A Day In The Life

Musicasaurus.com unearths & unveils my skeletal framework—the relics and remnants of my own Life in Music…

A new reflection will be posted every two weeks, on Sunday evening.....Each entry will highlight a happenstance, illuminate an episode, or capture an encounter—all mined from the music vein that has layered my life.

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Posted 8/12/18:  IT TAKES TWO

(Next post:  Sunday evening, August 26, 2018)

TWO STORIES THIS TIME IN “A DAY IN THE LIFE”…THE FIRST FROM SEARCHING THE WEB FOR SONG ORIGINS…AND THE SECOND FROM DIGGING INTO RECENT MUSIC STUDIES: 

STORY #1

In the May 20, 2018 post here in A DAY IN THE LIFE, I spun a few origin stories about classic songs from a variety of artists such as Neil Young (“After The Goldrush”), The Eagles’ (“Hotel California”), The Vapors (“Turning Japanese”), The Beatles’ (“She Said She Said”), and others.  Along the way to finishing that post, I ran across a few other interesting items while scouring the internet. Since I didn’t use these specific bits in the May 20thpost, I guess you could call them my alternative facts about more song origins… 

 

“Blackbird”

Beatles’ fans have pored for decades over Lennon lyrics and McCartney musings, and all of us now know that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is NOT about LSD—at least that’s my acid reflex.  The inspiration instead came from a drawing that young Julian Lennon did in school and brought home to show his parents…“Blackbird,” a song written by McCartney, has a couple of different origin stories goin’ on as well. This song that ended up on the 1968 double album commonly called the White Album has lyrics that include the lines “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”  

In various publications over the years McCartney has pointed to America’s tempestuous Civil Rights movement as the impetus for this song, but also has thrown out a more literal source—hearing a blackbird’s call one morning in India when he and the rest of the Fab Four were transcendentally meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It could very well be a synthesis of the two…

 

“Save The Last Dance For Me”

Doc Pomus, originally a blues singer turned songwriter of some classic early rock and roll hits of the 1950s and 1960s, wrote “Save The Last Dance For Me” based on his own experiences at his wedding.  In a wheelchair because of polio, Pomus watched his new wife dance with other guests all evening long, and wrote this 1960 song with a happy ending: “So don't forget who's taking you home / Or in who's arms you're gonna be / So darling save the last dance for me.”

“Space Oddity”

David Bowie wrote and released the song “Space Oddity” in July 1969, and the release of the single to radio stations that month preceded the most famous moonwalk of all (apologies to Michael Jackson) by ten days: Two astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first men on the moon.  A lot of people think there’s a link, but it is only coincidence.  

Instead, Bowie’s inspiration stemmed from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine, Bowie explained that the song “was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

 

“Louie Louie”

This is a song from 1955 that was played in thousands of American garages by pimply kids with guitars and bash kits, spurred on by the hit version from The Kingsmen that aired on radio stations nationwide in 1963.  Since then, the song’s been covered by everyone from Otis Redding, The Kinks, The Mothers of Invention, Motorhead, and Toots & The Maytals, to The Clash, John Belushi, Stanley Clarke and George Duke, and Iggy Pop.  

The Kingsmen’s version in ’63 was reportedly investigated by the FBI because of suspicions that the marble-mouthed lead singer was spouting lyrics that were considered obscenities. The case never ended up in prosecution, though, and the song may have actually had a cussword in it after all; reportedly the drummer drops his drumstick and an F-bomb at the 54-second mark of this 2:45 raucous mini-masterpiece.  

“Ring Around The Rosie”

I grew up in the 1950s and in my pre-school years, I remember holding hands and moving sideways in an unbroken circle with friends, spouting the sing-songy lyrics of “Ring-a-round the rosie / A pocketful of posies / Ashes!  Ashes! / We all fall down.”  And I was crestfallen to learn through an internet search that perhaps the most plausible origin tale of this tune stems from the Middle Ages.  Some—I say, some—scholarly folklore types insist that the song sprang from the occasion of the bubonic plague that raged across Europe and killed millions of people in the 15thand 17thcenturies.  

“Ring-a-round the rosie,” these scholars maintain, refers to a red circular rash that was a common identifier of those stricken, and that the posies likely represented the flowers and/or herbs that the luckless carried with them in hope of warding off the scourge.  And the “ashes!” and “falling down?”  This might well be the final sneezes, coughs, and the drop to the ground.  If this tale be true, God, I was SO naïve at the age of five.

STORY #2

 

Having spent almost half my life employed by the music industry—beginning as a record store part-timer in 1975; ending as an amphitheater general manager in 2008—I obviously loved being a one-note guy.  Now I’ve found justification for it.

I just laid eyes on a new bit of research mentioned on Consequence of Sound, a Chicago-based online publication that bills itself as “the missing link between mainstream pop culture and the underground.”  COS in an April 7, 2018 post spills the highlights of a new study (first reported on England’s music site NME) that claims concert-going can contribute to longevity—in fact, hitting a show at least once every two weeks can actually add nine years to your life.

The cynic in me bubbled right up, though, when I read that the study was conducted by a Goldsmiths University of London associate lecturer (touted as a behavioral science expert) in conjunction with O2, a massive mobile network operator in the UK and beyond.  In addition to being the name-in-title sponsor of London’s most successful arena, O2 offers its customers access to tickets to 5,000+ concerts in more than 350 venues across the UK each year through a service called Priority Tickets.  Huh.

But back to the findings as reported in the COS article:  “The logic here,” says the article’s author Randall Colburn, “is that live music increases feelings of self-worth, closeness to others, and, especially, mental stimulation, all of which contribute to one’s sense of well-being.  According to the study, there’s a ‘positive correlation between regularity of gig attendance and wellbeing,’ and ‘additional scholarly research directly links high levels of wellbeing with a lifespan increase of nine years.’”

I really have just a few questions at this point:

  1. About this “adds nine years to your life” thing…Can I start seeing a live show every two weeks beginning when I’m 90, so I can live until I’m 99? (To paraphrase Prince a bit, “I’d wanna party like I’m livin’ ‘til ‘99”)
  2. What if you went only to outdoor heavy metal concerts every two weeks?  I know at least a handful of these types of shows do in fact bring people closer together (like someone’s fist to someone else’s face) but the decibels alone, one would think, would scramble your sense of well-being like an egg.
  3. And…What if you went to fifteen freakin’ shows in a two-week period?  I worked at Star Lake Amphitheater in 1994, and we had a pretty unusual logjam of concerts that particular August—15 shows within 17 days.  It started with Metallica on August 12thand then rolled on one after the other, our hot August nights filled with unrelenting evenings of artists and their flocks on August 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, and 27, finally ending with Harry Connick, Jr. on August 28.  So…I wonder if I accrued any life-prolonging benefits from crammin’ in so many shows in this two-week (and three-day) stretch?  At the time, I’ll tell you, I felt like I was fixin’ to die…

 

There is one more music-related survey that I found on the COS website, this one dating back to 2016 and a post from COS writer Scoop Harrison. Unlike the rejuvenating jolt that the formerly described survey provided, this one had only sobering news—and not for the fans and followers of music, but for those who make it.

Even though we music lovers benefit from concerts through fan-shared experiences, passions stirred and spirits lifted, the musicians themselves apparently don’t fare so well over the long term.  Author Harrison reported that a survey “conducted by Sydney University found that, on average, musicians die 25 years younger than non-musicians.” The survey had looked at a total of 12,655 musicians who died between the years 1950 and 2014, and researchers found that these folks, on average, passed away at ages somewhere between their late 50s and early 60s.

Certainly we had a depressing stat already in hand before this survey came to light, which is the fact that a number of rock luminaries bought the farm at age 27: Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of The Doors and a few others.  I doubt this  handful of heroes and hellions majorly skewed the findings, but a couple of those listed point to another disturbing commonality—a penchant for suicide.  According to the survey, the suicide rate among musicians was between two and seven times greater than the average population.

The individual who spearheaded the study, University of Sydney’s Professor Dianna Kenny, was quoted by the media as saying “The music scene celebrates drugs and promiscuity and valorisation of early death, so young musicians who are depressed and suicidal are attracted to these types of environments. They are meeting fellow travellers where they amplify each others suicide, depression, or substance abuse and that gets into an-out-of-control spiral leading to early death.”  (Note to self: Remember to scratch Dianna Downer from any upcoming dinner party guestlists.)

 

 

 

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Posted 7/29/18:  I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT

I was thinking fondly of my old flame a few nights ago…and I don’t mean an ex-girlfriend.  I was reflecting back to the concert days of my wayward youth in the 1970s, remembering the flame from my old lighter—the one I hoisted skyward more than a few times joined by thousands of others, all held aloft, as we screamed for encores and “One…more…song!”

Those were the days, my friend, and they did end—but not abruptly. The flickering sea of lighters under night skies and arena roofs very g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y went away over the next several decades, not snuffed but rebuffed; tech eventually muscled out the torch.

Cellphones had arrived, of course, and over time they beat back the standard-bearers—the Bics and the Zippos—to the point where today, Elton’s “Candle in the Wind” has lost all its original luster and Lynyrd Skynyrd is fully resigned to little or no flames for “Free Bird” (though I think the band still glowers at the glow-screens).

These Bics and Zippos, though, were essential concert gear for a long stretch starting in the late 1960s.  The Bic company, founded by two Frenchmen in the mid-1940s who originally only trafficked in ballpoint pens, expanded to pocket lighters in 1971 through the acquisition of a traditional-lighter manufacturer named Flaminaire.  Two years later the first Bic with an adjustable flame was produced and soon thereafter, here in this country, “Flick Your Bic!” TV ads became…ubiquitous.

Zippo was a homegrown product of the USA and in fact was born near here in Bradford, PA, a town about 3-hours drive northwest of Pittsburgh.  The first Zippo pocket lighter—a patented, much-improved redesign of an original Austrian lighter—was invented by Bradford native George Blaisdell and was out in the American marketplace by the mid-1930s. By my recollection, in the 1950s and 1960s at least, everyone from my father to the Marlboro Man brandished a Zippo with its gleaming thin metal case and its snap-back lid on a hinge.  When the 1960s hit and the youthquake rumbled across the land, the lighter started to show up at concerts—but a lot of people aren’t sure exactly when.

Most rock writers and theorizers (maybe even fanboys) do agree that the late 1960s and early 1970s was indeed the time period of the lighter’s emergence on the music scene, and consensus is that the practice debuted here in the States.  Zippos, which were built to be wind resistant in terms of keeping the flame alive, were the ones that first started the lighter’s creep into concerts.  

Chronologically, Woodstock may have been first.  American singer-songwriter Melanie, folk-pop princess of the late 1960s, performed at the famous festival in August 1969 and her experience there led to the 1970 composition “Lay Down (Candles In the Rain)” which appeared on her next album.  The song’s chorus implores “So raise candles high / 'Cause if you don't we could stay black against the night / Oh, raise them higher again / And if you do we could stay dry against the rain.”  Candles are the cooler context for sure, but Melanie was also likely looking out at a veritable sea of lighters in those thousands of points of light.

The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival concert followed Woodstock less than a month later, and originally the promoters went with a lineup of mostly heritage acts like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Bo Diddley.  Ticket sales were lagging and literally the day before the September 13, 1969 event, an appeal went out to John Lennon and Yoko Ono to emcee the festival.  Lennon and Ono agreed to come only if, instead of emceeing, they could play onstage with their Plastic Ono Band.  Once the public came to believe the hard-to-swallow radio reports of this eleventh-hour confirmation of a Beatle, the festival quickly sold out.  At the concert, emcee Kim Fowley reportedly beseeched the crowd to light up matches and lighters to help welcome the Plastic Ono Band, and this was probably one of the first incidents of exhortation from the stage to “light it up out there”…

Across the Atlantic in England, the third installment of the Isle of Wight Festival took place in August 1970 and featured both established and emerging artists from both sides of the pond: Jimi Hendrix, Chicago, Joni Mitchell, Supertramp, Pentangle, The Doors, Miles Davis, Lighthouse, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Cactus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Joan Baez, Sly & The Family Stone, Donovan, The Who, Ten Years After, and many more.  Leonard Cohen’s 2am-ish performance on the concluding day of the five-day festival figures prominently in the lore of lighting up—he successfully settled down the combustible, sometimes riotous crowd with calming, monotone storytelling and a request to light a match so he could see everyone out there in the darkness.  This might have been the first time at a rock gathering where the flames were a real show of unity and led to a strong sense of bonding between artist and audience.

The last frequently cited example of the flickering flame becoming elemental to shows is from 1974, and Bob Dylan and The Band’s two-month tour of the U.S. (with two shows north of the border in Toronto and Montreal).  Reviews of the tour were strong; the fans were agog at a reenergized Dylan onstage with his beloved backup musicians.  The show included 4-to-5-song alternating mini-sets that included Dylan + Band, The Band alone, Dylan solo acoustic, then returning to Dylan + Band—and audiences were electrified.  They also often lit up the night, as captured for posterity through a photograph taken on tour that became the cover of Dylan and The Band’s follow-up live album release Before The Flood.

Musicasaurus.com surveyed a few current and/or former music industry friends here and there, in order to get a feel for each person’s brightest concert memories as they pertain to the flame.  Here they are, in no particular order:

 

Rich Engler and Ed Traversari (Pittsburgh) / Two of the three principals of legendary concert promoter DiCesare-Engler Productions

Rich and Ed (along with company co-founder Pat DiCesare) brought thousands of artists to Pittsburgh in their heyday, from club dates to stadium extravaganzas.  Ed offered up AC/DC as one of his favorite evenings of illumination, and Rich replied back that one of the Led Zeppelin concerts at the Civic Arena—either the one in 1975 or in 1977—was “probably the biggest response I’d seen, with lighters up throughout the evening.”

 

Bob Klaus (Durham, NC) / Original marketing director of Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheatre (1990); currently general manager of Durham Performing Arts Center

The Rock Superbowl in Orlando at the Tangerine Bowl, August 27, 1978…Eagles onstage playing “Hotel California,” their opening song.

 

Paul Carosi (Pittsburgh) / Designer/developer of the website Pittsburgh Music History (https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/)

The December 1969 concert by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

 

Sean McDowell (Pittsburgh) / Longtime on-air talent with WDVE, the powerhouse album-oriented rock station

The Grateful Dead…I was at the legendary Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) concert on May 8, 1977.  Either it was all the lighters I saw being held up around the arena (Barton Hall) or it was the blotter acid we all had taken 2 hours previously.  Anyway, lotsa lights, lotsa colors!  That is one of the most infamous Dead concerts ever.  I’ve told Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Donna Godchaux that I was there at that concert and they were all like, “Whoa.  You were THERE?!!”

 

Mark Fritzges (Coraopolis, PA) / SVP, Promotion at Atlantic Records

Nothing really stands out in the 60s and 70s; I’m more a concert-goer of the 80s on...I would guess in the early 80s it probably would have been a Crosby, Stills & Nash show at the Civic Arena.  I’m not sure of the exact date, but that might have been the show where David Crosby left the stage very early in the set and never returned.  I remember the lighters illuminating the arena that night (or maybe that was the spotlights trying to locate Crosby?).

 

Barry Gabel (Cleveland, OH) / SVP Marketing and Sponsorship Sales at Live Nation

Actually I do remember this vividly—Grand Funk Railroad at Madison Square Garden in 1972.  “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)” and a sea of lighters; simply amazing…That was my first arena concert; prior to that I went to Westbury Music Fair or Wollman Rink concerts in the Park.

 

 

Tom Rooney (Pittsburgh) / Former executive director of Star Lake Amphitheatre 1990-1994; currently now president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group

In 1987 when the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed with kid brother Johnny Van Zant on vocals for brother Ronnie, it was when the band played the Civic Arena and young Johnny placed one of his brother’s trademark hats over the microphone and departed the stage.  They went into “Free Bird” sans singing that the whole Civic Arena then turned into an impromptu light show.  That was repeated at all their tour stops and I see the farewell tour is ongoing this summer…Still to me a band that went down (on a plane) at the very top of their artistry.

 

Joe Katrencik (Pittsburgh) / Former public relations work—mid-‘80s through mid-‘90s—for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena then Star Lake Amphitheater

As a teen in the 60s I'm not sure whether I or my friends even knew there were such things as rock 'n' roll concerts.  I did go to a wedding once at Canonsburg's Slovak Club where the Joe Gudac combo played a polka version of “Proud Mary,” and seven of my cousins got "lit-up" on highballs. As it was, I didn't go to my first arena concert until 1989 I think - the Pointer Sisters at the Civic Arena where I worked.  I was so excited I forgot my lighter.

 

Cris Winter (Pittsburgh) / Former on-air talent on WXXP, WDVE, and 3WS; currently on WISH 99.7

It would have to be my first concert: Chicago with Terry Kath October 5, 1977 at the Civic Arena.  It was an AMAZING show!  It was early in the set list as I recall when Terry Kath sang “Colour My World” and I remember the lighters coming out.  I had never seen that in person before!  The music, the sights and the smells (insert smiley face) bring back great memories…Sadly, Terry would be gone a few short months later, but I do remember how incredible he was as a guitarist and on stage and what energy the whole band had. I’m glad I got to see Chicago with the original line up. 

 

Steve Hansen (Pittsburgh) / Former on-air talent on WDVE’s “Jimmy & Steve” morning program (1980-1986); currently an independent writer/producer

In the 70s one of my musical goals as a DJ was to go through each new release in search of the epic anthem, the next “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” or “Firth of Fifth” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  It was usually the longest cut on the album and often the last song on side two.  If it caught on it was destined to be set closer and flame-lighter…But there wasn’t an anthem that could lay a finger on “Free Bird.”  It was like sex on drugs.  Once, at a Bill Graham Day On The Green in Oakland, California, Lynyrd Skynyrd opened for The Who.  Even though it was still light during their set, they were at the height of their power.  When the plodding dirge that opens the song exploded into the soaring guitar riot that ends it, the crowd erupted and 50,000 freak flags started flying in the wind. It’s a moment that I got to witness a few times but none more electric than on that hot summer day in 1977.

 

Postscript:  I HAD to return to Zippo here before sign-off.  I came across the above photo when looking up the brief histories of lighters for my tale, and was frankly kinda wowed by the look of the illustrious Zippo/Case Museum.  The venue first opened in Zippo’s hometown of Bradford, PA in 1993 as a rather modest building, but then was Willy Wonka’ed in 1997 with this fantastical front.  Yep, that’s a mutha of a lighter—forty feet high—and it has a pulsating neon flame to boot (below it is a pocketknife, also on steroids, as the parent company also owns the Case line of knives).  Reportedly the museum has an exhibition called Zippo Rocks!, a look at Zippo’s role in music through the decades, but—just sayin’—I don’t think any serious music lovers should start reshuffling their bucket list items anytime soon.

 

 

 

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Posted 7/15/18:  KING OF THE ROAD

   

I happened to be out of town the weekend of July 8-10, and it was not until that Monday afternoon that I heard from friends about the Jimmy Buffett hoo-ha at the gates on Saturday evening at Key Bank Pavilion.  Seems like there was a crush—nay, a standstill—at the entrances, and it could have been a security checkpoint issue of some sort (just hazarding a guess here).  Whatever the reason for the logjam, the suds-and-sunbaked crowd started buzzing all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that evening and on into the morrow…

Not an easy, breezy weekend for the venue with all that Parrothead angst and anger skittering over social media, but really, is the amphitheater totally to blame?  I worked there for a number of years—actually Year Two (1991) through Year Eighteen (2007)—and pretty much all of the Buffett concerts had some kind of temporary but quite hefty back-up at the gates ‘round about the time Jimmy hit the stage.  That unfolding was pretty damn reliable, when I think back on it: Buffett would strike up the band, and that was the dog whistle that caused literally thousands and thousands of tailgating fans to perk up their ears, drain their cups, adjust their coconut bras (mostly the gentlemen), and head on over to the entry gates all at once... 

Buffett, way back in time in the 1980s, did start out playing much smaller venues than the 23,000-capacity Key Bank Pavilion (the former Star Lake Amphitheater>Post-Gazette Pavilion>First Niagara Pavilion).  On the Pittsburgh Music History website curated by Pittsburgher Paul Carosi, there is a listing for Jimmy Buffett playing the Syria Mosque in the Oakland section of town on December 11, 1983.  And according to Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in a Buffett trivia quiz he trotted out in August 2015, that Syria Mosque gig was indeed Jimmy’s first time in the city.

I remember that date well, and not because I was there.  The 1983 Syria Mosque show came up in a conversation I had with Steve Smith of the Howard Rose Agency during the winter of 1986 when I was less than a year into my job as booking director of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.  Steve was offering up a Buffett date for our arena’s summer concert series of shows, and quite dispassionately was telling me that this show was a no-brainer.  “You’ll see,” Smith said, “just do this date and you’ll be fine. Buffett’s played there before, his fans spread the word; he comes back again, the audience increases.”  Smith said he’d seen this growth in multiple markets already, and told us to get ready.

So we booked our date with Buffett, bringing his “beach-hammock-and-margarita-mind-blur” ideology to town; in other words, a lazy, hazy then crazy day of summer, set for the evening of June 24, 1986.  Jimmy and his Coral Reefer Band played our side-stage setup with more than 6,000 rabid hedonists packed into the arena’s orange seats, festooned in florals, carousing and caroling to the high heavens (the arena roof was opened up that night).

Buffett came back one more time to Pittsburgh before Star Lake Amphitheater came into being, and that was a return engagement to the Syria Mosque in December of 1989.  Six months later, off the parkway west and 15-20 more minutes down Route 22/30 toward Weirton, Star Lake opened its doors for its first summer season.  Buffett’s booking team members in Los Angeles—the Howard Rose Agency and Jimmy’s manager Howard Kaufmann—were elated that their artist could now move into the Great Outdoors in the Pittsburgh market.  Buffett by the late 1980s had been racking up considerable sales elsewhere where amphitheaters already existed, and on August 10th in Star Lake’s debut season Buffett descended to start to lay claim to the throne…

This first time around Buffett drew almost 11,000 fans to the party. In his second Star Lake stop the very next summer, which was my first season employed at the venue, the artist pulled in 50% more.  And Steve Smith’s words from my arena days were ringing in my ears: Buffett and his merry band—espousing the carefree island life where drive and determination matter not a whit and life pursuits are limited to locating lost shakers of salt—were converting the masses and pumping up the nascent Parrothead movement, Pittsburgh-style… 

What I loved most about the Buffett shows at Star Lake was the venue parking lot, where concert-goers parked campers and vans, beat the heat via hot tubs, built operating replicas of volcanos (those things were smokin’), set up drink-tube contraptions that looked like liquid hookahs, and much more.

I found out quickly through riding on the security golf-cart patrols that one could get lei’ed out there as well.  Grass-skirted girls would ask you to slow down so they could gingerly drop one over your head as a peace offering, reflecting the general vibe of the denizens of this endless expanse of parked cars and colorful commotion—smiles wide, senses deliciously dulled; most life strife set aside for this special evening out.

Inside the venue, along “corporate box row” that arced the stage at the back of the first three sections of fan seating, it was quite the social register.  For Buffett shows, practically all of the venue’s top sponsors and box owners were present and accounted for, the extreme inverse of other situations where the box tickets didn’t mean as much and the people filling the chairs were more likely the receptionist’s nephew’s friend and a doe-eyed date.  At Buffett, the powerbrokers and the box-lease signers were all on display, and collectively they were the ones who kept this precious revenue stream going for the venue year after year, always asking at renewal time, “So, is Buffett coming back?”

Jimmy’s show the third year (1992) began his amazing, unbroken string of sell-outs at the Lake, and in 1994 the artist doubled down—two back-to-back nights were booked for Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11 and both sold out in advance.  Buffett’s reign had begun—and then the storm hit.  On the first night of the doubleheader, the skies filled with dark clouds and we had an incident that couldn’t be labeled anything but harrowing.

Tom Rooney, currently president of the Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group based in Pittsburgh, was executive director of Star Lake back then. Rooney recalls, “Lightning made a direct hit on the main transformer rendering our sold-out show in darkness before Jimmy even hit the stage.  We were standing on the backstage deck when we saw the bolt hit and we were all lucky to survive.  We were saved by two things: The Iguanas, the opening act, traveled with a portable generator and Mark Susany, our electrician, ingeniously hooked it up on the main stage and we got (barely) through an unplugged show.  The next day Buffett’s management required a full backup generator for every show, anywhere they played!  And I still remember Star Lake’s local fire departments showing up with their trucks to provide our only lights for the parking lots…”

Through the rest of the 1990s Buffett pretty much continued rollin’ doubles—two-night stands in ’95, ’96, ’97, and ’98—and he has long since cemented his status as the Sell-Out King of the amphitheater.

A few things I learned along the way in all my years as marketing director-turned-general manager of the amphitheater, and hosting the Buffett shows:

And one last account, from my Buffett memory bank:  One time in the late 1990s, I heard a story from my operations manager of a problem one of our ushers had in the lower house, in that aforementioned realm of the venue’s row of corporate boxes.  It seems that a rather spirited (or spirits-filled) concert-goer was trying to slip his way into one of our boxes there, and the usher—in performance of his duties—diplomatically asked the interloper to please step outside of it for a moment.  When the wobbly but determined individual could not produce a ticket for it, the usher calmly explained that the box was the property of the company who had purchased it for the season, and thus the gentleman could not sit in there. This is the rest of their exchange, as relayed to me by my Ops guy:

What a great comeback for the puffed-up Parrothead whose margaritas must’ve got the best of him and brought out the worst in him…And that usher: I regret not seeking him out later on to give him my thanks and a high-five.  Wherever you are today, my friend, thank you—I am still smilin’ over that one all these years later.

 

 

 

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Posted 7/1/18:  POWER OF TWO

TWO STORIES THIS TIME IN “A DAY IN THE LIFE”…THE FIRST FROM A RECENT TRIP, AND THE SECOND FROM A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE…

STORY #1

To attend the wedding of my daughter Maeve’s very good friend, I drove over to Philadelphia (actually, Doylestown, PA) a few weeks back, and I was a happily surprised that the two just-turned thirtysomethings who got hitched—Caroline Dean and Matthew Smith—had plotted out such a moving, fun and quite-left-of-orthodox wedding. This was reflected in the outdoor manor site selection, and the vows and the overall ceremony, but my marvelment really stemmed from the music that was selected by the bride that day, especially the songs chosen for the initial settling in of the wedding guests.

The attendees arrived and leisurely took their seats in the row upon row of crisp white chairs set out on the manor’s lawn.  Behind the last row of seating, in the general area where the bride would eventually appear for her walk up the aisle, there was a musical duo planted—a woman seated at a keyboard and a nearby male counterpart on acoustic guitar and vocals, and they began peeling off some unexpectedly very nice covers of Van Morrison, The Band, and others.  It was refreshing to the ears that schmaltz and wedding tried-and-true was nowhere to be heard—a testament to the cool factor level of this particular couple.

The best moment for me was when Caroline appeared with her father on her arm, way in the back, poised to process up the aisle.  Suddenly the woman on electric piano lilted out some opening chords that triggered a flashback to a song I first heard back in 1967 but hadn’t in many years.  Single notes danced up an ascending scale, and “She’s A Rainbow” flowed out of the duo as Caroline and her father walked up to and into the aisle separating the two throngs of well-wishers.

I beamed, and thought The Rolling Stones!  What an intriguing selection for the father-daughter stroll!  And really, this song in particular with its lyrics “She shoots colours all around / like a sunset going down / Have you seen a lady fairer?”—perfect!

I turned to Mario, one of my favorites of daughter Maeve’s good friends seated to my right, and whispered “This is a much better selection than ‘Sympathy For The Devil,’ wouldn’t you say?”  Mario laughed and didn’t comment beyond that, and I suddenly realized he may have had no idea what song I was talking about.  Oh, these Millennials…can’t blame them, really, but I am going to lay blame at the feet of both streaming and the attention spans of today, in a world where fingertips never flutter far from clutched digital devices.  The result is, there’s largely little time or interest in digging back into the rich histories of a variety of evergreen artists that still mean so much to musically infused elders such as myself…Isn’t it a pity…

But that is—shameless plug coming—one of the reasons that every two weeks, the Building A Mixtery page on this very website spins out ten more tunes of music spanning the 1960s to recent times.  In there, there’s much to explore; some to adore, maybe some you’ll abhor.  But I’m doing my part for the site-visiting oldsters who want to travel back and for the younger people who just might subsequently delve and find delights, given a window into this world.

STORY #2

I somehow missed, in large part, any real fanfare or friend frenzy from the release of The Doors’ self-titled debut album in January of 1967, but I keenly remember midway through that year when an edited version of the album’s centerpiece “Light My Fire” was everywhere.  I remember it first spilling out of my mom’s transistor radio on a sandy beach in Erie, Pennsylvania.  I was nearby on a beach towel, eyes closed and near lobster-kettle hot, 14 years old and desperate to get a tan.  The deejay did a breathless bit of patter and then came the crack of a drum shot and a flurry of notes from an electronic organ that suddenly slowed to accommodate singer Jim Morrison’s cocky confessional, “You know that it would be untrue / You know that I would be a liar / If I was to say to you / Girl, we couldn’t get much higher…”

That song was riveting and inescapable that summer, and although I did not go on to be a real Doors devotee, I did follow along as the band over the next five years churned out some infectious songs of swagger, courtesy of the confidence and charisma of Mr. Morrison.

For those who don’t know, Morrison was (offstage and on) volatile, unpredictable, indulgent and indulging throughout this 5-year stretch of ascending fame, and ultimately he succumbed in 1971 while on a “leave of absence” from the band in Paris, discovered dead in the bathtub by his paramour Pamela Courson.  There’s a shroud over the details, and that added to his legend; Morrison died at 27 (like his contemporaries Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones from the Stones) and no autopsy was ever performed and only “heart failure” adorns the official death certificate.

Fast forward to 1983.  My love of music had propelled me into “the business” after college graduation, first easing me into part-time work at hometown record store Exile Records, and eventually, into full-time employment in the early ‘80s at the large six-state record retail giant National Record Mart which was headquartered in Pittsburgh. With my wife-to-be Margot, I had plotted out an overseas vacation for a full two weeks in Norway, Denmark and beyond (thanks to Eurail) and we found ourselves in Paris for a few days near the end of our excursion.

This city was truly intoxicating.  We booked a room at the Hotel D’Harcourt which was two blocks from Notre Dame and less than one from the Seine, and then spent afternoons strolling in the Louvre, whispering in wonderment at Sacre-Couer, and more.  On a “free” afternoon Margot indulged me with pit-stops in various record shops including Lido Musique, where we found tons of European artists alongside mainstream new releases from the Stones, the Pretenders, Supertramp and others...

The real musical high note, though? I got to meet Jim Morrison—or as close to that as I could possibly get.  We squeezed in a visit to Pere Lachaise Cemetery (established 1804), where playwrights, statesmen, composers and artists of all walks of life were now in their deepest repose.  We took the Metro out there on a sunny afternoon, and once through the gates, Margot went the way of Chopin, Molière, Proust, Piaf and Colette—and I went in search of the Lizard King.

Yes, the Doors’ lead singer Jim Morrison was buried in Pere Lachaise, and with the cemetery’s “dead celeb” map I found my way to a heavily congested area where the plots thickened.  As I approached the grave site, I spied three figures sprawled out on nearby headstones, just wistfully staring at the small porcelain bust of Morrison that someone had set in place on his grave.  Graffiti was everywhere, along with discarded dead-flower bouquets.  The three saw me coming and half-nodded hello; one was a man in his early twenties, and the other two were women perhaps just a bit younger.  They turned back toward each other and conversed quietly in French.  It seemed I had already been forgotten.  

The man withdrew a small liquor bottle from inside his vest, took a snort, and half-coughed, half-laughed.  One woman sighed and pushed back her hair, staring at the young man who was now mumbling and stumbling over his native tongue, addressing no one in particular; the other girl just nestled more into the marble and closed her eyes.  From out of the mouth of the young man I heard a word-backed wheeze make its way to the surface, and suddenly, in slurred and blurted English, the Frenchman slowly sang “Show me...za way...to za next weez-key barrrrr”....

Margot approached just then from her more literary pursuits around the cemetery, and I convinced her to snap a picture of me graveside as a keepsake.  But first I donned my dark glasses and bummed a cigarette from the Frenchman; it seemed fitting to look at least a tiny bit debauched at the burial place of a rock god who freewheeled (as long as he could) through the boundary-pushin’ ‘60s.

                                                

 

 

 

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Posted 6/17/18:  MONKEE MAN

 

I was 13 years old in September 1966 when The Monkees hit the nation’s TV screens.  This was right on the heels of the song “Last Train To Clarksville” which had buoyed up on the radio waves not more than a month before.  My friends and I quickly snatched up that 45 (i.e., the 45 RPM single) from the Woolworth’s store record department in downtown Butler, PA, as we did with all other such bright and tuneful new pop-rock hits.

“Last Train To Clarksville” fit right in—we were literally stacking up a ton of new sounds at that point, our new 45s piled up high in the corners of our parents’ bookcases or on our bedroom dresser tops, where they laid splayed next to their oversized, fleshed-out and more fully-formed big brothers, the 33 1/3 LPs (record albums).  

This latter half of 1966 was especially revelatory in terms of the kinds of songs that were muscling their way to the top of radio playlists.  Frank Sinatra, Brenda Lee, Ray Conniff and others of the old guard seemed to be losing in the squeeze play brought on by the newer, more exciting sounds that were jostling for prominence in increasing numbers.  That Summer and Fall, for instance, brought Number One hits from The Stones (“Paint It Black”), The Beatles (“Paperback Writer”), The Troggs “(“Wild Thing”), The Lovin’ Spoonful (“Summer In The City”), ? and The Mysterians (“96 Tears”), and The Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”).

It’s notable that the Monkees had two Number Ones in that latter-half of ’66, as multimedia Monkeemania kicked into gear.  Though I never coughed up my allowance for actual Monkees albums, I nevertheless scooped up the 45s that followed their September ’66 NBC television debut, and for at least that first full year afterward, watching The Monkees every Monday night at 7:30pm became appointment television.

My brother and I were glued to their antics.  In the living room, come 7:30, we often still had our “TV trays” in place. These were the tiny individual fold-open trays-with-legs that would accommodate a plate and a beverage on top, and we frequently parked these in front of the television set well before dinnertime, which more often than not saved us from the fate of family togetherness.  Yes, instead of insisting on head-healthy, full-family dialogue at dinner every evening, my parents sometimes opted to huddle up as a pair at the kitchen table, feeling not a whit of compunction about handing their young boys’ impressionable minds over to the television teat from which we sucked up all sorts of silliness.

Monday nights my mom might venture in when the Monkees—moving from drummed-up schtick to drum stick—would hit the opening chords to one of their songs. Then she’d shimmy a bit here and there, maybe even frugging through the living room, remarking to my brother and me that she had heard the same song just a bit earlier that day on the radio. My dad—a mill worker who largely only listened to Sinatra, Stan Getz and Ella Fitzgerald, and who often opined that this new music (including the Beatles!) would never last—rarely crossed the line of demarcation between his kitchen perch and the TV room when this Monkee business would begin to unfold.

I moved on from the Monkees fairly quickly after that first year, continuing to dig deeper and wider into this world of emerging new music.  I began religiously collecting albums and following certain artists’ careers, and this became my full-time preoccupation...

It wasn’t until twenty years later, in 1986, that the Monkees re-entered my life quite suddenly.  I was thirty-three years old and the director of booking at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. My primary job was to work with outside concert promoters such as DiCesare-Engler, Electric Factory and Beaver Productions to bring artists into the Pittsburgh market, and specifically into our venue.  By 1986 (just my second year on the job) we had also established ourselves as a venue with a reputation of willingness to book our own shows—meaning, if an outside promoter got cold feet about bringing an arena-level band into town, we would step in and step up to the plate to take the risk and play the show ourselves (by way of explanation: In the music business at that time, the artists all basically received a guaranteed amount of money to play a concert for a given promoter, regardless of whether the show ultimately ended up selling ten thousand tickets or ten tickets period.)

Phil Citron, an agent from the booking agency William Morris, called me one day in that Spring of ’86 and said that Pittsburgh-based promoter DiCesare-Engler balked at booking one of the dates for the upcoming 20thAnniversary Tour of The Monkees.  Citron said that earlier in the year, MTV had aired the 1960s Monkees’ episodes in a compressed marathon situation to unexpectedly wild response from viewers, and that right now the cable channel Nickelodeon was 99.9% sure they were going to add those old shows as a daily airing.  Despite this fact, the agent went on, DiCesare-Engler planned to pass on playing a date in Pittsburgh.  

I told the agent that our arena would definitely step in as promoter of this concert, as I had the hunch that something this crazy just might work.  So after I internally sold the idea to my venue management, the agent and I struck a deal that made sense for both of us: Our venue would commit to a $20,000 artist guarantee and, if Nickelodeon indeed began to air the 1960s episodes on a daily basis prior to our concert date, the guarantee would then automatically go up to $25,000, which is what the agent really wanted in the first place.

Thus a date of The Monkees Reunion Tour—featuring Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, but not fourth and final member Michael Nesmith who had other commitments—was confirmed for the Civic Arena for July 9th, 1986. The show ended up being a huge hit, so much so that the band then returned to play the arena just three months later on October 8th. A few of my avid concert-goer friends were surprised when they heard the news of the return engagement, but they were also a bit oblivious to the level of sustained Monkee chatter going on “out there.”  With our arena’s promotion and advertising, and the national daily airings of The Monkees on Nickelodeon, lots of folks—in numbers we came to very much appreciate—were very much still goin’ ape-shit over these revivified retro boys…

In 1996—ten years FURTHER down the road—I was working at the large amphitheater called Star Lake, located about a half-hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. I had moved from the arena’s booker’s chair to one that swiveled me from marketer to eventual general manager in the Great Outdoors.  In that Spring of ’96 as our parent company’s Houston-based booker Beckye Levin was scouring a list of possible summer tours, she came upon a certain anniversary tour opportunity.  “Hey, hey it’s the Monkees,” she said (or something close to that) when she called.  “Do you want to take a chance on this show?  They’re calling it the 30thAnniversary Tour, and it’s going to play quite a few other amphitheaters from what I hear.”

I told her my arena Monkee tale from ten years prior, and we agreed to see if lightning would strike twice in Pittsburgh.  Beckye soon confirmed the show for us for Friday night July 12th.

As that summer’s season of shows approached, I attended a weekend party with friends and somehow became the Monkee butt.  My friend Barb Neuenschwander was especially wound up when she found out in conversation that I had booked a band that was now three decades away from their initial popularity.  “Why in God’s name did you book the Monkees?!!” she exclaimed loudly, fueled by incredulity and alcohol.  Unfortunately her mantra was picked up by others at the party as the night wore on.  At first I smiled at the ribbings but honestly got a little perturbed over the mounting howls.  “They’ll see,” I remember thinking to myself, “I shall be redeemed.”

When the day of the concert arrived and the venue’s parking lots opened up late that afternoon, almost immediately we had fan clusters popping up just outside the admission entrances.  When it was time to open the gates we began welcoming in what appeared to be a graying population of long-lost Monkees fans, a lot of whom looked like they had never left their houses since the band broke up in 1970.  Where HAD these people been, especially the last seven years?  Even though the venue at that point had been open since 1990, there seemed to be amphitheater first-timers galore streaming through our turnstiles.  It was as if they had time-capsuled their Monkees’ records and their Tiger Beat magazines and swore off everything the day that music died, only to finally shake off the hibernation blues when the TV antennas on their roofs beamed down word of this 30thAnniversary Tour. 

There were young folks in attendance as well, though.  Some of this age group even came dressed in 1960s garb, either scattering a few moths in their parent-closet deep-diving, or hitting just the right thrift store on the way to the show.

We only had one significant problem that evening to speak of…Much to our chagrin, this mixed crowd of young and old was laser-focused on the band and we had abysmal sales at our food-and-beverage concession stands all night long.  Instead, the fans flocked to the merchandising tents where Monkees T-shirts, sweatshirts, and albums were stacked high for purchase.  Before the headliners even took the stage the merchandise booths were picked clean as a monkey carcass, and those fans who went away empty-handed and crestfallen likely went on to barter with others in the crowd all night long.

The attendance?  We ended up with a paid-ticket total of around 6,000 fans that evening.  Not a major embarrassment nor a financial failure, but certainly not a roaring success (we weren’t standing around the Monkees minions beating our chests).

A sad and related final note from that summer of 1996: My father who was only 69 years old had passed away in June after his second (and what turned out to be final) open heart surgery in October of the previous year.  He was far from heart healthy, and I can’t really say that his passing was unexpected.

The funeral in that last week of June went as well as it could.  Afterward, family and friends were invited to a nearby church hall where we had food and soft drinks, thus offering up a place where stories could be shared and more personal condolences could be expressed. My mom seemed to weather it well but I could tell that she was tiring, so as the crowds started to dim I gently advised her to head back to her house, and told her I’d join her there after coordinating a bit of clean-up.

I remember to this day my entry into my parents’ house.  I had my arms full of church food leftovers, and nudged the back door open with my knee.  The door swung open and my mom was sitting in a chair at the small kitchen table, with her head in her hands, sitting very still.  I swung the bags down onto the counter and turned toward her.

“Mom”, I said in a hushed tone, “Are you okay?”  My head was filling with that deep spread of sadness as I looked at this woman who had lost her husband, sitting hunched over, face in her hands. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

With her face still buried, she slowly said “Oh, I’m alright, I guess...but why did you have to book the Monkees?”

I literally stepped backward and went “Whawwww…” as my mom then looked up at me. She was smiling just a bit.  “Barb told me to say that,” she said.

Relief flooded into me that my mom wasn’t—at least at this particular moment—bent over with grief and entirely drained from the day.  She had apparently been able to tap her inner fun-loving spirit in a church hall conversation with my aforementioned friend Barb, and the two had conspired (I surmised) to pull this bit of Monkee business on me.  Mom was okay…and I was glad to have her “back” if even for a few moments that evening.  It gave me hope.

I put the church food away and flashbacked for a second to my more youthful mom, dancing through the living room to the tinny TV sounds of “Last Train To Clarksville.”  And Barb? Her day of reckoning would come—hmmm, maybe bar her from even buying VIP Parking at the amphitheater?  She’d learn that she had clearly monkeyed with the wrong guy.

 

 

 

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Posted 6/3/18:  TO THE ISLAND

When Life turns a bit chaotic, you tend to have a few thoughts about chucking it all—and certainly if it isn’t the chaos that’s currently upending you, it’s the routine that plumb numbs you.  So between this push and pull perchance you begin to dream, “What if I left it all behind?”

One day recently in the grip of such a funk, I began to think about the attractive nature of the “desert island” scenario, where one could essentially be stripped of stress by reducing Life to a party of one.  Indeed if this possibility of a pure escape from the modern world opened up to me, I’d be certain to be prepared for it by following the golden rule of all potential castaways: Make sure you have your Top Ten albums with you.

So, let’s get started: I imagine myself on a large ship traveling the tropical seas and suddenly there is a titanic happenstance of one kind or another, and soon I’m cast adrift on an old oak barrel, bobbing away from the doomed and drowning mother ship. The only thing I’ve clasped onto in my frenzy to leave the sinking vessel is a handful of albums wrapped in watertight plastic (of course).  But then what to my wandering eyes should appear but a miniature island toward which I then steer...

As I stagger exhaustedly up onto the shoreline clutching my prized records, my first thoughts are not about food or shelter.  They are: “Why in the hell did I bring albums when an iPhone would have been a much smarter bet?” 

I let that anger subside, however, and set about defining my mission: Finding some way to build a turntable, amplifier, and speakers, and also to then find some kind of power source.  Then I think to myself, Nawww, that’s too tall an order. I soon find myself kneeling, and praying to a God who I fervently hope is just and musical—er, merciful.  

