” Yeah, that sounded good. “Your magazine husband who one day just had to go.” Would anyone heed the clues?

Country players, used to the quick two minute song, didn’t quite know what to make of this song. It stretched on, four, five, six minutes. At the 10-minute mark drummer Ken Buttrey cracked up in disbelief. What was going on here? But one take was all it took. And the whole time Bob thought and thought of how to get away.

Even after the album was slated to be finished, it was back on the road again. Phil Ochs had written in Broadside that it was increasingly dangerous for Dylan to perform in public. Bob could be pretty rough on Phil, to the point where Ochs felt Dylan hated him. But Bob had to admit that it was scarier on the road than before. What was it Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers said when she introduced him at the Newport Folk Festival, back in ’65 before Dylan and his electric band blasted the folkies with a barrage of rock and roll? Something like “take him, you know him, he’s yours.” Nobody knew him, and he certainly didn’t want to be taken. He didn’t belong to anyone. All he saw himself becoming was Elvis; he never wanted to be a prophet or a savior. The Voice of a Generation. Hah. Nothing you plan ever turns out the way you plan it. Everybody else thinks they know his fate, they’re just gonna have to wait, he thought.

How to find a way out?

On April 7, Dylan headed to Hawaii, the four 1-sided acetates of Blonde on Blonde in hand. Two days later would start another round of shows, this time in Europe after a kickoff in Australia. Two months, England, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, France. England would be pretty hostile, he knew. In Copenhagen on May 1 he got word that Richard Farina had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Richard and Mimi were making a name on the folk charts. When Bobby was dating Joan, Mimi Baez was just her kid sister. Richard was leaving a book signing party for Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me near Carmel and hopped on the back of a friend’s Harley. That was that.

Dylan thought Farina was lucky. It was an accident and an answer. Bob liked his bikes and the press knew that. The papers, they always bought his stories, ate them up. When he hit the scene and told people he’d done some hard travelin’ just like Woody Guthrie, they accepted it as the gospel. No one bothered to see that he came from a middle class Jewish family from Minnesota. Now they hung on his every word, even more so than before. The European tour would end on the 27th, and though he was scheduled to go back on the road in July, he couldn’t face it. No way.
Since Jesse was born in January, Dylan just wanted to try to be quiet, seeking salvation from the life he was leading. He couldn’t see where he was going, but Sara said she knew and he took her word. A motorcycle accident? They’d listen to his story like they listened to his songs. With all the confusion, he just needed some relief.

A motorcycle accident?

On July 29, 1966, news reports told the world that Bob Dylan had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident near his Woodstock, NY home. The police were not called to the scene and there are no public records of a crash. Bob Dylan’s medical files remain private. He would resurface 18 months later, a different man, sounding relaxed and peaceful on John Wesley Harding.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

And Now, a Brief Commercial Message

A Review of Rock & Roll by "Cousin Brucie" Morrow

First, a confession: I love "Cousin Brucie." Growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island during the late 1960's and 1970's, the voice of Bruce Morrow on the radio provided a constant narration to my own "wonder years." How can I describe his voice in words? It was deep, it vibrated and if he got excited about a tune, you got worked up too. When Bruce called you "cousin," he lowered his voice and, in those moments, it really felt as if he were talking to you.

But don't think it was all a show. Bruce Morrow was deeply influential. Elvis credited Bruce for playing a large part in his success. From the stage, "Cousin Brucie" introduced The Beatles to the squealing crowd before their second Shea Stadium show in 1966. My trusty box of 45's is infused by his powers of persuasion. From The Doors to The 1910 Fruitgum Co. to Herb Alpert, the mark of Morrow is omnipresent.

Rock & Roll, the new book by "Cousin Brucie," is a panoramic overview of the culture Bruce Morrow helped shape. Music, movies, pop culture - it's all here. This is the type of book coffee tables were created for. Lots of great pictures, short and entertaining blurbs, it's a book to keep within reach if you're in need of a quick smile. If you don't have a coffee table, get one.

