Ken Robidoux referred to my recent medical adventures in one of his columns. Suffice to say I’m on the mend now and looking forward to being able to get out and hear some music again. I have no intention of this column being only album reviews, so I hope to share my thoughts about some live shows with you soon.
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The late sixties and early seventies were in many ways a period of redefinition for music. Musicians took a step back from the studio and the baroque psychedelia that came in the wake of Sgt. Pepper and rediscovered the pleasures of acoustic music. Veterans such as The Grateful Dead released acoustic albums and even The Rolling Stones recorded country flavored tracks such as “Dead Flowers” and “Sweet Virginia.” The record industry went looking for young men and women with acoustic guitars and in short order had signed James Taylor, John Prine, Elliott Murphy, Loudon Wainwright III, Bruce Springsteen and many others, collectively and mistaken referred to as “the new Dylans.”
Some veteran artists used the acoustic trend to redefine their careers. For instance, Crosby, Stills and Nash, all veterans of successful groups, found greater success in their new configuration. Other veteran performers and writers created albums during this time that should have and, in some cases, did redefined how they were perceived publicly. Two veteran songwriters who released albums during the late 60s and early 70s were John Phillips from The Mamas and Papas and Bobby Charles who is today best known for writing the 50 hit “See You Later, Alligator.” Both of these albums are low-key stunners and neither received the recognition it deserved upon release or in subsequent years.
By 1970, The Mamas and the Papas had run their course, as had the marriage of John Phillips and Michelle Phillips. Cass Elliott, probably the best singer in the bunch, had embarked on a solo career, Michelle Phillips had taken up acting, Denny Doherty retreated to Canada, and John Phillips made one of the best and most-ignored albums of the era. The material here is more downbeat than the soaring singalongs of the Mamas and Papas. Phillips did not shy away from the dark side of the 60s dream including the counterculture’s embrace of hard drugs and personal tragedies, such as the miscarriage suffered by his wife Genevive Waite.
Phillip does not excuse himself; in “Topanga Canyon,” he sings of “waiting for a pickup from my man.” But in “Drum,” he tells us “Those junkie bums took my black Pearl drums.” Given what the future held for John Phillips, some listeners might consider that line a bit of irony. But Phillips was never a songwriter to dwell in dark corners. No matter how grim his topics, he favored musical settings with singalong choruses and toe tapping rhythms. “Let It Bleed, Genevive,” a song rooted in Genevive Waite’s miscarriage cannot help but end with the skewed assurance, “You’ll get your way next time around.” Perhaps this optimism is what enabled Phillips to endure the years of failed projects and drug addiction that were to come.
The album ends with a pair of stunners, “Mississippi,” a fantasia about the Mississippi River I pure pop escapism, the thing Phillips was best at. The last cut, “Holland Tunnel,” is my favorite. Phillips directs us to “drive through that Holland Tunnel and pay your toll to the soul on the other side.” This travelogue slowly reveals itself to be his directions to someone—probably a missing lover—directing them to his doorway. “With a little luck, everything will be all right,” he sings. The reissue of this album has an additional eight tracks, including a radio mix of “Mississippi” and an instrumental jam called “Larry, Joe, Hal, and Me.” These are enjoyable but not essential.
This album was released around the same time as James Taylor’s breakthrough Sweet Baby James, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, and a host of other acoustic masterpieces. This album, sometimes called The Wolfking of LA, should have taken its place among those much –purchased classics. But for whatever reason, the album languished and became an odd footnote to the sad unravelling of Phillips’ career. In his autobiography, Papa John, Phillips barely mentions this album although he gives ample spaces to watching cricket with Mick Jagger and trying to make an album with Keith Richards. The Wolfking album has persisted, however, and found an audience. It can be found today online and via mail order. I’ve happened on a couple of copies over the last few years and have snapped them up. This album can be seen as a requiem for the LA hippie lifestyle or as a simple collection of great songs. Either way, it is one of the neglected masterpieces of American pop music. Order it now. You can thank me later.
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I got ready to write this portion of the review by listening to a song Bobby Charles cut in 1960,
called “I’ll Turn Square for You.” Charles’ persona was always that of a hipster, a guy who didn’t get too worked up about things but went his own way, taking his leave when the going got rough. In fact, this might be the reason he ended up in Woodstock, New York . After being busted for pot down south, Charles went north and ended up with the musicians gathered around the Bearsville studio in Woodstock, an upstate hamlet where first Dylan, then The Band, then a slew of other musicians showed up to live and work.
Unlike many of the musicians in Woodstock at the time, Charles, a Louisiana native, was a seasoned veteran of the R&B scene and had already written two classics, “See You Later, Alligator,” which he was supposed to have written when he was fourteen and “Walking to New Orleans,” which was recorded by Fats Domino and many others. As the story goes (and there are several versions of the story), Albert Goldman, who managed Dylan and the Band, took an interest in Charles and got him into the studio. And Charles, a singer-songwriter who played no instrument, had some new songs. Or perhaps he composed them on the spur of the moment. The whole album has a wonderful spontaneous feel to it.