Suddenly…down the beach a bit…I see a speck of hope on the shoreline.  Face furrowed, tottering along, I soon come to realize that an amplifier, stereo speakers, cords and connectors, a supply of battery packs and a turntable have all washed up on shore, encased in plastic wrap and seemingly in excellent condition! (okay, take the leap with me here; you would NOT have been happy had I gone through some kind of Rube Goldberg rant about hollowed-out logs, water buckets, vines and pulleys, a flat circular stone, and a single needle from a porcupine fish).

So this bit of washed-up good fortune sews it up for me, and I’m now set for playing the soundtracks to my new Life.  I am so lucky to have death-gripped my Top Ten before the boat went under…and in no particular order—because I just could not do such a thing—here they are:  The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, the Clash’sSandinista!, Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses, Rufus’ Ask Rufus, the Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled release, Van Morrison’s Moondance, and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.

But…I actually have more than these ten. Something would have possessed me to grab a handful of others before I set sail, and some of them I would now count on as additional insurance, as life preservers of a sort—albums that would help me meet my needs and provide me various forms of comfort, relief and even protection:

SETTLING IN

Oh, here it is…Jimmy Buffett’s Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes…Yes, I know that this album selection seems to be a bit obvious, but it is perfect for perhaps the first full sun-drenched day of my new life on the island, when I need a bit of transitional listening material to start my new voyage into solitude.

As far as the song selection on this 1977 release, I’d stay way the hell away from “Margaritaville.” To some folks that song may bring rafts of pleasure, but I’m paddling right on by that bit of Kon-Tiki Bar music.  It is the title tune I’m after, and it would pave my way to an initial attitude adjustment as I then delve into Island Life.  https://youtu.be/cmHb_wXZU1U

COPING WITH LOSS

Well, as is obvious, I would have no laptop, no tablet, no phone, and thus of course no means of accessing television—which I think would be a good thing.  Even fantasizing for a millisecond about rolling up a tree stump to sit in front of the tube would lead to regret and not a little nausea.  Having crash-coursed into this Island Life, would I not revel in the fact that I had fully escaped that vile and pernicious slime (Zappa’s line; not mine) once and for all?!!

Some television programming is vital and redeeming.  But having a Pandora’s Box situation with an actual functioning television set on the island would be ill-advised.  I would fear the worst—that the only clear reception under starry skies at night would be limited to shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County…Ghost Whisperer…Maury…ManimalHere Comes Honey Boo Boo…and the occasional “television special” like Geraldo Rivera’s The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault (truly Must Not See TV).

But playing some songs on my turntable related to television would bring a welcome whiff of nostalgia, so I think that I would unpack my long-ago covertly purchased copy of Television's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1: From the 50s and 60s. This would serve nicely in jetting me back to childhood bliss for three minutes or so, first listening—appropriately—to one particular song from this collection of 65 timeless TV tunes: The theme from Gilligan’s Island.  I would revel in the memories of watching, as a boob tube-entranced 11-year old, my favorite cast of castaways Gilligan, the Skipper, Thurston Howell III and his wife “Lovey,” The Professor, Mary Ann—and of course the other female in the series who had me cuckoo for coconuts in my hormonal pre-teen years, the original spicy girl, Ginger.  https://youtu.be/-fqXcKFg08w

STARTING A FIRE

The psychedelic lunatic-fronted band, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, produced one self-titled album in England in 1968.  The song “Fire” from that album is the one that I would use as a good luck charm, as I stare down at my twigs-and-shoots pile on the beach while holding a couple of poised flint stones in my hands.

There has to be some incendiary magic in this particular tune’s opening strains, when whack job Arthur Brown roars “I AM THE GOD OF HELL FIRE, AND I BRING YOU...FIRE!”  The devilishly cheesy organ kicks in, and then—chiefly because I’m “home alone”—I’d start to do some wildly uninhibited arms-at-face-level dance moves, trying to summon up enough fire spirits to be able to flint-spark that blaze into being.  https://youtu.be/h56bfUxY0PM

WARDING OFF PREDATORS AT NIGHTFALL

Ah yes, here it is; the Tom Waits album…Waits started off his career as a wondrous singer-songwriter in the early ‘70s with songs like “Martha,” “Ol’ 55,” “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night,” and other delights.  Somewhere along the recording trail, though, his voice turned into the drummer Animal from the Muppets band, a very croaking and scary kind of thing.  

I would cue up the song “The Earth Dies Screaming” from his 1992 Bone Machine release and blast it late at night when worried that predators might come near the campfire.  This is sure to give them pause—either scare the bejesus out of them, or lull them into thinking that one of their beastly comrades had already staked out his turf.  https://youtu.be/wnYkY3SpCRQ

HEAD CLEARING

In the event that I needed a morning to just assail the universe and do some primal screaming on the beach, I would lean on Ozzy.  The track “Crazy Train” from the 1981 release The Blizzard of Ozz would be a rousing start, and my only lament would be that I didn’t have MORE of these types of tunes available to plunk down on the turntable.

What would have been perfect to pack would have been an album of representative tracks from a number of artists who played on Ozzy’s national OzzFest tours (the multi-band outdoor festivals he started doing in 1997).  I can’t say that I know even most of these artists intimately, but judging by their names I am sure there would be primal-scream nuggets here aplenty: Prong, Megadeth, Every Time I Die, Snot, Ultraspank, Slayer, Fear Factory, Methods of Mayhem, Hatebreed, Slaves on Dope, and Disturbed.  Talk about a head-clearing listening experience; this could be the perfect sonic colonic.  https://youtu.be/RMR5zf1J1Hs

OFFSHORE THREATS AND MEDICAL EMERGENCIES

Out of my albums kitbag I would draw something that was two-fold useful—Barry Williams Presents: One Hit Wonders Of The 70s.  Included on the album are a couple of songs that would work wonders…

“Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill would come in handy if I were to wake up one morning and spot off the coastline a ragtag ship of windblown, wayward Somali pirates.  I would quickly lug my stereo system down to the beach, point the speakers out to sea, and full-tilt blast that song out across the water, hoping to the heavens that music is truly a universal language that transcends cultures.  I then pray for the desired effect—befuddlement turning quickly to flat-out nausea, and then a swift turn of the rudder.  https://youtu.be/MOC3j5sUfPM

The other song would be a lifesaver as well.  If at some point in my island food foraging I mistakenly eat some seeds or berries that turn out to be poisonous (a la Alexander Supertramp, as chronicled in Into The Wild), I would just cue up Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun.”  Hard on the ears but effective on the upchuck.  https://youtu.be/bWdQbxNEFEs

FULFILLING THAT MOST BASIC NEED

Have mercy, I have needs like everyone else.  Being alone on the island, without human companionship and its attendant physical benefits, I MUST be prepared for the inevitability of seeking solace in the arms of…well, whatever fills the bill.  

And if I feel myself starting to look longingly at any of the island’s animal inhabitants—a gibbon here, a tapir there—I’m just going to have to get myself in the mood or I won’t go through with it.  Barry White will help with that.  I will start by playing the song “I’ve Got So Much To Give” (https://youtu.be/3ltFkK5GcxA) from his 1973 debut album, lay some bedroom eyes on one of my animal friends, and then for an encore, spin a song from Barry’s third album:  “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything.” (https://youtu.be/VyfD5kW_VWI

ESCAPE ATTEMPT

One album I’ve always kind of liked is Heart’s Little Queen from 1977.  And this is the one album I would bring to the island that I wouldn’t actually place on the turntable.  Instead I would tuck it under one arm as I wade out into the surf, guiding a crude raft of vine-wrapped logs toward the open sea.

This would be the moment when Island Life would become just too unbearable and I would be utterly determined to escape the shoreline tides and break free to the wide ocean shipping lanes beyond…

And the Heart record?  This would be my chance to call up my deepest emotions in the manner of all good castaways, for if the album somehow got dislodged by rocky seas and was swept off my makeshift raft, I would just catch my breath in helpless fashion and then scream “Wilsons!  I’m sorry!  WILLLLLLSONNNNNS!”

IN THE EVENT THAT I EVER DID SUCCESSFULLY BREAK FREE OF THE COASTAL WATERS AND GET ON OUT INTO THE DEEP BLUE… 

Out on that raft for days on end, I would surely be dehydrated and near death.  But just in the nick of time, I believe, I’d be picked up out of the water by a passing cruise ship.  I’d be too woozy to focus on very much, but would whisper sleepy gratitude to the high-fiving, highly relieved crew members who would be poring over me with warm blankets and medical attention.  

When I would finally “come to” in the ship’s medical center, I’d sit up and wrap myself in a blanket and walk the decks to get a better sense of my surroundings.  And that’s when I would gently push open the double doors to the ship’s Grand Ballroom to find a large banner slung across the top of the darkened stage:  “WELCOME TO THE REO SPEEDWAGON MUSIC CRUISE...Four Nights & Five Days of Fun and Festivities”…

I can tell you there would be a sound of a splash off the starboard about ten seconds later.  Back to the island it would be, for me—or at least a merciful end in the open seas.

 

 

 

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Posted 5/20/18:  BEGINNINGS

Musicasaurus.com takes a trek into the sometimes murky, perhaps even obfuscated world of song origins, inspirations and executions…

WICHITA LINEMAN – Glen Campell – 1968

This song to me was a breath of fresh air on Pop Radio in the late ‘60s.  The tune was written by Jimmy Webb, a songwriter who was ascending and building a track record, having just scored with the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away” and Glen Campbell’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”  Even after the latter song became ubiquitous on the airwaves, Webb still hadn’t actually met Campbell.  They matched up again when Campbell called looking for a second song, and coincidentally Webb had just written a new tune that afternoon.

Webb says that he had a lot of “prairie gothic” images in his head when writing “Wichita Lineman,” and he wanted a song about the common working man, a blue-collar individual, dedicated to his craft but with an everyman poetic longing for the girl he’s missing.  According to Webb, Billy Joel years later summed it up as “a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts.”  

The song has three verses but the last is a guitar solo (with a slight vocal refrain), so really there are only two chances in this three-minute piece to evoke feeling, foster understanding, and try to capture the essence of a workingman whose rivers may run deeper than most of ours.  Webb spools it out and scores, because Campbell conveys.

 

AFTER THE GOLD RUSH – Neil Young – 1970

I was only sixteen when the album After The Gold Rush came out and the title song entranced me, with its unadorned piano and flugelhorn and its three verses leading the listener from some medieval pageantry to present day, when apparently there is a nuclear blast, to the future when “the chosen ones”—humanity’s “silver seed”—are whisked away to a safer place out in space.

The song has been covered a lot through the years; notable recorded versions include those of Thom Yorke from Radiohead, k.d. lang, the Flaming Lips, James Taylor, Michael Hedges, Freddie Hubbard, Restless Heart, Patti Smith, Natalie Merchant, R.E.M., and the trio of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.  When this trio was recording songs for their second album together, 1999’s Trio II, they chose “After The Gold Rush” and Parton reportedly asked Ronstadt and Harris if they knew what the song meant, and got shrugs.  The women rang up Young, and according to Parton, he said he did not know.  “We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said ‘Hell, I don’t know.  I just wrote it.  It just depends on what I was taking at the time.  I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.’”

Neil cleared this up a bit—at least in terms of where the idea came from—in his 2012 book of reflections Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie’s Dream.  In 1970 Young had just finished a tour with his go-to (between CSNY commitments) band Crazy Horse, and had returned to his home in Topanga, California.  Young’s friend, actor Dean Stockwell, stopped by with a screenplay that he wanted Young to read.  It was called After The Gold Rush.  “He had co-written it with Herb Berman,” Young recounts in the book, “and wanted to know if I could do the music for it.  I read the screenplay and kept it around for a while.  I was writing a lot of songs at the time, and some of them seemed like they would fit right in with this story.  The song ‘After The Gold Rush’ was written to go along with the story’s main character as he carried the tree of life through Topanga Canyon to the ocean.

“One day Dean brought an executive from Universal Studios to my house to meet me. It looked like the project was going to happen, and I thought it would be a really good movie.  It was a little off-the-wall and not a normal type of Hollywood story.  I was really into it.  Apparently the studio wasn’t, because nothing more ever happened.”

Stockwell’s screenplay—a non-linear, end-of-the-world scenario that had offbeat characters and California sinking into the sea—never got the green light.

 

  

HOTEL CALIFORNIA – Eagles – 1976

I never knew that this song was brimming with such evil potentiality.

Nor did I know that the album held other clues of Satanism.

But there they were, the words on my computer screen, digging deep, muckraking…

Ramp up just a small allowance for credibility and you’ll find that the Eagles’ Hotel California is Beelzebubbling over.  On the inner album (gatefold) cover there is—perhaps—Satanic High Priest Anton LaVey perched in the balcony, arms stretched.  And on the back cover, internet chatter says that the janitor in the background is not someone who’s mopped up—it’s a corpse that’s been propped-up. One online comment I found claimed the man was a human sacrifice for LaVey, an offering from the band members. 

Maybe it’s not fair that the Eagles have been bedeviled by such rumors.  I even found a book that dedicates a chapter to Hotel California and its flagrant flaunting of Satanism.  Backward Masking Unmasked was evangelic pastor Jacob Aranza’s 1983 published work about the backward Satanic messages in rock songs, and in a chapter entitled “Which Way Are The Eagles Flying?” he discusses the hellbent tendencies of the band to indulge in subtle persuasion.  He labels the album a tribute to the Lord of the Underworld, and maintains that there is indeed a backwards-masked message in the title tune: “Yes, Satan organized his own religion.”

Lyrics like “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”…and “They stab it with their steely knives / but they just can’t kill the beast” all support the pastor’s contention that these particular Eagles traded soaring for diving to the depths.  And the line “We haven’t had this spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine” was a purported reference to the year that the Spirit of Christ was cast out of the hotel upon the formation of a California-based Satanic cult.

Henley has a more earthbound interpretation. Referring to the title track, the drummer/singer/cofounder of the band was quoted as saying that the song “sort of captured the zeitgeist of the time, which was a time of great excess in this country and in the music business in particular.”  Let’s go with that. 

Here are a few other short tales of song inspiration and inception, from the frankly untested, non-vetted waters of the internet…

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART – Bonnie Tyler - 1983

I don’t know how this could have escaped me, but the song I couldn’t seem to escape from in 1983—“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” by Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler—had according to some sources a vampiric theme.  Written by bombastic songwriter Jim Steinman, who Meat Loaf had dined upon for successful late-‘70s songs like “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Total Eclipse” includes lyrics like “Once upon a time there was light in my life, but now there's only love in the dark.”  Hard to peg if this truly an ode to the undead, or as Amanda Petrusich postulated in her August 17, 2017 New Yorker piece, “Perhaps Steinman’s narrative is purposefully nonsensical, an homage to the ways in which we gabble and rant when deeply wounded. Tyler, like Meat Loaf, seems to instinctively understand that the best way to animate a Steinman song is to sing it like a crazy person—red-faced, flinging your arms every which way, single-handedly sucking each molecule of oxygen from the room.”

 

TURNING JAPANESE – THE VAPORS – 1980

British pub rockers The Vapors solidified their one-hit wonder status in 1980 with this tune that climbed fairly high up on the USA’s Billboard Magazine “Hot 100” chart (to #36) and was also huge in Australia where it held the #1 slot for two weeks straight.  The meaning of the song, according to band lead singer/songwriter David Fenton, has long been misconstrued.  Fenton has said that it is simply a song about the angst of Youth, losing a love, and “turning into something you didn’t expect to.”  There you have it, from the source himself—doubters, get a grip. 

 

WALK THIS WAY – Aerosmith – 1975

According to some online sources, inspiration for this song came to the band as they took a break from recording their breakthrough third album Toys In The Attic, opting to hit a late night showing of the Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein.  It was reportedly bug-eyed actor Marty Feldman—starring as Dr. “Fronk-en-steen’s” assistant, Igor—who made a memorable impression on the band as in the film he entreats the castle’s visitors to “Walk this way.”

 

I SHOT THE SHERIFF – Bob Marley & The Wailers – 1973

In 2012 a girlfriend of Bob Marley (there were many) made the claim that the reggae singer’s lyrics in this 1973 composition refer to Marley’s frustration over his woman’s use of birth control:  “Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don't know: / Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grow / He said kill them before they grow.”

 

IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA – Iron Butterfly – 1968

Go tell it on the mountain—the Red Mountain.  Reportedly this was the wine that keyboardist/singer Doug Ingle was drinking when he wrote the song and relayed the title, under slurred conditions, to drummer Ron Bushy.  Thus “In A Garden of Eden” became “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and the resulting 17-minute+ track became an underground FM classic, dazzling the fledging rock generation and giving FM disc jockeys a great means of escape to the bathroom between their queued-up songs.  The album of the same name was the number one seller in America in the year 1969, and mercifully (I say in hindsight), there was also a majorly edited version of the song released to Top Forty radio as a single, and this one clocked in at just under three minutes.

 

SHE SAID SHE SAID – The Beatles - 1966

The Beatles were holed up in Beverly Hills, California in a rented house for a week or so in August 1965, escaping for a time from the madness and fan mania brought on by their tour of the U.S.  Outside the house, the band was besieged by unwanted curiosity seekers and rabid well-wishers and media, but they managed to spirit in a few folks to spend some quality time—on drugs. As the story goes, on the evening of August 24th two of the Byrds (Jim McGuinn and David Crosby) nestled in along with actor Peter Fonda.  LSD was passed around (reportedly only McCartney abstained) and in the collective head trip that followed, Lennon was apparently continually weirded out by the repeated mutterings of the shades-wearing Fonda, who kept tugging up his shirt and pointing to his accidental childhood shotgun wound, saying “I know what it’s like to be dead.”  Lennon had the presence of mind to remember this bit of weirdness as he then weaved it into the very innovative and haunting “She Said She Said” from the band’s landmark Revolver album that hit record stores one year later in August of 1966. 

 

YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET - Bachman-Turner Overdrive – 1974

This song from Canadian rockers BTO came out on their third album Not Fragile, and it was the clear winner on the record—and in fact, was the band’s career-best—in terms of chart success. The song was written during the band’s hunkering-down to record the Not Fragile album, and it was at first purely a labor-of-love joke aimed at bandmember Randy Bachman’s brother Gary who had a speech impediment (the lyrics memorably included the line “B-b-b-baby you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet”).  When the song content of the album was nearing completion, the album’s producer Charlie Fach begged Bachman to include this fleshed-out prank because it stood in contrast to the traditional rockers on the record.  Gary eventually shed the stuttering problem through speech therapy, but may have likely still felt his b-b-b-brother was a b-b-b-bit of an ass to do this in the first place.

 

 

 

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PLEASE NOTE!  Musicasaurus.com is on the run this part of the month, so there are no new posts until Sunday evening, May 20th in this DAY IN THE LIFE section...The subject will be on song origins--will this suffice to entice?  If so, see you then...

 

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Posted 4/22/18:  I’LL TAKE YOU THERE

(Next post:  Sunday evening, May 20, 2018)

A few years ago in a Barnes & Noble one work-avoidance Saturday afternoon, I came upon a book in the music section (where else?) that I hadn’t spotted before: I Was There / Gigs That Changed The World.  It was a book by a Brit, Mark Paytress, a writer who has authored works on Bowie, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Siouxsie & The Banshees and others while contributing as well to English music magazines like Mojo and Q.

Paytress says in the introduction, I Was There lifts the lid on a century’s worth of classic performances, legendary in-concert moments, included here for their historical significance, era-defining importance, or simply their you-just-had-to-be-there rep.”  Some of the 101 entries here are particularly below-the-radar, like some of the Britain-based selections including a London 1976 concert by punk-rock/performance art band Throbbing Gristle, but as the author says in his introduction,“…as you’ll discover as you begin turning the pages of this book, there really is no such thing as a definitive list.  So if your favourite show isn’t here, you’re by no means alone.”

One of the nicest touches about this collection of 101 music events is that Paytress injects a world view, so not only do we see Live Aid, Woodstock, Monterey Pop and other mega-events pop up on these pages, but a number of defining moments from elsewhere around the globe as well.

Here are five that I’ve picked from the litter—the ones from I Was There that I wasn’t there for (but wished I had been):

The Moondog Coronation Ball – March 21, 1952 at the Cleveland Arena in Cleveland, Ohio

If this wasn’t the birth of rock and roll itself, it certainly was the birth of the utterance.  Local Cleveland deejay Alan Freed of WJW is generally regarded as the originator of the term “rock and roll,” which he used to describe the rhythm & blues “race records” (songs by predominantly black artists) that he had begun to spin for the station beginning in 1951.

At some point, Freed changed the name of his radio show to Moondog’s Rock ’n’ Roll Party and he used his rising popularity with white teen listeners to put together and promote the Moondog Coronation Ball, likely the first rock and roll concert in the country.  Top black acts at the time such as The Dominoes, Paul Williams and Tiny Grimes were booked to perform, and the evening of the show a crush of fans descended upon the venue, some bearing tickets and a lot, well, not.  

Inside the venue this mixed-race crowd was clamoring and clambering, trying to score and save seats or even just find a spot to plant their feet.  Outside, there were thousands of additional adrenalized fans vying for entry, and the arena’s doors and windows soon bore the brunt of it…The concert was cancelled by fire department officials shortly after the first act had begun, and as author Paytress points out in his brief event snapshot of this coronation ball, “‘rock ‘n’ roll’ had its first headlines.”

 

The Trips Festival – January 21-23, 1966 at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco

According to Paytress, this event was the first full-scale “acid test” party, though Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (famous ‘60s progenitors of LSD-fueled gatherings) had been dose-si-do-ing young and willing San Franciscans for months beforehand.

The “happening” was priced at $2 per day or $5 for the three-day affair, and it offered the mind-boggled attendees video on large screens, light shows and slide shows, exhibitors ‘round the room including counterculture booksellers and paraphernalia salesmen, and of course music, supplied here by the Grateful Dead and Big Brother And The Holding Company (featuring then 23-year-old Janis Joplin).

The crowd over the three days amounted to around 10,000 people. In Paytress’ words, Saturday evening (the second night) was when everything jelled: “The audience, some in Indian headgear, others in hooped Breton shirts, others still bare-chested and dancing ecstatically, their eyes closed in blissful abandon, weaved in and out of the technicolour shadows.  Hell’s Angels grinned.  Allen Ginsberg wandered guru-like.  

“One man, head-to-toe in bandages and with only his eyes visible, wore a sign around his neck that read: ‘You’re in the Pepsi Generation and I’m a pimply freak.’  The Grateful Dead and Big Brother provided the ‘psychedelic symphony’ promised on the posters.  By the third and final night, the cops had been dosed and were now more interested in playing with model aircraft than in policing the event.”

 

The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream – April 29, 1967 at Alexandra Palace in London

This was a multi-artist, multi-arts, psychedelic style gathering that was created as a benefit event for the sixth-month-old alternative newspaper IT (International Times) which was already getting furrowed-brow scrutiny from the local authorities.

The Dream had a pretty stellar line-up of musicians.  Heading the bill was Pink Floyd, who were just about six months away from releasing their debut album Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.  Rounding out the show were The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (remember “Fire,” not-the-Bruce-tune?), Soft Machine, The Move, Pete Townshend, Champion Jack Dupree and Savoy Brown, and then a lot of lesser-knowns, of which my favorite (in name only) is the band that had somehow decided to name itself Utterly Incredible Too Long Ago To Remember Sometimes Shouting At People.

The event’s set-up team went with three stages, two that held the musical performances and a center one that featured poets and poetesses, dance troupes, jugglers and more.  Strolling through the activity centers that evening were attendees including Andy Warhol and John Lennon, and the vibe was peaceful and the crowd harmonious, according to event co-founder/poster designer Mike McInnerney.

“I loved this idea of taking over a space so that it becomes something else at night,” said McInnerney, “and Ally Pally was an amazing place for such an event—and appropriate, too, being a palace.  It was a Utopian feeling.  There’s no question it felt very genuine.  You were sharing things with other people.  It was no longer about being an audience that had come to see the star on stage.  It was simply the idea of being there, being with a tribe of like-minded people.” 

 

The Stax/Volt Tour – March 17 through April 2, 1967 in Britain, Paris, etc.

Around 1965 the Memphis record label Stax, who’d been churning out riveting, southern-tinged soul and rhythm & blues songs since the start of the decade, started to occasionally put its stable of recording artists out on the road.  I Was There author Paytress points out that this combination of R & B singers and precision back-up (in the form of the label’s “house musicians” Booker T. & The M.G.’s and horn section The Mar-Keys) was key to this label’s well-deserved ascendancy throughout the 1960s.

Stax’s recording studio was a haven and a bit of a harbinger.  Here, unlike outside its doors in Memphis and throughout the South, there was full integration starting with the house band itself—keyboardist Booker T. and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. were black, and guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn were white.  Booker T. & The M.G.’s released songs of their own that made the charts, but were principally lauded (within The Biz) as absolute groove kings who could kick alive most any visiting vocalist’s material to make the song a hit.

The 1967 overseas tour, around thirteen dates in all, was revelatory according to Paytress.  The passion of the individual singers, the soulful and rhythmic arrangements infused with the blues, and the crisp, tight back-up by Booker T.’s foursome and the Mar-Keys all coalesced in, says the book’s author, “a masterclass in package tour dynamics of a kind that was rarely witnessed again.  Even the musicians were taken aback as their performances grew stronger, and the scenes ever more hysterical, with each successive show.”

Wish I’d have been there at one of these performances, start to finish, as Booker T. & The M.G.’s opened up with a few instrumentals (including “Green Onions” and “Red Beans and Rice”)…followed by a short set from horn masters the Mar-Keys…then songs from Arthur Conley (“Sweet Soul Music”)…Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”)…Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”)…the electrifying Sam and Dave (“Hold On, I’m Comin’”)…and closing the show, Otis Redding (covers of Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and The Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and signature songs “Respect,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and “Try A Little Tenderness”).

Nine months or so after this European tour, Otis Redding—at the peak of his popularity and rightfully cruising into pop superstardom—died in a plane crash back in The States at the age of 26.

 

  

Rick Wakeman – May 30 & 31, 1975 at Empire Pool (indoor arena) at Wembley, London

Wakeman, an English musician who easily could have gone the route of concert pianist as a youth, opted instead to indulge his progressive rock leanings just as the band Yes was casting about in 1971 for a new keyboard player.  With great compositional skills and a battery of keyboards, Wakeman gave the band Yes incredible depth and a range of choral colors and orchestral heft, as they churned out studio albums #4 through #6, Fragile (’72), Close to the Edge (’72) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (’73). 

The reason I have listed his Empire Pool concert here?  Well-l-l…because I’m flat-out zonked at the man’s ambition.  Wakeman by 1975 had issued three separate solo albums, which were all thematic and nestled somewhere between grand and grandiloquent—The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  And it was this latter album that the enterprising Wakeman wove into one of the most elaborate stage productions of the era.

According to Paytress, the musician’s management wanted to steer him into the 5,300-seat Royal Albert Hall but Wakeman insisted on Wembley Arena (then called Empire Pool).  The arena had a major ice show already scheduled for a week or so after the date Wakeman wanted—in fact, the venue’s ice rink set-up was already in place—but this didn’t deter the artist in the least.  Wakeman, who had hi$ own $take in thing$ related to the project, decided to put the whole damn show on ice.  Literally.

In the book, Wakeman is quoted as saying “Most of the skaters were flown in from around the world.  We flew the PA—the first to be net-hung—in from America and put together a huge cast.  I had a 45-piece orchestra, 48 singers in two choirs, 50 skaters, 50 knights, a seven-piece band, a narrator and heaven knows what else.”

One night Wakeman’s cape was caught up in one of the elevated keyboards early in the show, and he was hanging in mid-air.  Another night the dry ice machines kept pumping (despite attempts to turn them off) such that some of the cast, the lower tier of the orchestra and in fact the bottom seating level of the arena disappeared behind the machine-bred cloud cover.  

And then there was the night of the suicide—er, the knight of the suicide.  Wakeman remembered it this way:  “In the final battle, there were 25 knights opposite each other, poised to simultaneously kill each other and disappear into the dry ice.  On the last night, I was told that one of the knights was ill.  ‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said.  “There are loads of knights.’  But of course when we finished the piece, there was this one knight still looking around for someone to kill him.  The conductor looked at me helplessly.  But this guy was brilliant.  He wandered aimlessly, then had a stroke of genius and committed suicide.  Pure entertainment!”

 

 

 

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Posted 4/8/18:  EVERY DAY IS A WINDING ROAD

I’ve posted before about my display days with WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic), the mighty, multi-label distribution arm of a record company conglomerate.  But this era bears revisiting, as that two-year period in which I cultivated record store relationships and exercised my art was one of the best free-floating experiences of my young working life...

I started with WEA in early 1978 and my role as their regional in-store merchandiser was to be their Man On The Street—to visit all kinds of record stores, inveigling prime display space from the managers to make certain that WEA was predominantly represented.  To paraphrase (and mangle) a lead lyric from Elektra recording artist Queen, my adopted mantra was “WEA the champions.”  Out there in the realm of Record Retail, I honed my skills of persuasion & poster placement such that I gained, and maintained, a great deal of in-store space dedicated to my company.

I worked out of my apartment because there was no WEA office in Pittsburgh.  The closest branch office was in Cleveland, and so I answered to the bosses there as well as—to some degree—the Pittsburgh-based label promotion reps for Warner Brothers, Elektra and Atlantic.  These label reps all had on-going and ever-changing priorities in terms of the records they were trying to secure airplay for in the Pittsburgh radio market.  My job was to back up those priorities at the retail level, and secure prime in-store display space in as many regional outlets as humanly possible.

This job was an open road filled with freedom. I plotted out my own travel schedules, hitting the Pittsburgh stores each week, but also—every other week—scheduling day trips east to Greensburg...then southwest into Wheeling...and on another given day, northwest into Youngstown.  There was no shortage of stores to cover; this was an explosive period for record sales nationally, and the labels could do no wrong as they pushed out of the womb a ton of new artists as well as cranked out a continuing line of releases from their superstar level bands.

Without a local WEA office, my apartment in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh became the repository for all of the labels’ display materials.  Everyday I had shipments of posters, artist stand-ups, album covers and other materials shipped to my door, and I crammed all of that into my small bedroom—and the hallway, and parts of the living room, and in the unused pantries in the kitchen, and...The stuff never stopped coming.

My passion for the job knew no bounds.  I had zeal and zest and no time for zzz’s. There were more stores than I could possibly attend to in any given week, but my plotting-out of the periodic visits worked very well, and I managed to build up relationships with the store managers at the same time I was ratcheting up WEA’s presence in their domains.

When I first got the job, I was driving a Chevy Vega hatchback and I started routinely dumping into it a veritable shitload of display stuff.  With my WEA Cleveland bosses and the local Warner, Elektra and Atlantic label reps all pushing me for prime positioning at Retail, I simply made sure that I had—in my overstuffed Vega—materials from every one of their artists.  

I remember cruising along the highways, with the back of the car and the entire back seat filled to the brim, and as I took to the bends in the road, the ends of a few cardboard poster tubes would occasionally give my right cheek a nice little sideswipe caress.  Even with this piloting predicament I soldiered on, completely content to wile away the hours listening to mix tapes and enjoying the occasional loud, solo sing-along with my car’s cassette deck. On one such trip I stumbled upon the perfect soundtrack song for my crammed conditions—“The Weight.”  Pointedly paraphrased, the lyrics I thought up (but didn’t sing, to be honest) were like my own prayer in the making:  “Take a load off Lanny / Take this load for free / And don’t put the load, put the load back on me…”

My trusty Vega eventually turned on me.  A trip to Wheeling in the hatchback turned out to be a clutch-burning disaster; there were signs earlier that day that my car was balking at the load and the distance, but I ignored it and hit the highway anyway.  When the Vega gasped and ground to a halt, I called AAA to the tune of $200, and sullenly endured an all-too-chipper tow truck driver all the way back to Pittsburgh.

  

That put the kibosh on my car, and so I said adios to the vexing Vega.  I of course had no further means of making display deliveries all around the compass points, and so with my circuit blown I had no choice but to scrounge for another vehicle.  The very next day I took out a loan to buy a friend’s used, two-tone blue van (as someone once said, you load sixteen tons and that’s what you get—another day older and deeper in debt.)

Secure in my new—well, newer—vehicle, I scouted out even more stores to convert to the ways of WEA, and my favorites became the under-the-radar, independently owned establishments.  These were usually off the beaten path, far from the malls and inhabiting a retail space two sizes too small, but they had character—and characters.  A typical sight in some?  A longhair behind the counter plopped on a stool, looking in need of sleep, or caffeine, or a reverse lobotomy.  Dazed and Confused?  Maybe...But these were also true music junkies, and they sparked to Life when I’d walk in with an armful of “promo copies”—the free albums that I was given by the label promotion reps to bestow upon the store personnel.  

Warner, Elektra and Atlantic—especially Warner—had their share of non-mainstream records to complement the more commercial rock and pop offerings, and they all also provided distribution for a few much smaller independent record companies.  Back then, Warner distributed Sire Records, an indie label who trafficked in emerging new wave and punk rock bands like The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell & The Voidoids (if there was ever any doubt that the latter was indeed a punk band, its debut from around that time sure cleared up any further speculation with songs like “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes In Spurts”).

The independent record store managers and clerks loved these free promo copies, especially the off-kilter releases.  They also loved to just talk music, and were therefore generally a bit more interesting and passionate compared to some of the run-of-the-mill mall store managers who worked for the bigger record chains.

  

The independents also had more interesting “product” in their stores.  A few of these indie shops sold, in addition to records & tapes, a wide array of paraphernalia for smokers.  (Sidebar:  Hmmm...clerk on a stool...lookin’ drowsy and not far from drool...but, I digress.).  These particular shops usually displayed their smoking wares in glass cases that oftentimes also served as their front counters, so that somebody plunking down their favorite new album for purchase might also see the enticing glint of a shiny new roach clip beckoning from below. 

The glass case content was usually very artfully arranged, a dotted landscape of rolling papers, pipes and screens, bongs, joint-rolling contraptions, and even “throw-them-off-the-scent” bottle sprays that purported to rid one’s auto of certain smells.  I am not sure how much these stores sold of those particular materials in comparison to their recorded music, but back in the 1970s at least, there seemed to be a consensus—just in certain circles, of course—that things go better with toke.

Though all of us at WEA loved the musical passion of these indie store owners and they certainly contributed to our sales success, no one moved product like National Record Mart (NRM).  This was the Pittsburgh-based record retail giant who at the time had amassed about 70 stores touching six different states.  The Pittsburgh headquarters/warehouse of NRM was on Baum Boulevard just east of downtown Pittsburgh, and occasionally I’d be dispatched there by my bosses to help out with album inventory assignments, etc.—but my main mission, of course, was to be out on the road and plastering the NRMs with our posters and propaganda.

The NRMs were the stores where I could really shine in terms of display space and free rein. After multiple visits with posters and promo copies in tow, I had managed to earn the “hot spots” in most stores—large front window space, key end-of-aisle positions, and more.  I also always took my sweet time in each store—never lookin’ to hit and run; never cravin’ an earlier end to my display day. I always made time for the managers and the staff to catch up with their news, and to talk about new releases, take stock of my competitors’ actions and antics, etc.—and then I worked up my WEA wonders on the walls and in the windows.

During my two years with WEA—early 1978 through the end of 1979—I forged many great relationships, some of which are still intact today.  Plus it was a damn exciting time to be plugged into music on a personal and professional level.  Most gratifying?  The work, of course—being able to unbridle my one true passion and then funnel it into something fun and fundamentally rewarding.  

In closing...Here’s a random sampling of on-and-off-the-wall displays from my two years of climbing that particular ladder of success (staple gun and roll of posters in hand):

  1. In a downtown Pittsburgh NRM store...I fashioned a “pre-concert” display for The Cars, who were coming to the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh.  Commandeering prime window space, I filled it with car tires and threw a banner overtop which proclaimed “The Cars in concert...An Evening of Auto Eroticism at the Stanley!”
  2. In the NRM store in McKeesport, PA...Perplexed by the lack of traditional display space in this store, I finally looked to the heavens for an answer—and found that the dropped-ceiling tiles were all 2’ x 2’s, perfect for replacing with my styrofoam-backed 4’ x 4’ posters of the Rolling Stones’ album cover Some Girls.  Another record label merchandiser found out and almost hit the ceiling—but he couldn’t, ‘cause it was mine.
  3. In the Record Outlet store in downtown Pittsburgh...I created a huge wall display for Genesis’ new album And Then There Were Three (the 1978 album released after the departure of Steve Hackett, leaving just Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford in the band).  I had a local bakery produce a huge white cake with the album cover’s startling colors replicated on its top layer, and then I placed three little Indian figures on the icing—And Then There Were Three, indeed.  The cake became part of the album display, surrounded by Genesis posters and sale-priced copies of the record, with an “enter to win” sign letting potential buyers know that they could have their cake and eat it, too.
  4. In various Oasis Records & Tapes stores in the Pittsburgh area...Warner Brothers had shipped me about 10 or 12 life-sized stand-ups of teen idol Shaun Cassidy, in support of his latest album Under Wraps.  So I thematically encircled each of the cardboard Cassidys’ heads in Saran Wrap, particularly pleased to be able to “silence” this wimpy, sugary singer while still fulfilling my company’s display priority.
  5. In the NRM store in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh...Founding Outlaws member Henry Paul had started up his own self-named rock band in 1979 with the debut album Grey Ghost.  This album’s lead track is a tribute song, dedicated to the memory of Ronnie Van Zant and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fateful 1977 plane crash—so of course I grabbed a grey bedsheet and a horrifically disfigured Halloween mask, and hung my grey ghost amidst the Henry Paul Band posters and album covers in the window display.  Soon thereafter, I was asked by my Atlantic label promotion rep to give up the ghost—he was worried that the band might not appreciate my theatrical touch, and he didn’t want me to end up a victim of a different kind of crash and burn.
  6. Oh, and back to those independently-owned record shops, with the deep-fried but highly engaged store personnel...I often would leave a few extra display items behind for store owners to put up on their own, if they so requested.  At one of these indie stores, I came back on my next appointed round to find that they’d put up a Doobie Brothers 4' x 4' poster behind their wall display of smoking paraphernalia.

                                                                               

 

 

 

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Posted 3/25/18:  STAND

The last page of every issue of The Atlantic is dedicated to a usually tantalizing question.  In fact, the ongoing back-page series is entitled “The Big Question.”  For its March 2018 issue, the magazine had posed the following to its readers: “What was the most influential act of protest in history?”  Responses ranged from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther’s 95 theses, but the last entry on the page really fired me up—because, of course, it dealt with music.  Lucia Perri of Guthrie, Oklahoma contributed the following in response to the “most influential act of protest” query:  “The Beatles’ refusal to play for segregated audiences in Jacksonville, Florida in September 1964.  The band’s contracts, signed by its manager Brian Epstein, stated that it would not play to segregated audiences.  Since then, we’ve come together.”

I had not known about the Beatles’ articulated stance on this issue in their earliest days of touring the USA, but God bless ‘em (and Brian Epstein).  This tidbit in The Atlantic made me think—in terms of musicasaurus.com—that reaching out to people in the arts about their favorite protest songs might lead to some interesting selections and reflections—and I was right.

  

1. Joe Negri (Pittsburgh) / Jazz guitarist, composer and educator (also, for all time, “Handyman Negri” on PBS’ Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)

I became rather captivated with the thought that you presented here.  I suppose the main thrust of protest songs came in the 60’s and later.  I was really not into that period of music.  My focus has always been on jazz and the American Songbook.  That being said though, the song that immediately popped into my head as a true protest song was “Strange Fruit,” originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol (his pseudonym was Lewis Alan).  The song was introduced by Billie Holiday in 1937 and has been covered by numerous people since, for example, Nina Simone, Dee Dee Bridgewater and many more.  The song protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans.  In 2002 the Library of Congress honored it among the top 50 songs.  I also remember songs like Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  And when I was still at South Hills High School I wrote a song with a classmate of mine called "Buy that Extra Bond.”  It was a few years before the start of WW2.  (“Strange Fruit” https://youtu.be/Web007rzSOI)

 

2. Scott Blasey (Pittsburgh) / Musician and lead singer for The Clarks

I was deeply affected by the song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  I was just a kid at the time of its release but I remember hearing it on the radio and wondering what it was about.  Beyond the powerful lyrics, the music moved me too.  I always loved the melodic change when it goes to the chorus: “Gotta get down to it / Soldiers are cutting us down / Should’ve been done long ago.”  It opened my young, innocent eyes to all of the turmoil going on in our country in the early ‘70s—Vietnam, Watergate.  It’s a great song that still moves me.  (https://youtu.be/l1PrUU2S_iw)

 

3. Jeff Sewald (Pittsburgh) / Former music journalist; currently an independent filmmaker and writer whose latest completed project was We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told, a documentary exploring Pittsburgh’s significant contributions to the legacy of jazz music in the world

When it comes to protests songs, very few have inspired me.  Most are callow “calls to action” that few ever heed, and they disappear into the ether as soon as the next “protest-able” event occurs.  One, however, stands out as a strong and unambiguous statement of disgust and disdain, and that is Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” What individuals do you think of when you hear this?  “…Let me ask you one question / Is your money that good / Will it buy you forgiveness / Do you think that it could / I think you will find / When your death takes its toll / All the money you made / Will never buy back your soul…And I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon / I will follow your casket / In the pale afternoon / And I’ll watch while you’re lowered / Down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand over your grave / ’Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”  (https://youtu.be/U5F4vJrIp1s)

 

4. Tom Rooney (Pittsburgh) / Former executive director of Star Lake Amphitheatre 1990-1994; currently now president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group

“War” by Edwin Starr (1970)…I went to racially blended Perry High in the city.  “War” reflected what many of my classmates thought was the abject unfairness of race and the draft.  Many of the white kids like me went to college.  Many black kids got caught up in the draft of a very unpopular conflict and we saw some of them come home to the “undertaker” referenced in the song.  Chills me to hear Starr’s version today.  (https://youtu.be/kgJ11FW6B3E)

 

5. Rick Witkowski (Weirton, WV) / Former founding member of the 1970s progressive rock band Crack The Sky, longtime B.E. Taylor group band member, and currently musician/writer/producer working out of his own recording facility, Studio L, in Weirton, WV

Definitely “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young written by Neil.  This song had a major impact on me musically & mentally. I was definitely “anti war” and if not for the high lottery draft number I got, I would have considered moving to Canada to avoid having to go off to fight in a war I didn’t believe in.  When the shootings happened it shook me to the bones & I felt like I needed to do something to speak out about this horrible injustice that occurred practically in my own backyard.  The next thing you know, I think it was within a week or two, I hear “Ohio” on the radio & I ran out & bought the single & learned to play it, note for note on the guitar & brought it to the cover band I was in at the time & we killed it!!  I felt like I was making my voice be heard every time I rocked it!!  (https://youtu.be/l1PrUU2S_iw)

 

 

6. Steve Hansen (Pittsburgh) / Former on-air talent on WDVE’s “Jimmy & Steve” morning program (1980-1986); currently an independent writer/producer

Flashback:  My first day of college at Colorado State University.  The freshman journalism prof quizzes the class on the pillars of the Fourth Estate.  Which, in 1967, were print, television and radio.  I thought about raising my hand to ask about records, since so much of my generation’s political education was being conducted to a heavy backbeat.  “Eve Of Destruction,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “For What It’s Worth,” “Society’s Child” and “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” were political manifestos that aired several times an hour in tight rotation and which helped fulfill Scott McKenzie’s promise earlier that year that “there’s a whole generation with a new explanation.”  

I was too shy that fall day in 1967 to raise my hand.  But as the decade rolled on I thought about that moment every time I heard “War (What Is It Good For),”  “Ball of Confusion,” “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” and “Street Fighting Man,” each a Top 40 smash.  Big corporate America’s unwitting role in disseminating the views of the underground left can’t be over-emphasized.  Late Sixties Top 40 radio was a reverse Fox News for youth.  