As someone who never gave up on vinyl, and happily received the collections of those who felt records were outdated, I particularly like the use of album covers and 45's throughout the book. You can almost feel the crisp paper of the sleeve enclosing Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day." There are lots of action shots, many which I've never seen before, which is saying something. Check out Chuck Berry on page 53, doing a split in front of a crazed crowd of teenyboppers. "Here come ol' flattop!"

A book like Rock & Roll makes you realize how quickly things changed. A very square and sedate Neil Sedaka on the sheet music of "Little Devil" is followed by a shot of Marvin Gaye, looking tormented as he belts out a song. Granted, the Gaye picture is out of place chronologically (from the 1970's, not the early 1960's), but you get the point. Plastic music gave way to soul. The Beatles follow Roy Orbison and, though greatly influenced by Roy, they are a physical leap from the bespectacled crooner. The times they are a-changin' indeed.

And there was "Cousin Brucie" lording over all of this cultural transformation. You forget, particularly in this 40th anniversary year of Woodstock, what pop music encompassed. It's nice to think it was all revolutionary, ground breaking stuff. It wasn't. As an AM deejay, Bruce was as likely to play The Rolling Stones as to play Paul Revere and The Raiders. For every groundbreaking song that changed rock and roll, there was the manufactured product of a band like The Cowsills. Only Bruce could give that grand overview. After all, he was there.

I do have some quibbles with the book - out of order photos, nods to bands that Brucie would never have come close to, like The Stooges (I sincerely doubt "I Wanna Be Your Dog" was ever played on either WABC or WNBC) - but those are small potatoes. It's a fun time, filled with wonderful memories. Any book that pairs Batman with The Yardbirds, or has a pic of Bobby Darin belting out a song with George Burns, has a place in my universe.

One more story. When my wife and I went on our first date way back in January of 1986, we went to a New York Knicks basketball game. It was the beginning of a great date, and who should be on the radio when we got back to the car? "Cousin Brucie," of course. He's that big a part of my life. He should be part of yours, and Rock & Roll is a great place to get started.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Time to Change the Road You’re On

“No, Keith. No, no, no!”

“Pete, darling, it’s just one little session.”

“No Keith. I’m telling you mate, you play with anyone else and you’re out of the band.”

“Pete, you’re my dearest friend, but in that case, sod off!”

With that Keith Moon stormed out of Eel Pie Studios, leaving in his tracks a dumbstruck Pete Townshend.

That scene was on Keith’s mind later that day as he sat behind the drum kit. Yeah, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page could play, but this “Bolero” was boring the hell out of him. Something was needed to turn it loose.


Moonie’s hysterical scream halfway through the track was the turning point. “Beck’s Bolero” went from sounding, well, just like regular Bolero – a bit tastier, a bit psychedelic, but fairly straightforward - until the madman’s wild shriek cut the air, and – bam, bam, bam- Keith’s drumming propelled the group to bombastic heights of volume and heaviness. Jeff and Jimmy’s guitars meshed seamlessly together, two metal machines perfectly melded.

“Barbaric, man, simply barbaric,” shouted Beck. He smiled as Moon bent over to pick up the smashed cymbals and microphones that were the victims of his percussive carnage. After leaving The Yardbirds, (or was he fired?) Beck had regrouped and, here at De Lane Lea in Soho, he had gathered some mates to record. July 1966 had started out sunny and warm. A good portent, Beck thought.

The rest of the guys were also laughing at Moon’s carrying on. That was normal. Keith was constantly clowning, dressing up in ridiculous costumes, undoubtedly pissed. Today, he came to the studio in dark glasses, incognito and, shockingly, completely sober. Beck knew that The Who were in disarray, always fighting, but he wasn’t aware of the fit Moon had pitched when he walked out on the group.

