CHUCK BERRY 1979: OUR FATHER WHO ART IN PRISON

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In 1979 when Chuck Berry, one of the founding fathers of rock & roll, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to four months in prison in Lompoc, California, I was moved—provoked, actually—to write a song about him. My mission was twofold: a) to pay tribute to his indelible influence on music in general and mine in particular, and b) to protest what I, perhaps naively, perceived as an injustice. Not knowing the full scope of the case against him, I nevertheless concluded that someone–possibly chromatically motivated–was out to make an example of him. That was in no way excusing or defending the illegal actions to which he pleaded guilty.

“This tax thing that I was in was no bum rap,” he admitted in a 1983 Goldmine interview. “It was straight, true…”

However, as deep in the heart of taxes as the charges might have been, many others who similarly broke the law both before and after him, and often for a lot more than the $200,000 he denied Uncle Sam, were given the chance to pay their debts along with hefty penalties/fines/interest without serving any time. Years later, Willie Nelson, for instance, ran afoul of the law to the sour tune of more than $16,000,000 (that’s 80 times more than what Berry owed), yet he never spent a day behind bars. Crazy indeed. In addition, Berry received a run-on sentence of 1000 hours of community service. Whereas Nelson was On the Road Again, Berry had No Particular Place to Go. At least for four months.

 

The song I came up with, “Free Chuck Berry,” was purposely structured like one of his trademark tunes: a three-chorder featuring machine-gunned lyrics mixing humor with an issue, all propelled by guitar licks plucked straight from the Berry vine. A Chuck Berry song about Chuck Berry. It was a very crude home recording, but to my knowledge, no one–other than Elephant’s Memory with their “Chuck ‘n’ Bo,” which had gone largely unnoticed despite John Lennon’s production”–had written such an homage to the legend, let alone a plea for leniency, and I naturally hoped he would be amused by it.

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Unfortunately, red tape and Fed tape came between my tape and Chuck Berry. Prison officials sent my recording and letter, unopened, back to me marked “Unauthorized–Return to Sender.” The Sender was not happy.

After three calls to the joint and a round of pass-the-Chuck, I spoke to Berry’s cell-block leader and was informed that inmates, including the famous jailhouse rocker in question, were not permitted to receive any such packages containing bulk items. I guess it’s understandable; you never know what a convicted criminal might do with a cassette tape. And, admittedly, I did hope it would be considered a killer song.

“‘C’est la vie,’ say the old folks, which goes to show you never can tell”

(To hear the song, copy and paste): https://soundcloud.com/jim-george-101/free-chuck-berry-c-jim-george

(Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim George and byjimgeorge with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.)

GOING ROUND WITH THE SMALL FACES

smallfaces.PNG“God knows how it worked, but it did, and I’m very proud of it, and the other Small Faces are, too. It was worth the year’s work…It’s timeless to me.”
–Steve Marriott, Trouser Press, 1981

The Round One. That’s how the Small Faces’ 1968 LP, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, is sometimes referred to—providing it’s referred to at all.

The Round One? But aren’t all records round? Actually, plenty of records are square, but that’s another story. Getting back to the disc at hand (or in hand if you’re lucky enough to have an original copy in your possession), just as The Beatles’ White Album was so nicknamed for its distinctive cover, such was the case with this LP.

Released on the now-defunct and then-eclectic hot-pink Immediate label, co-owned by ex-Stones boss Andrew “Loog” Oldham (with the accent on ham), Ogdens’ inner tunes came shipped in a circular cover designed to simulate, in 2-D, a tobacco (wink wink) tin.

Unfortunately, although the album and its offsprung singles were hits everywhere else on the globe—topping the charts in their native England—the shape of the cover generated more attention back in the US than the shape of the music.

“While lacking the awesome stature of a Sgt. Pepper or a Pet Sounds, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is nevertheless a rock classic,” wrote Steve Clarke eight years after its release.

Another journalistic retrospectator, Richard Cromelin, opined, “Ogdens’ was the classic fulfillment of all the bands’s musical strains…Though packed to the brim with studio effects, minute overdubs and busy background din, its coherence and economy offset the tendency toward overproduction.”