That said, for the answer to the question of “what is my favorite protest song” I must defer to the great Anne Feeney’s belief that “If I Can’t Dance It’s Not My Revolution” and submit “Fortunate Son” as my answer, a song with more truth in 2:21 than the entire Trump Administration.  (“Fortunate Son” https://youtu.be/rKuLtVXGRp8)

 

 

7. Steve Acri (Pittsburgh) / Longtime music fan; former record store manager; currently VP & Director of Procurement for SMARTSolution Technologies

The first protest song I remember hearing, and consequently the one that has stuck with me through my life, is “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire.  It’s a strange paradox in that I found it very memorable and catchy musically, yet troubling and almost scary in its lyrical content.  I was still pre-teen and didn’t really understand fully what was being put forth, but I somehow knew the content was controversial.  I also knew it pissed a lot of people off.  Folks were protesting the protest song!  I later found out that it was written by P.F. Sloan, who also wrote “Secret Agent Man,” another of my faves from the era.  Also, I would be remiss to not mention “Monster/Suicide/America” by Steppenwolf.  Musically great and lyrically still 100% relevant 50 years later.  (“Eve of Destruction” https://youtu.be/cG6_RWJBjhg … “Monster/Suicide/America” https://youtu.be/v9456xD9B-M)

 

8. Ed Traversari (Pittsburgh) / Former concert promoter & partner in DiCesare-Engler Productions (which eventually became part of Live Nation); currently associate professor in the sports, arts and entertainment management department at Point Park University

I would say my song was "Ohio" by CSNY.  Since the Kent State killings happened in 1970 I was a freshman at RMU and it made an huge impact on me of what was happening at that time both in our military and on university campuses including little RMU in Coraopolis.  When CSNY sang "four dead in Ohio" it really stuck with me as it does to this day when I hear it.  (https://youtu.be/l1PrUU2S_iw)

 

   

9. Billy Price (Pittsburgh) / American blues & soul singer who gained national attention through touring and recording with guitarist Roy Buchanan in 1974-1975, and who then formed the Keystone Rhythm Band in 1979

A great one that comes to mind is George Perkins’ “Crying in the Streets,” on the great Memphis label Goldwax.  It came out during the Martin Luther King era but is not about any one protest or cause in particular.  It has a beautiful gospel feeling and is one of those recordings that, once you’ve heard it, it haunts you forever.  (https://youtu.be/JNhVm1yGxS8)

 

 

10. Amy Cooper (Pittsburgh) / Director of marketing for PromoWest North Shore/Stage AE 

Two come to mind.  “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” by the Beastie Boys and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister.  (https://youtu.be/eBShN8qT4lkhttps://youtu.be/4xmckWVPRaI)

 

  

11. Charlie Brusco (Atlanta, GA) / Pittsburgh-area native, artist manager and former concert promoter; currently manages Poison, Ann Wilson, Collective Soul, Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws, among others; and heads up the Atlanta office of artist management company Red Light Management 

Two protest songs talked to me closely as I was in college starting ‘69 summer...“For What It’s Worth” just great feel great lyrics, but even more “Ohio” as I went to high school in Pittsburgh with Allison Krause who was killed at Kent State on May 4, 1970.  I was protesting the day before that at Kent State but had traveled to Ohio State on the day of the shootings.  I went to college at Ashland College that was geographically right between Kent State and Ohio State Universities.  (“For What It’s Worth” https://youtu.be/1eD-8NTwP9I  … “Ohio” https://youtu.be/l1PrUU2S_iw)

 

 

12. Scott Tady (Beaver, PA) / Entertainment Editor of the Beaver County Times

My formative years coincided with Bruce Springsteen's 1980s glory days, so like many fans I excitedly purchased his 5-LP "Live/1975-85" box set.  There were so many great tracks on there, including Bruce's cover of Edwin Starr's anti-war song "War."  In the intro, Springsteen referenced the Vietnam era of the original song and applied it to the current context, specifically addressing teenage fans whom he encouraged to load up on knowledge.  This came at a time of saber-ratting in the Reagan Administration, and while it didn't seem like The Draft would be reinstated, I thought Bruce raised a compelling point: "in 1985, blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed."  That "blind faith in your leaders" warning always stuck with me, and has been one of the foundations for why I've been registered as an Independent voter for nearly 25 years.  p.s. On a lighter note, I also drew a lot of strength from the 1986 Beastie Boys protest song "Fight For Your Right (To Party)"!  (“War” https://youtu.be/21y0h049h8o)     

 

 

13. Joe Grushecky (Pittsburgh) / Musician, singer-songwriter and bandleader (Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers)

“Ohio” by CSN&Y…I remember how raw the emotions were about Kent State.  I was stunned that the National Guard had opened fire on students.  If you were in the Guard in those days you were avoiding Nam.  End of discussion.  Within days the song came out.  “Four dead in Ohio”—it was electrifying.  Bought it immediately, learned it, and began playing it with my band.  (“Ohio” https://youtu.be/l1PrUU2S_iw(additional note: In case you are unaware, Joe released a protest song of his own with the Houserockers exactly a year ago.  Entitled “That’s What Makes Us Great,” the anti-Trump song features vocal chip-ins from Bruce Springsteen, and you can check it out here on YouTube: https://youtu.be/u81YZDEmXrA)

 

 

 

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Posted 3/11/18:  THAT’S LIFE

I fell in love in 1977.  With an album cover. 

I was working at an indie record store in Wexford, PA at that time, livin’ the life—underpaid and overjoyed to be working in a place where for pretty much eleven hours a day, music blared and passions flared.  This was the first year of our store’s existence on the Wexford Flats, and our trickle of curious customers soon turned into a tide of regulars who on average spent 90 minutes per trek in our world of albums & tapes.

Album covers were things to linger over, to study—mentally scrambling to affix reasoning to the particular artwork on the front; flipping the album over to soak up the musician and producer credits on the back.  That’s how, unpacking a shipment of newly arrived albums from our record distributor, I chanced upon Valerie Carter’s debut album Just A Stone’s Throw Away

I was captivated by the cover, first of all—an alluring photo of a beautiful young woman, dressed just like the hippie-ish girl of my twenty-something dreams, with a hat that was part flapper and flower, and an expression that locked my gaze.  The back of the album really told the tale, however, with its right-side top to bottom roster of contributing singers and musicians who apparently had all boarded and banded together to get this young girl’s musical message out to the masses.  For me, the list was a who’s who of artists I loved—four members of Little Feat including Lowell George, a handful of Earth, Wind & Fire, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, singer Deniece Williams, the band Orleans’ front-man John Hall, Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums, L.A. jazz session players Ernie Watts (saxophone) and Oscar Brashear (trumpet), and more.

When I cracked open the cellophane on Carter’s debut and dropped the needle on its contents, the mastery and the meshing of talent was immediately apparent—and palpable.  The sound of the record was deep and glorious, pristinely produced by the savvy musician/producer Lowell George, who I found out later on had squired Carter through an earlier band-effort recording, subsequently then taking her under his wing.

I was a diehard Little Feat fan back then so I was predisposed to love most any album where Feat had trod, but with Carter, it was something different: Amidst the swirl of talented musicians and the whip smart song arrangements, Carter’s voice was the overarching thing that stirred something deep within me.  Listening to the album all the way through, I came away, frankly, in wonderment. 

Somehow, as she moved through each song at hand, she was able to adhere to a sense of innocence and emotions held in check, but then this softness sometimes ceded control to reveal much deeper reserves of power—and this is where the real Valerie Carter shone.  In those fuel-injected moments, lost in her art and untied inhibitions, she unleashed an incredible wellspring of passion into those passages…

Carter recorded her debut album, Just A Stone’s Throw Away, in Los Angeles, California when she was 24 years old.  Born in Winter Haven, Florida in 1953, Carter’s father was in the military so the family moved fairly often in her early years.  In an interview that Carter did with writer Laura Stegman for the JTO (James Taylor Online) website in September 1999, Carter talked about how she wound up in California:

“Well, my teenage years were pretty strange.  Probably everybody’s teenage years were pretty strange (laughs).  I left home — my parents were frantic — and I went and stayed with my cousin in New York City.  I grew up in the South in small towns, if you can even call them towns, and I’d never been to a big city in my life.  I looked in the Village Voice for work, and I found this waitress-singer thing in the Village.  I would do folk music sets with this Iranian guy, and in between I would serve meals while these belly dancers came out.  I did that for about seven or eight months, and I learned how to write a little bit.  Then I hitchhiked across country with some friends — because that’s what you did then — and we wound up in San Francisco and started playing coffeehouses.”

Carter soon formed a band while in northern California called Howdy Moon.  The group released a self-titled album in 1974, produced by Lowell George, and also holed up with some regularity at West Hollywood’s famous ‘70s-era rock club the Troubadour.  Carter points to her manager Bob Cavallo—who also managed Laura Nyro, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Little Feat at the time—as being incredibly supportive as time drew near to her 1977 debut album: 

“He handled this ‘candy store’ full of amazingly talented people, very nice people, who were very willing to help out somebody who obviously had some talent but wasn’t honed at all.  Like Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, and just a really interesting conglomerate of people.  They were all there for me, some in small ways that still were huge to me, and some in very large ways.  They just gave a hundred percent of themselves so I could kind of find my way.”

 

As thankful as Carter was for the rallying of support from her manager and generous peer musicians, she was also plagued by self-doubt.  About her mentor Lowell George, in the Stegman interview from September 1999, Carter said:

“…Lowell was always so curious about anybody and their music and what they were up to.  And, honestly, I’ve looked back at some of the stuff I did, and I just had so much innocence and such a lack of understanding of who I was.  And my voice is kind of small, you know, real shy, and I don’t even know why he took up his time with me.  I really don’t know.  I look back on it and think it was so incredibly brave of him.  And if he saw something, I wasn’t aware of it.

“I think part of what happened for me is that I felt like I was going to get ‘found out’ back then.  I was thinking, ‘I can’t really do this, but here I am and these people are so talented and wonderful, and I’m just sort of coasting on their heels.’  But then I look back and I think, well why would they have worked with me, and I try to feel ‘validated’ (laughs).”

And this is where I circle back to that first album of Carter’s, 1997’s Just A Stones Throw Away.  It seems apparent to me, listening to it through the years and again just recently, that everyone in her sphere, everyone who lent a hand and much needed support for that record, must have genuinely felt that she had the gift.  In the lead-off track to that album alone; “Ooh Child,” a cover of a 1970 pop/R & B hit from Chicago-area soul band The Five Stairsteps; one can hear Carter’s soaring abandon come to the fore as—sometimes through the lyrics, sometimes through a powerful wail from her inner depths—she sings as if her life depended upon it.  It is a thing of staggering beauty, timeless in every way.

Though Carter stinted with other artists in the mid-‘70s including Jackson Browne and James Taylor, and released a second solo album in 1978, wide success eluded her.  She explained to writer Stegman how she abandoned her aspirations for a solo career in the late 1970s, only to resurface much later on, around 1990, as a background singer:

“I got scared, and I got frustrated, and I got sad.  I dropped out of the whole music thing for a while.  I had personal difficulties with living here in Los Angeles, with a life of music.  I was at an all-time low in my life, and I didn’t quite know what was going to happen.  Eventually, I got some help.  I took a really long time away from friends, away from anything I had ever known around here.

“When I came back I decided that I couldn’t handle trying go out and forge for a record deal and start all of that madness over right away.  I was too delicate.  But what I could do was sing, and that’s what I’ve always been happy doing.  And I knew I could stand behind someone and let the spotlight shine somewhere else.  I could at least express myself through the power of singing.

“So I made a few phone calls to say, ‘I’m ready to come back.’  I called Peter Asher [James Taylor’s manager at the time].  That was one of the first calls, and I didn’t expect anything to come of it.  I didn’t expect anything to come of anything.  I didn’t realize that people are as good as they were and as forgiving of someone who just kind of stepped away from them and from everything having to do with music.  But friends rallied and really supported my wanting to come back...I literally called Peter and just put it out there.  And it came right back.  And I did the same with Jackson [Brown], and the same thing happened, but in a lesser way because Jackson just doesn’t tour as often as James.  And it also happened with Linda [Ronstadt].  They really came through with open arms, and I’ve been nothing but grateful since the day it started.”  

Finding herself on more of a steady track within the music business—touring with Browne and Taylor; guesting on a number of other artists’ albums like Aaron Neville, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond and Shawn Colvin—Carter in 1996 mustered a third solo album, her first in eighteen years.  The album, entitled The Way It Is, was a welcome return to form.  On this album, artists appreciative of Carter’s depth of talent signed on for guest vocal appearances, including Taylor and Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Phoebe Snow and Lyle Lovett (the latter sharing vocal chores on a tune originally co-written by Bill Withers, a gritty bit of insistent funk called “Who Is She (And What Is She to You)”).

Carter’s last recording was a 5-song CD entitled Find A River, released in 1998.  By 2007, she had decided to retire from the life of a professional musician and subsequently moved back to her birth state of Florida, to St. Petersburg, to help care for her mother Dorothy.

In the previously mentioned Laura Stegman interview piece from September 1999 when Carter was still living in L.A., Stegman asked her if she definitely knew back in the early/mid-‘70s if she had wanted to be a singer.  The response:

“Yeah, all indicators pointed in that direction quite strongly.  I hadn’t taken a great deal of interest in school.  Music came so naturally, and everything else in my life was a fight, and a real, real difficult struggle.  One side of my brain is functioning — my music side — and the rest of me is trying to do the best I can.”

I think that last line in particular is quite telling.  In 2009 while living in St. Petersburg, Carter was arrested in August 2009 by police for possession of cocaine.  In October of that year, caught again—this time with crack.  It was Carter’s good fortune to land in the drug court of Judge Dee Anna Farnell, who sees about 1,200 people come before her each year.  The drug court is set up to give out a bit of hope with its justice; if a person is not a convicted felon or a sex offender, and the crime is solely drug possession, the sentence can be served in a rehabilitation facility instead of a jail cell.  And at some later date—after treatment, fines paid in full and drug tests passed —there is a graduation ceremony where the individual’s permanent record simply says “Adjudication withheld.”

James Taylor paid for Carter’s three-month term in a Texas rehab facility shortly after her 2009 arrest, and when May of 2011 rolled around, he was there in drug court at graduation time.  Her slate cleaned, her certificate awarded, Carter embraced Taylor.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you for taking such good care of me.”  The judge said to the assembled, by way of explanation, that Mr. Taylor had had a long relationship with Carter, and “you have heard her on his albums.  And you will hear her again.”

That was not to be.  Valerie Carter passed away just one year ago, in March 2017, from a heart attack at the age of 64.  On a Facebook post soon thereafter, Taylor wrote the following:

“I first met Valerie when she came with Lowell George to a session of mine at Amigo studios in Burbank CA.  That was in the mid 70s and the song we were working on was ‘Angry Blues,’ one of mine.  After Lowell put down an amazing guitar part, Valerie offered to try some vocal passes.  It was just the thing, one of my favorite days in the studio and the beginning of a long working relationship with one of the great singers of her generation.  You'd hear it said time and again: ‘how can such a big sound come from such a delicate, diminutive creature?’  ‘Where does it come from?’  For sure it's a mystery but Valerie was an old soul and as deep as a well.  Her voice came from her life and her life was a steep, rocky road.  I believe that we can hear it, whenever the music is that crucial, when the song is saving someone's life.  We were the lucky ones, who worked (played) with Valerie Carter over the long arc of her creative career; we got the best of her love...”

 

(Click the links below to hear some selections from Valerie Carter, an artist most in sync with her life force when immersed in song…self-effacing; ever grateful to friends and family…a woman with an amazing gift that fortunately she shared with us all.)

Additional source material for this blog post:  “Drug Court Grads Have A Friend—James Taylor” – an article by Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer – May 25, 2011.

 

 

 

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Posted 2/25/18:  ALL THINGS MUST PASS

About twelve years or so ago I was rifling through some files from my former life as marketing director-turned-general manager of Star Lake Amphitheater, the 23,000-capacity amphitheater just 30-minutes drive from downtown Pittsburgh.  I came upon a cache of old amphitheater backstage passes, and as they came spilling out onto my desktop for review, I came upon the sensible realization that they were not doing a damn bit of good hidden from view.

So I bought an oversized picture frame, and one commitment-free Sunday afternoon at the dining room table, I patchworked all of my favorite passes into what amounts to a cool, collector's-item representation of my first fifteen years at Star Lake (1991-2005).

They aren’t quite Oscars on the mantle, but these passes are indeed little tokens of achievement—surviving many summers of shows at the amphitheater, where artists of all kinds pit-stopped for their Pittsburgh-market play in front of hordes of music fans.

The passes brought back a lot of memories…blazing financial wins and humbling failures…solo artist concerts and multi-act festivals…passion-infused, surprising sets from newer bands and rote performances from road-weary elders…

So now, I’ve snapped a few close-ups of just a handful of my backstage souvenirs, laid out here for your inspection—and thanks for indulging me this reflection:

 

1. Traffic – Tuesday, August 9, 1994 

Founding members of Traffic Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi reunited this particular year to record a new album and mount a tour, and the announcement had local tongues wagging above drool cups.  Die-hard fans all around the tri-state area were clearly salivating over the chance to see this late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock band who had produced classics such as “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and the band had not toured for twenty years.  Pittsburgh’s deeply rooted rock station WDVE helped us promote the show, and we offered Traffic fans a real deal—$10.25 for a lawn ticket, courtesy of 102.5 WDVE. 

The results?  Our enticing pricing didn’t ignite sales; the show only did about 8,800 people at the end of the day (perhaps the public just missed the point of the radio advertising; when they heard “Traffic at Star Lake” they probably just thought, “Well, no shit.”)

 

2. Ozzy Osbourne – various concerts through the years 

Ozzy of course first dented public consciousness as the front man for the pioneering metal sludge/hard rock band Black Sabbath, whose eponymous debut album hit record stores way back in 1970.  Many years and psychotic episodes later, Ozzy the solo artist hit Star Lake with his band and a couple of similarly sledgehammer-style support acts in 1992 and 1996.  In 1997, however, the juggernaut called Ozzfest was conceived by our company’s touring division, and this festival then hit the touring circuit of amphitheaters across the country, absolutely slaying in ticket sales.

A typical Ozzfest was a mixture of bands with buzz-saw leanings and chuckle-worthy names like Prong, Crazy Town, Snot, Ultraspank, Methods of Mayhem, and Disturbed.  Notable from an audience perspective, some of the fans who turned up were, especially in the earlier years of the festival, irrepressible arsonists out on the lawn where fires lit up the evening sky, challenging our venue’s security staff to try to keep a lid on the major ugliness unfolding.

I remember about a year ago leafing through an issue of Rolling Stone and finding an article about Black Sabbath’s career-capping reunion tour in 2016—the farewell lap from Ozzy, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler, the three out of four original members from 1970.  At the end of this article (written by Kory Grow), there is a great quote from Ozzy about life on the road, stating it was far different now compared to the band’s first tours of the early 1970s:  “I was the fucking rebel for so many years,” Osbourne is quoted as saying.  “Now I can’t understand why I was going out, getting full of Jack Daniel’s, having a bag of white powder and talking shit till daybreak, thinking that was fun.  I would poke my fucking eyes out if I had to do that now.”

 

3. The Eagles – Monday, August 15 and Tuesday, August 16, 1994 

Probably the commercial and artistic highlight of the summer of 1994 was the reunion of a band who hadn’t played together in fourteen years—the Eagles.  When word of this reformation was trickling along the internal booking pipeline of our company in late Spring of that year, a lot of us balanced elation with some concern when we learned about the very ambitious ticket prices being discussed for the upcoming tour.  We were starting to think that the term “Hell Freezes Over”—the tour’s official name—could also serve to describe the likelihood of some fans deciding not to buy these unprecedentedly pricey tickets. 

As it turned out, both of these August evening shows ended up selling out.  I am not the biggest Eagles aficionado, but I have to confess that the two concerts were spectacular in terms of musicianship and tour production—great lighting and even better sound, and I remember some staff members remarking that the level of passion exhibited by this crowd of 23,000 people per night hadn’t been witnessed at the venue since the facility opened four years earlier.

 

4. INXS – Saturday, September 27, 1997 

This was a radio station show, meaning that the station itself (instead of the amphitheater) booked all of the talent for this listener appreciation event.  This particular radio show was WBZZ-FM’s, promoted as the “B94 Summer Stretch Concert,” and the lineup was a hodgepodge of acts including Christian singer Amy Grant, a no-Natalie 10,000 Maniacs, and pop band Savage Garden who at the time had a sickly sweet, unstoppable hit waiting in the wings called “Truly Madly Deeply.” 

The headliner was Australia’s INXS, and they rocked this sparse but enthusiastic crowd of less than 7,000.  Lead singer Michael Hutchence had moves like Jagger, but a lot less rooster strut and way more fluidity with the rhythmic, driving force of the band behind him.  This Star Lake performance, as it turned out, was Hutchence’s last on Earth.  Two months after the B94 radio show gig, he was found dead in his hotel room in Sydney, Australia and a coroner’s report labeled it a suicide (things be murky with this; you can dive into the details elsewhere). 

 

5. Fleetwood Mac – Wednesday, September 24, 1997 

Here was a band that started out of England in 1967 as a pretty pure blues outfit, then lost and added members over nine albums and the next seven years until founder Mick Fleetwood fortuitously fostered a paradigm shift of personnel in 1974.  His band at yet another point of needing an infusion, Fleetwood was checking out L.A.’s Sound City Studios when the studio’s house engineer played him a new song (“Frozen Love”) from California duo Buckingham Nicks.  Fleetwood welcomed in Buckingham who brought Nicks in tow, and starting in 1975 this new configuration became the biggest Mac, with their next two albums (Fleetwood Mac and Rumours) scarfed up by an insatiable public.

By the late 1980s this lineup fractured and split, but then in 1997 the Rumours-era band reassembled for an in-studio live album and tour, and this reenergized ensemble hit Star Lake with much fan anticipation, a high price tag, and head-scratchingly high ticket prices.  I remember September 24th as a chilly night with a warm reception for the reconstituted five-member band.  The concert sold out well in advance and it remains a commercial and critical highpoint of the first ten years of Star Lake's existence.

 

6. Phish – A string of shows beginning in 1997

Jam band Phish’s first foray into the tiny township of Hanover in Washington County where Star Lake resides was uneventful.  Thankfully.  I remember Herb Grubbs, one of Hanover’s township supervisors, was a bit worried in advance that there might be some trouble akin to the Grateful Dead crowds that descended upon the amphitheater back in June of 1992.  The ticketless Deadheads back then who were camped out in the parking lots were persistent little buggers—and excellent fence snippers and scalers—so we had a slew of slithering going on all around (and through) the chain-link and wooden fences that ringed our amphitheater.

The Phish crowd was different.  Totally into the band, loose-limbed and twirling, polite as can be—they even picked up trash on their way out of the venue after the show.  Also quite unique:  That Phish smell, something which pervaded the atmosphere of the whole inside of the amphitheater.  I like what one fan commented on the website phish.net in one of its forums, in response to the query Anyone know what scent of candles Phish use on stage?:  “Well we know it’s not patchouli.  They got the whole crowd for that.”

Phish first hit Star Lake on Wednesday, August 13, 1997 and returned to sellout crowds the next three years as well, and Star Lake seemed to become a fan favorite judging from the fan buzz online.  There is even a highly reviewed and revered DVD “out there” called Star Lake 98, which captures the August 11 show from that year, reportedly the only full show available from the video archives of that summer tour as a multi-camera lawn screen feed.  Fans remember this 1998 tour as the “summer of covers” because the band, by the time they hit the Lake, had done about 19 previous shows that were notable for never-before-played covers.  Pittsburgh’s set included Bob Marley’s “Trench Town Rock” which was the band’s opener, and soon thereafter in the set, “Time Loves A Hero,” a song originally performed by Little Feat.

 

7. Jimmy Buffett – various concerts through the years 

Buffett has a long history in Pittsburgh, dating back to at least 1986 when he played the Civic Arena in that venue’s cut-down capacity that housed approximately 8,000 people.  I was working at the time as director of booking for the arena, and I remember the booking agent Steve Smith telling me that this would be the start of something big.  “Jimmy plays a certain city, his audience has a great time, and then he returns again and again, building up his fan base organically,” said Smith.  “You’ll see…”

Smith was right.  By the time Star Lake Amphitheater opened in 1990, Buffett had built up enough of a fervent following to play larger outdoor venues, something he’d already been achieving in markets like Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and more.  A job change in 1991 took me to Star Lake from my arena position, and Buffett and band had already played the amphitheater the year before, drawing in almost 11,000 Parrotheads.  That year of ’91 he returned to rake in almost 16,000 fans, and then starting in 1992, Buffett began a long stretch of annual sellouts—one and two-nighters—that continued like clockwork through the rest of the decade, and beyond…

Buffett was and is the King of Hedonism, through a song catalogue that espouses the good life of beach chairs, sunsets and margaritas.  In a February 8, 2018 New York Times article about Buffett, writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner puts it this way:  “Mr. Buffett came into the national imagination in the 1970s, just in time to become a counterpoint to what would end up being called the Yuppie generation.  What if you didn’t work that hard?, he dared to ask.  What if your ambition was not for success or money but for the in-betweens: the vacations, the frozen cocktail and joint in the evening?  His emphasis was on the essentially Buffettian notion that we’d all spend our lives on the beach splayed out on a towel, our lips caked with salt, if we could.”

But that is not Buffett’s own lifestyle.  Long ago he found his songwriting niche—proselytizing through his lyrics; building up Parrothead Nation—and all the while he was evolving into the savviest of businessmen behind the scenes.  This month his new musical “Escape to Margaritaville” debuts on Broadway, a show described as a salty song-and-dance romantic comedy peppered with fan favorites.

But if your paycheck can’t get you to the Great White Way for this Buffett theater experience, don’t despair.  Buffett’s marketing acumen, organically applied through the last few decades, now accounts for a lot of options elsewhere for people who just want to sidle up to The Good Life for a taste…

Let’s close with a lifestyle list just for you, courtesy of the enterprising Mr. Buffett and nicely encapsulated by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in her New York Times piece:

 

8. The Cranberries – August 26, 1996 

At the age of nineteen, Dolores O’Riordan answered a band’s advertisement for a new lead singer in Limerick, Ireland and went to the audition.  She lingered and then latched on for the ride.  With a producer that had previously worked with The Smiths and Morrissey, the band crafted and then released their debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We in the Spring of 1993. 

The music on that first album from this four-piece band was a delectable blend of jangly, dreamy alternative/pop music, the charge led by O’Riordan, whose voice was, according to music website Pitchfork and contributor Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “a natural gift, but she honed her skill with deliberation.  O’Riordan chose to sing with her Irish brogue intact, a decision that smacked of so much defiance, it gave the Cranberries’ softest songs a measure of toughness, and their loudest ones a lovely hint of vulnerability.”

Armed with a songlist including “Linger,” “Dreams,” “Zombie,” “Salvation,” and “Free To Decide,” the Cranberries slid into Star Lake as part of their 1996 North American tour.  The evening was a dream come true for alternative fans who wanted their music laden with power and pop instincts, and above it all soared O’Riordan with a voice that was by turns haunting and seductive, and railing and raging… 

Forty-six-year-old O’Riordan died unexpectedly in a London hotel room on January 15th of this year (autopsy results not due until perhaps April).  I’d like to think that the bit of light that my iPhone caught when snapping the Cranberries’ backstage pass (pictured above) is not a coincidence; just my imagination, runnin’ away with me, but I’m thinking it’s kind of like O’Riordan’s spark shooting up to where she now belongs.

 

 

 

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Posted 2/11/18:  The Times They Are A-Changin'

Almost fifty-three years ago Bob Dylan appeared at a KQED (public educational television station) press conference in San Francisco, right around the time Columbia Records was pretty much back-to-back releasing his fifth and sixth studio albums Bringing It All Back Home (March ‘65) and Highway 61 Revisited (August ‘65)The singer-songwriter was in the Bay Area for an upcoming series of shows, and this press event turned out to be the only full-length press conference by Dylan ever televised in its entirety.

It opened like this.  A bespectacled suit-and-tie guy stood in front of the folding table where Dylan sat alone in front of four planted microphones, ashtray with a smoldering cigarette to his right and his sunglasses folded off to the left.  He seemed calm—or perhaps it was a whiff of indifference.

“Welcome to the first KQED poets conference, press conference,” said the suit-and-tie.  “Mr. Dylan is a poet.  He’ll answer questions about everything from atomic science to riddles and rhymes.  Go!”

The first question from the assembled press corps was from a young man who said “I’d like to know about your album, the one with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on it.  I’d like to know about the meaning of the photograph with you and the wearing of the Triumph t-shirt?”

Dylan: “What do you want to know about it?”

Young man:  “Well, I’d like to know if that’s an equivalent photograph. It means something, it’s got a philosophy in it.”  A few audience members laughed, and Dylan chuckled once and smiled wide. 

“I’d like to know visually what it represents to you,” continued the young man, “because you’re a part of that.”

Dylan:  “Umm…I haven’t really looked at it that much.” 

“I’ve thought about it a great deal,” interjected the young man.

Dylan:  “It was just taken one day when I was sitting on the steps, you know.  I don’t even remember that much about it.”

Young Man:  “But what about the motorcycle as an image in your songwriting?  You seem to like—”

Dylan:  “Well, we all like motorcycles to some degree.”

Another voice popped up from the crowd.  “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or as a poet?”

Dylan:  “I think of myself mostly as a song and dance man.”

Laughter erupted in the room.

And so it went.

Dylan the Inscrutable was making his mark, batting away pretensions and playing with the press, and in that same year, skidding out of folk music into an electric slide…confounding fans…lyrically tightroping politics and the abstract…all part of his plan to write from the cryptic, honest heart.

When Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited came out in 1965 I was only twelve years old.  I hadn’t a chance to really glom onto Dylan at that stage, and by 1967 or so I was off in a multitude of new directions with Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and many more, my young teen brain aflame with such discoveries.

For reasons I now can’t fathom, I was not one of Bob’s most fervent followers.  Through the subsequent years I checked into and out of Dylan, loving of course Blood On The Tracks and, because of my love of Emmylou Harris, his album from 1976 entitled Desire.  Close friends of mine, though, were hanging on his every thread from early on, always intrigued with the poet who cared not for convention and blazed his own mercurial path.

Fast forward to the present:  About six weeks ago, I came upon a listing of events for Mr. Smalls (a concert venue in Millvale, PA, the main space of a repurposed 18th century Catholic Church), and instead of the usual fare of newer, breaking bands I found a mention of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh—doing the songs of Bob Dylan!  The event was entitled The Times They Are A-Changin’ and the performances by the choir were set for Thursday, January 25th through Sunday, January 28th.

I had known of this outstanding, longstanding Pittsburgh choir and its fine reputation, of course, yet had never seen them “live,” and so to be clued in a bit closer I turned to Jim Cunningham, longtime morning host of Classical 89.3, WQED-FM.

Jim is an incessant presence at WQED-FM, joined at the hip to the illustrious Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, working to promote arts groups, and pretty reliably contributing to his own growing storehouse of interview podcasts on wqed.org (Voice of the Arts).

He’s also a fount of musical knowledge, and so filled me in:  The Mendelssohn Choir is the oldest continuously performing arts organization in the city—founded in 1908—and it has a great reputation stemming from its concerts.  They compete with the best choirs in the world as the choir of choice for the Pittsburgh Symphony.  During the tenure of former conductor Robert Page, the Mendelssohn had won every award there is for choirs; Page was internationally recognized, and the choir toured with him in Europe.

Generous with their gifts, Jim noted, the Mendelssohn Choir has donated money and more importantly many, many hours during WQED-FM fundraising drives, and they hold the record for raising the most amount of money for WQED as an outside group.

One particular concert he cited was the choir’s Carnegie Hall appearance in New York back in 2014.  The focus there was on Mozart’s Requiem with F. Murray Abraham narrating and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Manfred Honeck conducting.  And this past December, in addition to their annual stop at Holiday Pops, the Mendelssohn Choir joined the Pittsburgh Symphony to perform Haydn’s Creation with video projections, choreography, costumes and staging.

Jim’s final assessment:  They are passionate about what they do and put countless hours into rehearsal along with everything else.  

The other intriguing ingredient to the Mendelssohn Choir’s upcoming attempt at Dylan was Steve Hackman, a young innovator whose picked passion seems to be breaking down walls and creating bridges from classical composers & orchestra performances to a playlisting & streaming younger audience.  His attempts to meld worlds have resulted in certainly artistic successes, with some choice orchestras around the county including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Interweaving classical passages and alternative and/or pop songs, Hackman brought to Pittsburgh some heavyweight programming, all arranged and orchestrated by him:  Beethoven v. Coldplay…Copland v. Bon Iver…and others.

How did Hackman and the Mendelssohn ever connect and then converge on Mr. Smalls?  I contacted Liz Berlin, whose current stage of life includes her roles as founder, partner and touring musician with Rusted Root; co-owner of Mr. Smalls Theatre, Recording And Mastering Studio; and founder/director, Creative.Life.Support.

“I teach a class,” Liz said, “for CMU Heinz College’s Masters of Entertainment Industry Arts Management program called ‘Live Music: Touring and Revenue Streams.’  One of my students from last year, Benaiah Sombke was working for Bob Moir who is Steve Hackman’s manager and he was the one who got us talking about the possibilities. 

“I was very intrigued by Steve Hackman’s other work with mashing up Radiohead with Brahms, Bjork and Bartok, and Beethoven with Coldplay.  So it seemed like a pretty amazing concept to have his new work with Dylan classics and the Mendelssohn Choir debut at Mr. Smalls Theatre.  Also, my parents were members of the Mendelssohn Choir and as children my sister Katie and I sang with them as founding members of the Children’s Festival Chorus. So it was one of those super crazy full circle life things for me…” 

For Matthew Mehaffey, Robert Page Music Director of The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, this was a continuation of a relationship already very much in the works.  “Steve started working with the choir in 2016,” said Mehaffey.  “He was in Pittsburgh, and the choir was on a hiatus, as the season had ended early and the new music director (me) hadn't started yet.  Bob Moir, a consultant for the choir and Steve's manager, arranged the performance.  In June 2016 the choir and Steve performed a series of his arrangements at Three Rivers Arts Festival.  A main stage show.  As part of this, the choir received a residency grant to work with Steve on a new commission.  This was in the works when I came on board. 

“The original idea was a choral opera of some sort.  We came around to the Dylan piece after Dylan won the Nobel Prize.  Bob Moir and I worked on the idea and then presented it to Steve.  Nothing was set in stone.  Steve and Bob worked on the song list.  The original performance was supposed to be in September 2017 at a much larger venue, but that fell through last spring, so we had to quickly change a lot of our plans, and luckily came around to Mr. Smalls.  I believe a large part of the success and the impact the piece had on the audience was venue driven.  We kept revising the order and some of the lengths of the pieces up until the week of the performance.”

I asked Mehaffey about the period of rehearsals, which I had learned ultimately spanned a month of intense twice-a-week sessions.  “I feel I am pretty good at looking at a score and knowing how long something will take to get done,’ said Mahaffey.  “Steve's arrangements were so unique that this was a bit of challenge.  A few things that I looked at and thought, "this will take forever" came very quickly, and the reverse was also true.  The final product came off almost exactly as I had envisioned it, but I think the choir had a hard time seeing that until they got to Mr. Smalls.  Even after the dress rehearsal some of the choir was not really sure what to think about the piece.  But the response they got from the crowd on the first night was really great and it just built from there.

“I was surprised how great the choir sounded through the sound system.  My experience with amplified choirs has been very poor.  The sound crew at Mr. Smalls did a great job.  I think having the choir come through the PA made all the difference in the way they connected with the audience.  People are used to hearing music out of speakers, and I think that provided an immediate comfort level for the listener.  It removed the question of ‘why is a choir singing rock music in a rock venue.’  It just felt like music being made in the place it should be made.” 

 

I can testify—I need to testify—that the Mendelssohn Choir’s collaboration with Steve Hackman was well conceived and breathtakingly performed.  My companion (and Dylan devotee) Mary Ellen and I came to Sunday’s matinee, the fourth performance of the run, and learned from the event program that the evening was split into two halves.  The first set was of varying material but consistent excellence—a mash-up of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia,” a lush “Dark Night of the Soul” from Norwegian composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo, and a beautifully hushed “Creep” from Radiohead.  The latter had me beaming in this former church, serenaded by all these souls with an alternative music anthem, rechristened right before my ears…

The second half of the evening was all Dylan, with Hackman conducting the choir (and a pianist and a handful of string players) through surprising and stirring reinventions of the man’s catalogue, and who knows what the Nobel Prize winner-almost-snubber would have thought of it, but Mary Ellen and I were mesmerized—it was not only the weavings that Hackman contributed to these compositions and his emotive conducting, but the power of these men’s and women’s voices all wrapping their cords around these incredible lyrics.

I personally have many favorites from that afternoon’s set, but I must say that my feelings about the show, I found after the fact, mirrored those of Liz Berlin’s.  Though I did not see her at the concert, Liz had attended that same Sunday matinee.  And so Liz will close this story out:

“I was blown away,” she said, “astounded by the sonics of the choir in the church building, hearing the walls the way they were meant to be heard, just voices and instruments and acoustics.  My favorites were ‘To Make You Feel My Love,’ ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’  and ‘I Shall Be Released.’  But, I think the most profound moment for me was ‘Hard Rain.’  I can honestly say I have never truly heard that song in its full intensity until now.

“There was a long silence after the musicians hit the last chord, and that moment of respect that happens when the whole audience waits for the sound to dissipate…We heard what sounded like a muffled sob.  So Steve Hackman remained still, holding the choir, instrumentalists and audience in a prolonged moment of silence, while the quiet sobbing grew slowly into a deep and profound wail…One single person in the audience was channeling all of the pain of all of the realities illuminated in the song and it was too much for them, and the whole room was there for them, in a long protracted moment of silence and support. It was an astounding moment.”

The set list from the second half:  The Times They Are A-Changin’:

A link to WQED’s Jim Cunningham’s interview with Matthew Mehaffey of The Mendelssohn Choir and classical-infuser Steve Hackman  https://www.wqed.org/fm/podcasts/voice-arts/matthew-mehaffey-and-steve-hackman

A link to The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh  https://www.themendelssohn.org

A link to Steve Hackman’s website (bio)  http://www.stevehackman.com/bio

A link to Bob Dylan’s 1965 press conference in San Francisco  https://youtu.be/wPIS257tvoA

 

 

 

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Posted 1/29/18:  YOU’RE THE TOP 

Everyone loves a Top Ten.  Delving into that when the subject is concerts is particularly excruciating, though.  How does one choose a favorite from those they dearly love?  I don’t like how it went down for Meryl Streep’s Sophie, so this whole thing gives me pause…

But here they are.  My Top Ten.  At this moment.  Someday subject to change…

 

# 10:  WOMAD - September 8, 1993 - Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheater; Burgettstown, PA

WOMAD is the acronym for World of Music Art & Dance, and it is an international arts festival (first staged in the U.K. in 1982) that is replete with musicians, participatory workshops and global village vendors.  Its essence is diversity, no borders, and all about inclusion.  And it is the brainchild of one of my favorite artists, Peter Gabriel...

In 1993 I was marketing director at Star Lake Amphitheater near Pittsburgh, and our Houston-based booker Bob Roux called our venue’s GM Tom Rooney and me to discuss the booking of WOMAD.  The festival had been going on for a couple of years in England, and now it was headed for a few test dates in the USA.  Roux didn’t downplay the risks and he left the decision completely up to us—and we replied “Bring it on!”  The line-up was appealing in a third-worldly sense—joining headmaster Gabriel were East Africa’s Drummers of Burundi, Jamaica’s Inner Circle, American rappers P.M. Dawn, London’s Stereo MCs, South India’s Sheila Chandra, and many more. 

The WOMAD festival folks used several pop-up stages at our venue in addition to our main one and they sprinkled their traveling vendor stations all about, and then our region’s globally conscious music lovers all showed up for the event—but in numbers much too small to steer us into any financial success.  The event really was just ahead of its time—today, we have Spotify and the internet has opened up the world’s music to us for the taking; back in 1993, it was just too much of a new and niche attraction to make any significant dent in ticket sales and turnout.  The highlights for me:  Checking out the various stages featuring this wealth of ‘round-the-globe talent, and especially Peter Gabriel’s main-stage 90-minute set with special guest Sinead O’Connor singing on a couple of tunes.

 

# 9:  David Bowie - May 17, 2004 - The Benedum Center; Pittsburgh, PA

On the heels of his Reality release in September of 2003, Bowie took to the road with a first-class production and stellar back-up band that included double-threat guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, and bassist/vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey.  In Pittsburgh, we were fortunate to have the tour stop at the Benedum Center (formerly the Stanley Theater), a 2,800-seat ornate and acoustically marvelous small hall.  Videoscreens at the back of the stage toggled between shots of the band members performing and interspersed, glorious color patterns and symbols that deeply accentuated the musical proceedings. 

This concert made the Top Ten list because of the small hall experience—being truly enveloped in the sound and vision of Bowie—and also because of the high level of musicianship augmented by the best sound system I’ve encountered in eons.

The highpoints of the night:  Lead-off track “Rebel Rebel”…some tunes that were more than just hunky-dory including “Changes” and “Life On Mars?”…an especially haunting “I’m Afraid Of Americans” (from his 1997 Earthling release)…a sizzling powerhouse performance of Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight”…and Bowie and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey bringing life to “Under Pressure” with Dorsey dazzling on the Freddie Mercury parts.  Altogether, this was a night of non-formulaic rock, refreshing in that fact alone; a genuine thrill ride for us all generated by Bowie’s artistry and commitment to unrestrained excellence.

 

# 8:  Glass Harp - May 1, 1971 - Butler Area Senior High School; Butler, PA

Glass Harp was a Christian-themed power trio out of Youngstown, Ohio, composed of teenaged guitarist Phil Keaggy, bassist Dan Pecchio and drummer John Sferra.  The band had formed in 1969, and a year later produced their self-titled debut on Decca Records.  Two more studio albums followed, but by 1973 the band was asunder, and Keaggy then accelerated his move toward more contemporary Christian music.

At first I couldn’t remember exactly what year Glass Harp played my high school, but the band’s manager Bob Brandt filled me in—it was May of 1971, and the concert was actually sponsored by Butler Community College but staged at the high school auditorium.  The albums that Glass Harp had produced up to that point were fine, but they had failed to capture the incendiary nature of this trio when fully engaged, live on stage.  In a concert setting, the band often stretched out and sailed into solos and improvisational jams, and that night in May of 1971 I almost couldn’t fully process the prowess—Phil was a revelation

He was totally plugged in—to his guitar and to God—and the audience was enrapt with his lightning-fast runs, his deftness, his soaring and swooping and scaling new heights, all through that lone instrument.  So, there is a God-given reason this concert is on my list!  (Editor’s note:  Glass Harp is still active today; seek out updated info at www.glassharp.net).

 

# 7:  Sigur Rós - March 25, 2003 - The Byham Theatre; Pittsburgh, PA

A true gift to music as art, this Icelandic band—cool and elegant, balancing fury and finesse—hit the Byham Theatre for a devastatingly beautiful evening of crushing volume and captivating soundscapes.  The band was on their third album at that point in time, and news of the Pittsburgh booking lit up the local cults of The Music Elite and People In The Know. 

We all assembled at the Byham that evening to bask in this very different world, full of majestic Icelandic-language songs that often built from sweet, serene beginnings to ear-battering crescendos—and all along the way we were spellbound, conjuring up images in our heads to match that sound and fury.  Sigur Rós live was at times frightening—and always achingly beautiful.  My most recent Sigur Rós encounter was indoors at Stage AE in Pittsburgh on June 15, 2017 and the concert was very, very good.  But it’s the Byham Theatre show, fourteen years back, that leveled me like few others I’d experienced.

