Monday, July 30, 2018

Now Reading: Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards by Al Kooper

Backstage PassesThis book was originally published in hardcover as just Backstage Passes in 1977, covering the years 1958-1968. You may think, What could Al Kooper have done, between the ages of 14 and 24, that demands an entire book?

Al Kooper scored his first professional gig at the very young age of 14 as a guitarist in the band the Royal Teens. He later joined the avant-garde blues-rock band Blues Project as a keyboardist in 1965; and after leaving that band, he then formed his own band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, in 1967. And let's not forget the Monterey Pop Festival, also in 1967, and something called Woodstock in 1968....

Let's see, what else: Al Kooper co-wrote the #1 pop song "This Diamond Ring," recorded by Gary Lewis and the Playboys when, I believe, he was just 20 years old. When Bob Dylan went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, that was Al Kooper on the stage, playing Hammond organ in Bob's backing band. Kooper had just finished working with Dylan on the recording session for his iconic song "Like a Rolling Stone," so Dylan asked Kooper to join his backing band at Newport.

Following the festival, Kooper then went on to play on the sessions for the rest of Dylan's highly successful album Highway 61 Revisited. Al Kooper was 21. (Note: During those recording sessions, Al Kooper met guitarist extraordinaire Michael Bloomfield; the two later recorded together the albums Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, both in 1968.)

Speaking of the recording session for "Like a Rolling Stone," Al Kooper actually bluffed his way into that session -- he had never previously played a Hammond organ until then. Here's just a bit of what he writes about that experience:
"Imagine this: There is no music to read. The song is over five minutes long, the band is so loud that I can't even hear the organ, and I'm not familiar with the instrument to begin with. But the tape is rolling, and that is Bob-fucking-Dylan over there singing, so this had better be me sitting here playing something. The best I could manage was to play hesitantly by sight, feeling my way through the changes like a little kid fumbling in the dark for the light switch. After six minutes they'd gotten the first complete take of the day and everyone adjourned to the control room to hear it played back.
If you listen to it today, you can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band, before committing myself to play in the verses. I'm always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys...."
So, what do you think? Is that ten-year span sufficient to fill a book? And though I've mentioned just the cursory points, the author goes into depth on the bands and musicians, the songs, the sessions, the cities and the places, and the events of the day.

Twenty years after this book had been published, and long since out of print, Al Kooper found a new publisher willing to reprint the book as a trade paperback. But, the author chose to revise those first ten years (with more pointed detail) as well as adding his personal experiences over the next thirty years. And with the reprint came a new, more descriptive title: Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'N' Roll Survivor.

But wait, there's more! The book was reprinted yet again, in 2008, to cover additional years from 1998 through 2007. Al Kooper had to deal with some very serious health issues by this time, which he faced with aplomb.

According to Wikipedia, Al Kooper had a sixty-eighth birthday celebration at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 4, 2012. And, I assume, Kooper is still performing to this day.

"...The other amazing thing about cutting that album [Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde] was the firsthand knowledge that you were making history. After I cut the Highway 61 Revisited album, I heard those songs everywhere. I will probably hear them all my life, anywhere I go. They were instant classics because they were prime Dylan. Imagine how it felt playing on a session where, by virtue of the fact that you had already done it once before, you knew that whatever you played would last forever. That's a heavy responsibility for a punk from Queens. Thank you, Bob, for giving me that opportunity."
–Al Kooper, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards

Here are a few album recommendations for those who might like to pursue the music of Al Kooper -- most, but not all, should be available on CD (and again, I can't speak to streaming as I prefer the physical media). By the way, this list is excerpted from a full eight pages of Kooper's body of work.

As musician–
  • The Best Of The Blues Project (Rhino Records, 1989)
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears - Child Is Father To The Man (Columbia, 1968)
  • Al Kooper - I Stand Alone (Columbia, 1968)
  • Mike Bloomfield / Al Kooper / Stephen Stills - Super Session (Columbia, 1968)
  • The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield And Al Kooper (Columbia, 1968)
  • Soul Of A Man: Al Kooper Live (MusicMasters, 1995, 2-CD)

As producer/arranger–
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd ‎– (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd) (MCA/Sounds of the South, 1973)
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd ‎– Second Helping (MCA/Sounds of the South, 1974)
  • The Tubes (A&M, 1975)
  • Nils Lofgren - Cry Tough (A&M, 1976)
I would have included some of Al's more recent works but, sadly, they saw limited release and are currently out of print. His last (so far) solo album, White Chocolate (A Minor Record Company, 2008), would certainly have been on this list.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Now Reading: This Wheel's on Fire by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis

This Wheel's on FireHe was born Mark Lavon (yes, with an "a") Helm on May 26, 1940, but somewhere along the way, once he started touring and playing music, he became "Levon" (pronounced "Lee-von") Helm. The subtitle of This Wheel's on Fire is "Levon Helm and the Story of The Band." If you have to ask, "What band?" then you don't know your classic rock music, and you certainly aren't a fan of Bob Dylan's body of work.