Studded with no less than four musical jewels (“Afterglow,” “Rene,” “Song of a Baker,” “Lazy Sunday”), side one glistens with a refreshingly original blend of English music hall influences, psychedelia, R&B, rock & roll and pub sing-alongs.

“The Small Faces understood that power and fullness weren’t a product of sheer volume,” wrote Cromelin, “but of judicious arrangement and placement, as best exemplified in ‘Afterglow,’ which can attain monumental proportions and project an exciting ‘live’ atmosphere even when the volume knob is turned down low.”

Following the opening instrumental title track, replete with swirling phasing a la “Itchycoo Park”–Small Phasing—comes “Afterglow,” one of the ‘60s best singles. An unsilly love song, it is fueled by Marriott’s incomparable, impassioned vocal, alternately tender and frenetic, and beautifully colored by Ian McLagan’s soulful Hammond B-3 and insistent piano, Kenney Jones’ impressively dynamic skin-work and Ronnie Lane’s economical yet underrated bass lines (the bass by Lane stays mainly in the plain).

Ogdens’ unleashed a new aspect of The Small Faces’ melodus operandi: high-spirited humor. Side one’s nods to their jolly joie de vivre are the infectious “Rene (The Docker’s Delight)” and “Lazy Sunday,” the latter a jaunty tune sprinkled with the sounds of bells, whistles, birds, the ocean, a duo of paper-and-combers humming out a shaky Stones “Satisfaction” riff, and a comic Cockney vocal delivery by Marriott.

Wooden it be noyce to gat on wiv me nye-bas
They mike very clee-uh thy’ve gawt no room for rye-vas

Slotted midway between “Afterglow” and “Lazy Sunday” is “Rene,” a ribald classic spiced with lusty British humor, rich lyric imagery and English music-hallmarkings. The verses are a steal—they creep along Pink Panther-like, conjuring up salty visions of waterfront barflies on the prowl, while the choruses robustly sing out:

She’s Rene, the Docker’s Delight
And a ship’s in every night
Groping with a stoker from the coast of Kuala Lumpur

The elongated end of the song is somewhat reminiscent of the “Lovely Rita” climax on Sgt. Pepper. From a meter maid to a made meeter.

“Song of a Baker” is a mini-master-class in dynamics and pacing. Lane sings lead with Marriott high atop in harmony in the choruses. The killer guitar solo proves that Marriott was always an underrated axe-man, even when he was Facing the music in the ‘60s.

 Flipping the disc, The Small Faces went from apex to zenith.

“Are you all sitty comftybode two-square on your body? Then I’ll begin. Now of course, like all real-life experienstory, this also begins once apolly tie-toe…”

So begins side two, a thematic musical first. Narrated by English double-talk artiste Stanley Unwin, the story of Happiness Stan was the first (and possibly only) rock fairy tale, predating S.F. SorrowTommy or any of the so-called rock operas.

In a Trouser Press interview, Marriott recalled, “Me and Ronnie used to get very stoned and sit around the garden in the evenings, playing. We started talking about doing something about the idiot who wanted to find out where (the other half of) the moon went—a Cockney fairy story. It went from there…It made us laugh—anything that made us laugh, we liked.”

Quick of tongue and fractured of grammar, Unwin spins the delightful aslope fable which is interspersed with six numbers. Even more spectral in its musical stylings than side one, the A-grade B-side is a virtual surprise partita.

The Elizabethan-flavored “Happiness Stan,” with its harpsichord and chant-like background chorus, is followed by “Rollin’ Over,” in which the Faces are rock & rollin’ over with Marriott’s powerful double-tracked singing, a punctuative brass section and McLagan telegraphing the ebonies-and-ivories like some pint-sized Jerry Lee Lewis.

“The Hungry Intruder” is aurally woven into a tapestry of acoustic guitars, strings and flute, while “The Journey” kicks off like a Booker T and the MG’s workout—a hot cop of T.