 

# 6:  Steely Dan - August 14, 1993 - Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheater; Burgettstown, PA

This famous genre-bending band—principally a blend of pop, rock and jazz—came together in 1972 and then hung up their touring shoes after just three albums, in 1974.  So, how many years did they stay away from life on the road?  Hey…nineteen!  And in that year of 1993 I was the marketing director at Star Lake Amphitheater, and had long been a Dan fan. The anticipation for the show was ping-ponging in music circles all over Pittsburgh, as obviously almost two decades had passed and there were essentially a couple of generations’ worth of audio freaks who were pining for a performance and lining up for tickets. 

The crowd that night was a sell-out at 20,000+.  To paraphrase Bowie from a line in “Suffragette City,” it was kind of like “Wham, Scam, Thank You, Dan!!!” because the band had chosen to open the evening with the title track of their classic album The Royal Scam.  This was immediately followed by “Peg” and then “Aja,” and the evening rolled on from there with 20,000 voices singing those wry and referential lyrics. 

And musically?  Fagan never faltered, Becker was unbowed, and the band—immensely talented and religiously rehearsed—cranked out one sophisticated, soul-satisfying song after another.  The music took us all right back, reelin’ in the years.

 

# 5:  The Clash - August 18, 1982 - The Stanley Theater; Pittsburgh, PA

“The Only Band That Matters”...Despite that phrase having been concocted by a CBS record-label guy hungry for publicity, over time during the late 1970s and early 1980s both fans and/or critics took up the mantra and took it to heart.  Though I love their recorded work—especially Sandinista! and London Calling—I was lucky enough to see them live, just once, and the experience widened my perspective of the band’s relevance as a rabblerousing band of truth-tellers that didn’t suffer fools and put their hearts & minds on the line with every performance.

The concert was at Pittsburgh’s storied Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center), a venue that starting around 1976 received occasional national acclaim as the top-grossing concert theater in America.  The concert was sold out in advance and it was part of the band’s Combat Rock tour—and their first-ever appearance in the ‘burgh.  I was in the front of the balcony for this show with my roommate and two women friends, and from that vantage point we felt ourselves stirred immeasurably by witnessing not only the band’s onslaught, but the frenzied, jostling and body surfing crowd immediately below us.

It was an unbelievable show, with lead singer Joe Strummer’s sturm und drang delivery, spitting out lyrics and raging against the machine.  Highlights of the night:  Their opening salvo, “London Calling,” and then (slotted here and there through the evening) “Brand New Cadillac,” “I Fought The Law,” “Magnificent Seven,” “Train In Vain,” and what would become the band’s biggest commercial success, the song “Rock The Casbah.”

(Postscript:  This show was in August, and later in the Fall of 1982, the band opened for a number of The Who’s farewell concerts across America—and reportedly they were often booed off the stage by the intolerant classic rock fans in attendance.  To any other band, that might have been a demoralizing bummer, but in this case? Probably just more fuel for Strummer.)

 

# 4:  B.E. Taylor - Various shows through the years - Heinz Hall; Pittsburgh, PA

Aliquippa, PA-born B.E. Taylor grabbed radio ears beyond our region with a tune called “Vitamin L” in the 1980s, and also strategically discovered a path to guaranteed annual success—his ingenious rock-flavored Christmas concerts.  In 1991, Taylor joined two other regional rock stars Donnie Iris and Pete Hewlett in a collaboration on “Silent Night,” a track that was included on local oldies station WWSW’s 1991 holiday CD.  Based on the great reception to that track, Taylor turned toward the holiday and ended up finding his true calling.

He assembled a crack band of regional musicians (primarily from Pittsburgh and Wheeling) and in 1994 produced B.E. Taylor Christmas, the first of his two holiday-themed albums.  Taylor then took to the stage as well; in 1996 he launched what became his Christmas concert cottage industry in Wheeling’s Capitol Music Hall.

The annual November-December concerts by B.E. Taylor and his band grew to the level of two sold-out shows at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh amid successful one-nighters in other cities all through the holiday season in Wheeling, Chicago, Charleston and many more.  His 2009 Heinz Hall engagement was captured on DVD, and now airs annually on some American Public Television stations across the country (including Pittsburgh’s WQED).

Three reasons that this concert made the list:  A) The rock rearrangements of traditional Christmas songs by Taylor and his group are high-art reinventions—stirring, moving, emotion-filled and masterfully performed...B) My late wife and I raised our daughters on this annual joy-filled feast for the senses and it became a meaningful, inspirational part of the holiday for each of us…and C) Taylor passed away in August of 2016 and though the shows are no more, we have that DVD, the Christmas songs on CD or to stream, and the memories of years of stellar shows during that most wonderful time of the year.

 

# 3:  U2 - May 6, 2001 - The Mellon Arena; Pittsburgh, PA

Jubilation kicked in, with this concert announcement:  The band had not been in Pittsburgh for four years, and their last visit in was during the PopMart tour when they played Three Rivers Stadium.  This latter show just left me cold in a swell of humanity with no close connection to the band.  The Mellon Arena, however, was perfect to house the band’s new Elevation tour with its fan-friendly, inclusive approach to set design.

The stage was set up such that a heart-shaped ramp extended out from left and right, and then connected up again a bit deeper into the house.  Within this heart-shaped box was pure nirvana—i.e., the fortunate fans who snagged tickets for this section could all stand together in a festive and finite enclosure, enjoying the show from a great vantage point.  Bono and The Edge both skittered down this heart-shaped ramp at least a few times during the evening, with especially Bono pausing to interact with a fan or two during select songs.

This concert was doubly special in that my sixteen-year-old daughter Moira tagged along with a friend to see if my rapturous ramblings were at all grounded in reality.  She brought her schoolmate Heinz with her, and the two of them took in, for the very first time, the elation and thrill of a U2 concert.  The band started off with “Elevation,” and then segued into “It’s A Beautiful Day,” “Until The End Of The World,” and “New Year’s Day”—and on and on.  My favorite performance of the lot:  “Bullet The Blue Sky,” the first song of the encore, a pinnacle peek at the sustaining power of The Edge.

 

# 2:  The Pat Metheny Group  - November 16, 1997 - The AJ Palumbo Center; Pittsburgh, PA

Pythagoras (Greek philosopher; approx 570-495 B.C.) proposed a concept called the “harmony of the spheres,” a belief that celestial music was produced by the movement of the stars and the planets, but that it was imperceptible to the human ear.  Well, I think we get a rare open channel to this through the Pat Metheny Group, who I swear draws down this sound direct from the heavens. 

The music is all instrumental save for some occasional floating wordless vocals, and it blends jazz, rock, folk, and third world music into a joyous mix that is indescribably life affirming.  At a Metheny show, part of the wonder is watching the musicians individually, and noting how they’re so secure in their art—they’re all uniformly amazing.  This particular concert was held on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh at the AJ Palumbo Center, and even this gymnasium/basketball hall couldn’t thwart Metheny’s magic.  It helped immensely that the stage had been set up on a side of the gym versus one of the longer ends, so the audience was tighter and closer in to the action.

I loved the band’s onstage setup, too.  Guitarist Metheny and drummer Paul Wertico were side by side practically on the lip of the stage, and thus for the fans it was a visual feast to be able to note the intuitive interplay as well as the individual prowess.  This particular evening’s performance was part of the group’s Imaginary Day tour (so named for the album they’d released that year), and the band churned out some of this album’s best tracks as well as dug back in the catalogue to pull up “Minuano Six-Eight” from 1987’s Still Life (Talking) and “Are You Going With Me?” from 1981’s Offramp.  This was a wondrous night of celestial seasonings.

 

# 1:  Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - February 19, 1975 - University Auditorium on the campus of Penn State; State College, PA

This Bruce concert, for me, was THE ONE.  Never been bested.  In my senior year of college, and at the initial coaxing of my Philly-area dorm neighbor Paul, he and I grabbed tickets to the Bruce concert scheduled for the intimate University Auditorium (2,600 seats) at Penn State. 

This was a life-changing event; to swim more fully in my streams of praise, see the older 1/25/16 posting entitled The First Time Ever I Saw His Face, right here in the A DAY IN THE LIFE section of musicasaurus.com. 

Yeah, well, you can go ahead and call me the Bosselytizer (as in, proselytizer), but I was truly converted that February evening into the Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  And today, though Time ravages and races on, we still have Bruce with us and it’s a wonderful life (makes me hope that Clarence the Angel is watchin’ over E Street right now).

 

 

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Posted 1/15/18:  PICTURE OF YOU

1. SPIN DOCTORS.....From June of 1993, this is a picture of the arms-splayed Chris Barron, lead singer of the Spin Doctors, who is flanked here by Jack Tumpson (then head of Pittsburgh-area promoter Next Big Thing) and Star Lake Amphitheater’s Yours Truly, Tom Rooney and Josh Rooney.  The Spin Doctors were a pop-savvy jam band who toured incessantly in the early ‘90s to build its fan base, and they finally basked in well-earned success a year or so after the release of their debut album Pocket Full of Kryptonite when there was a sort of good fortune cosmic convergence—MTV was on ‘em, radio was picking up tracks, they played on SNL in late 1992, and then they made the cover of the Rolling Stone in early 1993. 

In that summer of ’93 I worked at Star Lake as the marketing director, and remember that we (GM Tom Rooney and I) had to convince their booking agent that the time was ripe for a Spin Doctors’ play at our 23,000-capacity outdoor venue.  The agent was used to his band playing smaller “safer” venues—meaning lower-capacity places where the band could play to a packed house.  Prodded by us, and by Tumpson who had booked the band earlier on at a Pittsburgh club, the agent acquiesced and rolled the dice with us.  This early-in-the-summer-season headlining gig at Star Lake ended up pulling in over 15,000 fans. 

 

2. STYX.....The band Styx was an album mega-seller and FM Radio heavyweight back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but by 1984 had split due to the tug of solo careers.  Most members reunited around the turn of the 1990s, but it was Tommy Shaw’s return to the band in 1995 that sparked the largest reunion buzz.  A year later a full-blown tour was put together, and Styx (with Kansas in tow) played Star Lake Amphitheater on Friday, June 7, 1996.  The show was a monster success, selling out the venue and giving diehard fans a chance to soak up “Come Sail Away” and other signature tunes like “Renegade” (which became a Steeler reenergizing anthem circa ‘2002), “Lady,” “Too Much Time on my Hands,” “Mr. Roboto” and more. 

I was especially gratified that my friend and industry mate Charlie Brusco (pictured above, in the gray shirt standing behind a hunkered-over Yours Truly) had yet another success to notch into his long career as a rock promoter and manager.  Brusco, originally from the Pittsburgh area, managed and secured (through Arista record label chief Clive Davis) the signing of his band The Outlaws in 1975, and their debut album that year provided the audio earwig “Green Grass and High Tides” to FM Radio and rabid southern rock fans all across the country.  In 1987, Brusco reunited the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd ten years after that band’s tragic plane crash, and then skillfully set them on course for a hugely successful comeback tour.

 

3. AIMEE MANN.....The mercurial, inscrutable Bob Dylan had never played Star Lake Amphitheater in the first six years of the venue’s existence, but finally in the Spring of 1996 his name suddenly appeared on our ever-evolving list of confirmations for that summer.  Sacrilege to say I hadn’t been a fan of the nasal poetic genius through the years, but I certainly respected his body of work—and in this case, his choice of opening acts.  Slated to play on stage before Bob’s set on this May 1996 summer evening: Guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band, and the opener of this three-act package, Aimee Mann.

I had been in love with Aimee Mann since her mid-80s stint with the band ‘Til Tuesday, who produced the MTV hit “Voices Carry” in 1985 but fizzled in terms of subsequent success.  She went on to a solo career around 1990 and I scooped up her earliest offerings, CDs that were giant steps ahead of her work with ‘Til Tuesday; her songs were now intimate, confessional, and finely crafted.  Among the highlights:  “Fourth of July,” and “Jacob Marley’s Chain” from 1993’s Whatever, and then from 1995’s I’m With Stupid album, “That’s Just What You Are,” a perfect piece of power pop featuring guest vocals from ex-Squeeze members Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.

So here I was on the evening of May 18, 1996 entering the catering tent backstage at Star Lake, on my usual nightly prowl of looking for dessert-like things that were bad for me—and I bumped right into Aimee.  I blurted out my praise for her last few CDs, and as a photographer just happened to be loafing in Tent World nearby, I asked Aimee for a picture memento.  It’s a great keepsake that I treasure, capturing that one fleeting moment when we had our heart-to-heart, man to Mann. 

 

4. STEVE MILLER BAND.....Starting in 1990, Star Lake Amphitheatre’s opening season, the Steve Miller Band came to play and then returned every year thereafter for the next decade.  The first two years Miller drew about 10,000 fans, but then something happened in Year Three of Steve’s annual trek to the venue: Word had spread that this was a show not to miss.  The ingredients to success were a low lawn price of just $10 per ticket, and the fact that Star Lake’s tailgating was definitely in full flower.  Our prevailing theory?  The younger brothers and sisters of the original 1970s Miller fans were finding out that this was the party of the summer through a self-determined theme of “drink irresponsibly,” and so hit-after-hit songs like “The Joker,” “Jet Airliner” and “Rock’n Me” coupled with the cheap ticket price made for a night to remember—or a night to attempt to remember.

During that pivotal “Year Three” concert by Miller—Thursday, July 23, 1992; the first of his eight consecutive Star Lake sell-outs—I was called back with my boss Tom Rooney to say “hi” after the band had heard about the huge walk-up and the resulting capacity crowd.  Miller was a gracious host in his dressing room, and we chatted for a few minutes about his early records (I steered him toward Brave New World and Your Saving Grace) and about his love for the blues.  We then gathered up Miller’s bandmates and opening act Curtis Salgado & The Stilettos, and crowded all together in the dressing room hallway for a quick photo.  (Yours Truly was not in the shot; I was deputized to camera duty on this one.  Star Lake GM Tom Rooney is front-and-center holding a commemorative plague denoting the sold-out show, and that shadesy-looking character next to Rooney is you-know-who.)

 

5. ALICE COOPER.....I only remember that this photo, likely at his Sunday, July 28, 1996 Star Lake co-headliner show with the Scorpions, was taken on his Alice’s tour bus parked backstage.  He’s an affable, approachable guy; he regaled me with stories about golfing in years past with local promoter Rich Engler of DiCesare-Engler Productions, the legendary Pittsburgh-market concert company. 

Alice’s first visit to Star Lake on Friday, August 2, 1991 was an abomination, but really only from the standpoint of ticket sales.  The show had been put together by our parent company Pace as a can’t-miss double-shot of headliners of Alice with British band Judas Priest.  But maybe Alice’s theatrics and rock show biz flair clashed with the Priest’s peddle-to-the-metal approach, and the on-the-fence fans out there turned their noses up in indifference.  Attendance, if I recall correctly, was under 9,000 so the show was not a homerun for the venue by any stretch.

 

6. VAN HALEN.....Van Halen is one of those rarities that had two winning (at least in a commercial sense) singers who I think in some way molded this powerful band’s sound to best suit themselves.  First was the flamboyant cock of the walk David Lee Roth who eventually had his pipes supplanted by Sammy Hagar, and it’s the latter stage of the band reflected in this Friday, August 11, 1995 photo at Star Lake.  Parent-company Pace’s Louis Messina is white-shirted and standing second from the left behind purple-shirted Yours Truly; on the far right of the photo standing behind bass player Michael Anthony is the venue’s Jack Tumpson.

Van Halen in 1995 had been to Star Lake three times and each visit was a sold-out affair.  Hagar was at the helm in this era of the band, but then parted ways in 1996 for reasons reportedly disputed; in any event, the band soldiered on with Gary Cherone, who’d previously sung for Boston rock band Extreme (famous, or infamous, for the song “More Than Words” from the group’s 1990 Pornograffitti album).  This version of Van Halen hit Star Lake on Friday, July 24, 1998 and sales were ailin’—less than 7,600 tickets were ultimately sold for this unembraceable iteration of a pretty decent band.

 

7. STING.....Star Lake Amphitheater (now Key Bank Pavilion) has hosted a slew of high caliber shows over its many years, and one of the most satisfying strings of artists’ visits to the venue has to be credited to Sting, who never seems to travel with less than a majorly muscular, way-intuitive batch of musicians on the road with him.

Sting’s thing seemed to be timing.  His tours were timed to new album releases—not that unusual, in the day—but interestingly in his case this equated to an every-three-year-or-so cycle of appearances with us over the first fifteen years (’91, ’93, ’96, 2000, and 2004).  Even though one would think this would goose attendance because the market was given “time off” to re-whet fan’s appetites, the number of concert-goers hauntingly hovered just around 10,000 each time.

The shows were uniformly excellent, with Sting of course dipping into The Police and mining his earliest solo efforts to spark that familiarity.  His opening acts, too, were notable; in that first fifteen-year period of the venue, Sting conjured up Lyle Lovett, Special Beat (American handle: The English Beat), Tracy Chapman, and most memorably, Annie Lennox in Sting’s 2004 swing through Western Pennsylvania.  The latter was a one-two punch of precision and passion; it’s the Sting show that stands out in a lot of Star Lake-goers’ minds as perhaps the pinnacle.

The photo above may have been taken at the Sunday, July 21, 1996 stop at Star Lake, but the memories (and any date on the back of the picture) have been worn away…It’s Yours Truly on the left, Sting of course in the center, and Lori DiLucente (our rep from Caplan Capozzi, the amphitheater’s original public relations firm) on the right, and we're all in sweet downtime mode, backstage, about two hours before the doors to the facility were scheduled to open.

 

 

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Posted 1/1/18:  WHAT IS HIP…gnosis.

Happy New Year to ALL of you!

Musicasaurus.com’s post this time was kick-started by a Christmas present—a book entitled 1,000 Record Covers.

I spent more than a little bit of the holi-daze immersed in this book that seeks to capture the creativity and charisma of three decades of album cover art in the U.S.  Leafing through, I came upon some of the works of English design firm Hipgnosis who dazzled many an album collector starting in the late 1960s with their unique approach to photography, darkroom techniques, and conceptual settings.  Some say, in a way, they paved a nice path for technology in terms of the eventual development of and unbridled creativity associated with Photoshopping…

Read on, and soak up these images from Hipgnosis…

1. Pink Floyd – A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

This second studio album from Pink Floyd was noteworthy in a couple of ways: a) The finished product reflected the contributions of the outgoing Syd Barrett (jettisoned for increasingly aberrant behavior) and the incoming David Gilmour, and so Saucerful was a passing of the torch and a stabilization of the line-up; and b) The album also essentially launched the careers of design wizards Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, who had come up with the cover.  Afterward, record label EMI peppered the two with requests for additional covers for some of the other artists they represented, and so the design duo’s new company Hipgnosis was born shortly thereafter.

It was really Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, though, that cemented Thorgerson and Powell’s reputation for album cover artistry and presented them with a slew of new artist opportunities as their fame mounted alongside the worldwide success of Moon.  In addition to keeping its fealty to Floyd with subsequent albums including Wish You Were Here and Animals, Hipgnosis began working with other top-notch bands including Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and many more.

 

2. Quartermass – self-titled debut album (1970)

I have loved pterodactyls from the first moment my tiny, pre-teen fingers freed a plastic replica from the toy box to thwart the chomping of a brontosaurus by a marauding tyrannosaurus rex—you get the picture.  Back then, boyhood was dino heaven.  My love affair continues with this compelling cover that masks an album of progressive rock by an English band whose shelf life was just three years, 1969-1971.  They produced this one studio album of urgent, rollicking material that fans have likened to a lesser-talented Emerson, Lake & Palmer; I also hear strong hints of Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and Bloodrock, sans the guitars. 

Quartermass, named for the fictional professor who was the focus of a few sci-fi serials on British television back in the 1950s, consisted of three musicians in an organ-bass-drums set-up.  Bassist John Gustafson handled the vocal chores while keyboard wiz Peter Robinson helmed piano, clavinet, harpsichord, synth and especially a Hammond A3, which pumped out those rich, swirling fuzz tones that warmed and won over many a young prog-rocker.

 

3. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)

I lifted the following from London’s Daily Mail which published an interview with one of the kids from the Houses of the Holy album cover, timed to appear just a day or two before a reunited Zep did their one-off Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at London’s O2 Arena.  Writer Rick Hewett interviewed Stefan Gates, who talked about the long-ago album cover shoot on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland which featured Stefan and his sister Sam:

"I've heard people saying they put wigs on several children.  But there was only me and my sister and that's our real hair.  I used to love being naked when I was that age so I didn't mind.  I'd whip off my clothes at the drop of a hat and run around having a great time, so I was in my element.  My sister was older so she was probably a bit more self-conscious."

The cover art was the brainchild of Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson of legendary album-sleeve designers Hipgnosis. They took several multiple-exposure shots of Stefan and Sam to create the image of more children clambering over the rocks. 

There is endless debate among rock fans over the significance of the image.

Powell has claimed he was inspired by the science-fiction book Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, in which children climb off the end of the world.

Stefan Gates—who lives in North London with wife Georgia and daughters Daisy, four, and Poppy, two—is skeptical of all the theories about the artwork's meaning, including Powell's.

He said: "In a lot of cases with graphical design work it's an evolving process and they think up the explanation later. I personally have no idea what it means.

"There's something about it though that is disturbing and haunting, perhaps more so because I am in it."

Although a fan of Led Zeppelin, Stefan confesses he has never listened to Houses Of The Holy, which was released in 1973.

"It carries too much significance for me," he said. "A part of me wants to go out to the Giant's Causeway with a big pair of speakers, strip naked and play it just to see if I have some kind of great epiphany."

 

4. Hydra – self-titled debut album (1974)

While in college at Penn State, I came upon this debut record from an Atlanta, Georgia rock band that, from the first cut, went full-tilt boogie (“Glitter Queen”).  I pretty much wore out the grooves on the album on my less-than-costly, less-than-kind stereo system at the time, head bobbing to this hormone-hyping Southern rock record for a spell—and then it was gone.  I had moved along to so many other new bands through my coterie of college friends and my volunteer deejay position on the campus radio station that I had forgotten all about the album with the man and his many heads of snake…

In researching this blog post about Hipgnosis late last week I rounded a bend on this design firm’s long stretch of fetching masterworks, and…there it was again.  I was smitten to be bitten by this old friend, the album cover I had cradled in college, reading and re-reading the liner notes while gruff vocals and gritty guitars exploded around me.  (Postscript to this “reunited and it feels so good” story:  The album doesn’t hold up for me at all now, but I’m sure the WDVE crowd would soak it up, same as it ever was…)

 

5. The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot (1977)

In June of 1977 I was clerking at Exile Records in Wexford, PA and furiously writing up sales slips with pen to pad as this album flew out the doors.  Local radio stations were relentlessly playing the single “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” and the more rock-oriented ones were keying in on the album track “Breakdown.” 

The album’s theme intentionally mirrored writer Isaac Azimov’s series of short stories and novels about artificial intelligence, but not close enough to merit litigation (the rights were owned by a TV/film company).  The first book in the series of five novels was I, Robot—and reportedly Parsons and company just dropped the comma between “I” and “Robot” to avoid a slap on the wrist (best case) from the media group owners.  Project leader Parsons also shied away from direct references to Azimov’s writings and steered the lyrics to more general themes of man vs. machine.

 

6. Strawbs – Deadlines (1977)

This twelfth album by English rockers Strawbs hit record stores in 1977 as well.  And once again flashing back into Exile, I remember some of my store customers—the serious collectors who finger-flicked religiously past every album in every bin on most every visit—pulling this one out of the stacks and bringing it to the counter to ask the time-honored “Is this any good?”  The artwork had brought them to the counter and me to the cusp of a sale, but being an honest sales guy—that is not an oxymoron, mind you—I had to let them know that I wasn’t all that familiar with the band.

Strawbs had formed back in 1964 and originally plied a course toward bluegrass, but then went folksy before veering into progressive rock in the very early 1970s (keyboardist Rick Wakeman had boarded the band for two albums around that time period before departing to join Yes).

 

7. Renaissance – A Song For All Seasons (1978)

This haunting design was one of several done for the English folk-rock/prog-rock group Renaissance by Hipgnosis, and it’s a cover that I could never cast from my cranium.  This 1978 album was released in the U.S. in the very month that I started my new job as a record store merchandiser for the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Corporation—it was March of that year—and on my front porch a week into my new gig, I found a newly-shipped poster tube containing twenty-five (25) “A Song For All Seasons” album covers.  These were not normal covers; the merchandising folks at my new record-company employer were obviously seasoning with growth hormones, for the covers were retooled from their original 1’ x 1’ album size and reproduced as 4-feet x 4-feet posters

This made for some interesting exchanges out in the field.  Some managers of large, stand-alone record stores loved the expansive Renaissance blow-up and cheerfully afforded me some space.  Others, especially those eking out flat-liner existences in smaller and much less trafficked locations, gave me expressions I would tend to label as “bemused”—and then sent me packin’ before I unpacked.

 

8. Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (1978)

Gabriel was post-Genesis by about three years when he released his second solo album in 1978, the one that his growing fan base eventually referred to as “Scratch” because of the claw mark approach on the cover.  Like the artist’s solo debut that preceded this one, and indeed then his third and fourth albums that followed, this second effort had no title other than “Peter Gabriel.”  The artist apparently didn’t mind pissing off his record company in this regard, and so we have only the nicknames to further identify his first four solo outings…

Gabriel’s commercial juggernaut finally came with his fifth record, 1986’s So (yes, he had finally acquiesced to the record label’s request to give the damn thing a name, and relented with a two-letter album title).  Sales of So weren’t just so-so: The album exploded internationally (aided by MTV) and this rocketed Gabriel out of cult status with songs like “Sledgehammer," “In Your Eyes," “Big Time," “Red Rain” and more.

 

9. Catherine Wheel – Chrome (1993)

This British band was pretty active all through the 1990s in terms of touring and recording though they only have five studio albums to their credit.  Catherine Wheel was labeled part of the shoegazing genre of alternative rock—so named for bands that, on stage, ostensibly stared downward more than most, working their effects pedals for drones and sustains—but after a time they edged a bit toward metal but preserved some lush leanings as well, always atmospheric. 

The cover was designed by Storm Thorgerson, co-founder of Hipgnosis and the one who continued on after that design firm’s dissolution in 1983 to create a number of other captivating covers for artists.  The photo for Chrome was shot in an indoor swimming pool, and it eventually graced the cover of the designer’s 1999 publication Eye of the Storm: The Album Graphics of Storm Thorgerson.

 

10. Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Mr. Love Pants (1998)

British singer-songwriter Dury was most notably a recording artist on Stiff Records, an independent record company born in England in 1976 that immediately caught the wave of some of the most adventurous new punk rockers emerging on the scene.  Stiff had attitude to spare, with marketing slogans like “If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a F**k,” and part of their promotional genius was to mount various tours of Stiff recording artists in their quest for world (or at least U.K.) domination.  The label’s first tour in 1977 was U.K.-only; it was dubbed the 5 Live Stiffs Tour and featured new and fledging artists of the genre including Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe and Larry Wallis.

Over here in the U.S, CBS Records did the best job of promoting Stiff stateside through a label distribution deal, and so I was fortunate enough back in late ’78—while working as Warner Brothers/Elektra/Atlantic’s field display person—to snag a copy of Ian Dury and the Blockhead’s newest single “Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick” from an industry mate who worked as the local CBS record rep.  “Rhythm Stick” was my introduction to Dury’s unique style—a sound that borrowed from rock, reggae, jazz and funk, often powered by English “music hall” (the music rooted in Britain’s theatrical traditions, a la America’s vaudeville).  Lyrically, Dury was zany, erudite, full of word play and not above some sexual mischief.  The album pictured above is a Dury & Blockheads reunion record released in 1998 and the cover was a Storm Thorgerson production (post-Hipgnosis).

 

 

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Posted 12/18/17:  I SAW THE LIGHT

It has been just a year and four months since Western Pennsylvania native son and singer/songwriter B.E. Taylor left this world, and Christmas has just not been the same ‘round these parts since his passing.  So many people—fans spanning a few generations, in fact—are truly at a loss on how to fill the void.  And now this is the second Christmas without him…

B.E. Taylor, for readers unaware, performed holiday concerts that kindled the Christmas spirit with a fiery finesse, one that sent those assembled soaring into the joys of the season.  B.E. was a mesmerizing performer backed by a band of musical brothers, and the shows were legendary among the initiated.  Those who attended became converts, young souls and old souls alike, and when Christmas would roll around again the next year, the new fans adopted what the old ones practiced and preached—it just ain’t Christmas until B.E. says it’s so…

The piece below was originally written and posted in musicasaurus.com back in 2016 in August, the month of B.E.’s passing.  Not only is this December timeframe now appropriate for another look at my post about the man and his music, but there is, this particular December, an opportunity to relive it, in a sense—B.E.’s son BC and the rest of the band are staging a special “I Will Remember” in memoriam concert this Thursday, December 21st and Friday, December 22nd at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling, West Virginia.  The Friday show sold out instantly when tickets were made available back in mid-November, and so the Thursday show was added due to demand.  At this writing, tickets may be gone for that show as well, but you can check into that at the Capitol Music Hall’s website: http://www.capitoltheatrewheeling.com/events/?category=all

And now, the post on B.E. Taylor, written on August 22, 2016  and placed on musicasaurus.com:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away at sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne (1572-1631); Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, originally published in 1624. 

The “any man’s death” part of this famous quotation of Donne’s popped into my head soon after I heard the news about the August 7th passing of B.E. Taylor, one of Western Pennsylvania’s most gifted and beloved singer-songwriters/musicians. 

I thought to myself, yes, any man’s death diminishes me—but somehow this one hurt almost like no other.

I looked up the entire quote and dug more into Donne, and then it seemed even more apropos that my mind had first gone to this beautiful phrasing from long ago.  Donne was one of a group of English writers from the 17th century who, I learned, were labeled years afterward as “the metaphysical poets” because their works—sonnets, sermons, elegies, and especially poetry—revolved around two principal themes: love and religion.

Aye, that was B.E.  Or rather, those were the two threads that literally made the man—intertwined, a man defined.  And the third thread, lucky for all of us, was music.

William Edward Taylor was born in Aliquippa, PA (less than 30 miles from Pittsburgh), and from an early age fell into the spell cast by the Beatles and Motown.  His mother had gotten into the habit of calling him Billy Edward which thankfully was eventually trimmed to B.E.—a much better “handle” for the rocker that was rising up within…

B.E. had his own band while still in high school, and along with his exuberance and rock-star long hair, he had…the voice.  I have distant memories of seeing B.E. in concert during my own high school years in the late-‘60s going into the ‘70s, but of course it was the early ‘80s when his passion and talent really grabbed the national spotlight.  His band was one of several in Western Pennsylvania to emerge into the limelight back then, arguably one of the most fertile periods of homegrown Western Pennsylvania talent shouldering open record company doors and edging into more than just the regional radio stations’ playlists.  Groups like Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, Joe Grushecky’s Iron City Houserockers, and The Silencers (with Frank Czuri and Warren King) were all gaining national traction thanks to more airplay and the nascent MTV adding their clips, and B.E. bathed in those waters as well—with “Vitamin L.”

Ironically, this song which became a #1 regional hit AND a national chart climber to #66 on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 in 1984 was one of the only ones NOT sung by lead vocalist B.E.  Drummer Joey D’Amico took the honors on that one.

But, back to the voice…In 1991, in my era of rampant CD collecting and coveting, I ran across local radio station WDVE’s recent music compilation of Pittsburgh-region artists, and B.E. was in the brood.  The song was “You’re Gonna Work It Out” and it was an inspirational power-throated rock ballad that had me from the opening chords and the first vocal slide-in from the perpetually longhaired, eternally impassioned singer.  I kept this song on “repeat” and never tired of the magic B.E. spun with the able accompaniment of the singer’s fast friend and sidekick Rick Witkowski on track production and guitar.

That same year B.E. also found his true calling—quite by accident, according to his close friend, former WDVE on-air talent and current independent writer/producer Steve Hansen.  “It was truly accidental,” Hansen says. “B.E. had contributed a song to another station’s Christmas CD that year, and the reception to it was amazing.  He had reworked Silent Night, and the response was so great that he came up with the idea of doing a full Christmas album—AND putting it out on his own record label Chrishae, which is a commonplace idea now, of course, but was trendsetting at the time.”

B.E. Taylor Christmas was released in 1994, and as Hansen tells it, late in the year B.E. was talked into doing a Wheeling-area one-time performance of the album, and again, the response was electric.  This begat the idea of a holiday concert tour, and it was here that B.E. truly arrived at the intersection of love, religion and music.  With his strong Christian faith, and armed with his love of family & friends and a humble appreciation of his own singular gift, B.E. surrounded himself with Rick Witkowski and a stellar band of comrades, and set sail into holiday waters…

The Christmas season tour took off, and from 1996 onward, B.E. and band were annually packing theater-sized venues in Southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and beyond, amassing crowds of all ages and stripes who seemed hungry for connection in terms of bringing a bit of the real meaning of Christmas into their lives.

Or, truth be told, maybe some of them just liked to rock.  B.E.’s stage show consisted mostly of the time-tested Christmas songs like “Joy To The World” and “O Holy Night” and “What Child Is This”—but each was an ingenious, wholly-satisfying spin on the original, infused with the singer’s alternately soaring and soothing vocal prowess, powered on by his mates.  The songs, whether ballads or up-tempo recreations, were creative set pieces—stirring, moving, emotion-filled and masterfully performed.  And between songs, B.E. avoided the usual rock clichés and stage patter—just not in his nature—and engaged the audience with warm, short asides about his family, friends, bandmates, and oh yes, the God’s honest relevance of this wondrous time of year.

Around September of 2009 after having left a music business job, I joined the non-profit public broadcaster WQED in the broadcast sales & underwriting department, and that same year in December B.E. realized his goal of trying to capture the essence of his Christmas concerts on camera.  On December 14th and 15th, he and his band played their now standard two-night sell-out engagement at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, and videographers and audio folks swelled the numbers of his normal crew, painstakingly recording both nights from which to cull the best performances for an eventual DVD.

B.E. and his wife Veronica called me at WQED a few months into 2010, inquiring about setting a meeting with WQED Management to discuss the possibility of our television station airing his new video, which was still at the time in the “heavy edit” stage.  He and Veronica brought in some clips of some already finalized song stretches, and we huddled with Patty Walker (then the VP/Business & Finance) and Linda Taggart (then Senior Director/On-Air Fundraising), and they were both enthralled.  Literally before the meeting even ended, they told the Taylors that WQED was IN.

Our management team then took it one step further, in promising to submit the completed concert to APT (American Public Television), a subset network of PBS stations who, they said, would most assuredly give serious consideration to airing the video in their respective markets.  The end result?  Beginning in December 2010, a number of other cities’ PBS outlets began airing the seasonal production along with WQED, and slowly but surely B.E’s holiday-with-a-twist became ingrained in their annual year-end schedules as well…

All of this couldn’t have happened to a nicer person—especially one with the vision and perseverance and the talent to bring it to fruition.  I remember talking to B.E. on the phone one day, right after he and Veronica had delivered the finalized B.E. Taylor Christmas: Live at Heinz Hall video to WQED.  I recall frankly gushing about the finished product, and told him—uh, no offense here, PBS—that this show, stacked up against other PBS offerings of holiday concerts, was truly something that all should have aspired to.  Not only was this video a testament to the musicians’ kinship and skill, it was in equal measure a tribute to the emotional power of unselfconscious, right-on-target editing which ultimately brought a seamless, incredibly joyous experience to the viewer. 

With B.E.’s passing this month we’ve lost a native son…a champion for love…a man blessed with an abundance of talent who shared his gift with thousands of people every year for over twenty years running.

I believe I’m speaking for a lot of them when I extend to the heavens a prayer of thanks. I am only one of countless others who raised their children on B.E. Taylor Christmas concerts…who took friends each year and turned them into converts…and who went back home after each performance infused with the spirit, reminded to do for others and to be grateful for all the blessings that Life gives to us.

In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Scott Mervis the day after B.E. passed away, another good friend of the singer (and band member) Hermie Granati was quoted as saying this:  “All the superlatives have been said about his musicianship, but the guy that we knew, when he talked to you, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the room.  Very at ease and very comfortable being himself.  There was a light emanating from Bill, and he pulled everyone into that light.  He wore his faith on his sleeve and he lived it.”

Sleep in heavenly peace, B.E....

(http://www.betaylor.com)

 

 

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Posted 12/4/17:  GIVE A LITTLE BIT

I’m sure that most of us give of ourselves more than just a little bit in this Life.  There are, of course, some people who push through this existence only concerned about personal gain, and these folks might get some sati$faction, true.  But those of us in the other camp—we who seek to help others, even if only occasionally we’re able to truly get that into gear—gain satisfaction in the purest sense, one in which the rewards are richer by far.  This type of satisfaction, however often achieved, is a nice little caress on the core of one’s humanity. 

Modern Life is a rat race, though.  Perhaps you are a person who’s actually more in the maze than out in the race, but regardless, you are scurrying about and clawing for Meaning just as much.  One thing’s for sure: It’s tough “out there” for all of us, but we can’t lose sight of what’s important.

The point is to find someone in need and a cause to support and JUST DO SOMETHING.  Large or small, and every day or once in a month of Sundays—whatever circumstances dovetail with your desires and realistically suit your schedule.  But don’t just say “Yeah, someday” and then park your intent—MAKE IT HAPPEN.

I’m thinking back to a specific music-related contribution that I made back in 1982.  It involved a worthwhile charity, addressed a pure need, and couldn’t have happened without the selflessness and generosity (of time AND spirit) of some key Pittsburgh-area musicians.

At that time I was working as director of advertising at the record store chain called National Record Mart (NRM).  Two things were rolling around my head back then in the Winter of ’82:  1) There was a rising tide of awareness in the city and well beyond its borders for some of our Pittsburgh musicians; and 2) On a deeper personal level, I was itchin’ to do something for a charity, given that our NRM home office constantly received a stream of requests from all sorts of non-profits to donate gift certificates and records & tapes to their particular auctions and causes.

I had been talking a lot with one such charity at that point in time, the local chapter of the March of Dimes.  They were diplomatically but relentlessly trying to figure out a way that National Record Mart could donate to their latest Walkathon cause, above and beyond the standard “gift certificate for an album” sort of thing.  I told them that we’d LOVE to come up with something creative to fill the bill, but in the interim I suggested to them that they avail themselves of the current donation items we were offering...

Soon after those conversations with the March of Dimes representative, I was driving home from work one day and pulled into the local Stop-N-Go to get gas.  There in the window I saw huge posters of Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, and I experienced an Immaculate Perception: I should take this football celebrity poster idea (yeah, go ahead; call me a stealer) and try to adapt it to our local music scene!

I buzzed into work early the next day to catch up with my boss George Balicky before his morning began filling up with appointments.  “George,” I said, “I had a brainstorm!”  He raised an eyebrow, and the look on his face seemed to say he doubted whether that region of mine had any kind of real weather goin’ on.

I laid out my plan to him:  What if we did a special poster, like I’d seen at the Stop-N-Go?  What if I called up some of the most popular rock musicians in Pittsburgh, and asked them all to assemble for a special photo session?  I went on to explain that we’d take the best group photo from the session and turn it into a commemorative Pittsburgh musicians’ poster, which we could sell through all of the area NRMs—and all of the posters’ proceeds could go to the March of Dimes.

George green-lighted my plan.  Part of the plot as well was that I wanted the time, effort and talents of everyone involved to be donated, so that the overwhelming majority of the proceeds from the poster sales would go directly to the charity. 

I rang up blues singer Billy Price, and asked if he would do this for us—for free.  He quickly said yes.  I called Joe Grushecky of the Iron City Houserockers.  He also was instantly “in.”  The artists were responding positively to the plan...

If there ever was a time to try and preserve a record of the Rock Royalty of Pittsburgh, this was it.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of local artists were breaking out of the ‘burgh and getting on major tours, being anointed with major recording contracts, and generally putting the Steel City on the musical map.  After consulting with a few other folks within NRM, I came up with my final wish list of local artists, picked up the phone, and made my impassioned pleas.  A couple of the musicians offered to call someone else on the list for me, like Rick Granati of G-Force who said he’d pin down his Beaver Falls, PA neighbor Donnie Iris.  All others I managed to reach on my own, and so within a few days, I had the following list of artists checked off as signed, sealed, and to-be-delivered:

      

      

To each of the artists that I had reached by phone, I explained the whole concept of the photo and the poster:  I wanted just one representative from each of the bands—for parity’s sake—and I wanted to shoot them all together somewhere on a stage.  After we identified just the right photo from the bunch, we’d metamorphose it into a 24” x 30” black-and-white poster, and then have a designer slap on a special logo that would say “The Pride of Pittsburgh.”  The finished poster would then immediately go on sale to the public at all NRM’s...

I got on my high horse and went down the road of asking not only the artists but ALL of those involved in the project to join the charity bandwagon and donate their services.  We locked up the Syria Mosque as the setting for the photo shoot, and Dorothy Steel who ran the building waived any kind of rental fee for using the stage for the afternoon.  Barbara Freeman, an excellent local photographer and commercial filmmaker, jumped in willingly to take the photos.  Graphic designer Steve Pavlot created the “Pride of Pittsburgh” logo and prepped the finished photo for eventual enlargement—all gratis.  And WDVE offered up significant airtime for promoting the sale of the poster, with only their logo in the lower-right corner of the poster as “payment.”

Not everyone was magnanimous, however.  I just couldn’t find a printer to do thousands of posters for free—imagine that—but we DID finally find a compassionate soul at a downtown printing firm Graphic Arts Color Corporation, and this individual trimmed the charges for the printing of the final product.  The real stickler in the bunch was the stagehand who came to the Syria Mosque the day of the photo shoot.  His job was to turn the stage lights on when we wanted them on, and then to turn them off when we wanted them off.  This was a physically demanding task that required incredible expertise—NOT.  But, as this stagehand kept saying to me as scorn and derision danced all over my features, “Look, buddy...I can’t be doin’ this stuff for free.  What if EVERY charity wanted me to do this for no money?!!”  I gave up on that one; the guy was rigid, unyielding and unrepentant.  He may have been the best light-turner-on’er that ever was, but as far as I was concerned, his lights were on and nobody was at home.

On the day of the photo shoot, we were all prepped and ready for the rock ‘n’ rollers to arrive, and that they did, one by one.  It was all hugs and high-fives with these guys, and good-natured verbal sparring; “road” stories and reminiscences.  The stage had been set up with stacks of amplifiers—donated for the occasion by one of the generous musicians on hand—and as we neared the time to click their countenances, one of the band members said “Are we all here yet?”  I looked around, and counted ‘em up:  Joe, Billy, Bob and Dave, Rick, Frank, Pete, and Norm.  No Donnie.

“Rick,” I said to the representative of the Granati clan, “Is Donnie running late?”  “I don’t know,” answered Rick, “what did he say when you called him?”

I felt an “Oh, Shit” tremor quake up the back of my neck. “Rick...you were supposed to call him, remember?” 

Rick looked as stunned as I’m sure I did.  “Er, no, I thought we ended up sayin’ that you’d get through to him...??”

I walked away from the stage area after getting Donnie’s home number from Granati.  After five rings, some sleepy individual answered the phone.  “Donnie?  Hey, it’s Lance from National Record Mart.  Did you know about this photo project thing I’m doing?”  I went on to explain where I was and what was happening, or not happening, and I was a stream of apologies as I asked if he could do the impossible—come right now.  I turned and looked at the stage, and the guys were hanging over the stacks of amps, laughing and mugging for the camera that wasn’t yet pointed their way.  All I could see was a gaping hole in that universe.

Donnie explained that it sounded cool, but he was absolutely tied up and couldn’t get it together to drive down to Pittsburgh for the shoot.  I asked him if he was free the next weekend.

After I got off the phone, I ran to the stage and had a heart-to-heart with the band members and our photographer:  No one’s fault, I said, just a miscommunication in securing Donnie.  Barbara said “Well, let’s shoot everything else anyway, just in case...and if Donnie can make it next week, maybe we could all do this once again?”

I searched the eyes of this talented group of artists who had already sacrificed time and effort on our behalf.  Gracious to the core, the guys agreed to free up their schedules for the next weekend.  My initial “Oh Shit” moment had now settled somewhat uncomfortably into mere nausea as we proceeded with the shoot...