Moonie was deep in thought. He couldn’t believe Pete said that, that he was out, and thought he just might be better off playing with someone else. He’d been invited to Jeff’s session and knew it’d be a blast. Besides Jeff and Jimmy, there was John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins. Nicky had played on the first Who album, “My Generation,” and he was a monster. They were all great players and Keith was looking forward to bashing about. Nothing Pete said was going to stop him.

While the drums were being reassembled, Page leaned towards Beck.

“That’s the sound, man, that’s the sound.”

“They’ll never play it on Top Gear, though.”

Page laughed. “I’m not thinking about how to get on the BBC. I’m thinking about how to play. It’s what I wanted in the Yardbirds before you quit.”

"Got the sack, you mean.” Beck sneered.

“Temper, temper,” Page swept back his unruly black hair in order to see Beck better and gauge his mood. Beck was always on about something, anger simmering, waiting to explode. Page tuned his guitar, a 12-string, as he waited for Beck to cool off.

“Sorry, mate, but you did kick me out.” He was fine.

Page pleased that a row was averted went on. “Long playing, like what we just did. Five, six, seven minutes, totally free. We wouldn’t be a singles band, that’s for sure, but album sales, man, we’d sell a bundle.”

“Are you thinking about this lot?’ Beck waved the neck of his Fender at the other blokes in the room.

“I do fancy Jonesy’s playing. He’s got a heavy bass. Nicky – love his playing but I don’t hear a piano in this.”

“And Moonie?”

“Would he really leave The Who? You know how barmy he is. Can’t be counted on.”

Beck yelled over. “Hey, Keith. Come here a minute.”

“What are you geezers goin’ on about?” Keith shouted as he shuffled over, removed his shades and tucked them inside his white Oxford shirt. Not in the pocket, mind you, but inside the shirt where they disappeared.

Beck took the lead. After all, it was his session. “Fancy playing with us?”

“I ‘ave been playing with you.”

“Naw, I mean permanent-like.”

It had been a few hours since Keith’s tantrum, but he was still sorely miffed. Maybe his time had come to split.

“I’m all ears, Jeffrey, all ears.”

“Jimmy and I were just talking about what happened here, after you howled. We love that sound.”

“You mean when you sounded like The Who?” Keith playfully responded.

Jimmy interjected. “Maybe a bit, not really. Pete’s great, I love Pete, but he can’t compare with me and Jeff together.” Page harbored a bit of a chip on his shoulder after Pete wouldn’t give him credit for his work on “I Can’t Explain,” the band’s first smash hit.

“I adored it too, seriously.” Keith had had more fun playing on that than he’d had at the recent rancorous Who rehearsals. They were scheduled back at IBC Studios in August to start recording their next album. They still wouldn’t let him sing, but Pete promised he’d have a cut on the LP. Yeah, we’ll see about that. Not after today, that’s for sure.

“I’m in. I love it, but it’s no good. It’ll never work. Probably go down like a lead zeppelin. Could I sing?”

Page and Beck gave each other a knowing look.

“You know that singer for Long John Baldry?” Beck asked

“Rod the Mod? Of course, he has that rooster hair sticking straight up, don’t he?” asked Keith.

“That’s him. I thought I’d give him a ring.”

“Why don’t we work on something right now? You know the Willie Dixon song, ‘You Shook Me’?” Jimmy was eager to hear that sound again.

With a fuzz guitar lead in, and an incessant pounding on the bass drum, the new group started up.

On July 12, 1966, Jeff Beck, now ousted from The Yardbirds, held a recording session with former band mate Jimmy Page, session musician John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins and Keith Moon. They recorded the Page-penned “Beck’s Bolero.” In 1968, in the middle of troubles with The Who, John Entwistle and Keith Moon were rumored to form a band with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Either Moon or Entwistle said the new group would “go over like a lead zeppelin.” In 1968, The Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart on vocals, invented heavy metal. Led Zeppelin would follow months later. Both would cover “You Shook Me.”