Then again, if you are a moviegoer, you just might have seen Levon in the role of the coal miner, Ted Webb, in the 1980 screen adaptation of Loretta Lynn's autobiography Coal Miner's Daughter. He also played the role of Captain Jack Ridley, friend and fellow conspirator of Chuck Yeager in the film The Right Stuff. [I have watched this movie on numerous occasions (still have it on a double VHS!) and absolutely never realized that Ridley was played by Levon Helm....]

But back to the music: This is the story of how five musicians -- four Canadians and one Arkansawyer, multi-instrumentalists all -- came together over a span of years and endless road touring to eventually form The Band. To be honest, they never called themselves "the band" as they always thought this to be too pretentious: they were five individual musicians, each of whom went by their own name. But, while living in the Woodstock area of New York, the townfolk would simply refer to them as "the band": "Oh, he's in the band." And when their first album, Music From Big Pink, was released, they became The Band.

What motivated me to finally [see next to last paragraph] pick up this book and actually read it straight through? Believe it or not, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Music From Big Pink (gawd, 50 years?), and the remaining two members of the band have opted to release a 50th Anniversary edition of this seminal work: a box set as well as a newly remastered (from the original analogue tapes) double-LP on pink vinyl.

Levon Helm writes:
"We wanted Music From Big Pink to sound like nothing anyone else was doing. This was our music, honed in isolation from the radio and contemporary trends, liberated from the world of the bars and the climate of the Dylan tours. We'd grown up with Ronnie Hawkins [Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks], playing that quicker tempo of tunes. Now we cut our tempo, our pulse, right in half. The sense of teamwork and collaboration was incredible. Robbie [Robertson, vocals, guitar] was writing stuff that evoked simple pictures of American life. Richard [Manuel, vocals, keyboards, drums] was writing beautiful songs like 'In a Station' and 'Lonesome Suzie.' Garth [Hudson, keyboards, accordion, brass and woodwinds] took a great song like 'Chest Fever' and composed an organ prelude. Rick's [Danko, vocals, bass, fiddle, trombone] playing and singing were amazing, and that blend of the three voices -- Richard, Rick, and me -- sounded really rich after we'd worked with John Simon [producer] for a while."

And the reviews for Big Pink, to use Levon's own words, were "pretty good." Al Aronowitz, in Life magazine: "With Big Pink, the band dips into the well of tradition and comes up with bucketsful of clear, cool country soul that washes the ears with a sound never heard before. Traditionalists may not like it because it's too original. Pop faddists won't like it because it's too traditional." And in Rolling Stone, Al Kooper wrote: "I have chosen my album for 1968. Music From Big Pink is an event and should be treated as one....This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it."

I could go on and on with reviews of Big Pink as well as their follow-up album, simply called The Band, but I'd rather not overwhelm you with facts and opinions, but simply recommend a few albums if, indeed, you are not familiar with the music:
  • Music From Big Pink (1968)
  • The Band (1969)
  • Bob Dylan/The Band - Before the Flood (1974)
  • Bob Dylan & The Band - The Basement Tapes (1975)
  • Northern Lights - Southern Cross (1975)
  • Levon Helm - Dirt Farmer (2007, Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album)
  • Levon Helm - Electric Dirt (2009, Grammy Award for Best Americana Album)

I've been reading the 1993 hardbound edition of this book, which I've had in my library, well, since 1993(!), but while looking the title up on Amazon I have learned that Chicago Review Press published a trade paperback edition in 2000, and then a "Revised Edition" in 2013. If you are intrigued by my post and decide to pursue your own reading copy, try to snag the 2013 revised edition as it contains an additional chapter as well as an afterword, neither of which are in my copy. Levon Helm passed away in 2012, so these additions may include the last words we'll every hear from him.

"They were grown men who had climbed the mountain together, spoken to the gods, and returned to the valley, where they once again became mortal."
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Now Reading: Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero by Ed Ward

"The music you listen to becomes the soundtrack of your life. It may be the first music you made love to or got high to or went through your adolescence to, went through poignant times of your life—well, that music is going to mean a lot to you. It's going to take on much more import than just the sound of the notes, because it's the background track for your existence."
– Michael Bloomfield, in an interview with
Tom Yates and Kate Hayes, February 13, 1981.

Bloomfield Rise and FallAt 11:00 a.m. on February 15, 1981, Michael Bloomfield was found slumped over the steering wheel in his parked car, keys still in the ignition, in a part of San Francisco in which he never frequented. The pathologist ruled the cause of death as cocaine and methamphetamine poisoning -- very odd, considering that Michael never touched cocaine, and as a lifelong insomniac, why would he intentionally take two drugs that keep one awake? Questions, sadly, that will never be answered.

Fortunately, we still have his music....

When Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Michael Bloomfield was on that same stage, backing Dylan on guitar. This was three days before Michael's twenty-second birthday. Here's what Ed Ward wrote about that performance:
"During 'Maggie's Farm,' Bloomfield becomes Dylan's second voice. He sits so hard on top of the beat that it screams, and what he plays amounts to a sardonic running commentary on Dylan's song. Bloomfield approaches atonality in a couple of places, but his playing on 'Maggie's Farm' sits squarely within the blues tradition. It's not hard to understand why some people in the audience were confused, because what Bloomfield gave them on the evening of July 25, 1965, was the future of rock guitar."

Following Newport, Bloomfield then played on the Dylan recording sessions, along with Al Kooper who also played at Newport, for the album Highway 61 Revisited, released by Columbia Records later that year.

In addition to Highway 61 Revisited, here are a few "must have" albums that showcase Michael Bloomfield's work. I assume most, if not all, of these albums are available for streaming, but that's not my thing. Personally, I want the physical media, and the larger (i.e. vinyl) the better:

  • The Paul Butterfield Blues Band self-titled album (1965)
  • The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - East-West (1966)
  • The Electric Flag - A Long Time Comin' (1968)
  • Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steve Stills - Super Session (1968)
  • The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (1969)
  • Michael Bloomfield and Friends - Live at Bill Graham's Fillmore West 1969
  • Nick Gravenites - My Labors (1969)
  • Muddy Waters - Fathers and Sons (1969)

Michael Bloomfield, to Ed Ward, on why he chose not to tour with Dylan following the release of Highway 61 Revisited:
"With Bob, I'd have no identity. I didn't even know that [at the time]. All I knew was that I didn't understand what was happening....So I told Albert [Grossman, Dylan's manager], 'Man, I'm a bluesman. I'll go with Butterfield.' And I played with Butter and didn't play with Dylan, and we were cookin'. We wailed from then on."

Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero by Ed Ward (Chicago Review Press Inc., 2016, Revised Edition).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Book Received: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

ApocalypseNyxLast week I received my contributor's copy of Apocalypse Nyx, Kameron Hurley's collection of stories set in her Bel Dame Apocrypha world of God's War. The book should have arrived within a couple days of being mailed as I live only about fifty miles south of the publisher, Tachyon Publications...but that's not taking into account the mode of transport: the United States Postal Service! So the package was mailed in San Francisco, Tachyon's home; upon checking tracking updates, I discovered that the package was transported to a Los Angeles USPS receiving station (about 350 miles south of me), before, eventually, making its way back to good ole San Jose, where I live. I believe it was about six days after being mailed that the package was actually delivered. Six days to really travel only about fifty miles....

In my December 11, 2017, blog post, I wrote about my work on Apocalypse Nyx. At that time the book was scheduled for publication in July 2018 -- and here we are! Aside from the quality of their books, Tachyon Publications have always met their release dates (rare for an independent publisher... I could tell you stories about other publishers....), and I've been working with them since 2002. In fact, I just looked up the details: my first invoice was dated February 19, 2002.

As Kirkus states at the conclusion of its review of Apocalypse Nix: "For established fans, a bittersweet reunion with old friends; for new readers, a reasonable enticement toward the superior novels of the series."

Here are excerpts from two more reviews:
"...I usually talk about themes in reviews because I think they contribute to what the reader takes away from a book. Forget about it. Just let Apocalypse Nyx blow you away with its deep portrayal of a person in constant intellectual and moral crisis, and don't worry about what it means. You will be immersed in love, lust, hate, revenge, desire, and will question the value of human life. You will empathize with Nyx for her faults yet be appalled at her lack of human conscience. It's a heady mix and entertaining as hell.

Is it grimdark? You bet your ass it is. Try not to root for Nyx as she blasts away innocents who happen to be in the way of the next payoff. It's impossible. And the question of grey morality itself makes a couple of unobtrusive appearances in the stories and in the delightful banter between her crew of freaks. If you're reading this review, then you obviously appreciate grimdark. Grab this nice introduction to Nyx's life and world. You won't regret it. Most highly recommended."
Grimdark Magazine

"...But this noir backdrop is enlivened by a double helping of gritty violence. Nyx is a self-admitted terrible shot, but she makes up for it with her scattergun, sword, and sheer bloody-mindedness, leaving a trail of corpses through the stories—most of whom might possibly deserve it, if you squint a bit, but some of whom just find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nyx is a killer and her tragedy is she can neither accept this in herself nor bring herself to walk away from the violence by which she makes her living.

This collection starts off with two longer stories, "The Body Project" and "The Heart Is Eaten Last" that do an excellent job of introducing Nyx and her team and setting a pattern that other stories will elaborate on. In each story, Nyx and her team take on a job, find out that the job is not quite what they had been led to believe, overcome danger and obstacles (often with significant injuries and moral quandaries), and finally achieve an ambiguous victory. Sometimes, victory is just survival. While this might seem formulaic, it is a perfect frame for the character moments that lie at the heart of the stories, while giving plenty of space for the gritty action scenes that Hurley does so well."

Apocalypse Nyx is now available for purchase direct from Tachyon Publications, or Amazon, or your preferred bookseller.