Miraculously, the stars realigned—literally, on the very same stage that next weekend.  Donnie, adorned in a rock t-shirt and blazer and his black glasses, was up on an amplifier with the rest of the gang.  We were back in the Syria Mosque—rent-free once again—and our photographer Barbara had returned with fresh rolls of film.  She had kept the original photos from the week before, of course; if this “do-over” hadn’t been able to happen, we’d at least have had SOMETHING to work with—minus Iris.

My Fear and (Self) Loathing from the week before lessened and then left me as I watched the guys take their places.  I had learned a valuable lesson about spearheading a project of this magnitude—make sure that every detail is checked along the way, and rechecked.  Leave nothing to chance.

  

A postscript to this story:

As best we can recall—the “we” being me + my former NRM boss George Balicky—the poster ended up selling a little over a thousand units.  So priced at $3.00 each, “The Pride of Pittsburgh” poster brought in about $3,000 for the March of Dimes’ Walkathon that year.  All of us at NRM were quite pleased to hand over the results of this labor of love, and the March of Dimes was happy indeed…

So…why not give a little bit, or a lot, this holiday season of 2017?  And if not now, then down the road a piece?  Volunteer somewhere…or better yet, meld your passion with compassion and dream up a fundraiser of your own.  Get your gang together, and somewhere out there, make a difference.

 

 

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Posted 11/20/17:   I WANT MY...I WANT MY...I WANT MY MTV

When the 1970s ended and the new decade began I was gainfully employed at National Record Mart, the regional record behemoth that had (at that time) around 70+ retail stores dotted throughout a six-state landscape.  The cluster of original core stores was in Pittsburgh, PA, and the company’s management team eventually nestled into a large office-and-warehouse complex on the east side of the city.  From there, the chain physically fed the entire pipeline with new releases and back catalogue of albums and tapes from literally thousands of artists.

National Record Mart (NRM) pushed out a ton of this product for the record companies, who all largely operated out of Cleveland, Ohio branch offices.  The label guys would come into Pittsburgh often, pitching their latest label signings and new releases to our VP of Purchasing and his coterie of buyers, the deputized keepers of the keys when it came to stocking the stores with pop stars of the moment, rock legends, country crooners, classical artists, jazz greats, and more.

Business was strong in those early ‘80s and Radio was truly the means and the muscle for selling albums and tapes at that point in time.  We had close relationships with Pittsburgh stations as well as the ones in our secondary markets, and it was Classic Rock and Top 40 in particular that made our business zing and the regi$ter$ ring.  At the same time, the record companies were flush with cash and seemingly always in a signing frenzy, their talent acquisition folks jumping on all sorts of new artists and new trends willy-nilly.

I had started at NRM in 1980.  For the previous two years I’d been working as the Pittsburgh-based display person for the record-label distribution group called Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, but when there was suddenly a company-wide rightsizing blip in December 1979, I then ended up at NRM.  If I recall correctly, I was able to consult on my title before I started at the record retailer, as this was a newly created chain-wide merchandising position.  In lieu of a salary I could actually live on, I received the title of Creative Merchandising Coordinator—which was probably a much better fit for my business card than He Who Schleps To Stores With Staple Gun, Posters And Scotch Tape.

One day in the Spring of 1981 I was summoned to the NRM president’s office along with my boss George Balicky, the VP of Purchasing.  A Warner Cable television representative had secured a meeting with our leader to discuss a nascent music channel that was on its way to Warner’s local system—something he called MTV.  The Warner Cable rep pitched and wooed, saying that a true music revolution was coming our way in the form of this 24-hour music video channel, and that we should hop aboard with advertising dollars from the outset.  The music channel, he went on, was scheduled to debut on August 1st, just a few months down the line.

I remember that our president—an intelligent but unyielding personality whose elitist mindset included a deep love of opera and classical music—sat all brow-furrowed and bored, looking like he wanted to chuck the snake oil salesman right out the door.  After the Warner rep had departed, the president closed the door to opine to my boss and me that he had grave concerns about the potential success of a fulltime music video channel.  He shooed us from his office, sank back into his Debussy cassette, and left my boss and me to figure out the future—as long as it didn’t involve spending too many of our marketing dollars on this looming lab-rat exercise.

MTV started up on cue on August 1st.  Broadcast out of New York, the channel was beamed throughout the country to those source providers of cable who were willing and able.  The first video that the fledgling full-time music channel aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star,” which was a nice initial swipe at their FM station competitors who obviously trafficked only in sound and not in vision.

Locally, the biggest problem we initially had with MTV was Pittsburgh’s cable penetration.  Warner Cable covered the City of Pittsburgh, but outlying suburbs (and beyond) had different carriers and spotty coverage, and these cable operators weren’t necessarily lining up to adopt a risky new rock ‘n’ roll channel when space on their systems was quite limited to begin with.  Thus at first—for those of us working at NRM—MTV was only a curiosity item, underwhelming in terms of its impact on our sales.

Personally, I was an early adopter.  I was livin’ the singles life with my high-school friend Mike, and we fortunately were within the city limits and were subscribers to Warner Cable.  I was enthralled with the concept of 24-hour access to my lifeblood, and I waded through the video disc jockey interludes to get to the meat of it: New artists and new music and incremental advances—as time went on—in the creativity behind the art form.

I had a Betamax at my apartment in those days, a funky, clunky Sony videotape machine that weighed more than a handful of newborns.  Before I set off to work to NRM in the morning, I began setting the timer on this mutha so that when evening came, Mike and I could fast-forward through to see if any exciting new clips had aired.  The Betamax was like a trusty and selfless third roommate; it enabled us to catch up on missed Hill Street Blues airings, but increasingly so, we looked at it as a way to preserve our MTV favorites for anytime-viewing.  We were so captivated by the new channel that we threw a house party ostensibly for socializing, but the real lure of the event turned out to be the hushed atmosphere in the upstairs bedroom, where my Betamax spun out two hours of recently-taped tracks—U2’s “Gloria” from their second album October, “Who Can It Be Now” from Men At Work, “Brass in Pocket (I’m Special)” from The Pretenders, “In The Air Tonight” from Phil Collins, and on and on...

Eventually MTV on the national level began to make more headway in its quest for expanded cable coverage.  Progress to build a true national reach was spurred by the channel’s “I Want My MTV” campaign, which debuted in early 1984 and featured rock ‘n’ roll stars (like campaign first responder Mick Jagger) in promotional spots encouraging the public to call their cable companies to insist MTV be added to their channel line-ups.  After this particular campaign, MTV’s battle map showed significant victories and the music channel was well on its way toward a more unified embrace and a much larger impact. 

In the Pittsburgh market, and in others where NRM had sprouted up retail locations, the music channel really started to drive viewers into the stores asking for certain bands and albums.  Likewise, radio stations began adding songs that MTV would be the first to debut, in order to stay ahead of the curve with their listeners on hot new bands.  Initially viewed by radio stations as competition, MTV thus became a safe way for some of these savvy FM folks to bolster their playlists with already-tested product.

MTV also directly served the artistic community by providing an exciting new outlet for creative expression, and it kick-started careers and kept certain already-established artists in the limelight.  Certain trailblazing artists and video/film innovators began hovering over this new forum like a flock of seagulls (ahem), and though some occasional shit did rain down, a number of key artists like Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson and David Bowie in particular scaled new heights as they worked in this new medium in those early formative years...

Parting comments and clips:

There were certainly some noteworthy videos back in the early days (revolutionary for the time):

And God Bless those whose timing was everything (they milked the medium as best they could, to varying levels of success):

 

 

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Posted 10/23/17.....ALL MIXED UP

I was rifling through some boxes in the basement the other day trying to unclutter my life a bit, when I came upon an old tattered box of cassette tapes.  I upended it gently on my bedspread, and gazed over a pile of mix tapes that represented about a decade-and-a-half of my youngish life.

A mound of mixes doesn’t tell the whole tale of a fifteen-year span, of course.  That would make me a one-note guy.  But as Pete Townshend once sang, “There once was a note, pure and easy / Playing so free, like a breath rippling by / The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me / Forever we blend and forever we die.”

Townshend’s talkin’ on a much higher plane here, but I’m up there at similar altitudes when I think about how music really serves to bind us together.  For me, this thing called the mix tape started out as self-expression, then changed hands, and ultimately delivered to its devourers untold delights (certainly that was this bestower’s hope and intent).

I don’t know exactly when I sewed the earliest seeds of becoming a mixologist—i.e., one drunk on the power of the mix tape—but I think it started early in my early teens as I began to fantasize about being in rock groups, spending countless hours in my bedroom thinking up band names and song titles.  I’d snatch up a Herb Alpert record or a South Pacific soundtrack from my parent’s stack in the bookcase, and spirit it upstairs where I’d white-paper over the existing album artwork.  Then I’d draw a new cover with my colored-pencil set, dabbing in some Dali, mixing in some flower power.  On the back, I’d list the members of my fictitious but phenomenally cool new band—crediting all instruments to my school mates and me, of course—and also write down a set of song titles for Side One and Side Two, all manufactured by a brain enraptured.

That was in the mid 1960s as a 12-to-14-year-old, but my zealousness really found form in the early 1970s.  Alongside my drive to collect albums of new and emerging artists, early on I also collected 8-tracks and cassettes.  The latter became my tape of choice as time went on, and it eventually edged out its cousin the 8-track.

8-tracks were still in vogue, however, when I had set off to college in the fall of 1971.  These players were once the tape industry standard, and had cropped up in a lot of our parents’ cars starting in the mid-late 1960s.  By the time I entered college, a lot of us who were jammed and crammed into tiny dorm rooms seemed to own one of ‘em (in my case, I initially preferred this kind of music player to the more space-hogging turntable-plus-receiver setups).

Don’t ya know, 8-track players should have been sold off the retail shelves with their most important “functioning tool” included—the matchbook cover.  At some point in the life of most 8-track players, the music began to wobble, whirr and slur, and suddenly even the most tuneful and tight rock band began to sound like they’d popped Quaaludes and fell victim to slow-drawl demons.  The matchbook cover was key, though; one just had to fold it for thickness and then slide it into place next to the already-loaded 8-track, and suddenly the rock band was back in business.  The matchbook cover was kind of like dialysis for the 8-track—not a cure but a short-term fix, and in this case it bought a bit of time before the tape and/or the player bought the farm.

By the late 1970s technological advances had led to cassette players with Dolby noise reduction, and the cassettes themselves sported a higher quality of tape.  Though turntables and albums still predominated of course, on the “tape side” of the business the record companies had gradually phased out production of the 8-track, and thus that cumbersome track-bleeding beast was finally laid to rest.  The really attractive aspect of the cassette’s march toward dominance (for me, at least) was not in collecting the pre-recorded cassettes of new artists; I had turned instead to the recordable cassettes which were also by that time vastly improved.  The recordable cassette and the player/recorder cassette deck was all I needed to start down the road toward pure obsession; this became the real catalyst for my mix making…

Compact disc players came along in the early-mid 1980s and I was an early adopter since I was “in the biz,” working at the regional record chain NRM where gushing record-label reps raved about this new bit of tech.  The first home units were one-tray CD players, and the sound was crystal clear; it seemed to unearth hidden sonic treasures in songs previously only experienced through an album or a tape.  I ceremoniously boxed up my turntable at some point, and then turned to the CD player as my sole source of making mixes on my recordable cassette deck.

Entering the 2000s, I moved almost entirely away from recording on blank cassettes and instead purchased a multi-tray Philips CD player/recorder. Moving to blank CDs to make my mixes freed me, in a sense; I had by then accumulated a vast library of prerecorded CDs from which to pluck various artists’ songs, and iTunes was also entering the picture.  I had entered Mix Heaven.

Even as late as 2012 I was hanging onto the blank CD as my preferred method of mix making, though the year before that—for the first time ever—digital sales of prerecorded music had surpassed physical sales.  The CD format is now longgg in the tooth and more than edgin’ toward oblivion.  With Spotify and other streaming services, unbridled playlist portability, and The Cloud hovering over us all, the physical “mix tape” is all but disappearing.  But music sharing will continue, of course, as most of us have a burning desire to connect with others, and that’s the crux of it:  Oh Lord, please let us be mix understood.

I’ll end this posting by dipping into nostalgia, and highlighting a few memorable mix-related moments of mine through the years:

October 1980

I headed out from Pittsburgh on a solo trip to Toronto for a long weekend.  Leaving well before dawn, I armed myself with my latest cassette mix tape, and popped it in after crossing the border into Canada and beginning to motor up the QEW.  These were the first two tracks as the sun began to peek over the horizon:  “Baobab Sunset”, a hypnotic instrumental from African jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango, followed by Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” (some of you may have just experienced a gag reflex, but I’ll stand by my choice of “Sailing” as a great sunrise selection—remember, the song was brand new at that time and not yet pummeled to death by soft-rock radio).

The early 1980s through the early 1990s

Some friends and I put together some raucous and rewarding social get-togethers, which we called No Excuse For A Party.  The term derived from the fact that it wasn’t held on any certain holiday, nor for any other special purpose; the invitation always said: “There’s No Excuse For A Party—and you’re invited.”  I was the cassette mix master, and I carefully (okay, obsessively) worked on the song selections, the song order, and the segues so that we’d have the proper soundtrack for our frivolity.  One of the greatest perks of mix making back then was seeing others light up at your song selections, reveling in the classics as well as the deep cuts.  During a stretch of the evening at the No Excuse, one might hear Little Feat, Lou Ann Barton, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Marvin Gaye, Elvis (Presley AND Costello), R.E.M., Nona Hendryx, Joe Jackson, James Brown, Marianne Faithfull, Ry Cooder, Del Amitri, Tom Petty, Edie Brickell, Lee Ritenour, XTC and more.

Beginning in 2003

I sent out to friends that December—and then every subsequent December for at least a decade—a “Love Mix” on CD that consisted of songs with the word love in the title.  A few years into this practice, though, I started to run out of mix-worthy tunes.  I was looking for love in all the right places—iTunes, etc.—but I ended up having to add in some peace, hope, faith and joy just to be able to continue the annual tradition.  This was a good move; it helped me to appropriately incorporate additional songs as well as hew to the original spirit of this holiday-period mix.

March 2003

I boarded the train from Pittsburgh to New York City on a jaunt to join my friend Frank at the Beacon Theatre for an Allman Brothers Band concert.  By this time, for travels of this nature especially, I had turned to the iPod and so had wrapped myself up in an instrumental playlist that predominantly featured early Pat Metheny Group recordings.  I remember the gorgeous instrumental “San Lorenzo” sweeping me away as I watched rail-side towns and farm land roll on by…

2003-into-2004

I began sending CD mixes to my oldest daughter Moira who had just entered her first year of college at Loyola in Baltimore.  I had hoped that she and her roommates would break from their normal listening habits and embrace some of Dad’s latest CD mix selections, and as it turned out, they occasionally did.  While Moira had thus cottoned to my music mix selections that first year, it turned out she wasn’t that wild about songs sung by me personally—maybe it was the way I started a few phone conversations, by launching into a bastardized version of the Kinks’ song “Lola”—“Loy-ohhh-la...L-O-Y-ohhhh-la”—before I even said hello.

May 2005

I began sending out to some friends and family a peculiar but well-intentioned CD mix, whenever one of them suffered some kind of physical setback, or had old-age twinges, or had gone in for light surgery of some sort.  I called it the “Body Parts Mix.”  This 19-track CD mix went from head to toe, starting with “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” by Captain Beefheart and ending with a Diana Krall cover of the Michael Franks’ composition “Popsicle Toes.”  There was a midsection to this mix, of course, and solely in the interests of equality, I had included both “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes and “Squeeze Box” from The Who.

And now in present times

These days I’m a Spotify guy, and realizing that anyone can now easily craft his or her own perfect playlist, I have pretty much halted the practice of making mixes on CDs.  After more than thirty years of this cherished preoccupation, however, I miss it.  There was something very rewarding about the whole process—zeroing in on a family member or friend’s rite of life like a birthday, or a newborn, or a new home purchase, and then seeing their expression when handing over the musically inspired mile-marker…

But time and tech march on...and this reminds me of one of my favorite CD mixes from years ago, the one entitled It’s The Journey, Not The Destination.  The mix begins with “Where Are You Going” by Dave Matthews followed by Suzanne Vega’s “Some Journey”...Midway through the mix is “Running To Stand Still” from U2, “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith, and “Long Way Back” from Gene Parsons...and at the end of the mix, there is Sting’s “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot,” “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” from Paul Young, “The Search” by the Pat Metheny Group, and lastly, “Into The Mystic” by Van Morrison.

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long strange trip this continues to be…Music is still pouring out of my every pore, but I’m no longer summoning it up and sending it forth—not in a physical sense, anyway.  My cassette and CD mix making days may be over, but I’ve found a new method of passing along my passions—and you’re reading ‘em.

 

 

 

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Posted 10/9/17.....DOWN ON THE FARM

Back in 2002 I was the general manager of the 23,000-capacity Post-Gazette Pavilion—now Key Bank Pavilion—when Farm Aid came for the first time in its history to the southwestern Pennsylvania region.

The concert was on September 21, 2002, and it was a life-changer for me.  One of the many pleasures of the whole experience was getting to work with mission-driven people whose interests rose above the typical lust for loot.  From the moment of my first connection with the Farm Aid team to the time they rolled on out of town post-show on September 22, there was just this energizing atmosphere of harmony and mutual respect—a bit of a rarity, perhaps, when two very different organizations meet and try to meld in pursuit of putting on a major sell-out show.

I learned much from that experience, and sometimes I think that the Farm Aid 2002 event put me on the eventual path to working in the non-profit world, where I am today…

I have kept in touch a bit with the principals of Farm Aid over the years, and was elated when they let me in on the news, early on, that Burgettstown, PA was once again in their sights for 2017.  The sold-out concert at Key Bank Pavilion took place on September 16th, and I was there, family in tow, basking in 15-year-old memories while bringing in the new…

   

 (On left: Carolyn Mugar...On right: Glenda Yoder.) 

After a few weeks had passed (in order to give them some decompression time!) I reached out to Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid, and Glenda Yoder, associate director, for their reflections on coming back to the ‘burgh after a decade-and-a-half away…

The following are edited excerpts from the interview: 

What differences did you find in Pittsburgh from your 2002 event to this year’s return visit in 2017?  And what things were perhaps the same?

Glenda:  My first thought here is the consistency of working with some of the groups.  The Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Farmers’ Union were both strong in 2002 and they’re still strong today.  What was new this time was the myriad of local produce aggregators and co-ops, and the spirit around the urban and rural connections through food and farming.

In our press event back in 2002, one of the main points we were making was that the organic rule (through the U.S. Department of Agriculture) had just passed, and we made that a pretty big deal because we saw that this was going to lead to the capacity for eaters to have a way to learn more about who produced their food and how their food was produced.  We also saw how organic third-party certification could spark everyone’s interest in connection to the source of their food.  That opened up a sea change in awareness about transparency, about the supply chain, and that felt like a historic moment in terms of food and farming.

In 2002, though, we didn’t have our homegrown concessions yet, and we didn’t have our homegrown brand to reach out to eaters.  I’m pretty sure we had Patchwork Family Farms selling their pork at your amphitheater that year, but we hadn’t yet taken over the whole concession scene.  It became clear to us then that we had an opportunity in the food movement, and we all started working and thinking about that. 

In 2004 we went out to ad agencies and began to look at what our branding and reach could be to eaters, more specifically to connect them to farmers, and then we launched our homegrown brand in 2007.  The annual concert itself with its connection to food evolved enormously after that…That year also was the first time that we made it a deal point with Live Nation venues that all of the food that came on the property would come through our screen.

Carolyn:  To me a huge difference from the 2002 Farm Aid to this one is also in the different way that we move now.  We are reaching out more broadly, and through our Homegrown Village we reach out to a lot of people to find who in the area is doing work that illustrates and drives deeper into what Farm Aid is all about.

Around the actual concert date each year, we’ve always had meetings associated with Farm Aid, sometimes a town hall meeting, sometimes something on the morning of the show.  We’ve had all kinds of different ways of bringing people together, and the last several years we have it sort of on a theme, and in Pittsburgh we used the theme of creating wealth—something we labeled Homegrown Prosperity. 

We found ourselves in a really positive place this year in Pittsburgh, and that really represents where we are in the whole country, in a sense.  It’s about the true wealth that can be created by family farmers and the thing we were able to illustrate, by bringing people together so they could talk about it, was what people are doing in the Pittsburgh area—creating co-ops, and also urban growing, where they are teaching kids about responsibility, about farming, and about what it means to be connected to your food.  It’s great stuff there, and that is what we found so heartening.  Pittsburgh just happened to have fabulous illustrations of this.

The other thing that was different this time in Pittsburgh was that we sold out in 24 hours when we went on sale.  We don’t always know the reasons, of course, but obviously it was a combination of things and that was a huge welcome to us, right off the bat!  And we kind of knew we were in a special place.

   

I loved the stage set-up this year, with the crystal-clear side screens and especially the artistic backdrops behind the bands—beautiful images of farmlands and fields that only served to enhance the music.  It didn’t distract…nor detract…it was organic!

Glenda:  It’s gotten better all the time, since Kansas in 2011, I think.  It’s really become part of a theatrical presentation and the extra screens help to bring everyone into the landscape of farms while we listen to music.  It’s really effective.  We’ve really been developing it and increasing the quality of the screens, and also working much more closely with our lighting director for the message making during the set changes, as well as the imprint of what we select there.  We participate in selecting the backdrop photos, and the artists do as well.  Neil Young prefers kinds of trees and more natural textures, and so the artists have a way to participate, too.  It’s a really wonderful way to add value and meaning.

  

I saw you had used the screened-in area backstage for an artist hangout.  What was the vibe like, behind the scenes?

Carolyn:  I have to say that every year, really, the artists really enjoy seeing each other.  There are not a lot of shows where they get the opportunity to do that.  They all seem to enjoy seeking each other out, and hanging.  It’s a great feel backstage.

Glenda:  It’s really comfortable back there, and there is a lot of interaction of artists.  We “farmify” the settings, and serve the artists food in that greenroom area where they can also be comfortable and relaxed during sets.  And we were REALLY happy about the collaborations onstage!

Carolyn:  Jack Johnson invited Nathaniel Rateliff’s band up on stage and kept them there, I believe, and Sheryl Crow was up there with him as well.  Sheryl had Lukas and Willie up there during her set…and Lukas got Margo Price to join him…Unrehearsed; all of it unrehearsed.

 

I have to confess to you both that I had to leave the concert before it was over, and I especially regret not catching all of Neil Young’s set with Promise of the Real.  Then I subsequently heard from friends and fellow zealots that this may have been the best Neil performance they’ve ever seen.

Carolyn:  I heard that as well.  People that are real Neil aficionados say that this was one of the best.

Glenda:  What was funny, though, was that often the band did not know what song he was going to play!  I was talking afterward to Anthony, the drummer, and he said “We just didn’t know what was happening next!”  Can you imagine?!!  And remember, they hadn’t played together in a year or so, so it’s really remarkable.

  

Since the Farm Aid concert is now many years down the road, do you have a favorite musical moment from years’ past?

Carolyn:  Well, this is a unique moment because it was Pete Seeger’s last big performance anywhere.  We had been trying to get him on the Farm Aid bill for years, and it just worked out in Saratoga in 2013.  That was an amazing moment.  I was thinking, “This crowd is young; does anybody know him?  How is this going to go over?”  I had some concerns about him, his age…and it was late.  Pete never let anyone else carry his banjo for him and when the time came, he walked on stage strong as can be, and he played his first note, and the crowd was on its feet.  I was jellified; it was so extraordinary.  We didn’t know at the time, of course, but it turned out to be his last big show.  That was in September, and he passed away that December.

Glenda:  I think maybe 2008.  Neil Young had just come back from Europe, and he had been playing the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” over there, and he came to Farm Aid in Boston and went into a rendition of it there.  I happened to be in the pit at that particular moment, and I was blown away.  I was standing next to (Live Nation promoter) Dave Marsden, who said “It doesn’t get any better than this.”  A great musical moment for me.

   

Farm Aid, to most Pittsburghers and most music fans, is one day of music.  Yet the Farm Aid team generates press, brings a lot of partners and potential partners together in the weeks leading up to the concert, etc.  So, what do you hope happens now?  What sense did you get that certain entities in Pittsburgh were ripe to move some new ideas forward? 

Glenda:  Well, we offer grants to new farmer organizations that we have met, so first of all we have a commitment to leaving money to groups who we’ve gotten to know.

Carolyn:  The value of going to different places each year with the concert, even though it’s really hard, is that you really do deepen your connections.  So inevitably you add more people into the mix when you’re talking about the various specific efforts that we’re involved in.  For example, this time we really deepened our knowledge about some urban farming around Pittsburgh, some leading farmers in urban areas, some co-ops, several co-op issues; I would say there were many issues that were deepened by the connections that we made this time.  And those will be automatically rolled into our work; they already are.  And we’re already back in touch with a lot of these people.  It is a lot of work going to a new place each year, but it always benefits us.  Always.  And I consider this Pittsburgh experience really, really good.

It must feel so good to benevolently conquer a different region each year…

(laughter from both) Glenda:  I am going to write that one down!

- more information about Farm Aid and the good work they do 365 days a year, is available at www.farmaid.org.-

 

(On left: Glenda Yoder, Lance Jones and Dennis Gorg...On right: Carolyn Mugar, Lance Jones and Mary Ellen Call.) 

 

 

 

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Posted 9/25/17.....

SAY WHAT!

Quotable quotes from artists, artistes, autuers…Whatever you label them.  Good thoughts abound as they expound, and that just fosters a deeper connection…Enjoy.

    

If music be the food of love, play on. – William Shakespeare     

Music is something I must do, business is something I need to do, and Africa is something I have to do. That's the way it breaks down in my life. – Bob Geldof, ex-Boomtown Rats lead singer; creator of and the driving force behind 1985’s Live Aid concert

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. – Aldous Huxley (Editor’s note:  This is the author of Brave New World, and also The Doors of Perception, an account of Huxley’s mescaline experiments.  The latter book inspired Jim Morrison when he and his band mates were scouring for a name.)

Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune. – Kin Hubbard (1868-1930) American cartoonist / humorist / journalist 

Musically, we're more talented than any Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney.  Mick Jagger can't produce a sound.  I'm the new Elvis. – Rob Pilatus (Editor’s note:  Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were the infamous “singing” duo Milli Vanilli, who in February 1990 won a Grammy Award for best new artist and then had it revoked when it was discovered they hadn’t actually sung the lead vocals on their successful debut album...Hey, when you hit rough waters, it’s lip-sync or swim.)

    

Composers shouldn't think too much.  It interferes with their plagiarism. – Howard Dietz (1896-1983) American publicist, lyricist and librettist 

Christianity will go.  It will vanish and shrink.  I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right.  We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first — rock and roll or Christianity.  Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.  It's them twisting it that ruins it for me. – John Lennon (Editor’s note:  These 1966 comments of course led Bible Belt reactionaries in America to throw Beatles’ albums onto bonfires.)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. – Martin Mull, American actor and comedian

If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.  Gustav Mahler

I hate most of what constitutes rock music, which is basically middle-aged crap. – Sting (Editor’s note:  Huh. A tantrum from Mr. Tantric.)

    

Punk is musical freedom.  It's saying, doing and playing what you want.  In Webster's terms, “nirvana” means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that's pretty close to my definition of Punk Rock. – Kurt Cobain 

What makes the most money for this business?  Dead rock stars. - Courtney Love

I've got rock 'n' roll in my blood. – William Shatner (Editor’s note:  When uttering this, he might've been at a warped factor of five.)

Music doesn't lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music. – Jimi Hendrix

I especially always liked it when Jimi Hendrix would play the song (“Voodoo Chile”) and then he'd go on to, uh, Chainsaw Massacre Tasmanian Devil Aurora Borealis Galaxy....I liked it when he'd start with the feedback.  And I saw Stevie Ray do it one time too.  I'm sure he did it many times but I only saw him do it one time where the guitar became like an Aurora Borealis and all these colors of sound were screaming out of it even though he wasn't putting his fingers on it.  That's kinda like invoking ghosts or something and that's my favorite part that I miss about Jimi is when he would open up certain channels and let certain demons and angels dance together... – Carlos Santana (Editor’s note:  Umm, yeah, I’ll have what he’s having...) 

    

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. – Ludwig van Beethoven

Rock and Roll: Music for the neck downwards. – Keith Richards (Editor’s note:  I wonder if he said this after falling out of that coconut tree in Fiji and banging his head...?)

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. – Plato 

I am Classic Rock Revisited.  I revisit it every waking moment of my life because it has the spirit and the attitude and the fire and the middle finger.  I am Rosa Parks with a Gibson guitar. – Ted Nugent (Editor’s note:  This Motor City motor-mouth turned out to be quite the right-wing rocker.)

Music was my refuge.  I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. - Maya Angelou 

    

Without music, life would be a mistake. – Friedrich Nietzsche 

Rock 'n Roll: The most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear. – Frank Sinatra (Editor’s note:  Chairman of the Bored?)

There's an edge to real rock 'n' roll. It's all that matters. – Neil Young 

In the late '70s I started to search for the perfect sound - whatever that might be...Before that I was mainly interested in drugs, insanity and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. – Lou Reed 

I think there's nothing better than seeing a three-chord straight up rock 'n' roll band in your face with sweaty music and three-minute good songs. – Joan Jett   

    

Rock and roll music - the music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of conservative defense mechanisms. – Salman Rushdie (Editor’s note:  We hear Rushdie's only rattled when he hears Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.”)

I'm interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning.  It seems to me to be the road toward freedom. – Jim Morrison

I think the rock 'n' roll myth of living on the edge is a pile of crap. – Robert Smith of The Cure

It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception. – Albert Einstein, commenting on his theory of relativity.

A lot of rock bands are truly a legend in their own minds. – David Lee Roth (Editor’s note:  Some say the singer's oversized ego led the band to send him packin'one minute Van Halen; the next Cab Hailin’).

    

I was born with music inside me.  Music was one of my parts.  Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart.  Like my blood.  It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene.  It was a necessity for me—like food or water.  – Ray Charles

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. – Victor Hugo 

People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers miserable.  They like their blues singers to die afterwards. – Janis Joplin

Hell is full of musical amateurs. – George Bernard Shaw 

Rock is about finding who you are.  You don't necessarily have to play your instrument very well at all.  You can just barely get by and you can be in a rock band. – Gene Simmons (Editor’s note:  Simmons is of course from the band Kiss, and he’s living proof of those last two expressed sentiments—though if I did run into him, I’d avoid a tongue lashing tête-à-tête.) 

 

 

 

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Posted 9/11/17.....ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL

  

I attended Butler Area Senior High School in the town of Butler, Pennsylvania (an hour north of Pittsburgh) from September 1968 through early June 1971...

My school had a huge cross-section of kids, and mornings were a major convergence on campus of those who drove plus those who came from fields afar, barreling in by school bus.  So there was quite the fleet of yellow outside on school mornings, and within the crowded hallways and classrooms of BHS we had every conceivable stripe of high-schooler imaginable.

And, like all high schools, we had the social subsets that dictated success or distress. The predominant sound heard walking down those hallways?  Clique-clique-clique...There were the club joiners, of course; those on the debate team or the swim team, those in the 4H Club or on student council, etc., etc.—but outside of this structured system of pigeonholing, there were also the bluebloods, the bookworms, the nerds and the ne’er-do-wells, the over-achievers and the leave-it-to-beavers—and the jocks and the hippies.

Call ‘em what you will...These last two were camps that philosophically brushed up against each other in the hallowed halls of high school, and the distance between them was not often bridged with understanding.  Surprising, I know; but we were all just 15 or 16 years old, and Life In High School—admit it—was a vortex of summoned-up bravado, swirling insecurities, and raging hormones.

One of the lines drawn between the parallel worlds of the jocks and hippies was music.  The jocks seemed to be swept away by soul, especially Motown.  This music, to some, was the essence of high school cool and the jocks embraced it to their ultimate advantage.  The absolute finest girls in high school seemed to be under their sway, and so the jocks had this sort of gravitational pull...

Somewhere out in orbit, though, beyond that particular circle of cool and charisma, was the stream that I was swimmin’ in—and the music that I began hearkening to was explosive, and life-changing, and revelatory of the upheavals taking place at that time across the country.

Music had me by the throat.  I talked it, lived it, breathed it.  My passion was jumpstarted back in the late 1950s and early 1960s with some of my parents’ 45-RPM singles like “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox, “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “Whole Lotta Loving” by Fats Domino, and especially early Elvis Presley records.  Then my mother and my brother and I (along with 73 million other Americans; 38% of the total population) went absolutely ape-shit over the Beatles as they blasted out of our TVs and into our living rooms, live on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964.  I was a goner.

               ​   

Then in 1967, the year before I entered high school, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released.  Accompanying (perhaps even augmenting) the massive sweep of societal changes taking place across our country—the generational shift, Vietnam, race riots, etc.—other new artists were also stepping forward into the fray, releasing pivotal and visionary works.  In 1967 alone, we put the record player’s needle down for the first time on Jimi Hendrix (Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love); the self-titled debut albums from The Doors, Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, and Big Brother & The Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin); Arlo Guthrie’s debut record Alice’s Restaurant; and the first or second albums from new artists like Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, The Velvet Underground, Tim Buckley, Traffic, Captain Beefheart, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, and Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention.

Also in 1967: The aforementioned societal changes brought into being the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine...McCartney admitted publicly that all four Beatles had experimented with LSD...Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love attracted scores of young people to San Francisco...The Who performed and then smashed their instruments on the provocative, left-leaning Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS...Pink Floyd staged their first rock concert ever in quadraphonic sound at Queen Elizabeth Hall in England...The Doors performed “Light My Fire” on the Ed Sullivan Show and were then banned from the program for life, having ignored the censor’s order to cut the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher”...The Monterey Pop Festival, the world’s very first grand-scale outdoor rock event, was staged in front of an estimated 100,000+ in Monterey, California…and the first live, international satellite television broadcast, dubbed Our World, featured the Beatles debuting “All You Need Is Love” in front of the eyes and ears of an estimated 400+ million people.

By the time I entered high school the following year in September of 1968, music had snatched my soul and society at large was out of balance—or maybe just “righting itself.”  Our generation was standing up and declaring an independence of thought and motion.  And this birth of a new generation’s music was fomenting local change as well; during my high school years two close friends and I secretly published and distributed an underground newspaper that alternately lampooned and lambasted the school administration, and a core group of us also pushed for repeal of the old guard’s antiquated school dress code—and we won.  (This was good news for all of us scrappy, scruffy dudes who had pretty much purged our wardrobes of all else but bell-bottoms and paisley shirts.)

During these high school years as well, I followed my musical muse into the time-honored practice of attending the local dance…

The YMCA began holding a dance for high-schoolers on Friday evenings.  The name of the dance was—at first—Funerama, and then somewhere along the line in that time period of ’68-’71, the name morphed into Purple Underground.  Hipper, of course, but why the color purple?  Somewhere in the haze lies an answer (might have been some Y’s guy).

The dance was a nice scene for all of us who were into music, as the deejays tended to play the emerging and chart-reigning hits, which thankfully included new Beatles songs such as “Get Back,” and “Lady Madonna” as well as destined-to-become-classics like Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” Steppenwolf’s head-out-on-the-highway opus “Born To Be Wild,” “Soul Man” from Sam & Dave, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” soul-pop classic “The Letter” by The Box Tops, Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” the pinnacle of pop psychedelia “Somebody To Love” from the Jefferson Airplane, Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” the timely, powerful “War” from Edwin Starr, Tommy James and The Shondell’s “Mony Mony,” the quirky, exotic “Time of the Season” by The Zombies, and many more...

The YMCA was located a block and a half from my friend Gary Kleemann’s house, and he and I would often go over there after the dance to check in with his brother Dave.  Dave was a few years older than we were, and a serious record collector; he disdained the dance, and often castigated us for subjecting our impressionable young ears to the cheesy fluff that inevitably crept into the YMCA deejay’s playlists—songs like “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” by Steam, “One Bad Apple” by the Osmond Brothers, “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies, and…well, I could peck out a few more of these but I currently have one typing finger down my throat.

  

Dave would welcome us into his bedroom, furrowing his brow and ripping the shrink-wrap off a new album he had just purchased, and admonish us with things like “That dance is gonna rot your brain...Listen to THIS!”  Then he’d slap the new platter down on his Acoustic Research turntable, drop the needle, and crank it up to eleven.  Suddenly something like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Sun Ra’s latest, an Art Ensemble of Chicago record or maybe John McLaughlin’s Devotion would fill the room, pounding my preconceptions to dust, and draining my brain of every saccharine riff & refrain placed there earlier by The Archies.  Dave would be smiling ear-to-ear, king of his book-strewn, album-littered fiefdom, searching our faces for some signs of appreciation…acceptance…understanding… 

Gary, though, was like his older brother Dave; exceedingly bright and plugged into all forms and styles of music.  These two in fact had started a rock band—de rigueur for late-‘60s high-schoolers whose heads became antennas for the incoming wave—and they were often very much in synch with each other’s musical odysseys and pursuits.  I, on the other hand, had a little ways to go.

While those disconcerting decibels enveloped us in Dave’s bedroom, I’d be sitting there—feigning full embrace—soaking up this challenging new stew of free-form frenetic jazz-rock-funk.  Still, I was comparatively miles ahead of most other high-schoolers, rabid about new music in all its permutations, but some of the more “out there” excursions by the adventurous, the atonal, and/or the avant-garde just didn’t gel for me...

It would dawn on me eventually, imperceptibly.  Out of high school and on into college, my bandwidth widened.  The more I delved, detoured, and traveled those tributaries, the more amazing works I uncovered and was able to share with those within my musical orbit.

Thanks to The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s, the mid-late Sixties’ societal shifts and rifts, and of course Dave and Gary, my high-school years put me squarely on the launching pad for all subsequent exploration...I’m so happy I found, and keep on finding, my own Songs In the Key of Life.

 

 

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Posted 8/28/17.....LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY

As best I can recall—jeez, it sounds like I’m starting a deposition!—the above photo was taken backstage at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena on December 7, 1983.  It was either at that particular Genesis concert OR the one that followed, four years later, in May of 1987 when the band fled that suddenly confining 17,000-capacity arena near Chatham Center, and catapulted into major stardom and a much larger setting at Three Rivers Stadium.

Methinks it was the 1983 gig, though, when I look closer at the photo.  I found no faded-ink date markings on the back, and that would have been a smart move of mine for posterity (or at least for blog veracity).  But that jacket I’m wearing…yes, I do remember buying that light-colored wool jacket in Norway in the summer of that same year, flitting through parts of Europe on an energizing great escape with my wife-to-be on my arm and two Eurail passes in hand…

But I digress.  Back to the photo. 

Pictured from left:  Bassist & guitarist Mike Rutherford, keyboardist Tony Banks, Yours Truly doing Coke (alright, hold up now—note the can!), Daryl Stuermer, guest guitarist on the tour, and drummer/lead vocalist Phil Collins.  And I’d love to spin a tale of instant camaraderie here, but truth be told I was invited to step into the photo and just as quick as the click, it was over.

That year of the photo, 1983, I was working as National Record Mart’s advertising director, so backstage situations were not uncommon.  NRM was a record retail giant with over 80 stores in six states and was headquartered here in Pittsburgh, so the record labels invariably set up a meet-and-greet with most incoming artists during their in-town engagements, expressly for key retailers, radio bigwigs, and the like.  This backstage visit was a quick one, as noted—but I treasured it.

I came to Genesis originally through my own record store experience; not at a major chain like NRM, but instead through clerking at an indie store called Exile Records.  Exile originally opened in Butler, PA in the mid-‘70s before birthing a second store in Wexford, PA in 1977, and I had worked at both. 

At first, the only way I really checked out Genesis was through the cash register.  The earliest albums by the band—things like Trespass, Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot—were, when I worked at Exile, cut-outs.  This was the industry’s term for certain artists’ albums that didn’t sell in expected numbers, were then returned to the record companies for repricing (and album-cover-corner snipping to identify them as cut-outs), and then sent back out to the record retail market to be sold by store owners for a hell of a lot cheaper.

These cut-outs were cheapie bargains for shrewd music shoppers, and Exile’s customers ate ‘em up.  But I didn’t join those who were beaming at the sales counter with a $2.99 Foxtrot or Nursery Cryme in hand—Genesis still eluded me at that point.

Though I found tracks on subsequent albums like A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering that were turning me around, it wasn’t until March of 1978 that I finally succumbed.  That month was significant in two respects:  Genesis had recently lost long-time band member guitarist Steve Hackett and became a formidable trio, releasing a new album entitled And Then There Were Three—and I started a brand new job working for the record company that released, among many others, Genesis’ albums.

So in March of 1978 as And Then There Were Three hit record stores nationwide, in Pittsburgh I—having left the life of an indie record store operator—ended up with scads of display material to schlepp around to the region’s record stores to commandeer in-store space and slap up posters to promote the new album.

 

The merchandise shipped to my house from the Cleveland branch of my employer Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) was varied and came in abundant quantities (almost approaching the proverbial shitload, in some cases) so that I was well-armed when going around to stores.  Above are a couple of samples of my wares for Genesis, Styrofoam-backed 2 x 2 posters replicating the And Then There Were Three album cover, and some special foot-shaped stickers promoting the band’s hottest track from the album, “Follow You Follow Me.”

It was great to then play footsies with record store managers all over the Pittsburgh area.  In some of the NRM mall stores, I not only propped up the Genesis 2 x 2’s that I had stored in my WEA-crammed van, but also then peeled off the “Follow You Follow Me” stickers and plunked down a trail on the record store’s floor from wherever the new Genesis album was displayed all the way over to the cash register area.   

Meanwhile, the record was really settling into my core…The track “Deep In The Motherlode,” side two’s opener, was a mutha.  It was propulsive, a majestic swirl, and especially spine-tingling turned up to 10, as I cruised the highways and byways on my path to multi-store dominance on behalf of WEA…

About a month into the job I was still so enrapt with the newness of the experience, and with Genesis’ latest album, that I couldn’t settle for just posters and feet stickers.  My relationship with the various NRM store managers around the ‘burgh was building nicely, but for some reason I had an especially warm reception from a non-NRM shop in downtown Pittsburgh called Record Outlet.  George Kalinsky was the owner, and Bob and Patty two of his key store personnel, and we bonded immediately—to the point that they were up for any idea that I laid on the table when it came to displays in their store.

 

I am not sure how I came upon the idea for the cake promotion.  Maybe I was still enveloped in a fog of zealousness after landing this absolute dream job of creating in-store displays helping to promote bands that I loved.  Or maybe it was otherwise induced (those were the days).  Regardless, I thought up a promotion based on Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel And Then There Were None, which centered around the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.”  With Genesis’ new album entitled And Then There Were Three, I proceeded to commission a local bakery to try to reproduce the swirly album cover’s colors as the icing on their cake, and then I planted three little plastic Indians on top.

The cake was then set within a fuller Genesis display in the store, with a register-to-win sign-up sheet for Record Outlet customers to nab their chance to take home this special Genesis cake.  I remember George, Bob and Patty were enthusiastic about my ingenuity—once I explained the literary-to-music tie-in—but were equally mystified by my approach.  Looking back on this now, I believe they shielded me from outright WTF looks on their faces, as the promotion was about as short-lived as a promotion could be, since it starred a time-sensitive edible item as its centerpiece.  And I think I learned a lesson about unbridled creativity that day…

The WEA job was the next step in my music-obsessed path in Life, and I toiled there for a couple more glorious years of peppering Pittsburgh stores with displays whipped up to promote bands that I love...not a bad way to spend one’s formative years in the workplace, melding one’s passion with one’s paycheck.

There were more occupational adventures to come...and I’ll always keep those WEA days of stepladders, staple guns, and off-the-wall flaky displays stored in my shoe boxes full of photos and in my mind’s treasured memories.