The first cut, “Street People,” depicts the joys of a life spent “drifting from town to town” and noting that he doesn’t care who has to work “as long as it ain’t me.” Almost a half-century on, this attitude might seem blasphemous to a more material generation, but one of the appeals of the original counter culture was the focus on doing what pleased you, not what made you the most money. It’s a mindset we all might benefit from internalizing a bit more.
The songs here are very much of a piece, funk-infused, slow burning country rockers. Four members of the Band play on this, as do Dr. John and studio ace Amos Garrett who has bent strings for many players you’ve heard of (Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Page) and many you might have missed (The Great Speckled Bird, Doug Sahm). They provide the perfect laid back blanket of sound for Charles’s musings. Even on a gospel rocker like “Save Me, Jesus,” no one sounds like they are in a particular hurry.
Other songs display Charles in a less frenetic mode, as in “Small Town Talk,” where he confides “That small town talk tells a lot of lies.” Here he reassures a lover “Who are we to judge one another?” In “Grow Too Old,” Charles lists all the things he wants to do—go out dancing every night, kiss all the pretty girls, take a trip around the world—but acknowledges that he has to hurry “before I grow too old.” Charles was already a bit older than his peers on this record and he might have felt the weight of a thirtieth birthday that had come and gone. In the early seventies, the most elderly rock icons—Dylan, Jagger, Lennon—were just turning thirty, and it seemed inevitable that they would retire to other pursuits or slowly lose their relevance. The album’s final cut “Tennessee Blues” was covered some years later by Rick Danko, who plays bass on this recording. Danko even managed to get some airplay for the song.
This album can be purchased as a single disc or as a three disc reissue from Rhino Handmade. The three disc set contains outtakes and a thirty five minute radio interview with Charles. There are many albums by Charles out there for the taking, but this self-titled album is his masterpiece. His songs, his backing musician and his voice never meshed as well as they do here. This album is an idyll, a place of escape. And it’s a place I’m happy to visit again and again.
* * *I first knew Jed Fisher as John, and he was a big guy who took my freshman literature course one summer and who wrote pretty damn good papers for a freshman. Later he took some creative writing classes from me and I learned he could write other things as well. After he left school, I heard through the grapevine that he had made the move to Nashville, then come back to North Carolina, had shed the band he was playing with and was performing under the moniker Tennessee Jed.
Anyone vaguely familiar with bluegrass or jam bands knows how entwined the two scenes have become. Young bands seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately waving banjos and mandolins and thrashing their way through bluegrassed versions of rock songs and their own originals. Tucked among these many bands are a few who can actually sing and play and have something to offer besides enthusiasm and noise. Pimpgrass, Tennessee Jed’s fourth solo offering, shows that he is that rare creature among up and coming bluegrassers—an accomplished picker who can write songs and who has a real set of pipes.
The first cut, “Can’t Get There From Here,” begins with a chorus of town names, “Statesville, Asheville, Knoxville, Nashville,” four of the larger exits on Highway 40 coming out of North Carolina and into middle Tennessee. It’s a familiar litany to those in this part of the country and probably doubly so for a musician who spends two thirds of his or her life staring through windshields. Jed Fisher is not one to write laments about how tough life on the road is, however. In fact, he might be one of the more optimistic songwriters operating today. His song “Sweet Relief” details in all-too familiar detail the travails and eventual relief of losing, then finally finding, such things as a wallet, a car key, a cell phone. This is followed by a moody meditation entitled “Cells,” where Jed displays a nice falsetto and bluegrass instruments play a nice cooled-out funk worthy of War or Curtis Mayfield. The song allows for a long jam in the fadeout as well.
But for me, the standout masterpiece on this album is the song from which the title derives, “Country Soul Pimpgrass.” The lyrics recite a dream the songwriter had of searching in a record store for something “to make me feel like home” and finally realizing he has to create it himself: “I’ve got your soul country pimpgrass.” Jed Fisher is a gifted songwriter, and every genre of music needs more good songwriters. But there are two well-known covers on here. One is the Motown chestnut “Shout,” which has probably been covered by every James Brown wannabe since the early 60s. Performed with acoustic instruments and matched with Jed’s full-throated belting, this is probably a lot of fun at a festival or in a club. I just would have preferred an original in its place. The other cover is Prince’s “Kiss,” again performed with only acoustic instruments. I’m more inclined to give this one some points for originality.
Jed Fisher is an up and coming singer/songwriter and with luck he will find an audience that will grow with him. The first two records under review today demonstrate why some of us will spend hours searching through stacks of used records, seeking that one elusive masterpiece and why, having found it, we will force it on friends, dominate conversations to talk about it, and carry on until the next masterpiece crosses our path.