Right down to its choral hi-diddly-hi-hi’s, “Mad John” is a beautiful evocation of an Old English folk song. Against the heavy-hearted strumming of his melancholy acoustic guitar, Marriott plaintively sings:

There was an old man that lived in the green wood
Nobody knew him or what he had done
But mothers would say to their children, “Beware of Mad John”
John would sing with the birds in the morning
Laugh with the wind in the cold hand of night
But people from behind their curtains said he’s not quite right

The tale tails off with the revelrous finale, “Happydaystoytown” with its infectious sing-along chorus and breakfast cereal philosophy:

Life is just a bowl of All-Bran
You wake up every morning and it’s there
So live as only you can
It’s all about enjoy it ‘cause ever since you saw it
There ain’t no one can take it away

When Happiness Stan is informed as to the moon’s whereabouts by the not-so-mad John, he simply says, “Of course, I nearly forgot it!”

Upon this revelation, he is joined, we are told, by a cast of characters including such nursery rhyme all-stars as Jack and Jill and Little Boy Blue, who “brought his mellotron amd freaked everyone out.”

“Stay cool, won’t you,” are the gnarly narrator’s parting words, and the band plays on, fading into the sunset—or, in this case, the moonglow.

Said Marriott, “I couldn’t see how we could follow Ogdens’…I thought, well if there’s a time to leave, it must be now…Whatever you read in print, it was in fact a case of Marriott was scared.”

America really missed the beat on this one. The Round One.

 

(Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim George and byjimgeorge with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.)

BLONDE ON BLONDE WAS DYLAN’S GOLDEN HOUR

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(Note: This, with a few minor changes, is a piece I wrote back in 1983 for a series my hometown paper, The Reading Eagle, ran entitled “Album Classics.”)

“I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who’ll explain it to you.”
–Bob Dylan, 1978

It’s kind of a don’t ask/won’t tell situation. You don’t ask, he won’t tell. And for those who did ask, more often than not, Bob Dylan has elected not to tell. At least not too much.

A clue to his press behavior was crystallized in the following exchange between the erudite Jonathan Cott and the enigmatic Dylan in a ’78 Rolling Stone interview:

Cott: I guess there’s no point in asking a magician how he does his tricks.
Dylan: Exactly!

Elsewhere in their discussion, Dylan likened himself mediumistically to his mentor, Woody Guthrie, who said that he pulled songs out of the air.

“That meant,” said Dylan, “that they were already there and that he was tuned into them.”

Cott’s magician-parallel was a good one. Overall, Bob Dylan has been a musical magician–a singing sorcerer who has summoned up his own spirits, conjured songs out of the air, and transformed pieces of shiny black plastic into something indeed quite magical.

Like Blonde On Blonde.

“One of the most pleasing things about Blonde On Blonde,” wrote then-critic Jon Landau in a ’68 article for Crawdaddy magazine, “is that by shifting the focus from the impossible epics of earlier works to subjects which were closer to himself personally, Dylan was able to create a more powerful and lasting artistic tension than he ever was out of things like ‘With God On Our Side.’”

Blonde On Blonde was rock’s first double-album and the last album Dylan recorded before his breakneck pace of living climaxed with him literally breaking his neck in a motorcycle accident in July of ’66.

“At the time of my Blonde On Blonde album,” he later said, “I was going at a tremendous speed.” In life and, apparently, on his motorcycle, though he has never gone into much detail.

Dylanesque as it sounds, the album’s title was not a Zimmy (well, he did say we could call him that, didn’t he?) invention. As Dylan recollected—or failed to—in a ’69 Rolling Stone interview, “I don’t even recall exactly how it came up, but I do know it was all in good faith. It has to do with just the word. I don’t know who thought of that. I certainly didn’t.”

(While it may purely be coincidental, ever notice that the first letters acronymically spell BOB?)

Lyrically, musically, thematically and emotionally, Blonde On Blonde was a milestone in contemporary music. Dylan’s incomparable phrasing was played against the spare, soulful and eloquently simple (or simply eloquent) musical backing of Nashville Cat Charlie McCoy’s band, augmented by the likes of Al Kooper and Joe South.