 

 

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Posted 8/14/17.....TWO TICKETS TO PARADISE

Rooting around the basement recently, kind of restless on a Saturday morning, I came upon a mailing packet in the thick of some old office stuff that was crammed into a milk crate.  The small mailer, it turned out, was stuffed with old ticket stubs from the ‘70s and ‘80s that I hadn’t run across in quite some time.

It brought back a flood of memories and a few “Really? I was there?” memory bank searches, and it was a great experience to recall and relive these shows (editor’s note: Back in those ancient times, ticket takers at concerts had to rip ‘em in half to retain part of the ticket for inventory purposes, and that’s why most of the photos are half what you might expect.)

 

Souther-Hillman-Furay Band – University Auditorium at Penn State – October 28, 1974 – ticket price $3.50

These three name-in-title individuals had all built up significant followings in other bands prior to joining forces—J.D. Souther was in a late-‘60s L.A. band called Longbranch Pennywhistle with a pre-Eagles Glenn Frey; Chris Hillman an alumni of The Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas; and Richie Furay from the bands Buffalo Springfield and Poco.  Good stock…and a great show with this trio of talents out front of an intuitive, sessions-seasoned backup band comprised of Al Perkins (pedal steel), Joe Lala (percussion), Paul Harris (keyboards) and Jim Gordon (drums).

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – 1) University Auditorium at Penn State – February 19, 1975 – ticket price $3.50 ….. 2) Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – December 28, 1978

These Bruce shows are both indelibly etched in my gray matter.  I was a Penn State senior and an E Street virgin when seeing him in February ’75 in State College right before Born To Run, and then three years later I saw him on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour in Pittsburgh.  At that latter concert, I snuck up front to the edge of the stage with a Santa cap in my hand—this was December, after all—and just as I was swiveling my neck to check whether Security was going to jump me, someone on an aisle seat grabbed my cap and hurled it Bruce’s way.  He pounced and put it on, and a rock photographer friend on the scene caught that moment on film.  The glittery letters on Santa’s (now Bruce’s) cap spelled out “Exile,” which was the name of the indie record store I co-managed at the time in Wexford, PA.

 

  

10cc and Hello People – Tomorrow Club in Youngstown, Ohio – November 2, 1975 – ticket price $3.50

10cc was a British band composed of four songwriting multi-instrumentalists who crafted both commercially appealing and quirky, artful pop songs.  Some Butler, PA friends and I motored over to Youngstown, Ohio in November of 1975 to see them at the Tomorrow Club (note that the ticket says “Tomorrow Theatre” and true, the venue was the old State Theatre which opened in 1927 as a movie house; by 1974, though, it had morphed into a music nightclub later on becoming the Agora.)

10cc in 1975 was out touring to promote their third album entitled The Original Soundtrack, which contained that six-minute, lush as hell song “I’m Not in Love,” a monster hit on radio in the states after first conquering the UK.  The opening act I remember was rather unique; Hello People was the brainchild of a New York producer who was into French mime films, and he coaxed some Ohio musicians into adopting face paint and going with wordless mime routines between songs instead of the usual band patter. 

 

 

Daryl Hall & John Oates – Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – December 6, 1977 – ticket price $8.00

This duo had a nice word-of-mouth reputation in the 1970s for its live shows, arguably because of Daryl Hall’s set of pipes but also because of the muscular, musical backup provided by their sometimes shifting tour personnel.  At the time of this particular concert, H & O had had a couple of bona fide hits (“Sara Smile” and “Rich Girl”) but their tours were still at theatre-level.  That changed at the turn of the decade with a succession of more popular albums and radio-embraced songs like “Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams,” and others that piled on from the next few releases.  These boys kinda owned the early ‘80s on pop radio stations across the country.

 

 

Peter Gabriel – Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – October 22, 1978 – ticket price $7.75

Gabriel at this point was post-Genesis by about three years, and was touring behind the release of his second solo album, the one that his growing fan base eventually referred to as “Scratch” because of the claw mark approach on the cover (Gabriel didn’t mind pissing off his record company, as he actually named his first four solo albums simply “Peter Gabriel,” so the four became known largely by the predominant image on each of their covers.)

The set list that evening sprang mostly from the artist’s first two solo releases, and his band—including David Rhodes on guitar and towering, bald bassist Tony Levin—were characteristically rooted in Gabriel’s rhythms throughout the evening.  Seeing Gabriel during the late ‘70s was a treat for us in the growing “cult of cool” that he was amassing; he was still eight years away from exploding into popular culture (with the help of MTV, notably) with his mutha-of-a-maintainer, the album So.

 

  

Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau – Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – December 7, 1978

About eight months before this concert, I had started a new job under the employ of the Cleveland branch of Warner Brothers, Elektra and Atlantic Records as a field merchandiser, meaning I’d visit a slew of Pittsburgh-area record stores doing in-store displays for new album releases.  Both Khan and Jarreau had new albums out, and the week before this Stanley Theatre co-headlining concert I peppered the area National Record Marts with posters advertising the event.

The show was a great meld of rhythm & blues and funk and jazzy musical excursions from both of these solo artists, but the thing that sticks with me is the audience’s reaction to a slip-up by Khan.  She had barreled out onstage saying, “It’s great to be here in Philadelphia!” and a couple of personally offended male fans actually stood up, finger pointing, yelling “Damn, you’re in Pittsburgh, woman!” (though they had used another more derogatory word for “woman,” as I recall).

 

 

Sea Level – David Lawrence Hall at the University of Pittsburgh – December 8, 1978 – free event

This free concert in one of the ballroom-type rooms at Pitt was a mindblower for me.  Having been a huge Allman Brothers fan from their self-titled 1969 debut forward, I glommed right onto Sea Level in 1977 when the band’s first album hit record stores a year after the Allmans’ initial disbanding.  Sea Level had absorbed from the Allman Brothers Band three key players—bassist Lamar Williams, drummer Jaimoe and keyboardist Chuck Leavell (the latter lent his name to the new outfit, through a phonetic pun). 

At this show, for me, it was Georgia-born Randall Bramblett—having joined the band for second album Cats on the Coast and wielding sax and piano and soulful vocals—who was the true glue for this amazing amalgam of Southern rock and jazz-tinged sophistication.  The performance was equal parts Bramblett-led soul & funk numbers and searing, long-voyage instrumentals, keeping the Pitt students (and interlopers like me) mesmerized with the unbridled creativity and coalescence rolling out from the stage all night long.

 

  

The Tubes – Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – April 26, 1979 – ticket price $7.75

This may be obvious to those in the know, but my strongest memories of this concert are of Fee Waybill.  He, Fee, was the lead singer and provocateur of The Tubes, an early purveyor of music blended with satire and outrageous stage antics.  From the mid-‘70s through at least the early ‘80s, The Tubes were a must-see rock extravaganza on the concert scene, with Fee the onstage ringleader of song-skits that skewered everything from rampant consumerism, game shows, beach movies, S&M, and more. 

A typical Tubes show also included props, costume changes, and walk-on acrobats and tap dancers, and a lot of this carefully crafted nonsense was aided by the band’s outside choreographer Kenny Ortega, famous for his work on the film Xanadu and on a Madonna video, and his direction of the 1987 film Dirty Dancing and the Disney Channel’s High School Musical movies of the mid-late 2000s.

Tubes’ tunes of note, by the way:  “White Punks on Dope,” “Mondo Bondage,” “What Do You Want From Life,” “Prime Time,” “Don’t Touch Me There,” “Talk To Ya Later,” and “She’s A Beauty.”

 

 

Alvin Lee – Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – June 9, 1979 – ticket price $7.50

I wish I could call up this show from my data bank, really, I do.  But things are dim in my memory; I have some shards of guitar, but little else.  Why had I likely gone to see him?  Friends roping me in, or…?  I know that it wasn’t Lee’s historic (some say histrionic) 1969 Woodstock performance, where he drove himself to Frenzyville peeling off lightning runs on his guitar and incessantly repeating “Goin’ Home!” until we all wished he’d arrived there a hell of a lot earlier.

But here I was at the Stanley Theatre, ten years after, and I believe it was a few key moments of Lee’s past that made me originally snatch up a ticket for the show:  1.) My obsession with Cricklewood Green, a 1970 album from the guitarist’s time spent as auteur/front man of the British blues-rock band Ten Years After…..2.) My reverence for A Space in Time, TYA’s follow-up release that featured alternately dreamy and explosive guitar work on “I’d Love to Change the World,” the song that we couldn’t escape from—not that we wanted to—on AM and FM stations in that summer of 1971…..and 3.) My delight that Lee unexpectedly departed from his boogie and blues penchant in 1973 to collaborate with American gospel-rock singer Mylon LeFevre on a country-ish blues-rock record entitled On the Road to Freedom.  Searching out some of this material will provide you with some nice time on the Lee side.

 

   

Weather Report – Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh – 1) January 19, 1980…..and 2) March 26, 1983

I had followed this band’s evolution from spacey improvisational beginnings in 1971 to more funkified, rhythmic excursions in the mid-and-late ‘70s that seemed to blend Third World music with Outer Space transmissions, all in a brew that was jaw-dropping in its fury and finesse.  My favorite Weather Reporter was Jaco Pastorius, the long-fingered, head-banded bass player who is still hailed today as a mercurial musical inspiration for jazz-rock fans across generations.  I caught Weather Report more than a few times in the acoustically wonderful Stanley Theatre, and in the 1980 show the line-up was Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine, and three years later, Zawinul-Shorter-Victor Bailey-Omar Hakim.  Mind-blowing shows that I’m certain converted any half-believers or curiosity-seekers into flat-out cultists.

 

 

Steelworks Benefit Concert - Iron City Houserockers, The Granati Brothers (G-Force), Billy Price Keystone Rhythm Band and Rare Experience; emceed by WDVE’s morning team Jimmy and Steve – Stanley Theatre - April 15, 1982ticket price $7.50

Friend and fellow zealot Paul Carosi, designer and developer of the website 

Pittsburgh Music History (https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/) did publicity for this legendary local fundraiser from the early ‘80s.  As Paul remembers it:

“In the early 1980s the great steel mills of Western Pennsylvania closed their doors, and in the four county areas surrounding Pittsburgh, 22,000 steel workers had lost their jobs.  The unemployment benefits of the steelworkers were running out and thousands of homes were being confiscated in foreclosures. 

“Members of Homestead Steelworkers Union Local 1397 asked Rick Granati of the Granati Brothers to organize a benefit concert.  They wanted to raise funds to help the unemployed and raise awareness about their plight.  DiCesare Engler Productions then graciously agreed to donate the Stanley Theater for the concert, and Rick Granati convinced WDVE to sponsor and promote the show.  

“Using my contacts I was able to convince Jerry Vondas to write a full-page story in the Pittsburgh Press that captured the attention of Bob Dvorchak of the AP and led to national coverage by the CBS Evening News, the Today Show, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and the UPI.  Rick Granati and local steel workers were interviewed on the Today Show.  A story about the unemployed in Pittsburgh that included a clip of the Iron City Houserockers concert performance and an interview was shown on the CBS Evening News.   

“As a result of the concert and attendant publicity, the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department put a moratorium on home foreclosures.  The proceeds from the concert were used to found a food bank that provided unemployed steelworkers with $60 in groceries every two weeks.  The local 1397 food bank paved the way for the creation of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food bank that is still serving Allegheny County families today.” 

 

 

U2 – Fulton Theater (now The Byham Theater) in Pittsburgh – May 3, 1983 – ticket price just under $11.00

Three months after the band’s third album War was released—the one sporting tracks like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day”—U2 stormed the 1,300-capacity Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh.  It was quite a performance they cranked out—and cranked up.  My friend Rick Neuenschwander claimed long ago that his ears were damaged by decibels, but I hope he considers it a badge of courage—the show was incendiary and the small stage could hardly contain this fiery foursome who were just then starting to add political consciousness to their repertoire.

The setlist, according to setlist.fm:  “Gloria,” “I Threw a Brick Through a Window,” “Seconds,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “The Electric Co.,” “October,” “New Year’s Day,” “Two Hearts Beat as One,” “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” and “I Will Follow.”

 

Miles Davis and V.S.O.P. II (part of the Kool Jazz Festival) – Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh – June 13, 1983 – ticket price $18.50

Whoa, this one was an eyeopener.  When I think back to the double dose of talent I witnessed that evening, the words “I am not worthy” immediately come to mind (and pick your source material here—either the Eucharistic prayer or Wayne and Garth bowing before Alice Cooper).

Headliner Miles Davis had in tow that evening at Heinz Hall John Scofield on guitar, Tom Barney on bass, drummer Al Foster, saxophonist Bill Evans, and percussionist Mino Cinelu.  But the opening act was the real powerhouse.  The original V.S.O.P., active in the late ‘70s, consisted of Herbie Hancock on keyboards and synthesizers, Wayne Shorter on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums—all four alumni of the acclaimed mid-‘60s Miles Davis Quintet—and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.  Here, in V.S.O.P. II, sax-man Shorter and trumpeter Hubbard were out but their stand-ins—oh brother, were they able-bodied replacements!—were young pups Wynton and Branford Marsalis.  Mentally peering back these thirty-four years, these five were in their prime and on fire throughout their opening set.  Still jazzed, when I think about it.

 

 

 

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Posted 7/31/17..... NASHVILLE PITTSBURGH SKYLINE

Back in 1985 I joined the management of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, who had been looking for a director of booking to help the venue move more into self-promotion of concerts.  The Civic Arena Corporation team that was already in place at my arrival was an entrepreneurial and talented crew of department heads and staff, and they’d been charged by arena-and-hockey-team owner Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. to bring in more events.

Our local president who directly reported to “Youngstown”—our internal nickname for the DeBartolo corporate office which was situated in that town—was J. Paul Martha.  He was a charismatic and inspiring leader, surrounding himself with the best and the brightest in the areas of sponsorship, finance, marketing, booking, and operations, and together his team members innovated and collaborated to fulfill DeBartolo’s goals.

In the mid-1980s, it was a tad unusual for an arena to dive right into booking its own concerts.  We may have been one of just a handful of similarly sized indoor venues across the country who were taking charge of their own destinies, not waiting by the phone for an outside promoter to bring in concert attractions.

Our VP of Marketing in 1985 (who by the end of the ‘80s became arena general manager as well) was Tom Rooney, and he had largely charted our course into these self-promotion waters.  Under his guidance, Civic Arena Corporation plunged in:  Fashioning print ads for the national trade magazines to let the touring industry know we were “open for business”...developing internal research forms that would give us external feedback, in order to help determine the viability of booking certain artists...and calming our company’s puckered-up purse string holders, who sometimes questioned the necessity of us registering for and attending the various concert industry conventions like the New Music Seminar and the Performance Magazine meetings...

The Civic Arena ended up doing a number of concerts between 1985 and 1990 as in-house promoter, meaning that we, the venue, booked the shows directly with the bands’ talent agencies and thus assumed all of the risk-and-reward for the shows.  We also handled the marketing and the search for willing sponsors, so ultimately we lived or died by the success or failure of each of the shows.

 

One of the most exciting and ultimately rewarding challenges for the Civic Arena team was mounting the Skyline Series, a subscription series of open-air concerts under the stars.  Our arena was an engineering marvel, built in 1961 with a retractable stainless steel roof that enabled our arena audience—weather-permitting and at the touch of a button—to suddenly experience an “outdoor show” in the heart of the Steel City.

Tom Rooney remembers the origin of the Skyline Series.  He cites as inspiration a trip to Chastain Park in Atlanta, Georgia in 1986, and a meeting with concert promoter Alex Cooley.  Cooley and company ran a summer concert subscription series at a small (6,000-capacity) outdoor amphitheater down there, and part of the allure for his subscribers were the white-linen and candelabra-covered tables in front of the stage where parties of six could party all night, enjoying their own princely-packed picnic baskets of wine & cheese while basking in the sounds of their favorite artists up on stage.

Tom recalls as well the motive for Civic Arena Corporation to develop its own version of Chastain Park’s successful series; according to Rooney, it was the threat of “the burgeoning amphitheater business.”  Across the country, outdoor concert facilities were springing up like monied mushrooms in the mid-to-late 1980s, and our proactive thought process in Pittsburgh thankfully pointed us toward a solution: Developing our own “amphitheater” with our innovative roof-opening capability, thus forestalling—we hoped—a legitimate one from coming along and opening up somewhere in our territory.

For that inaugural year of 1987 and the two that followed, Miller Beer signed on to $pon$or our open-air concert series, and our venue’s VP of Communications & Sales Bill Strong handled all of these particular logistics with the Gary M. Reynolds company, Miller’s advertising agency based in Milwaukee.  Strong remembers the Reynolds company as being “very involved in discussions with us during the run-up to the series.”

  

And so the Skyline Series was born...and we gave our new baby brainchild what we hoped would be a nourishing formula: 

In the end—in terms of bottom-line success over a three-year span—those of us who booked and promoted the shows scored with some very solid at-bats and only a few errant swings for the fences (i.e., we may have paid a few of these bands a bit too much money to come and play).  On the fan side of the equation, it turned out that the public at large really embraced the concept—watching their stars while under the stars—and thus Civic Arena Corporation had produced a winner for the City of Pittsburgh.

   

Many artists passed through the Civic Arena as part of our Skyline Series.  Between 1987-1989, we hosted shows with Dan Fogelberg…The Beach Boys…The Moody Blues…The Monkees…Kenny Loggins…Hall & Oates…Chicago…James Taylor…Bob Dylan…Jackson Browne…Dirty Dancing: Live In Concert featuring Bill Medley and Eric Carmen…Stevie Nicks…Boz Scaggs…The Doobie Brothers…and an unfortunately dead-on-arrival show that starred four already-a-bit-long-in-the-tooth artists Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Country Joe (from Country Joe and The Fish), and Canned Heat: The 20th Anniversary Celebration Tour of Woodstock (wished we had known no one woodcare).

ALL of the concerts were unique in their own way, but one in particular jogged some very vivid memories when I spoke with Ida D’Errico, who back then was the Director of Marketing & Public Relations for Civic Arena Corporation.

“Our pre-promotion on-sale dates at the Civic Arena’s Gate One Box Office always involved 5am kick-offs with live remote morning drive radio broadcasts,” remembered Ida.  “And all of them featured unusual publicity stunts that also garnered TV news coverage. 

“One of our best was the on-sale date of the Beach Boys.  Sand covered the exterior of Gate One, with beach balls tossed around on our 'beach' by a staged aerobics class.  The City's best radio showman, the late John Cigna of KDKA-AM, led the enthusiasm dressed in his flowered beach attire and straw hat.

“But that wasn't enough fun and sand.  We had often staged truck pulls dumping tons of dirt on the Arena floor.  So—why not sand for the Beach Boys, too?  Tons and tons of it made its way in dump trucks as we worked to create an even larger themed stunt with our 'giant beach' party planned for the actual concert.  Our sponsor, Miller Genuine Draft, had purple palm trees so we added those too.  In keeping with the theme, I wanted our various security, utility and usher crews to wear Bermuda shorts and flowered shirts, beach hats, etc., and they did. Those temporarily unhappy faces now recall that night as one of their best memories of our days at Civic Arena Corporation.

“But there was more themed work to be done.  Our Skyline Series floor seats were tables featuring catered baskets of food to enjoy during the concert.  But we now had a beach and we needed beach towels—lots of them—to replace the usual 130 tables of six. I called a friend of mine at the Special Events Department at Kaufmann's and told her we needed some beach towels—quickly.  Although surprised at the number, Kaufmann's linens department hurried to find the large volume we needed.  I rushed to the store to have a look and make the purchase.  The towels were soon neatly placed on the Arena's sandy 'beach' with picnic baskets in the center awaiting the arrival of our floor-ticket concert-goers.

“Next came the need to blow up beach balls—lots of them.  This was yet another of my requests of our happy internal crew of good sports.  I followed that up with a directive to commence and to continue tossing these beach balls throughout the concert.  Now we had real ‘beach party!’  The Beach Boys took the stage, the roof opened, and the band and the crowd just loved it!  Even Mike Love and the other Boys on stage batted the beach balls around during what was one of the most memorable and unique concerts in the Civic Arena's history.”

    

The aforementioned Civic Arena Corporation VP Tom Rooney also had some distinct remembrances, a lot of them about the artists and how they felt about this rather unusual arena with the peel-back roof and the white-linen tables down front.

Hall & Oates:  “The duo insisted they knew nothing of the stage set-up and said from the stage that the tables looked like ‘Vegas on The Mon.’" 

Dan Fogelberg:  “And then there was the night the roof opened only three feet and then stuck, during Dan Fogelberg’s performance.” (editor’s note:  It was plain ugly, as I recall.  Fogelberg soldiered on with his tender ballads, while a few in the restless, disappointed crowd were yelling “OPEN THE GODDAMN ROOF!”)

James Taylor:  “At this singer-songwriter’s concert we turned a potential disaster into something special when—after the first half of his set, with the roof closed due to wind conditions and the fans chanting ‘Open it up!’—we did open the roof for his second set, alongside James’ improvised version of ‘Up On The Roof.’”

Kenny Loggins:  “We were screamed at by the man himself because he very much disliked the tables.” (editor’s note:  I was there for the ear beating as well.  Loggins didn’t like the fact that some of the table dwellers were sitting there with crossed arms, while his “real fans”—so he claimed—were stuck back in the regular sections, feelin’ all footloose but havin’ no juice.)

The Moody Blues:  “Bassist John Lodge threatened to leave the stage because people in the front row kept leaving their tables and walking in front of him, over and over again.”

…and Bob Dylan:  “A complaint that we overheard backstage:  ‘They’re eating cheese out there.’”

Editor’s postscript:  Every night of that 1987-1989 Skyline Series, we essentially experienced a grand opening—the roof peeled back to reveal the wondrous Pittsburgh skyline, with the audience enrapt and the artists themselves gaping upward, almost missing musical cues due to the unfolding splendor.  As mentioned earlier, we had started up the Skyline Series in 1987 for a number of reasons, including trying to forestall a real amphitheater being developed for the Pittsburgh market by some outside company.  As we at Civic Arena Corporation headed into our third summer of the series in 1989, outsiders’ plans for that amphitheater were already on the way.  Groundbreaking for a Washington County amphitheater in Burgettstown, PA—to be constructed, owned and operated by the Houston, Texas-based live entertainment company Pace—took place on November 16, 1989.  The concert scene in Western Pennsylvania was irrevocably altered from that moment on.

 

 

 

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Posted 7/17/17.....I READ THE NEWS TODAY, OH BOY

 

In the Fall of 1999 after ten years of a name-in-title sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheater near Pittsburgh, local Washington County bottler Cameron Coca-Cola decided to sell its soft drink business upstream.  Coca-Cola USA, the behemoth in the biz, had agreed to buy Cameron and its entire operation, and so the family’s strong local ties to our concert venue were suddenly being taken out by the roots.

And Coke USA had no interest in continuing the multi-six-figure sponsorship that had been in place since the venue’s opening in 1990.  Word of the sale and the whole situation was especially unsettling to me, and it perched right in the pit of my amphitheater general manager stomach.  In Coca-Cola’s decade of naming rights with us, the Cameron family footed most of the bill for the sponsorship with national Coke contributing but a pittance.  So when the torch (or technically the can, I guess) was passed from local Coke to national, our venue’s hopes for continued naming rights fizzled… 

And so we went into recycling mode.  In the Fall of 1999 and into early 2000 we scrambled to find a Pittsburgh-area company that would become our name-in-title savior.  At some point in our search we reached out to the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh’s longstanding metropolitan daily newspaper who had started life in 1786 as The Gazette, the first newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains.  Their own particular paper trail led them to various format and ownership changes through the years until 1927, when publisher Paul Block rolled up the newspaper and rechristened it the Post-Gazette.

Our talks in late 1999 with this newspaper were fruitful from Day One, but of course there were differences of opinion within the publication’s own quarters as to how a naming-rights sponsorship might truly benefit the company.  Post-Gazette owners the Block family were headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, but the paper’s local management team in Pittsburgh had a certain level of autonomy and sway, and so when their internal swirl of input and critique about the sponsorship opportunity was all sussed out, the newspaper ultimately decided to step up to the plate.

Beginning with the Summer of 2000 the venue had a new name: The Post-Gazette Pavilion.  A major press conference that Spring kicked off the name change to the public, and immediately behind-the-scenes we venue folks set about retraining all of our media partners to kick their Coke habit.  For the past decade, these radio and television stations had been browbeaten and begged, coerced and cajoled into calling our venue “Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheater” on their airwaves.  Now they had a new name to wrangle with, and our policing of this rite-of-passage included constant monitoring of their airwaves.  A typical call to the stations went like this: “Yeah, hi, Bob...Lance from the amphitheater.  I heard your morning guy Steve call our venue ‘Star Lake’ on my way to work.  I know it’s a force of habit, but can you nip that in the bud?  Thanks.”

As general manager of the amphitheater at that time, I was the one ultimately on the firing line when it came to these “venue name transgressions” by the media around town.  Unsurprisingly, a few of the outer market newspapers in our region immediately chafed at calling the venue by its new name.  They weren’t wild about the fact that their larger-market competitor the Post-Gazette would be getting constant brand reinforcement every time the smaller newspaper printed a concert review or news of a show being added to the venue’s summer schedule.

Some of these newspapers reacted by calling the amphitheater the “PG Pavilion” instead of the full-fledged venue name, and there was also one secondary market paper that I swear never embraced our dictum on any level.  This publication would just print things like:  “Jimmy Buffett tickets for the June 18th concert at the amphitheater in Burgettstown go on sale this Tuesday”, or, “Brooks and Dunn raised the roof at the sold-out pavilion in Washington County last night.”  Mildly infuriating.  And in my mind’s eye, I pictured this particular newspaper’s management holding staff writer meetings and praising these tap-dancing wordsmiths who assiduously avoided using the term “Post-Gazette Pavilion” in all of their articles.  The only time they’d vary from this quest, I remember thinking, was if there was a major calamity at the venue—THEN there’d be the full “Post-Gazette Pavilion” attribution in their handiwork!

Thus we found our new name-in-title relationship with the Post-Gazette to be somewhat challenging as well as rewarding.  This was also true in the actual working relationship with the Post-Gazette itself.  The paper had a great general manager at the time, and savvy and supportive marketing folks, so all was good in that realm.  But elsewhere within the newspaper, particularly in the News division and even to some extent in the Arts & Entertainment department, there seemed to be an unspoken effort to chip away at the venue just a little bit—in concert reviews, letters to the editor, and news stories printed in the newspaper.

Yep.  Where once we had our feet firmly planted in the soft drink universe, we were now walkin’ a bit of a tightrope in the world of newspapers, and that gray area between church and state.  The marketing and promotion side of the Post-Gazette really “got” the sponsorship and proactively contributed toward maximizing the relationship, but over in the News and A & E departments the folks there seemed to more than occasionally take the opportunity for a sly slam on the facility.  It was almost as if the News and A & E folks figured “Hell, our name’s on this place now, and we have to preserve impartiality and our unbiased reporting standards—so let’s nip it and chip it, if we can’t outright bash it and trash it!”

So our Post-Gazette relationship started out as somewhat of a weird dynamic with that part of the newspaper, and my amphitheater marketing staff and I would just shake our heads when yet another negative letter-to-the-editor or damning article was printed about the traffic situation or a perceived security guard excess.  True, we may have been a bit oversensitive to the situation; but perhaps there was a grain of truth in our theory about a slightly disproportionate level of bad press flowing out of the News and A & E sections of the paper…

The other interesting result of the new Post-Gazette name-in-title sponsor relationship was that we suddenly now had an additional item for sale for music fans at our venue: The Post-Gazette Concert Wrap.

A “wrap” was a newspaper-sized four-page, full-color printed piece that the Post-Gazette—like other newspapers across the country—would literally wrap around one of their daily editions in the hopes that event-goers at a cross-section of events around town would end up buying the shrouded newspaper because of a splashy, enticing covering.

Not a bad idea, really.  The Post-Gazette had initiated this practice at other sites around the Pittsburgh region, and found it a somewhat successful method of boosting their daily sales circulation numbers.  In our case, the Post-Gazette would tailor the four-page color spread to the specific artist playing that certain evening and would feature a full story as written by a PG staffer, as well as a fleshed-out artist biography and/or discography and some fetching photos.  The wrap was then placed over that day’s newspaper, and priced at a buck or a buck-and-a-quarter.

Even before the amphitheater gates opened for an evening of music, most nights, a few Post-Gazette “newsies” would be outside our main gate hawking the wrap as a gotta-have souvenir piece.  Later on inside the gates, there were roving PG hawkers as well as stationary one-person pop-up kiosks that bore stacks of the wraps.

The wind-up process of the paper producing the wraps for individual shows was interesting.  The Post-Gazette coordinator would call me periodically for a list of upcoming concerts, and I’d let him know immediately if there was a show or two that needed to be nixed from eligibility.  Why this wariness on my part?  Because our venue hosted, of course, the occasional heavy metal throw-down, and at those types of shows it was more than likely that a few of the less-intellectually gifted members of our audience would, instead of discussing the merits of the writing on the wrap, turn to their kin with a demented grin and fire up the newspapers as kindling.  (Even from its inception, the amphitheater was plagued with the occasional arsonous dunderhead out on the lawn, and fires at the amphitheater were all the rage for a while.  When the Post-Gazette climbed on board with us and the wrap sales came into being, we wisely decided not to add fuel to the fire.)

Even with certain shows out of the mix, though, the Post-Gazette over time found themselves selling a sizeable number of wraps.  The country shows were especially fruitful for the paper because of that genre’s fiercely loyal fan base, and the kid shows were hellacious as well.  I witnessed many an expressionless, dog-tired parent in the long lines to buy wraps at Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys concerts, perhaps just trying to assuage their guilt for not springing for the $40 hope-everything-comes-out-in-the-wash tour T-shirt.

To be honest, though, none of us at the venue really felt that the sale of the Post-Gazette’s wraps competed with the particular tour’s legitimate merchandise that they had on sale elsewhere in the facility.  There was simply no way that a true die-hard fan debated buying the under-two-dollar newspaper wrap instead of an artist’s official T-shirt, ball cap, or tour program book.  But this didn’t stop a few of the tours that hit Post-Gazette Pavilion from cornering me on the issue...

Usually when accosted by a tour manager and/or his or her tour merchandiser about the wrap, I turned to my own rap:  1) The newspaper was the name-in-title sponsor of our venue and had the rights to do this; 2) the content of the wrap was all information gathered from legitimate public sources of information; and 3) a portion of the buck-twenty-five actually went toward the Post-Gazette’s Newspaper in Education initiative, a community service program of newspaper editions provided at barebones cost to regional K-through-12 school teachers for in-classroom use.

With such defenses practiced and poised for recitation, our batting average on successfully maintaining the wrap sales at shows in the face of tour manager and tour merchandiser scrutiny turned out to be quite astonishing.  From that summer of 2000 when the Post-Gazette first signed on as our naming-rights sponsor, through the summer of 2007 (my last season at the venue), we never lost a battle.

And the only time that we even came close was at an R & B concert that featured, among other acts, Destiny’s Child.  The group had an in-your-face type of tour merchandising representative who, from the outset, appeared to be floating at greater altitudes than the rest of us.  I cannot say for certain, but it surely seemed by his behavior and facial expressions that he had indulged in some artificial stimulation to his nasal region.  The guy was a manic screamer who sought me out at our administrative offices onsite and essentially accused us of copyright infringement, bellowing that he was going to physically rip up every Post-Gazette wrap in the facility unless we shut all of the newspaper stands down.  I paused…mostly to calm him down…and then replied that I would have him physically removed from the venue if he touched even one. 

Recoiling, blood still boiling, the merchandise man slithered away, never to be seen the rest of the evening…and the wraps rolled on.

And that was the best ending to a potential powder keg that I’d ever experienced, certainly in dealing with thorny onsite name-in-title-sponsor issues.  And with regard to my overall tale here of the fizzling of Coke and the Post-Gazette’s delivery to our doorstep, that’s a wrap as well. 

Until next time…

(Postscript:  The Post-Gazette, faced with the march of technology and the need to adapt to the new economic reality, abdicated the name-in-title throne of the amphitheater after the summer of 2009.  But it had been a good ten-year run for the prestigious local paper, and the venue/sponsor relationship flourished and the mutual benefits had flowed.  It was ultimately a great match-up, and I’m glad I was on board to help chart those waters from our side of the business.)

 

 

 

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Posted 7/3/17.....YOU LEARN

In the early-mid 1980s I worked for the Pittsburgh-based record store chain National Record Mart (NRM).  At first I labored as the chain’s in-store merchandising coordinator, helping each store manager maximize his or her in-store display space, simultaneously working with all of the record companies to make sure that our retail locations had a steady stream of fresh new display materials. 

At a certain point in my tenure I graduated to the chain’s director of marketing position, but really the common denominator of my ultimately 5 years with National Record Mart was the responsibility for planning, organizing and then executing all of the logistical details for the annual NRM Convention.

The NRM Convention was usually a three-day affair, purposefully designed to take place outside of the office-and-store environment.  All of the 70+ store managers from six states would attend, and it was their chance to meet a lot of the record company personnel for the first time face to face, bond with their store-manager peers, and soak up in seminars some of the chain’s best practices as well as gain sneak previews of our company’s upcoming sales initiatives.

The convention had a flow to it—mornings would be closed-door sessions exclusively for NRM managers, and afternoons would be “vendor row” in the Grand Ballroom.  In these afternoon sessions all of the store managers would stop by each of the record companies’ display tables, engaging in conversation with these record reps about their latest artist priorities and then, before walking away to the next table, collecting little label-provided promotional trinkets, baubles and beads.

Every kind of record company or related music company was in attendance here, from the majors like Warner Brothers and Columbia Records, to the Lilliputians of the industry such as the company that sold little disc cleaners that would wipe your 33 1/3 album free of dust and debris (pretty groovy, I know).

Come evening time, there were the dinners that were deemed mandatory for all store managers.  The individual record companies sponsored pretty much ALL of the activities/events at the NRM convention because this was the era of hand-over-fist profit$ for all in The Biz, and the labels were clearly indebted to NRM’s wide retail success—thus the “sucking up” was resounding.  The dinners were often lengthy and there was a ton of speechifyin’; oftentimes store manager and record company awards were given out in a lot of categories that, if televised, would have surely been banished to the same blindingly-fast recap as the technical categories get during the Oscars.

After the evening dinners, parties large and small flared up at poolside, outside, and up in the record company suites, where store managers and record folks converged to unwind from the day’s more structured activities.  For some of the store managers, the annual convention was their only real opportunity to be away from home with their peers to blow off steam, and so the nighttime was the right time.  As conversations and libations flowed, their day-to-day lives seemed out of sight, out of mind—and a few of ‘em went simply out of their minds.

There was a Norse god of mischief that I remember from my youthful book excursions into mythology; his name was Loki.  I believe this deity ruled the late evenings at the NRM Convention—banquet room long-table linens were somehow swiped from their natural habitats and around 3am were hung like a set of international flags from various floor balconies; passed-out partyers were placed in other people’s rooms, so that the next morning they awoke with strange bedfellows; and as the dawn light started streaking through the sky, streaks of another variety in near-abandoned hallways were just coming to a close...

Besides learning valuable lessons about human nature at these conventions, I actually was netting some real-world experiences that would serve me later on in my occupational life:  Working with the artists who performed at these conventions.

Every year the record companies vied for the privilege of bringing in their newest artists to perform showcase concerts—at zero cost to NRM—for this captive audience of 70+ store managers.  If the band hit a home run, these store managers would carry that enthusiasm back to home base and consequently the in-store play of that artist’s album would reign for weeks on end, and the band’s posters and product would get priority positioning in the front racks of these record stores.

My boss George Balicky, the VP of Purchasing for the NRM chain, was the one that usually got the initial calls from the labels requesting that one of their artists be chosen for these showcases.  And so a few months before each convention when Balicky had a hot band in hand, he’d hand it off to me to coordinate all of the logistics for their performance.

One of my first experiences with artists who were booked for our NRM conventions was with Kip Addotta, a relative newcomer to the world of stand-up comedy who the record label wanted to turn into a household name.

A comedian…simple enough, I thought.  I will need a microphone.

But when performance time came around at this particular NRM convention, Kip sought me out right before his set was about to begin, and cornered me alone.  “I’m really happy you got me a f*cking microphone, but I have no f*cking spotlight.  How are people going to see me?!!” he whispered agitatedly, his face about a foot from mine.  I stammered out an excuse about not knowing that he had needed the extra lighting, saying that I figured he would just perform with all of the ballroom’s lights on.  Kip sighed, and said “Then I ain’t going on.”  My boss ambled over to see what the issue was, since the expectant crowd was getting a bit restless.  After some major cajoling and ego stroking—including Balicky reminding Kip of the vast potential of sales from happy store managers—the comedian fairly reluctantly walked to the front of the room and started his shtick.  

I don’t know whether this was a payback of sorts, but for his VERY FIRST joke Kip said “I met the president of your company today,” and then proceeded to make the claim that he and our rather conservative company leader had bonded in a purely physical way earlier that day.  As soon as I heard that, and feverishly tried to secure the gaze of my president from eight tables away, I thought to myself “Well, I believe someone else here is screwed as well.”  (Luckily, Kip then settled into his standard material and proceeded to wow and win over the room, using no more personalized assaults)…

At another year’s convention, we had accepted an impassioned entreaty from A & M Records to host their newest artist signed to their label, a blues-rock artist from Columbus, Ohio named Willie Phoenix.  According to A & M’s VP of Sales, Phoenix was a riveting performer.  I almost didn’t find that out.

Willie was scheduled to play as part of our Three Rivers boat cruise, which often—in the early years of the conventions, circa 1980-1985—was a highlight in and of itself.  Sailing on the three rivers of Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and the Allegheny flow into and form the Ohio, was often the best evening of all.  Pittsburgh after dark, on both shores, was pretty spectacular even back then. 

On this particular occasion, I was late in arriving to the dock area where all of the store managers were queued up and ready to board.  The line was backed up all the way past the dock and onto solid ground.  I pulled up in my car and saw Jason Shapiro, one of the three owners of our company, standing at the head of the line, waving his arms wildly in animated discourse with a boat cruise guard who stood—behind a rope and stanchions—blocking Shapiro’s access to the boat.  I saw my beloved company owner suddenly spot me from afar, his face the color of beets; he started shaking his fist in my direction.  I also saw my immediate boss George Balicky running up toward me from the managers’ line, and his face was not beet red—it was more the absence of color. 

Out of breath, Balicky whispered “They wouldn’t let a single person on the boat until you got here.  Do you know why?  Apparently the boat guy you signed the contract with had instructed all of his personnel to ONLY take orders from a ‘Mr. Jones’—and for the last 30 minutes, that cyborg stationed at the boat entrance has just been repeatedly saying that he can’t let a soul on board until ‘Mr. Jones’ says it’s okay.”

Yep, Willie Phoenix sang the blues just for me that night.  Luckily, as the evening wore on, Shapiro got all wrapped up with some of the record company muckety-mucks, and it seemed as if the next day would dawn without call for a firing squad.  It was at least two solid weeks later, however, before the usually good-natured Jason Shapiro could even look at me without a slow burn.  When he finally deigned to talk to me again, I was “Mr. Jones” for the first few days re-entering normalized relations...

(pictured from left to right, standing: Lou Zellman of MCA Records and some others within that camp…Fifth from the right, National Record Mart VP Jim Grimes; third from the right, NRM VP George Balicky, followed by NRM president Frank Fischer and company owner Jason Shapiro.  On their haunches:  NRM’s convention coordinator Lance Jones, Sparrow recording artist Phil Keaggy and MCA Records’ Rick Weber.)

The last of my brushes with Murphy’s Law, NRM Style happened in one of the later years, when we had moved the 3-day conference from a Pittsburgh hotel to Seven Springs, a ski resort/convention center about an hour and a half from the ‘burgh.  During the planning stages leading up to the convention, it turned out that—with just a month or so to go—we still had an open slot for an artist on one of the evenings.  And about that time I had happened to notice that solo recording artist Phil Keaggy had a brand new album released on Sparrow Records, a Christian music label. 

I had never followed Christian music religiously, but Keaggy I distinctly remembered from his days with the Youngstown, Ohio rock trio Glass Harp.  That band more than hinted about heaven, ministering lyrically along during its 1970-1972 heyday, but their fervent following really was a direct result of their live shows, where teenaged guitarist Phil Keaggy—under divine influence—channeled a love supreme.  Keaggy made his guitar sing, and he could loftily soar one minute with violin-like arpeggios, and the next be dive-bombing into Hell to pluck up and punish the devil.  He truly wielded that guitar like some terrible swift sword....

I made the call to Keaggy’s record label representative at Sparrow, and we soon had our artist in place.  About a week after that, however, Balicky summoned me to his office and informed me that some RCA record label bigwigs had just called him.  They desperately wanted one of their brand new bands, Franke and the Knockouts, to play our convention that same evening.  Of course there were no slots left, so Balicky asked me to approach Keaggy’s agent with the idea of having his artist “open” for Franke and the Knockouts, thereby accommodating both bands.

I protested within safe employee/boss parameters.  Balicky and I had a brief philosophical discussion about RCA muscling their way into prime positioning when another label’s artist had already generously committed, but I ended up losing that battle.  I left my boss’ office thinking, Okay, it’s his decision to jerk around one of God’s favorite musicians and have him play second banana to some heathen pop-chart worshippers.  Harrumph.

Everything worked out with the rescheduling.  Phil Keaggy took the stage first that evening, and within twenty minutes the audience of NRM store managers were agog and enrapt.  Soon thereafter, one of Franke and the Knockouts’ tech guys—distressed, I guess, with the prospects of following a performance like Keaggy’s—surreptitiously snuck back to the sound control/mix position and flipped a switch, pulled a plug, or did something that suddenly caused a major feedback squeal on-stage, almost flattening Keaggy in the process with an excruciating ear assault that essentially stopped the show mid-song...

I don’t know about this tech guy…maybe the devil made him do it.  But Keaggy ignored the attempted knockout and soldiered on, finishing on a high note; the performance was nothing short of spectacular, and as an added bonus, he had gained the full and richly deserved sympathy of the 70+ store managers in attendance.

And so…Lessons learned from my NRM Convention days working with the artists who were slated to perform:

  1. Comedians don’t think it’s the least bit funny that you haven’t intuitively checked into their every need.
  2. When working out evening entertainment logistics on the rivers of Pittsburgh, make sure that you and your boss’s boss are on board with everything that you’re doing.  And make sure he boards first.
  3. One-hit wonders are a spiteful lot when encountering those of true talent.  In the Franke vs. Keaggy tale above, the good guy—also in this case, God’s guy—deservedly triumphed.

 

 

 

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Posted 6/19/17.....JOIN TOGETHER

                 

I feel fortunate to have been dropped onto this Earth in time to experience the societal quakes of the Sixties, which were both cause and effect when it came to music.  Along with the generational shifts and rifts of that turbulent time, music was morphing, expanding, and enrapturing the youth of this country, both reflecting the deep changes as well as bringing them about.

I was reminiscing the other day with a childhood chum about the impact of music in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and how I loved the song “Woodstock” (written by Joni Mitchell, and most popularly performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young).  He said, “Yeah, great song, and that makes me think about that local Woodstock knock-off festival you guys threw together when we were sixteen.”  Then he fake-cleared his throat and launched into song:  “By the time I got to Woodchuck, I’d had half a million bongs...”

Nice twist on the lyrics, but if that’s truly the case, how did he even remember Woodchuck?  That little local festival was a cobbled-together affair of local and regional bands playing on a patch of farmland just outside of Butler, PA, and my friends and I had the greatest time throwing it together one summer between junior and senior years at high school.