Amusingly, the significance of the album’s kickoff, “Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35,” wasn’t quite as high-minded as those who gleefully latched onto the catch-phrase “Everybody must get stoned.” Of course, the double-entendre is there. But if one listens to the verses of this Salvation Army-gone-awry number, clearly the song’s operative word “stoned” refers not to a euphoric condition, but rather to the act of being knocked, kicked, harassed, oppressed, criticized, slandered, maligned, beaten down or tangled up in blue.

Likewise, the “They” refers not to turned-on friends, but to those who wish ill will toward men (and women). In fact, the chorus is the only section of the song which can be (mis)interpreted as a paean to altered states. The smoky connotation doesn’t hold up beyond that.

(Dylan’s line, “They’ll stone you when you’re sent down in your grave,” rings forever true—evidence the heartfelt Mommie Dearest and Albert Goldman’s endearing The Lives of John Lennon.)

As for the cryptic title, Dylan psycho-analysts—preferring to sniff between the lines—failed to consider the possibility of a happenstance explanation. It has subsequently been revealed that Dylan either wrote or recorded (or both) the tune on a rainy day with two females, aged 12 and 35, present. Honest to Bob.

Similarly, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” is “just about that,” admitted Dylan. “I think that’s something I mighta taken out of a newspaper. Mighta seen a picture of one in a department store window. There’s really no more to it than that. I know it can get blown up into some kind of illusion. But in reality, it’s no more than that. Just a leopard-skin pill-box. That’s all.”

“It balances on your head like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine,” sings Dylan of the millinery monstrosity. (Note the similarity of John Lennon’s guitar solo in “Yer Blues” to the stinging Dylan-fingered lead guitar licks of this blues-rocker.)

“Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” is inspired nonsense—an irresistible, funny, surreal tour de farce. Displaying his absurdist agility and a superlative vocal, Dylan delivers such wonderful lines as:

Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well
And I would send a message
To find out if she’s talked
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked

and:

When Ruthie says come see her
In her honky-tonk lagoon
Where I can watch her waltz for free
‘Neath her Panamanian moon
And I say, “Aw come on now
“You know you know about my debutante”
And she says, “Your debutante just knows what you need
“But I know what you want”

While Dylan’s unpolished and rough-around-the-etches harmonica playing has been disparaged by some over the years (virtuoso mouth organist Larry Adler felt his blowing and sucking, well, sucked), many more consider it beautifully soulful and spirited. As such, it lends an ingenuous charm to the songs so graced.

“Temporary Like Achilles” marries the two predominant elements of the album; it is a love song performed in the blues idiom. Love, lost or found, is all around Blonde On Blonde: “Just Like a Woman,” “I Want You,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Sooner or Later (One of Us Must Know),” and the epic “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” another gift from the gods.

“(‘Sad-Eyed Lady’) started out as just a little thing,” said Dylan, “but I got carried away somewhere along the line. I just sat down at a table and started writing. At the session itself….I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning (laughs).”

Speaking of his work in general, Dylan stated, “The words are just as important as the music. There would be no music without the words. Indeed, despite its haunting melody, the lyrics of the 12-minute “Sad-Eyed Lady” (which accounts for one of the LP’s four sides) stand on their own as gorgeous poetry:

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to press you

In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Bob Dylan’s legacy is summed up thusly: “Bob Dylan’s importance to the development of rock is rivaled only by that of The Beatles. His influence went much further than the innovative qualities of his lyrics, his semivisionary songs effecting a change in the consciousness of an entire generation and opening up a general awareness of attitudes, both personal and political, that, without him, might still be stifled and denied today.”

If by some simple twist of fate you’ve never heard Blonde On Blonde—whether you’re too young to remember it or you’ve spent the mid-‘60s in a coma—by all that is wholly superior, listen to this magnum opus. Everybody must get milestoned.

 

 

(Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim George and byjimgeorge with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.)