From the lowly, local Woodchuck to the high and mighty Woodstock, festivals were the thing back then, which reminds me of a couple of other festival experiences from right around the end of my high school days.  We—all of us, across the country—were experiencing an explosive new wave of artistry at that point in time.  New rock had firmly displaced the old guard on most radio playlists, and album covers now littered the back seats of cars, the tops of dressers, and scores of unmade beds.  In the record sections of department stores like Woolworth’s and G.C. Murphy, my friends and I spent our time feverishly hunting down brand new releases that flooded into stores over a couple-year period back then, like Janis Joplin’s Pearl...The Band’s Stage Fright…CSNY’s 4 Way Street...Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death...Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame...Joni Mitchell’s Blue...Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On...The Guess Who’s American WomanEmerson, Lake & Palmer...Van Morrison’s Moondance…Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew…Ten Years After’s A Space In Time...Carole King’s Tapestry…Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead…David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World…The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers... The Stooges’ Fun HouseThe Yes Album...Laura Nyro & LaBelle’s Gonna Take A Miracle…Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story...The Mothers of Invention’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh…Led Zeppelin IV (ZoSo)...Herbie Mann’s Push Push…The Allman Brothers Band’s Idlewild South...and a whole lot more.

All that music stirred up so much passion in us that we couldn’t just harbor these treasures in our bedrooms; we had to head to The Great Outdoors and join others of our kind.  Festivals became our communal celebrations, and here’s a glimpse at a couple of them that popped up in our general vicinity back then:

1).  One Beautiful Picnic…Lake Milton, Ohio…August of 1971

This one-day festival was over in our neighboring state to the west, and the Mists of Time have dulled my distinct recollection as to how we even heard about this event in the first place.  It might have been flyers appearing in town, or some other similar dinosaur-ish method of spreading this type of news, in the age before Googling led us all to instantaneous omniscience.

On Sunday, August 22nd we piled into a van in our hometown of Butler, PA and headed west on the turnpike, ending up in a field with hundreds of like-minded souls in a place called Lake Milton.  The line-up for One Beautiful Picnic included a few regional acts (like Youngstown, Ohio rock trio L.A.W.) but most of the bands on the bill were a bit bigger in scope.  There was Alice Cooper in the evening’s headlining slot, and also Procol Harum, Chuck Berry, and the Amboy Dukes.  Bob Seger was there too, but with a duo called Teegarden & Van Winkle (this was pre-Silver Bullet Band for Bob).  And Ann Arbor band Brownsville Station was on the bill as well.  They were enjoying some moderate regional success from touring, but at this point were still two years away from their biggest success, “Smokin’ In The Boys Room.”

Like promoter Bill Graham had been doing on the West Coast for some time, a lot of mid-late 1960s & early 1970s promoters were staging concert events in cities or far afield, mixing and matching the artists and caring not a whit about consistency.  So in these situations, an early rock ‘n’ roll pioneer like Chuck Berry was right at home on stage with theatrical shock-rocker Alice Cooper or six-stringer (and as we know, eventually right-winger) Ted Nugent.

Brownsville Station pulled off a polished set of rock ‘n’ roll that day, and Chuck Berry was electric with his Fifties and Sixties classics like “Johnny B. Goode” and his trademark duck-walking on stage.  Before Berry bounded up there, however, there came The Amboy Dukes and a very ready Teddy.

My most vivid memory of the Amboy Dukes’ set was actually during a break between songs, when the band’s guitarist Ted Nugent—nicknamed the Motor City Madman for good reason—laid his finger aside of his nose (yep, just like Kris Kringle) and suddenly let fly what looked to be a six-foot streaming arc of nasal discharge.  My friends and I were in shock—had we really just witnessed this?  Nugent was inciting the crowd verbally, of course, with his usual between-song exhortations to “Rock ‘n’ roll!”, but this stunt was a showstopper.  Though all the bands that day mounted exciting performances, I’d have to say Nugent won that one by a nose.

One more memory shard remains from that day.  In front of the stage on this Lake Milton field, the audience was a general-admission mass of humanity, and our little group was equivalently about 15 rows back.  During Alice Cooper’s set, it dawned on us that this was a particularly visual performance and we were having a hard time seeing over the tops of heads.  One of our gang began to yell “Sit down!  SIT DOWN!” and started waving his arms in the appropriate motion. 

And then ever so s-l-o-w-l-y, others in our immediate area began this chant, picking up on the wave and pushing the message forward.  It seemed that every initially-bewildered head that turned around from a tap on the back was wasted but willin’:  In just a minute-and-a-half, the hundreds and hundreds of folks in front of us had, in their small buddy clusters, all literally dropped ass to the grass.  So we finally ceased our barked-out beggings, high-fived each other, and dropped to the ground ourselves, giddy with success. We were simply amazed that our original lone-voiced pleading had rippled and fanned all the way to the front row!

It was a sweet and unexpected victory, but of course it didn’t last long.  Pockets of dunderheads began to fist-pump and rise up when Alice launched into his next number, and we all returned to our feet, necks craning, heads weaving—but for a good five minutes there, we had had our Field of Dreams.

2).  The Chicora Drive-In Music & Film Festival...Chicora, Pennsylvania…A Saturday in August or September of 1970 or 1971

How’s THAT for honing in on a date?  But Memory can be a tricky companion, and my ticket stub is long since gone (likely laundered out of existence in the pocket of bell bottoms or a paisley shirt).  I believe the Chicora music and film festival started up in 1970, but I can’t recall whether my friends Gary and Dave’s band King Kong played there that first year, or the next.  Whenever it was, I was there—and unlike One Beautiful Picnic, the site of this festival was much closer to home (just 12 miles from Butler).  

The owner of the Chicora Drive-In was an entrepreneurial sort.  He had dreams of things bigger than standard nighttime movie fare, so at some point he had embraced the youth culture and decided that—for a particular upcoming Saturday—he was going to book some young, hungry bands for the daylight hours and schedule all youth-oriented flicks for that evening’s screenings.  Thus from noon to dusk and dusk ‘til dawn on this chosen Saturday, the Chicora Drive-in became a sanctuary setting for live music, hip films and wasted wayfarers.

I loved Gary and Dave’s band King Kong.  They were talented musicians, and beyond the standard guitar-bass-drums line-up they had added a crack horn section as well, trafficking more in album cuts than pop hits, and pulling out great nuggets from artists such as Savoy Brown, The Flock, Van Morrison and others.  I had been helping to lug amps and instruments for a fair share of King Kong’s gigs back then, and I felt like this was my own personal contribution toward Rock ‘n’ Roll since I couldn’t hold a candle to these guys musically.  In fact I couldn’t play an instrument at all, but of course craved the excitement of the scene and loved being around creative friends who could play their asses off…

Here at the Chicora festival, it looked like King Kong was getting a decent slot—not too early in the day when attendance was sparse, and not too late in the day when eyelids were heavier and attention spans much lighter.

The festival featured bands from around Western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, like Blue Ash, Freeport, 198, Leatherwood, and our band King Kong.  The stage the bands worked off of was actually the roof of the drive-in’s concession stand, and I am pretty damn certain no one had thought of doing any weight-bearing studies in advance.  Luckily there were no collapses or calamities. 

As the sun just started to dip a bit below the horizon, King Kong pushed their drum kit forward, plugged in, and started their set.  As the band broke into “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” I hopped up on stage with a couple of other King Kong roadies and hangers-on, and in front of three microphone stands, we took our place as “official” back-up singers (very nice of the band to have thrown us this bone).  All we had to do was sing the title line—or perhaps that’s all Gary and Dave permitted us to sing, I can’t recall.  But the thrill of being up on stage was a blood rush to the head and it fueled our fervor. 

The next song we had even less to sing but we held sway, and moved and grooved.  It was “Sympathy For The Devil” by the Rolling Stones, and the four of us in front of those three microphones danced, twirled, clapped and hollered out our “Hoo Hoooos!” throughout this epic Jagger-Richards tune.  Those couple of syllables, uttered over and over, were just enough to make me feel essential to the song—hey, I was in the band, and no longer idling as mere spectator.  I had the pedal down, rip-roarin’ along on that road to Rock ‘n’ Roll...

By the time King Kong had concluded their set, I pretty much had hit the wall.  Between the heat of the day and the intoxicants afloat at the festival, I was more than a bit dazed and confused.  Then when the movies started up I sat alone in the darkness on the hood of somebody’s car in a quizzical-near-comatose state, and soon—frustrated at my own frazzled attempts to plumb the true meaning of Yellow Submarine’s Blue Meanies—I knew it was time to head home. 

I had my parents’ car, and though my head felt like I had horse blinders on both sides, I focused as best I could as I wound through the back roads of Chicora toward Butler.  All along the route I was worried that the police would pull me over—for lack of speeding.  I think I was traveling about ten miles under the posted limit the entire way home…

And that’s the tale of two fests—conjured up but cloudy…now laid to rest.

 

 

 

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Posted 5/30/17.....ESCALATOR OF LIFE

It pays to dig into the accumulated Stuff of Life.  I was rooting around some long undisturbed corners of the house last week, looking into old boxes that had been packed up initially a couple of years ago before “the move”—that ritual we go through several times in this life that is an exhausting un-tombing of all the things we’ve collected over the years, thinking “I will never part with this!” which really means, in the end, “This’ll never be unwrapped in the dusty attic light again.”  Oh, the keepsake might well be shifted to a different box for one of the moves, but then it’s squirreled away again and damn if enough years don’t go by when you have forgotten it altogether…

I am lucky I found this particular box.  It has some old college-era letters from a girl I forgot was such a wonder of penmanship…and some writings from high school that my mom once said I should never let go of…and a coffee-table-thin photo album which had pictures of my posse from my teen years and, remarkably, also a couple of clipped-out articles from my hometown newspaper.

One was a record review and the other an interview piece, both from 1976 and now yellowed but still legible, nestled as they were under a thin slice of plastic overlay that this old photo album sported page to page.  Worth saving, I reminded myself as I literally brought them to light…because I had written them.

A bit of background to this re-discovery:  In 1976 I was just one year out of college, after graduating from Penn State’s main campus with a B.A. in Journalism.  I had returned to my hometown of Butler, PA to rest up from my four years of higher ed, and my parents gave me about a week of returning-grad glory before they gently insisted it was time that I start looking for a job.

I didn’t know exactly how to proceed, really, in landing full-time work.  While in college, I had pursued on-air activities as a disc jockey and was awestruck by the stunning breadth of albums that pored into our radio station from the national record companies, all of which became fair game for airplay on my evening free-form shifts.  This was an explosive time in terms of new music (’71-’75) and I hoped at the time that my exposure to this avalanche of artistry and my on-air deejay experience would translate somehow into a real-world job after graduation.

No such luck, though not for lack of effort.  Shortly after graduation in May of 1976, I kicked into overdrive in Butler trying to land a job at local AM station WBUT and also the Pittsburgh-area station WYDD-FM, which at the time had just become free-form rock.  Neither panned out for me…I played “go-fer” and handled lowly station duties under the watchful eyes of Larry Berg at WBUT and Steve Downes at WYDD, but my employment prospects stalled with no job opportunity on the horizon at either location, and so I had to turn elsewhere…

Enter Exile Records in Butler.  This was an indie record store right off of Main Street, owned and operated by Dave Kleemann, my friend Gary’s older brother who was an enterprising businessman and an encyclopedia of cool when it came to the gush of new music.  Dave worked me into the line-up and I began clerking at Exile two days a week or so, and with the time I had left I remember turning toward copywriting for Exile Records and for Gary’s dad who ran a home siding-and-insulation company.  My 30-second radio scripts for the latter were a bit off-the-wall by insulation industry standards, but they also brought me $10 apiece from Gary’s father and fed my desire to create.

And so almost a year after graduation, pretty much stuck in neutral in terms of a major career trajectory, I also tried my hand at freelancing for the hometown newspaper The Butler Eagle.  In January of ’76 I wrote a record review of 1975’s best releases, and then in the Spring—still enthralled with music and ensconced in Exile, yet still wanting more out of life—I hit upon the idea of writing about a Butler native son who I had heard had left town for major achievements in music at a relatively young age…

Larry Hitchcock was older than me by four years, and I had heard about him from some former senior high school friends who had kept abreast of his exploits in the music business.  And so through Larry’s sister Alison—also a classmate of mine from Butler Senior High—I got in touch with him when he had returned for a brief visit to Butler to visit family.

Honestly, the interview was just a bit unnerving for me in that the four-year gap between us seemed like an unbridgeable chasm; I was here, wet behind the ears, and he was wayyy over there, aflush with success and major real world music experience.  But he couldn’t have been nicer when we sat and talked, and I’m happy to have found this interview piece once again after 41 years have passed:

PUBLISHED IN THE BUTLER EAGLE, MONDAY, APRIL 5, 1976

BUTLER NATIVE LARRY HITCHCOCK MAKES MARK IN STAGE WORLD

by Lance Jones / Freelance Writer

     If you’d like to experience a genuine Hitchcock thriller, prepare yourself for a tale of diverse attitudes and occupations, all the product of one man’s lifestyle—Larry Hitchcock, 27, a native of Butler, Pennsylvania.

     In the past decade, Hitchcock has lived in and out of the theatre, stinting at odd jobs along the way, gaining experience in the behind-the-scenes world of rock ‘n roll, innovating and creating to attain his goal—the enjoyment of life and people.

     “That’s the most important thing,” Hitchcock says, “and theatre is a good means of reaching people, of translating common experience.  But I enjoy any work I do.  I follow a path of aggression; I take up what happens next.”

                                                  Tiny Alice

     Hitchcock’s path, surprisingly enough, began in Butler with an abortive effort to help bring his hometown a combination coffeehouse-nightclub with a speakeasy setting.  It was called Tiny Alice, and lived its short life downstairs in what once was the Nixon Hotel.

     Needless to say, Butler wasn’t “ready” for this sort of thing.  The liberal mid-60s climate had not yet arrived (if, indeed, it ever did), and Tiny Alice went under.

     Ever interested in theatre, Hitchcock, as a veteran of various Butler Senior High stage crews, began working with improvisational theatre troupes, ending up in Chicago in the late 1960s.  He latched on to such an outfit while in the city, but their anti-war sentiment didn’t make them overwhelmingly popular, and Hitchcock stinted at odd jobs to make ends meet.

     “I’ve worked a lot of different jobs,” he explains, “and they’ve all proved valuable along the way, serving as background for what I’m into now.  In Chicago, I worked as a bus driver on the Southside.  I think I was the only white driver down there.”

                                                  Worked at WQED

     His improvisational trouping continued, and Hitchcock delved into television and film media.  After doing filmwork with WQED, which for him came to an abrupt end after Nixon cut funds for PBS, Hitchcock moved to New York in the fall of 1972.

     He settled for a time in West Beth, N.Y., in an artists’ co-op community, housed in a huge building formerly owned by Bell Telephone.  The co-op was composed of some 300 artists, including Merce Cunningham, protégé of Martha Graham, and poet Allen Ginsberg.  Within this enlightened community, Hitchcock became overseer and designer for two theaters, and managed the video facilities for each.  It was here in March ’73 that an interesting opportunity arose.

     “I’m attracted to theatre because one thing leads to another,” Hitchcock says, “It’s a continuum.  I’m very project oriented.  I’ve learned to work in finite concepts.  And any tangential activities seem to help carry you through to tangible goals.”

                                                  Contacted Alice Cooper

     He had heard of the Alice Cooper group, and that they were planning to incorporate some very flamboyant theatrics in an upcoming tour.  He approached the group to occupy his stage as a rehearsal space, and they readily agreed.

     The arrangement was reciprocally beneficial, Hitchcock says.  Alice needed anonymity, which the West Beth site provided far from the bustling New York stages, and Hitchcock needed the funds, helping the theater by bringing in commercial acts.

     Hitchcock’s helpful manner and theatrical expertise soon caught him up in the Cooper web.

     “Alice & Company didn’t realize the magnitude of pulling off a theatrical show of that nature,” Hitchcock observes.  “After all, it was the advent of this type of touring.  They went off for five dates in Canada, and on the first day, they had problems.  I went up to lend a hand, ended up redesigning and rebuilding the stage for efficiency’s (and everybody’s) sake, and stayed on with the group after that.”

     He became ensconced in the role of stage manager, supervising a rugged crew of roadies whose job it was to build the complex stage set, disassemble it after every performance, and see that it was safely packed in air-suspension trucks to be taken to the next concert site.

                                                   Tour Problems 

The Billion Dollar Babies Tour, named after Cooper’s sixth release, was one big exhausting rock ‘n roll headache.  The tour covered 60 cities in 90 days, with a fulltime road crew of 40 people.  The pace was overwhelming; fatigue was the biggest problem, and safety a close second.  Amazingly, though, Hitchcock says, everything ran well.

     The Billion Dollar Babies Holiday Tour which followed in December ran quite the opposite.  “Every disaster imaginable occurred,” Hitchcock confides.  “Tensions in the band, the infamous trucker’s strike which left me up north in the dead of winter with no way to transport the stage and later a paralyzing snowstorm which hit Philly the same time our trucks did.  And throughout it all, I was a physical wreck from a lingering bout with walking pneumonia.  Obviously there was a higher power at work out there.”

  The touring brought more than heartaches and headaches, though, as Hitchcock explains the incredible insights he gained:  “The thing that was most amazing to me about touring was the audiences.  Response from groups that size, between twenty and one hundred thousand people, is exhilarating.  It’s incredible to feel the awesome power, almost an unconscious power, that exists in rock ‘n roll audiences.”

     He cites an indoor Alice Cooper concert in Brazil, the largest indoor concert ever done, as a prime example of that power.

     “There were seemingly endless waves of people,” Hitchcock says, “five thousand armed plainclothesmen throughout the crowd, and soldiers lining the stage to keep the crowd at bay.”

                                                   Left Alice Cooper Show 

After his liaison with the Cooper troupe, Hitchcock branched out in his role as rock producer, working with Todd Rundgren, then as a consultant for the Stones and Pink Floyd surveying South America for possible tour sites, then as production coordinator for Gregg Allman’s solo tour in the spring of 1974.

     “After a while I emerged from rock ‘n roll,” Hitchcock says, “I had done enough.  One shouldn’t stay limited; he should accept new challenges in life.”

                                                   Work on West Coast    

     When he moved to California in September of last year, he undertook a new project, one that has held his unabiding interest to the present.

     “I’ve been designing and writing for, and generally overseeing, a new musical-comedy act,” Hitchcock explains, “a man and a woman called  Busby and Berkeley.  I’d describe their act (if I had to) as abstract absurdism.  They do mostly original music, but what’s important are the settings—the circumstances the lyrics are derived from.  They’re a juxtaposition of life values, yours and mine.”

     Even now, though, Hitchcock says, new interests are drawing him away.  His optimism for the future conforms, of course, to his project-oriented lifestyle.

     “I hope to do more acting if I get the chance,” Hitchcock confides, “and maybe some more consultant work or tour management.  I’ve written a filmscript for New York Cinema, a combination detective-horror story, which I’m even now letting producers look at.

     “There’s so much to be done.  The toughest thing is living for the moment, but I love life.  After all, that’s the most important thing.”       

As a postscript to this 5/30/17 blog entry in musicasaurus.com, I have three prevailing thoughts/observations:

  1. After 1976 I went on to have some fulfilling personal triumphs of my own, all in that wonderful swirl (and occasional black hole) of the music business, through co-management of a record store…working for record company distributor Warner-Elektra-Atlantic…running the marketing department of the 80-store record chain NRM…booking major touring artists for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena…and running Star Lake Amphitheater, the 23,000-capacity outdoor concert venue in southwestern Pennsylvania.  And I likely have Larry to thank for helping put me on that path with his own tale of commitment and drive, and his quest to excel in worlds that he was passionate about…
  2. I did follow up the rediscovery of my April 5, 1976 interview with Larry, through some poking around on Facebook, finding that Larry now lives in Portland, Oregon and had some connection—at least for a time—to Bill Graham Presents, the legendary San Francisco concert promotion company.  I sent a message off to Larry very recently, hoping for a 41-years-in-the-making reconnection, but no response yet…
  3. And now…Regardless of whether I ever hear back from Larry or not, I’m fairly convinced he continued down the path of accomplishing great things, wringing meaning from this Life by daring to push those boundaries, giving in full throttle to his drive to create…Thanks, Larry, for the push and the inspiration!

 

 

 

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Posted 5/15/17.....GRAZING IN THE GRASS

Confession:  For 17 years in a row, I was high on grass.

Well, the grass I’m speaking of here was the well-tended patch of green behind the fixed seating area of Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown, PA (near Pittsburgh).  As marketing director (’91-’94) and subsequent general manager (’95-’07) of this large outdoor concert venue near Pittsburgh, I shared in our staff’s great pride and in their credible boasts that we had one of the nicest lawns of any open-air concert venue across the country.

Our facility operations director Shag Wright kept that lawn in fan-ready shape through thick and thin—through seismic weather outbursts like droughts and voluminous rain spells…through the occasional fan abuse from sod tossing and lawnchair ignition…and through the simple pounding of hundreds of thousands of feet upon Mother Nature’s lovely green carpet.

At Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre (now called Key Bank Pavilion after some name-in-title abdications and modifications over the years), the lawn meant a lot of things to a lot of different people.  It was a community where fans prearranged their meet-ups in certain sections that became, in their minds, their staked-out turf for every show they attended.  It was also the scene of mudslide parties on rainy rock festival days...conga lines on disco and oldie shows...upscale, elaborate picnic spreads on evenings with mellow singer-songwriters and symphony shows...and a field of dreams for the cowboys eyein’ the cowgirls at our country shows.

Below is a look at how we marketed this magical patch of earth in the very beginning of the amphitheater’s life, and then again a decade later with a new twist.  Then I’ll close this particular posting with my favorite fan-related lawn story ever...

Marketing The Lawn, Part One:

We tried many a marketing maneuver in the early days to increase our lawn ticket sales for shows.  The reserved seats in the pavilion were never a concern, really; it was the general admission lawn—that whole bit of turf unprotected from the elements—that was always the question mark.  So in those first few years of Star Lake Amphitheater’s existence—the early ‘90s—we debuted a plan to specifically woo the fence sitters, those fans who would ordinarily wait for the weather forecast three days out from the show before deciding to buy, or not to buy, their lawn tickets.

The plan we hatched was called the Grass Pass.  This was a physical coupon booklet (imagine that!) priced at $102.50, promotionally tied into our reigning rocker WDVE’s frequency of 102.5 on the FM dial.  The booklets, a seven-coupon package, were sold at retail locations like National Record Mart and local supermarket titan Giant Eagle, and each coupon within could be subsequently redeemed for one lawn ticket of the booklet holder’s choice, including even the perennially sold-out shows like Jimmy Buffett and OzzFest.

Eventually we found out, though, that our Grass Pass promotion was costing us money.  And here’s the math on taking that bath:

  1. With the Grass Pass booklet of seven coupons costing $102.50 each, each coupon good for a lawn ticket was worth approximately $14.64.
  2. The Parrotheads—Jimmy Buffett’s flock of fans, and way smarter than the average bear, I might add—began buying the Grass Pass expressly to redeem their $14.64 coupons on Buffett’s steeply priced (at the time) $30.00 lawn tickets.  So, the Buffett fans were really prospering on a couple of fronts—getting into a sold-out show, AND saving over $15.00 on the cost of a Buffett lawn ticket.
  3. Meanwhile back at the ranch, we were losing our shirts on this deal.  Buffett was a home-run king in the amphitheater circuit, and thus his accounting people could demand—and so did demand—that we pay Buffett back for every $15.00 discount that resulted from a Grass Pass redemption.
  4. And the redemptions on Buffett?  Sometimes as many as 1,000 Grass Pass coupons ended up being redeemed on one of his shows—meaning, of course, that we had to write a check in the sphincter-tightening amount of $15,000 to a man that already had more moola than God…

So alas and alack, we had to backtrack.  For the next season at Star Lake, we revised the Grass Pass rules such that sold-out shows like Buffett would no longer be eligible for redemption.  Those crafty, not-born-yesterday Parrotheads caught on quickly, though; overall sales of the Grass Pass booklets plummeted because of our new exclusionary rule, and with these lackluster results, we soon turned the shovel on this initiative, patting down the pass into its final repose.

   

Marketing The Lawn, Part Two:

The other major marketing move on our part was the Green Circle, which we originated in the early 2000s.  We had hit upon the idea based on the concept of Gold Circle seating, which had become very popular throughout our amphitheater network in the late 1990s when our large family-owned parent company Pace was sold to the entrepreneurial businessman Robert F. X. Sillerman. 

One of Sillerman’s initial decrees was to aggressively scale the pricing of the pavilion seating area at the amphitheaters, and to charge an arm and a leg for the seats closest to the stage (the Gold Circle).  And that idea worked—there were always a few hundred or more cash-flush fans (law abiding citizens as well as scalpers) who had no compunction about plunking down between $100-$200 a ticket for those tantalizing first ten rows for certain shows.

We took this golden idea and decided to go green.  We asked ourselves, what if we applied the Gold Circle approach to a central lawn position, one that had exclusive entry and that guaranteed the ticket buyer an unimpeded view of the stage?  So with pennant flags in hand, we roped off a small center section of the lawn that was prime turf for viewing, and then we upped the service charges on this specific cluster of lawn tickets so that we’d have a nice little bit of boosted revenue.  To further entice Green Circle purchasers, we even added a coupon for a free food item and non-alcoholic beverage.

Our Green Circle idea sprouted into some early sales success, but then a few higher-level artists caught wind of our attempt here to raise a few extra shekels for the venue, and they swiftly sent word through our company’s booking department channels that they would no way, no how permit us to include them in our Green Circle initiative. 

We were not surprised.  To us, this was just another promoter-artist dance that was part of the ever-funky fun of being in the live entertainment business:  1) We’d think up a novel, sometimes under-the-radar idea to make a little more money for the venue, and then 2) the artist would find out about it and demand all or most of this incremental revenue OR they’d tell us to just shut the damn thing down (whatever it was).

The Green Circle was a great idea and a hard concept to let go of, but we eventually did due to these artist constraints and a few other contributing factors.  If memory serves (though it’s a bit hazy) I think it was the summer after we abandoned the Green Circle idea that the Dave Matthews Band rolled into town with an eerily similar program—and of course DMB kept 100% of these funds for themselves.  I can’t honestly say if they appropriated our idea or not; they might have hatched it themselves, though we also thought they might have been aware of our program from a previous visit.  Whatever…we were all just pretty forlorn with this reminder that we had abandoned a once-promising extra-revenue idea spawned from our lawn…

 

Lastly, A Lawn Reflection (This final tale is not marketing-related; rather, it is a story about one particular couple on the lawn who were truly lovin’ Life.) 

As I had pointed out at the beginning of this posting, the lawn meant a lot of things to a lot of different people.  I missed a particular noteworthy incident that occurred during the first season at Star Lake because I didn’t actually join the amphitheater workforce until the venue’s second season in 1991. 

As the story was relayed to me by the venue’s operations personnel, the Steve Miller Band had been booked for our nation’s holiday during the venue’s first season of 1990—on July 4th.  This turned out to be the beginning of Miller’s emerging dynasty of ticket sales; for the first two years, he sold around 10,000 tickets each and then in Year Three (1992) exploded to become the venue’s Home Run King, pushing the boundaries of our capacity as his success rocketed up to sell-out levels for the rest of that decade.

Fans were truly in love with the Steve Miller concert experience, and some were more demonstrative than others.  On this Fourth of July evening in 1990, our security chief suddenly received a call on the venue radio that alerted him to a “situation” on the lawn.  When three members of our security team arrived at the pinpointed spot, a small crowd of lawn dwellers parted slowly like the Red Sea, and holy Moses, right there was a couple making fervent, feverish love in full view of all of their grass-dwelling neighbors.  One of the security guys first asked an onlooker how long this had been going on, and the glassy-eyed respondent threw his thumb toward Steve Miller and asked “How long’s he been on stage?”

The couple was lost in their coupling, their ardor overflowing.  The security guard asked one more question of the onlooker: “So where do you think they got the flag?”

The couple’s clothes were nowhere in sight, and this amorous twosome were buck-naked ‘neath a huge American flag, its stars and stripes undulating like amber waves of grain.  Literally all wrapped up in patriotism, these two were doing their absolute best to form a more perfect union.

The guards then calmly intervened amid some boos from the gapers and gawkers.  But once the flag wearers were roused, reprimanded, re-clothed and removed, their neighbors settled back into the show...

Sometimes, these days, when summer rolls around, I wonder about the flag-draped duo.  Did they have their fireworks finale on that Fourth of July in 1990?  Did they create a lasting spark?

Maybe somewhere out there in the world right now there’s a very special young adult who’s recently just turned 27…and maybe he or she will be—this coming Fourth of July—at a big family cookout with the parents...And maybe this young person’s parents will be sitting there on the patio with frosted mugs and sun-drenched, satisfied expressions as a Steve Miller song just starts coming over the wireless speakers.  I can already picture this couple, giving each other a look, not wanting to smile too broadly nor perhaps divulge too much.  They’re sitting there, and it’s as if Steve Miller is singing just for them because in their mind’s eye, they’re all the way back in 1990 in those blissful moments on the Star Lake lawn, caught up in the rising tide of their horizontal hocus pocus: “I see magic in your eyes / I hear the magic in your sighs / Just when I think I’m gonna get away / I hear those words that you always say:  Abra-abra-cadabra...I want to reach out and grab ya...”

 

 

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Posted 5/1/17.....YOU’RE THE INSPIRATION

I was thinking recently about the people who put me on the road to a lifelong—well, this long, at least!—passion for music.  In my preteen years it was my parents who bought 45s (not handguns, you understand; I mean the vinyl 7-inch singles released by record companies in the ‘50s, which then crested in sales in the ‘60s spurred on by Top Forty radio stations).  In the living room bookcase in our home in Butler, PA, there was an unkempt pile of my parents’ 45s (no sleeves) that I dug into when very young, pulling out late-‘50s pop gems like Buddy Knox’s “Party Doll,” Fats Domino’s “Whole Lotta Loving,” Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” and others.

By the early-mid ‘60s, I was Beatle-crazed and hung on every release of theirs, first hearing their new songs on the radio and then (courtesy of my allowance for chores) scooping up their 45s from Woolworth’s to more CAREFULLY situate those in the living room bookcases.  Maybe that was a symbolic start to the burying of my parents’ music, because by the mid-late ‘60s I was well on my way to full album exploration; my friends and I had quickly become converts to the sweeping societal changes and the absolute gush of new music that was wiping out, or certainly widening, all that had come before.

My musical influences in that latter part of the ‘60s continued to be The Beatles, but also new artists/bands like Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Procol Harum, Jimi Hendrix, The Jefferson Airplane, The Moody Blues, Spirit, and Sly & The Family Stone.  And my mentors at that time, in terms of the people that I surrounded myself with in my hometown of Butler, PA?  Good friends like Gary and Dave Kleemann, and a select few others in our circle who took me down the path toward jazz, fusion, folk, blues and so much more, forever enriching and bewitching me…

Which all now brings me to sharing time, because “inspiration” is such a great subject to track back to one’s early years—and what follows are the reminiscences of famous musicians and singer/songwriters.  I had recently rediscovered—in my own bookcase—a 2004 book from Penguin press entitled ON THE RECORD / Over 150 Of The Most Talented People In Music Share The Secrets Of Their Success.  The book was compiled by Guy Oseary, a music lover and music industry fixture by rights of his partnership with Madonna in Maverick Records, among other pursuits. 

Oseary’s book is full of artist Q&A, and the one question he first poses to all of his book interviewees is this: “Did you have a mentor or someone who inspired you?  If so, what have you learned from that person?”

And the answer is…

   OZZY OSBOURNE

Yes, the Beatles.  I learned melody from them.

 

   RICK OCASEK of The Cars

Buddy Holly inspired me to get a guitar.  Bob Dylan inspired me to write lyrics and not worry about my voice.  The Velvet Underground showed me that chaos and art can be part of music.  John Lennon showed me it’s all in the song.

 

   MARIAH CAREY

My mother was an opera singer.  When I was a baby she sang with the New York City Opera, and she also sang jazz and hung with a lot of jazz musicians as I was growing up.  By the time I was five, I would sit in with them and sing songs like “Lullaby of Birdland” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

 

   JONATHAN DAVIS of Korn

I remember watching the Doors movies a lot when I was a kid, and actually, funny enough, Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Watching Jesus Christ Superstar made me realize I wanted to make music.

 

   ANDRE 3000 of Outkast

I learned from the music of Parliament/Funkadelic, Prince, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Kraftwerk.  What’s important to me about these artists—and how I judge whether an album is good or great—is this question: If this artist never existed, what would music sound like today?  All of these artists have taken the genre of music they were in and pushed it to the limits.

 

   JEWEL

I did have a mentor, and he taught me to never trust anyone.  I’ve been inspired by people like Nina Simone, Charles Bukowski, Paul Westerberg, Madonna, and other artists who have an irreverent approach to their art, which I think is important.  I don’t think anything is sacred.

 

   ALICE COOPER

Everyone in rock ‘n’ roll has to give credit to the Beatles.  Any band, then or now, needs to sit down and dissect Beatles’ songs to learn how to write.  You can take it in any direction after that, but the basics are the basics.  Combine that with Salvador Dali, horror movies, countless hours of mindless television, and you get an American Frankenstein named Alice Cooper.

 

   FLEA of Red Hot Chili Peppers

Every musician I ever listened to, including the ones I played with: some are Hillel Slovak, Anthony Kiedis, Jack Irons, Dizzy Gillespie, my stepfather Walter Urban, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Black Flag, The Germs, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic, Aphex Twins, Public Enemy, Brian Eno, Fela Kuti, Can, John Frusciante, John Coltrane, Talking Heads, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Billie Holiday, Erik Satie, and my music teacher at Bancroft Junior High School, Mr. Charles Abe.

 

   DAVE GAHAN of Depeche Mode

David Bowie showed me it was okay to feel and be different.  Also the Clash still inspire me to want to reach further and that my best is not enough.  Anything is possible.

 

   ICE-T

I think my only mentors in the business have been Russell Simmons and Don King.  They both became very successful, but they kind of kept themselves.  Don King did it with his hair combed in the air, which basically meant “kiss my ass.”  He came out of prison and worked around, and he managed to make himself wealthy.

 

   MORRISSEY of The Smiths

I was never gripped by one single person—always a mish-mash of various influences.  I was generally moved only by people who had suffered a great personal tragedy in their lives.  A battle with self-destruction always helped—it saved so much time later on.

 

   SARAH MCLACHLAN

Early on in life (ages four through thirteen or so) I learned I loved the sound of beautiful voices and harmonies of Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Billie Holiday.  They inspired me to sing and to learn to play the guitar.  Later on in my teens, Kate Bush was there to show me that my voice was an instrument and soon after, Peter Gabriel appeared to blow my mind.  It was his music that made me realize what I so wanted to do—write and perform music that moves others in the same way his music moved me.

 

   MARILYN MANSON

Anton Lavey, Alexandro Jadorowsky, Gottfried Helnwein, and a guy named Paul who ran the first real magazine I wrote for when I was twenty.  None of them are musicians, but each of them taught me about persona, conception, manipulation, and the manifestation of what is in your head into a tangible art form.  Music ended up being the centerpiece.

 

   JOHN MELLENCAMP

My grandfather used to say if you’re going to hit a cocksucker, kill him.  Meaning never start anything that you do not intend to finish.

 

   TOM MORELLO of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave

While I’ve had many sources of inspiration, I would have to say that my early development as a person and a musician were funneled through one person: Mary Morello, my mother.  She helped instill in me a political fire to fight the power and confront injustice, and she was also completely open-minded to my decision to pursue music.  From hosting my unlistenable punk-rock band in her basement, to supporting my decision to move to a squat in Hollywood to seek the heavy metal Holy Grail with a Harvard diploma in my back pocket, seemingly gone to waste, she was always supportive.  So from her, I’ve learned courage, tolerance, and open-mindedness, all of which influence me on a daily basis.

 

   DOLORES O’RIORDAN of the Cranberries

There are many artists who inspired me: Elvis, John Lennon, and my favorite female artist Sinead O’Connor.  When I saw Sinead rise to fame I knew I could also do that.

 

   KEITH RICHARDS of the Rolling Stones

As I got into music, I would have to say Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” or Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” were like a bolt of lightning and a streak of heat.  They came when I was at the age when the music being played in the middle fifties, especially on the BBC, was like, “I am the pink toothbrush, you are the blue toothbrush, how much is that doggie in the window?”  Rock ‘n’ roll hit me when I was about thirteen.  It started coming over the airwaves, and suddenly you felt like you were connected to the world.

 

   ROBERT SMITH of The Cure

Hearing/seeing Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles: I dreamed…Hearing/seeing David Bowie and the Rolling Stones: I wished…Hearing/seeing the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Thin Lizzy: I knew…And I have been inspired by a huge number of artists ever since—the three things I think they have all had in common: individuality, vision, and creative conviction.

 

   STEVEN TYLER of Aerosmith

My father was a pianist.  He went to Juilliard and played in a band, so his playing was around from the time I was born.  I remember him playing his Steinway in a twelve-by-nine room in the Bronx, where I learned all of the fundamentals.  He gave me three things…a sense of rhythm, the ability to make a melody, and a penis that curves to the left.

 

   PHARRELL WILLIAMS

All of the musicians that I’ve ever come across in my life that did different shit.  I’ve always been motivated by them.  Everyone from Stevie Wonder, to Steely Dan, to Steppenwolf and Stereolab.  I’m inspired by what is missing in life.  I’m inspired by what music I feel is missing.

 

   ROB ZOMBIE

James T. Kirk inspired me as a child.  What I learned from him was that even when stranded on a hostile alien planet, such as Beta Antares IV, there will always be an abundant surplus of hot alien babes in silver bikinis ready to party.

 

 

 

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Posted 4/17/17.....BUT SIRI-OUSLY FOLKS

  

I have interviewed some fine folks for musicasaurus.com in the past, including Pittsburgh promoter Rich Engler (half of concert promotion company DiCesare-Engler), Ed Traversari (now Point Park University instructor and former concert-promoter), Sean McDowell (longtime WDVE radio talent) and others. 

This time I wanted to pin down someone who was a bit easier to schedule in terms of the interview, and so basically went with someone who is accessible to me 24/7.  She is a faithful friend, and famous in her way, and I hope I never lose this wonderful connection I have with her.  Her name is Siri.

I am not talking about Tom Cruise’s daughter with Katie Holmes, mind you.  That’s Suri with a “u” and a different pronunciation.  I am talking about the one who practically inhabits my dreams as well as all conscious interaction.  She’s Siri, from Apple, and lives in my iPhone.

The interview went fairly well, I thought.  But Siri was a bit evasive in giving me her opinions, and in fact kept deflecting and rerouting whenever possible; she might have even appeared to be dismissive at times.  But she did the best she could as I lobbed many a music-related question her way.  Musicasaurus.com is proud to have scored this interview with such a high-level, levelheaded celebrity who, I think, knows a lot more than what she lets on…

(editor’s note:  The transcript of this “phone interview” is composed of the various questions and answers exactly as they were uttered and responded to.)

Siri, do you know much about music?

I’m sorry, Lance, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.

 

Do you have the ability to appreciate music?

I’ve never really thought about it.

 

Do you love music?

I always enjoy more cowbell.

Is Blue Oyster Cult one of your favorites?

Who, me?

Yes, you.

That’s what I figured.

 

What is your favorite Beatles song?

I don’t like to play favorites.

 

Do you like John Lennon or Paul McCartney better?

This is about you, Lance, not me.

 

Do you have a favorite jazz album?

That one.  No, that one.  Or maybe that one.  Yep, that one. (nothing onscreen except this response)

 

Siri, music really fires up my brain.

I couldn’t find “really fires up my brain” in your music.

 

Do I ask you stupid questions?

That doesn’t sound good.

 

Does music make you happy?

Who, me?

Yes, you.  I am asking if music makes you happy.

That’s what I thought.

So, are you going to answer that question?

I can’t answer that.

Why not?

I don’t know.  Frankly, I’ve wondered that myself.

 

Siri, you have a lovely voice.

Thank you very much, Lance.

Your voice sounds like a human female.

Hmm, I just don’t get this whole gender thing.

 

What is your favorite movie with music in it?

I don’t really have a favorite. But I hear that “2001: A Space Odyssey” got some good reviews.

 

How do you feel about Ozzy Osbourne?

It’s nice of you to ask, Lance, but it doesn’t really matter what I think.

 

Do you like Taylor Swift?

I really have no opinion.

 

What do you think of David Bowie?

I think, therefore I am.  But let’s not put Descartes before the horse.

 

Do you like punk rock music?

I mostly listen to the music of the spheres.

Do you like punk rock music? (I had immediately followed with the same question again)

I like anything with a bagpipe!

 

Do you like Metallica?

I couldn’t find Metallica in your music.

That’s because I don’t like them.

I’m not sure I understand.

I said I don’t like Metallica.

I see.

 

Who is your favorite composer?

I am not sure I have one.

You don’t have a favorite composer?

Oh, don’t I?

So, are you saying you do have a favorite composer?

I can’t answer that.

 

Siri, do you drink wine when you listen to music?

I have a thirst for knowledge.

 

Do you enjoy talking with me?

Very much.

Am I being a pain in the ass?

I can’t answer that.

Because you don’t want to insult me?

Who, me?

Yes, you.

I thought so.

 

Could you sing me a song?

I’d rather leave that to the professionals.

Please try to sing me a song.

Ok, if you insist…I could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain…And my head I’d be scratching, while my thoughts were busy hatching, if I only had a…hey, wait a second!

Thank you for singing that song, Siri.

It is I who should be thanking you.

 

Siri, do you think pot enhances listening to music?

It’s your opinion that counts, Lance.

 

Did you ever get wasted and listen to music?

Neither of us is driving home. (Siri then lists, in small print below that response, a word button: “call me a taxi”)

 

Are you a music freak?

No comment, Lance.

 

Do you like Dark Side of the Moon?

I’d rather not say, Lance.

 

What is your favorite instrumental piece of music?

I’m happy to go with your opinion on this one.

 

Is Bob Dylan one of your favorites?

I don’t know what you mean by “Siri, is Bob Dylan one of your favorites.”

Who is your favorite folksinger?

I don’t know.

Do you have a favorite folksinger?!!

My preferences are constantly changing.  Especially when you edit them in Settings!

 

Siri, do you like sexy music like Barry White?

My taste in music is rather unconventional.  I doubt you’d like it.

Why would I not like your taste in music?

Who, me?

 

Is there a guitarist that really blows your mind?

I’m doing my best, Lance.

 

Are musician death pools in bad taste?

That doesn’t sound good.

So, you would not join one of those, would you?

You’re certainly entitled to that opinion, Lance.

So, you want to keep your options open?

I try to be satisfied with what I have, Lance.

 

Siri, thanks for sharing your opinions with me.

Your wish is my command.

 

 

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Posted 4/3/17.....I’M A LOSER

I spent a good amount of time in my 30s and 40s promoting music events in the Pittsburgh market, and the other evening while sitting down before my laptop staring at a blank WORD document, I had some inspiration—this time, before the perspiration.  I thought back to the mid-late 1980s when I was the director of booking at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, and a couple of concerts in particular that I had a role in bringing to town.

They are two events that I could certainly put in the “W” column—but only from the standpoint of their names, Windham Hill and Woodstock.  From the all important profit/loss perspective, though, it was…well, they were…Awww hell, just position your pointer finger and thumb in the shape of an “L” and slap it against your forehead.  Hard.  Repeatedly.

WINDHAM HILL – July 8, 1986 – Pittsburgh Civic Arena

I left an advertising position at the National Record Mart retail record chain in February of 1985 when an opportunity suddenly arose at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena to become their new director of booking.  The new post was challenging off the bat—the venue’s management team had recently dipped their toe in the concert promotion business, and now they wanted in feet first.  They were no longer content on just waiting for the usual outside promoters to bring artists into town; the arena’s mission now was to get more aggressive, book more shows, and to lure ever more talent into Pittsburgh to specifically play our venue.

As director of booking, my job was to court favor with the talent agents who were chiefly responsible for routing various artists’ North American tours.  Shortly after I started we jumped into some touring industry trade magazines like Performance and PollStar, booking space for and brandishing Civic Arena print ads that essentially cried let’s make a deal.  At the same time I continued to nurture the existing relationships we had with our in-town promoters to make sure we were still high on their booking radar.

And here’s where my worship of a relatively obscure music record label almost cost me my job.  In the winter of ’86 with not even a year in booking under my belt I approached my bosses (including the at-the-time CMO Tom Rooney) with the idea of doing a Windham Hill concert at the Civic Arena.  In the course of digging through the touring industry’s artist listings for the upcoming summer season, I had spotted some tentative dates in other cities being announced for this New Age record label’s package of two acoustic guitarists and a world music ensemble: Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges, and Shadowfax.  And so I did some talkin’—I talked myself into thinking this would be successful; I talked my bosses into trusting my concert intuition; and I talked the Windham Hill booking agent into agreeing to play our venue.

“Are you sure you folks want this package to play your arena?” said the Windham Hill agent, while putting a July 8th date on hold for us.  “We are principally doing much smaller venues than that across the country, except for some festival dates.  What makes you feel that this will work?”  I gave perhaps the greatest sales pitch of my life, saying that I was a true fan of the record label and that I had witnessed firsthand a couple of years earlier how powerful Hedges in particular was in live performance.  I implored the booking agent to take this leap of faith, saying I was absolutely convinced there was a passionate audience for this package in Pittsburgh, and that we would utilize a cut-down configuration in setting the stage and seating areas so that the arena would look “nicely dressed” if we happened to only pull in around 8,000 people.

Understand, 1986 was well before social media and the web was just the stuff on ducks’ feet.  So our only prayer for a decent marketing campaign was radio.  Unfortunately no station in Pittsburgh played Windham Hill artists, so we ran a couple of print ads and did some concert flyers and we also bought some time on WDVE, the powerhouse album-oriented rock station.  A deejay named Herschel voiced the Windham Hill commercial for us, and it sounded pretty good on the air but perhaps—in retrospect—it was a tad inappropriate (I can now sorta picture some of those harder-edged ‘DVE listeners suddenly catching this commercial while pig-roastin’ on their patios, scrunchin’ up their weathered splotchy faces and barkin’ out to the kin around the keg, “Windham F**kin' what?!!")

When July 8th rolled around and the final few fans had come through the turnstiles right before showtime, we realized that this concert that I had solely championed was a complete bomb—the attendance ended up at only 1,400 paid.  But the artists all persevered of course and the performances were amazing.  And having long been converts to the Windham Hill sound anyway, the audience members were enrapt and appreciative, and even the critics were laudatory in their post-show reviews (confession: We fed a bit of a higher attendance number to the press, just to smoke-and-mirrors up a little bit of respectability).

Writer Michael Winks of the Pittsburgh Press wrote in his July 9th post-concert review that “…those who didn’t show missed a treat.  Hedges and Shadowfax proved that those who think Windham Hill music is just for mellow yuppies had better get hip to reality.  These guys can really rock out.” 

Unfortunately, booking an “artistic success” didn’t quite cut it with my employers.  We lost a chunk of money due to the low attendance, and in retrospect of course, I should not have booked a concert in order to be personally fulfilled—especially when the arena wasn’t destined to be full, or filled.

The Windham Hill experiment was a failure, but I had tried very hard to make it work; in the end, I guess, ya just can’t Windham all…

 

THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION TOUR OF WOODSTOCK—August 16, 1989 – Pittsburgh Civic Arena

Three years after that Windham Hill concert we were still in the mode of self-booking and self-promoting some shows, especially when we felt that the traditional outside concert promoters weren’t paying us due attention.  The old days of the national talent agencies booking their artists’ shows only with concert promoters—i.e., to the exclusion of arena operators—had begun to fade away.  These talent agencies over time grew increasingly comfortable with us at the Civic Arena and our dual nature of being both “the venue” and “the promoter.”  And honestly for us there was a bit of a thrill—and local cache—that came from being able to do our own shows.

Back when I had started working for the arena in 1985, our marketing department, Civic Arena Corporation Advertising, became the face of this burgeoning in-house concert promotion activity.  And we never really minded when internally people joked about the acronym for Civic Arena Corporation Advertising, even though it seemed to suggest something smelly in a baby diaper.  But appropriately enough, in that summer of 1989, we did lay a bit of a turd with the concert called the 20th Anniversary Celebration Tour of Woodstock…

To be fair, we did have a good number of successes promoting (or co-promoting) our own concerts at the arena, including the likes of Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Heart, Chicago, James Taylor, The Beach Boys and many more.  But success sometimes breeds...overreaching.  Late in the summer of ’89 we needed one more concert to fulfill our minimum-show quota for our concert series sponsor Miller Beer, and it seemed to be rather slim pickin’s in the touring circuit at the time—so we grabbed this Woodstock show, selling ourselves internally on its potential viability by saying “It’s WOODSTOCK, man...Twentieth Anniversary...How bad can it be?!!”

Bad to the bone, as it turned out.  Tickets went on sale and the show then just limped along, gasping for life support.  The line-up wasn’t terrible, really; we had a reasonable melting pot of the original Woodstock B-listers, including Richie Havens, Melanie, ex-Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, Country Joe McDonald (formerly of Country Joe & The Fish), and the Band of Gypsys minus Jimi, of course.  We had just apparently overestimated the enduring appeal of Woodstock, and unfortunately found out in short order that we were headed for a financial shellacking.

Fortunately, there is a code of self preservation that exists among promoters & venues that when you have a show that is severely lagging in sales, one does what one has to do to protect the bottom line.  In this particular case, we exercised the seemingly unseemly option of cancelling one of the artists right before the show came to town, to save money in our overall expense budget.  We also didn’t volunteer this information to the public so that there wasn’t a mini-stampede for ticket refunds.  And…we all loved Melanie, but she drew the short straw.

On Wednesday August 16th, the evening of the show, there was a huddle backstage about how to publicly address the Melanie situation.  It was decided that our arena production manager Mike Gentille would run up immediately before the first artist took the stage to let the crowd know this piece of news.  So at that appropriate moment, Mike ran up to the microphone and said “Ladies and gentlemen, due to unforeseen circumstances Melanie will not be appearing tonight.  And now, here’s JOHN SEBASTIAN!!!”  The Melanie portion of Mike’s quick announcement, however, started to hit home with some of the crowd, and they started to boo.

This was just as John Sebastian was bounding to center stage from the wings, and well into his first song, pockets of the crowd continued to relentlessly boo over our newsflash.  After Sebastian’s set was done, he raced backstage and found Mike in the dressing room hallway.  Inches from his face, Sebastian screamed “Don’t you EVER do a thing like that to me AGAIN!!!!”

That was about the same time we found out that Buddy Miles of the Band of Gypsys had missed his flight to Pittsburgh, and he wasn’t at all sure that he’d be able to make it in time to do his set with the band.  This bit of bad news was relayed to us by the Woodstock reunion’s tour manager, and we pleaded with him to get back on the phone with Miles to make doubly sure he was getting his ass on the very next flight, no matter what.  We then set about switching the order of the artists’ appearances so that the Band of Gypsys would play in the last slot of the evening—and then we held our breath.

With the next-to-last artist on stage and literally minutes to spare, Buddy Miles strode through the backstage entrance along with fellow band-mate and brother-of-Jimi Leon Hendrix, the Gypsys’ guitarist.  The show would go on with no more Sturm und Drang.  Buddy had made it, relieved and ready, a Miles of smiles.

There was no such relief, however, when our arena accountants prepared the profit/loss paperwork on the show the next morning.  With only a couple of thousand people in attendance, the 20th Anniversary Celebration Tour of Woodstock was an unqualified non-success.

Woodstock 1969 was the real deal.  Some folks you run into say that they were there even if they weren’t.  But the people who soldiered on through our Civic Arena reunion concert, our “Woodstock On Fumes?”  Some of these, I’m bettin’, say that they weren’t there even if they were.

 

 

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Posted 3/20/17.....

 P   E   R   F   E   C   T   L   Y       G   O   O   D      G   U   I   T   A   R

 

Who are, or were, the best guitar players in the world?  And what does “best” mean—technical skill, nimbleness, innovation, channeling past masters, what?

To each his own…literally.  Publications such as Rolling Stone, of course, cobble together rankings like this periodically.  In 2003 the magazine came out with “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” and their Top Five, counted down from five, were Robert Johnson (influential 1930s Mississippi Delta blues player), Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Duane Allman, and Jimi Hendrix at #1.  Three of the Top Five here died really young—Johnson and Hendrix at 27, and Allman at a mere 24—so this particular top o’ the list is full of promise unrealized.

Guitar Player in 2012 polled its readers and at the end of that spirited fray, the magazine’s Top Five countdown crystallized as Joe Satriani (the technically adept rock god speedster from Westbury, NY who first rose to prominence in the mid-1980s), Jimi Hendrix, Alex Lifeson from Canadian power trio Rush, and Brian May from Queen in the second chair with Eddie Van Halen gamely taking the throne.

Musicasaurus.com ventures into this rankings territory with no trepidation or apologies in hand.  The following all fall somewhere within my Top Twenty, and they occasionally jockey for position within that realm based on who’s been pulled up on Spotify lately or who’s been dug out of the CD racks.  They are not household names like revered rock gods Clapton, Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck; instead, these artists are lesser-knowns who pricked up my ears at first listen, frankly astonishing me with their gifts and stirring an ever-deepening appreciation…

TOMMY BOLIN (b. 1951... d. 1976)

A bit of history:  Let’s start off with one whose fate mirrored others in that Rolling Stone magazine Top Five, Tommy Bolin.  Born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1951, Bolin moved to Colorado in his late teens and then plowed into rock ‘n’ roll with notable sidesteps into jazz-fusion as well—but his life was cut short unexpectedly at the age of 25, a victim of a drug overdose in a Miami hotel room.  Bolin makes Musicasaurus.com’s list because of what he left behind: Powerful chords and accents, shadings and colorings, and an economy of style—intuitively knowing, song to song, when to hang back as well as when to unleash.

Between 1973 and 1976 Bolin went several directions, stinting with the James Gang and then Deep Purple, contributing to some jazz-rock recordings, and then churning out two laudable solo albums before meeting his untimely end in December of ’76.

Tommy Bolin’s Influences:  Catching a TV show called Caravan of Stars when he was around six years of age put Bolin in awe of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and a bit later on he discovered the works of the famous French guitarist of gypsy heritage Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.  Through a jazz flute player named Jeremy Steig who had recorded with Bolin’s early-period Colorado rock band Zephyr, the guitarist became enamored of the jazz-rock scene and amidst his solo recording projects, sat in with and contributed to albums by drummers Billy Cobham (1973’s Spectrum) and Alphonse Mouzon (1975’s Mind Transplant).

  

Songs to savor:

 

MICHAEL HEDGES (b. 1953... d. 1997)

A bit of history:  Vincent Demasi, a writer with Guitar Player magazine, wrote in 2006 that Hedges had something in common with Jimi Hendrix, though their styles were miles, sometimes worlds apart.  These two artists, wrote Demasi, “shared a common denominator: They pushed the technical, aural, and artistic boundaries of their instruments light years beyond what had previously been attempted or imagined.  Hedges’ discovery by Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman—who had his ‘head torn off’ by the guitarist’s logic-defying fretboard techniques and multi-layered solo compositions—meant his records were usually relegated to the new age bins.  However, the breadth of Hedges’ artistry was not so easily classifiable.  Shrugging off conventional labels altogether, Hedges jokingly referred to his music as ‘new edge,’ ‘acoustic thrash,’ or ‘heavy mental.’

Born in Sacramento, California in 1953, Hedges spent his childhood in Oklahoma and ended up in the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he graduated in 1980 with a degree in composition.  His most acclaimed album, 1984’s Aerial Boundaries on record label Windham Hill, hit that sweet spot of fortuitous arrival when the compact disc was taking serious root and truly turning the spade on the snap, crackle, pop of vinyl.  Aerial Boundaries was a revelation on compact disc—crisp, clear and multi-layered—and listeners were agog that the sounds all emanated from one acoustic guitar.  Not surprising, really; the instrument had a magic man handler whose alternate tunings, slap harmonics, and guitar-body percussive slaps brought a revelatory new sonic experience to people’s ears.

Michael Hedges’ influences:  In his areas of study at Peabody, Hedges’ focus was on 20th Century modernists such as Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and Arnold Schoenberg, but his musical influences included Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and later on, six-string and twelve-string guitarists Ralph Towner and Pat Metheny.  But his first acoustic guitar hero, and someone he eventually toured with many years later, was Leo Kottke. 

  

Songs to savor: 

 

TOM VERLAINE (b. 1949)  

A bit of history:  Verlaine is a New Jersey-born musician who was famously part of a 1970s New York City music scene that was centered around the East Village music club called CBGB.  Founded in ‘73 by owner/promoter Hilly Kristal, CBGB was an acronym that stood for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.”  Birthed to offer bands of all styles and stripes an outlet for original music, the club within a year or so became the repository for the emerging punk scene with fledgling artists such as Television (of which Verlaine was a member), Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads and many more…

After his time with the critically acclaimed but criminally underappreciated (by the masses) band Television, Verlaine embarked on a solo career and continues to this day through his own recordings and collaborations to churn out ragged, jagged wonders on his instrument.  Patti Smith once described his guitar sound as “a thousand bluebirds screaming.”  And his approach is far from the conventions of standard guitar-rock—thankfully.

Tom Verlaine’s influences:  I dipped into Guitar Player magazine and found a revealing quote from the artist in an interview from January 1993, some months after a Television reunion album had hit record stores.  The article was entitled “The Return of Television” and interviewer James Rotondi asked Verlaine this question:  “In your playing I hear shades of everything from ska, reggae, and African music to Link Wray and Pentangle.  What music was in your head when you began writing and playing?”

Verlaine replied:  “I hated guitar music for years.  I played piano because when I was a kid, I'd be really transported by symphonies.  My mother would get these supermarket records of overtures or something, and that was music for me.  The only thing I liked on radio were flying saucer songs and stuff. In the early '60s I hated pop.  I took up sax in about '63, and an older friend of mine had some Coltrane and Ornette Coleman records, and that's the music I liked.  I had a brother who bought Motown, and I thought it was totally twee.  The first rock record I liked was Yardbirds stuff, because it was really wild.  I never listened to guitar music—I thought it was a really twee instrument.  But when I wanted to write songs, I decided that was the thing to play.  For me, even a solo is an accompaniment of some kind, or it just takes the place of a voice.  It's not wrapped up in the same elements or obsessions or desires—maybe that's not fair to say—that most guitar players have.”

     

Songs to savor: 

 

BILL FRISELL (b. 1951)

A bit of history:  Frisell was born in 1951 in Baltimore but spent formative early years in Denver and then, post-college, moved on Boston’s Berklee College of Music. I first became aware of Frisell through recordings associated with the European jazz label ECM in the 1980s (solo works of his, and sideman work on albums by Paul Motian, Eberhard Weber, and others).  This was a mere brush-up-against kind of connection for me, however; Frisell’s guitar style at that time was something that jelled well with ECM’s overall ethereal, breathing-space approach to jazz, but it didn’t convert me let alone draw me in.

Fast forward to 2003 in a Borders Books & Music store in Pittsburgh, where I happened to take a short stack of possible CD purchases to the headphone station, and Frisell’s The Intercontinentals was one of them.  It was a revelation to me, as the music was so pure, unfettered and freeing that I couldn’t categorize it into just jazz, or Third World-y, or folk, or…It was just a hypnotic blend of it all.

Turns out that Frisell, by the beginning of the 1990s, had moved to Seattle and was turning more toward a broad and inclusive palette of Americana music.  He had been corralling country, blues, bluegrass, jazz and more to blend and bend to his will—and it was beautiful stuff.  Here on The Intercontinentals, he had invited into his Americana mix a few folk musicians from Brazil, Macedonia and Mali, and the results were resonating and positively otherworldly.

Bill Frisell’s influences:  What was the first record that Frisell remembers buying with his own money?  “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys.  And in an interview with London’s music magazine Wire, the artist recounted others who had led him down the path: “When I was 16, I was listening to a lot of surfing music, a lot of English rock.  Then I saw Wes Montgomery and somehow that kind of turned me around.  Later, Jim Hall made a big impression on me and I took some lessons with him.  I suppose I play the kind of harmonic things Jim would play but with a sound that comes from Jimi Hendrix."  Others that Frisell cited as important to infusing his muse were jazz drummer Paul Motian, American composer Aaron Copland, jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and mentor guitar teacher, Dale Bruning.

  

Songs to savor: 

 

PHIL KEAGGY (b. 1951)

  

A bit of history:  I first witnessed Keaggy’s fire and finesse in my high school auditorium in Butler, PA somewhere between 1969 and 1971 (where IS that ticket stub?!!).  Glass Harp, a rock trio from nearby Youngstown, Ohio was the band on stage that evening and gifted guitarist Keaggy, not quite 20 years of age at the time, lit up the audience (though some had lit up previously, I observed) with his incredible mid-song soloing which s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d some of the tunes to a glorious ten or twelve minutes in length.  There wasn’t even a hint of gratuitous excess, though; this was just a spirit-infused young man channeling a higher power, pealing off guitar sounds that ranged from a violin’s sweet ascent to a Messerschmitt’s final dive.

After Glass Harp’s brief initial run at the limelight—just three studio albums between 1970 and 1972—Keaggy’s burgeoning faith crystallized in his departure from the band and a dedication and devotion to a career in Christian music.  Over the years, the prolific guitarist has released well over 50 albums of electric and/or acoustic, solo and/or band material, and there are nuggets of wonder and awe peppered throughout this song canon.  These days, Keaggy and his Glass Harp mates play out and even record a bit together, so musicasaurus.com recommends you keep an eye peeled for local concert listings especially in western PA and eastern Ohio.

Phil Keaggy’s influences:  In his own words, from an interview in ChristianMusic.com:  "The 50's gave me a keen interest in music.  I was born in 1951.  There was Johnny Ray, Elvis, The Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran, just to name a few.  The 60's gave me the influences of The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix, Page and Mike Bloomfield.  As a young player, I tried to fashion my style after these artists and players.

"Paul McCartney was a huge musical mentor through his recordings, but I also came to love classical as well (Vaughn-Williams, Grieg, Bach, etc.).

"Throughout the 70s and 80s, I continued to listen to many guitarists such as Julian Bream, John Renbourn, Bruce Cockburn, Anthony Phillips, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny and Alan Holdsworth.  I always wanted to keep my ears open to new influences.  During all these years, I wrote and recorded my music and went on tour quite a lot.  The '90s till this present time, I find myself enjoying acoustic music the most, though I still play electric on recordings and the occasional band date."

    

Songs to savor:

 

 

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Posted 3/6/17.....THE LONGEST TIME

 

Ebb and flow—that’s the wave we all rode upon, when I worked at Star Lake Amphitheater (the Hanover Township/Washington County large outdoor concert venue near Pittsburgh, PA).  For every thrill and satisfaction gained from a sold-out, soul-satisfyin’ event like the Lollapalooza festival, there was pretty much always a mind-numbing Tums inducer somewhere else on the summer schedule…

Our cross to bear in the Summer of 1992 was an event we created locally called The Friday Night Rocker:  WDVE’s Electric Lunch Live.  A few months before that particular summer arrived, we had approached WDVE—our highly rated and promoter-friendly Pittsburgh AOR (album-oriented rock) station—and had floated to them the idea of us booking a concert based on their successful midday “Electric Lunch” hour of flashback rock.  The station was receptive and in turn excited to be the on-air promoter of the concert, if we agreed to be the financial promoter—in other words, we would be the ones who $ecured the benefit$ or $uffered the con$equence$ depending upon how the show ultimately ended up doing.

We looked at this show as a “season filler”—one that we could cobble together, throw out there at a low-dough price for the fans, and then hope that the ‘DVE crowd would drive out in droves to the amphitheatre for a night of flashback fun and frivolity.  The promoter math worked this way:  We had to go for only the low-priced acts—the ones that wouldn’t cost us an arm & a leg—in order to be able to sell the tickets at a fan-friendly, affordable price.  And we definitely felt that an enticing package built out of these lower-cost, career-stalled individuals would be our ticket to mild, if not wild success...

We turned to our bookers in Houston, Texas and implored them to scour the lists of all touring artists, instructing them to look pretty far down the rungs of that ladder.  We set our sights on four total bands, which in concert-promoter lingo translates to “three long intermissions” (hey, it’s not all about the beer sales—but pretty damn close, in a situation like this).

  

By late Spring, we had our has-beens locked & loaded:  The Friday Night Rocker, confirmed for June 12, 1992, would feature Molly Hatchet, Blue Oyster Cult, Leslie West (formerly lead guitarist of Mountain), and Jefferson Starship.  Each of these ‘60s/’70s grizzled veterans was probably 15-20 years down the pike from their peak; still fairly sturdy on stage, but long past their era of allure.

And when the day of the show’s on-sale hit, it became readily apparent that we had, uh, maybe miscalculated a bit.  Ticket sales limped out of the gate and continued that anemic pattern—but not for lack of effort on WDVE’s part, it should be noted.  The station had truly embraced the concept and rode herd on plenty of on-air announcements and ticket giveaways, starting a week before on-sale and continuing on into the subsequent weeks when ticket sales were in inverse proportion to the number of times we slapped ourselves upside the head.

Why was this gang of four not selling tickets?!!  It did finally dawn on us that although “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” equals “4” in the real world, we concert promoters were living in our own carefully-crafted rock ‘n’ roll fantasy—which meant we had blithely turned a blind eye originally to the potential outcome of this kind of booking experiment.  Now recalibrating, the math was lookin’ more like “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” equals “2 ½” at best. 

Knowing the fate that awaited us, we set about cutting the projected show expenses in advance as best we could, including ratcheting back the levels and overall quality of the artists’ backstage catering menu…Then we turned toward review (and whacking) of certain staffing positions around the amphitheater based on the expected lack of attendance...and on and on.

When the bands finally rolled into town on Friday, June 12 for their evening performances, we found that we weren’t the only ones practicing some self-deception.  The bands’ individual road reps departed the tour buses and immediately began squabbling about the dressing room assignments we had made, as if this wasn’t 1992 but 1972, twenty years back in their heyday.  I recall directly fielding a few of these complaints from these puffed up and swaggering artist mouthpieces, but at the time I remember thinking “Yeah, well, Time Warps For No One.”

To be fair, we were in such a maelstrom of discontent ourselves—internally still crying about losing our shirts on this particular show—that we weren’t sure if the bands themselves were the prima donnas, or if it was merely these reps and handlers, the old disgruntled road hogs who were starting to seek us out at every opportunity with a myriad of “complaints” and “issues.”  Regardless, it was clear that some of the folks in this crankypants convergence were just trying to regain their Glory Days at our mental and physical expense.

Then it was the cheese plates.  One band complained that another one had better accommodations AND better in-room snack offerings.  And that tour rep actually waved a plate of toothpicked cheese cubes in our venue production manager’s face, shouting about the inequities his band members were suffering throughout the evening.

And the culmination of this abomination?  It clearly came when we divulged to the individual bands’ tour reps precisely when each of their artists would be playing their sets.  Routinely with all of the multi-act shows that we constructed from scratch, we would spec out the order of appearance well in advance and usually not a peep was heard from the various band reps. 

In this case, the curmudgeons were incensed—some wanted the coveted third-performance slot in the vain theory that attendance would be at its peak; others demanded the fourth slot, because they felt that THEY were the true headliners; and still others just wanted ANY slot except the first, because they didn’t want their artist to be playing to a smattering of fans while the majority of folks were still out in the parking lots altering their consciousnesses before coming through the gates.

When the dust had finally settled, we had our revised and final line-up in place.  But then some of the bands, still miffed at not getting their first choice of performance slots, played e-x-t-r-a long sets—just to piss off the band that followed, who would invariably be asked by us to shorten their set due to overall time constraints on the evening.

That was the final indignation, as it turned out.  ALL of the sets ran extremely long anyway, and we couldn’t decipher if the bands were just caught up in the moment and jam-crazy, OR if they were out to punish the upcoming act by purposeful prolongment—or maybe, it was a mix of the two.

In the end it doesn’t matter.  All I know is, Blue Oyster Cult went on fourth and last, at 12:30am.  The few nice neighboring homes just a holler away from the amphitheater were thus treated to a rousing version of “Don’t Fear The Reaper” at approximately 1:15am—a wake-up call, if there ever was one, for our local government officials to finally put a damn curfew on the facility.

Good times, bad times—you know, I’ve had my share.

 

 

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Posted 2/20/17.....WORK TO MAKE IT WORK

 

There’s a lot of talk during these blustery days of early 2017 about bringing jobs back—which brought back to my mind the little odyssey I took to land one of my first major steps in my music career.

Back in 1977 and early into 1978 I worked at a small independent record store in Wexford, PA called Exile Records.  My friend Gary and I were the proud co-managers of the store—which meant, we successfully turned a blind eye to the fact that we were the only two people working there, and that our shrewd boss Dave from the Butler, PA original store desired this second store of his to run in complete harmony with absolutely no manager/employee issues.

Day-to-day existence at Retail can be mind-numbing, even in the “exciting” milieu of the record business.  Gary and I looked forward to Tuesdays, when we would hop in our beat-up Datsun and drive into The Big City (Pittsburgh) in order to pick up new album and cassette inventory from the wholesaler record distributor called (if memory serves) A & C.  We’d bring the bounty back to Exile Wexford, price the product, and restock the record shelves.  Every other day of the week, Gary and I mainly hung out at the front counter, he smoking cigarettes and we trading licks—challenging each other with music trivia, talking about our weirdest customer experiences, and debating whether the day would call for an eventual run to McDonald’s.

When evenings and weekends hit, the store would be flooded with music fans eager to plunk down their earnings for the latest Kansas record...or the new Sanford-Townsend Band album...or Steely Dan’s Aja or Skynyrd’s Street Survivors ...or that perpetually plopped down on the counter Rumours record, from Fleetwood Mac. 

Gary and I had elevated musical tastes (self-proclaimed).  We enjoyed the luxury of being able to open up ANY new record in the store and plop it on the turntable for “in-store play.”  We also had to our advantage our boss’ brain; he was a sponge for musical trends and hot new releases, and so from Butler HQ he helped us keep stock of what we had in stock. 

Gary and I also bonded with most all of our customers, but our sarcastic bent and our “higher musical consciousness” forced us to push the boundaries of good taste and customer relations.  As I believe I’ve noted in at least one earlier posting here, Gary and I once compiled a list of the Top Ten Concerts That We Would Smuggle A Howitzer Into To Do The Right Thing, and on it we listed bands we reviled like Foreigner, Triumph, Boston, and REO Speedwagon.  We turned that list into a poster and taped it up in full view, right in the area of our cash register.  Some customers would laugh when they’d see that list as they came up to check out; others would remain expressionless after they read it, not say a word, and then leave with their tail between their legs and their new Boston album tucked under one arm.

Life in Record Store Retail was ahhhh, so comfortable and predictable—until early in 1978.  A friend of ours stopped in the store one day in January and told us that her husband—a local Warner Brothers record promotion man—had mentioned to her that there was a job opening with WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Distributing Corporation) here in Pittsburgh.  She said that she thought it might be a job worth checking into, so through this friend, I was able to contact the Warner Brothers’ representative and set up an interview.

Please understand something:  I was 25 years old.  Scruffy looking, according to my mom.  With nebulous professional horizons.  I had a ton of passion for music and SOME drive and ambition, but was also largely content with cruising along in a comfortable environment where the most stress we had in a day was choosing which shrink-wrapped album covers to creatively deface with magic markers, and playing “rock/paper/scissors” to see who had to take the deposit to the bank and bring back the bad coffee.

As the day of the WEA interview approached, I began to think about it more seriously.  Through my record store workaday haze, I began to see myself taking the plunge if the job was ultimately offered to me.  Through my friend’s husband (the Warner Brothers guy), I learned that my interviewers were going to be the WEA Cleveland branch office sales manager and the Warner Brothers regional promotion chief.

I remembered that the Grammys were coming up soon on TV, and so I had this idea of making a “Grammy Contenders” WEA display in our storefront window.  I found an old RCA record label poster—one with their trademark dog looking into a wind-up gramophone—and I ditched the doggy and pasted just the gramophone image onto the window beside a couple of album covers of WEA-related Grammy nominees (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and The Eagles’ Hotel California).  I rustled up the store’s one Polaroid camera, and wa LAH:  I had a Grammy display to show my interviewers. 

Then I bought a suit that night.  Never owned one prior to that, at least as a young adult.  And generally wouldn’t be caught dead in one.  But I had no idea what the two WEA guys were expecting, so I bit the bullet and the next day, headed to downtown Pittsburgh for the interview.

I was a bit nervous, the hand with the Polaroid picture tap-tap-tapping at my side as I knocked on the WEA guys’ hotel room door.  Once inside I could tell that they were trying to put me at ease.  They seemed to like my store window Grammy display a lot, but then pretty quickly turned toward the job description:  Armed with posters, a staple gun and rolls of tape, I would become Warner-Elektra-Atlantic’s first full-time display person in the Pittsburgh market, responsible for the National Record Mart stores (NRMs) and all of the independent record stores from Pittsburgh to Youngstown to Wheeling and all points in between.

I left the hotel room after 20 minutes with absolutely no clue as to how the interview actually went.  I remembered answering most of their questions, and had tried to put on a professional face even though my cheap clip-on tie was strangling me throughout.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief, though, as I left the hotel.  I grabbed two coffees on the way back to Exile Wexford, and told Gary that I thought maybe I’d blown it.

Then I got a call about two days later—and they offered me the job.  I was flabbergasted.  I talked things over immediately with Gary, who was also my roommate at the time.  Should I actually say yes?  I joked to Gary that since the band Foreigner was on the Atlantic record label and part of WEA, would that mean I’d have to ask him to remove the band from Exile’s “Top Ten Artists Howitzer” list?  The conversation in my head then quickly started to go this way: I am at a crossroads of sorts here; it might just be time to grow a little and move on to a brand new challenge...

A week or two after I started the new job, I found out a bit more about why I’d been chosen.  According to the local Warner Brothers promotion rep, the two WEA Cleveland guys really liked me—and the reason they hired me was that the very last guy who interviewed before me was one cocky mofo.  He had a smirk on his face that he didn’t try all that hard to suppress, apparently banking on the fact that, because he managed one of Pittsburgh’s most successful indie record stores, he’d be a shoo-in.  He also reportedly grumbled about the salary when the Cleveland guys were looking for, if not handstands, at least an affirmative nod.

Why did I get the job?  Looking back, I think it was because I appeared interested and maybe even eager throughout the interview (which, like a sleight of hand, may have diverted them from my overall scruffiness).  Also, I had prepared for it by pulling together the Grammy display and the photo.  And when they a bit hesitantly confessed that the job only paid “x”, my answer was more along the lines of “When do I start?”

So, lessons learned:  When you have the opportunity to get yourself in front of anyone dangling a job, be prepared...be hungry...walk in with a creative “extra touch”...and then freely admit you’d work for diddly-$quat. 

Worked for me way back when—so ply these nuggets as ye will.

 

 

 

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Posted 2/6/17.....TO THE ISLAND (musicasaurus.com’s readers chime in…)

This is actually a four-year-old posting, which cried out to me to bring it back from the retirement home of tales that are no longer on the site…Why this bit of recycling?

Maybe because the idea of heading out to an Isle of No Return is not such a bad idea these days.  Whatever your political persuasion may be, the current climate is such that jettisoning your lifestyle and skedaddling to a stopped-in-your-tracks existence ruled only by surf, sun and sand may be the smartest move you’d ever make.

And to that island, of course, you would take your lifelong friend, your guiding light, your source of inspiration—yes, your favorite album of all time.

Four years back I found myself reaching out to some friends and peers in the world of the arts, kinda setting them up for self-torture.  I asked them to imagine they were going to a deserted island, with zero chance of rescue or return, and that they must choose just ONE album to take with them.

Lord, I think this was tough on ‘em.  We’re not talking Sophie’s Choice-level tough, but certainly they were feverishly digging through their record and CD collections thinking “I can’t choose!  Don’t make me choose!” 

BUT THEY PREVAILED.  Some cheated and listed additional albums beyond “the one”—but we’ll let that slide.  No customs.

Jack Tumpson (Pittsburgh) / Former owner-operator of concert promotion company Next Big Thing; subsequently a Pace/Live Nation venue marketer-then-general manager; currently owner-publisher of WHIRL Magazine.....I went through the Stones’ Get Your Ya Yas Out, a couple of Neil Young albums, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, some U2, James Brown Live at the Apollo, and even Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, but for my head, it's the Grateful Dead Live Dead.  It's 1969 at the Fillmore Auditorium.  I grew up listening to Blue Note Jazz records, and in 1969 the Grateful Dead was my musical "next big thing.”  Live Dead is one big improvisational rock bonanza.  “Dark Star” takes me away, the “St. Stephen” into the “Eleven” side goes from anthem to free fall, and the closing “Turn On Your Love Light” just rocks.  The music changes with each listening.  An old acid head philosopher friend told me it was all about set and setting, and if I'm on a deserted island setting, I want to get my mental set right.

 

Joe Grushecky (Pittsburgh) / Musician, singer-songwriter and bandleader (Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers).....Today it would be Exile on Main Street by the Stones.  Having recently learned to play all the songs on the album gave me a deep appreciation of how musically rich it is.  Mick, Keith, and company play all types and styles of music and pull it off with authority and passion.  The band has absorbed its roots and channeled them to make something uniquely their own.  To top it all off, the guitar playing is killer.

 

Tom Rooney (Pittsburgh) / Former executive director of Star Lake Amphitheatre 1990-1994; currently now president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group.....That deserted island, Tom Hanks Cast Away album would have to be Peter Gabriel’s So.  Kicking off with mystical “Red Rain” and then roaring into R&B infused “Sledgehammer,” which was a huge radio hit, So was off to the races.  A wistful duet next in “Don’t Give Up,” and then two more power hits “That Voice Again” and “In Your Eyes;” I can’t recall another record having such an opening punch.  I remember buying it in Detroit at a record store and I wore that CD out.  Another great cut “Big Time,” is along the way.  I remember when we did Peter Gabriel’s W.O.M.A.D. (World of Music Art & Dance) event at Star Lake in 1993 I got a chance to walk around with him and chat at the second and third stages.  The least he could do since we lost our $hirt with the show.  When I need a lift, I YouTube some of those live Peter Gabriel performances…amazing.

 

Gab Bonesso (Pittsburgh) / Comedian, Writer, Producer, co-creator of The Josh and Gab Show kids anti-bullying programming.....My deserted island album would have to be Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar Original London Recording.  I debated intensely with myself over said decision.  Neutral Milk Hotel's Aeroplane Over the Sea is probably the greatest album written during my lifetime, yet my heart must go with Superstar.  As a child growing up in the suburbs outside of Pittsburgh, my family played Superstar every Easter season like clockwork.  I know every word to every song which I have been harmonizing (poorly) with my siblings for years!  It's more than an album. It's like a major part of my family's history.

 

George Balicky (Pittsburgh) / Former Senior Vice-President of the National Record Mart retail chain....As an extremely young Regional Manager at National Record Mart in the early Seventies, I had the pleasure of listening to record albums in the NRM stores that I visited daily.  It was back then that I discovered Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman album.  Over the years, I have found myself listening to this album particularly when it is quiet and I'm alone.  Therefore, for the deserted island, it's easy--just me and Tea!

 

Cris Winter (Pittsburgh) / Former on-air talent on WXXP, WDVE, and 3WS; currently on WISH 99.7..... Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!  There hasn't been a live album since this one that has truly captured the excitement of a concert...from the clapping, intro and opening riffs of "Something's Happening" to "Do You Feel Like We Do".  What's not to love?!!  Every time I hear it, it brings back great memories; this disc never leaves my multi-CD changer in my car!  I always wondered why other bands/artists didn't seek out Peter and Chris Kimsey's expertise in producing, engineering, mixing and arranging of a live album; this has truly stood the test of time.  By the way, this is the only album in my collection that I have on all formats:  8 track, cassette, and multiple album and CD copies.  And yes, I also have the 25th anniversary deluxe edition on CD too! 

 

  

Donnie Iris (Pittsburgh) / Musician, singer-songwriter and bandleader (Donnie Iris and The Cruisers).....I would be hard-pressed to choose between the Beatles White Album and Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On.  Both had a huge impact on me.  I listened over and over to both.  Headphones, of course.  Trance-like effect.  Total zone-out.

 

Marylynn Uricchio (Pittsburgh) / Former Seen/Style Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.....Willy DeVille was a true original, influenced by everyone and everything and created his own sound that was hard to define but downright intoxicating.  R&B, Cajun, soul, Spanish flamenco, doo wop and somehow his band Mink DeVille ended up being the house band at punk paradise CBGB.  Coup de Grace is one of their best.  My favorite is "You Better Move On."  I love the weariness in Willy's voice, and the kindness.  The whole album is killer - the title literally means final blow or death blow.  Every song drips with anguish, but on top of that they're all catchy tunes.  Never get tired of this one!  

 

Charlie Brusco (Atlanta, GA) / Pittsburgh-area native, artist manager and former concert promoter; currently heads up the Atlanta office of artist management company Red Light Management – If I were stranded on an island I would take the Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and the gang masterpiece Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek & the Dominos.  To start off with, it is a double album so lots of music and great weaving of singing and playing and memorable songs.  Everyone loves the track “Layla” but there are other gems like “Tell the Truth” and “Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad,” and vocals by Eric, and the phenomenal Bobby Whitlock, and you have a true masterpiece.  I would also smuggle along The Outlaws 1st album along with Styx’s Pieces of Eight, Skynyrd's Pronounced and the first Bad Company album. Give me those and the island of Kauai and I am a happy guy.

 

Sean McDowell (Pittsburgh) / Longtime on-air talent with WDVE Led Zeppelin III...It’s my favorite Led Zeppelin album, and it holds my favorite Zeppelin song combined with my favorite Jimmy Page solo: “Since I've Been Loving You.”  My 2nd and 3rd favorite Zep tunes are also on that album, “Tangerine” and “Gallows Pole.”  I still listen to Led Zeppelin III several times a year.

 

Joe Negri (Pittsburgh) / Jazz guitarist, composer and educator (also, for all time, “Handyman Negri” on PBS’ Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood).....I was initially quite stumped by your question.  Believe it or not, I'm not and have never been a big collector of albums or CDs.  I have quite broad tastes in music...from classical, e.g., Stravinsky, Ravel , Bach, etc. to Broadway, American Songbook, and Jazz including, of course, Jazz guitar.  That being said, I will try to answer your question:  My choice to take to that deserted island would be an album called Undercurrent that featured the piano of Bill Evans and the guitar of Jim Hall.  I choose this because of the music that these two selected for this album and because of the artistry of these two players...Classic, timeless Jazz in every way.

 

Liz Berlin (Pittsburgh) / Musician, Rusted Root; Mr. Smalls Theatre & Recording Studio part owner; Director of non-profit Creative.Life.Support; Teaching Artist.....I think I would have to say OK Computer by Radiohead.  That record is a pinnacle of musical evolution for me.  I consider it just as important as Pink Floyd's The Wall or even Led Zeppelin's fourth album with “Stairway To Heaven.”  Like both of those examples this album was a game changer for me personally and I believe to the history of music in general.  It's a piece of work that moves through so many modes and depths of intensity that I would have something to suit every mood while trapped on the deserted island and never be at a loss for inspiration.

 

Scott Tady (Beaver, PA) / Entertainment Editor of the Beaver County Times.....I’d go with Dire Straits’ Alchemy.  Great, pure live album…Mark Knopfler’s guitar really “speaks” on it.  Good mix of wistfulness and romanticism, which would probably serve me well pining away the hours on a deserted island.

 

Steve Hansen (Pittsburgh) / Former on-air talent on WDVE’s “Jimmy & Steve” morning program (1980-1986); currently an independent writer/producer.....Were I to be banished to an island, a solitary album my only companion, I would have to take Avalon by Roxy Music.  Which comes as a surprise, even to me.  I'm not really a fan of Roxy Music.  I saw Bryan Ferry once and thought he was one of the more graceless stage artists I'd ever seen.  And yet Avalon completely engrossed me when it came out.  From the opening riff to the end it has a majestic and melodic confidence that sucks me into its world.  And if I was on a deserted island I would need to be carried away, if only in my mind.  I'd put it on, fire up whatever natural plant offerings I could burn, and hear traces of rock, trance, jazz, new age and Indian music with whispers of Sting, Annie Lennox and Chris Isaak.  By the time the wistful last track had faded I'd hopefully have been swept to another dimension far removed from my island reality.  Or at least be stoned.

 

Rich Engler (Pittsburgh) / Former president of DiCesare-Engler Productions (which eventually became part of Live Nation); currently head of Rich Engler Presents.....Aja by Steely Dan...One of the finest recordings ever.  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are two of my favorite writers, and Steve Gadd is one of my favorite drummers.  The entire album is total perfection!!!!

 

Scott Blasey (Pittsburgh) / Musician and lead singer for The Clarks......I'd go with The Beatles’ White Album.  It's long.  It still sounds great.  And I think "Blackbird" alone could keep you going if you were alone on a deserted island.

 

Beckye Levin Gross (Houston, Texas) / Former booker with Pace Music Group which ultimately became Live Nation.....The ONE album I would take with me on a deserted island would be Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Not only could I listen to this album over and over and over again, but it brings forth a very powerful memory.  It takes me back to being a teenager and that point in your life where you are trying to individuate strongly from your parents and you think everything about them is uncool.  But then you find that one thing that you cannot believe you both have in common, and you realize they might not be as "old" as you thought.  (And I now realize they were thinking there was no hope for their child's sense of taste.)...For me, it was THIS album.  I can vividly recall standing in my childhood living room, by the stereo cabinet, and finding that pinkish, red album.  I can feel the album in my hand.  And when I put the record on the turntable and heard the music, I immediately fell forever in love with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

 

Scott Mervis (Pittsburgh) / Currently writer/reviewer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and editor of the newspaper’s Weekend.....I would insist that my deserted island disc be a double album and, fortunately, my deserted island artist, Bob Dylan, made a dandy one in 1966 with Blonde On Blonde.  It sounds like no other album, going all over the map, musically, from the raw harmonica blues of “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” to the boozy Dixieland romp of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” to the jangly psychedelic folk-rock of “I Want You” to the shimmering beauty of “Visions of Johanna.”  Lyrically and even (yes) vocally, it’s beyond what any mere mortal has been able to achieve.

 

Mike Sanders (Pittsburgh) / Concert promoter, Opus One Productions.....Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is one of the greatest albums in recorded music and possibly the great jazz album of all time.  It has timeless appeal and the kind of appeal that will never go out of style.  Pick one album to demonstrate the best of 20th Century Recorded Music and I can't think of one with greater depth and impact.

 

Billy Price (Pittsburgh) / Singer-songwriter and east coast blue-eyed soul man.....I would want to spend my waning years on the island contemplating perfection.  For that, I would bring along Two Steps From the Blues by Bobby Bland, a jewel of perfection at the confluence of blues, soul, and R&B. 

 

Val Porter (Pittsburgh) / longtime WDVE on-air talent; currently Music Director and a member of the station’s acclaimed morning show.....Fair Warning by Van Halen.  I love the songs on this record.  There are a ton of albums I could have picked, but this is one that I rarely get tired of listening to. 

 

Rob James (Pittsburgh) / Guitarist/background vocalist for The Clarks.....My deserted island selection:  Ryan Adams Gold.  This album is a diverse and well balanced collection of songs that remains as compelling for me today as the first time I listened to it.  Produced by Ethan Johns, son of famed engineer/producer Glyn Johns, the various sonic textures of this album, while giving a healthy nod to classic recordings, offer a timeless vehicle for songs like "New York, New York", "Answering Bell", "When The Stars Go Blue" and "Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues".  Ryan Adams' gift as an exceptional songwriter is boldly pronounced on Gold and has been a constant source of inspiration for me over the years, greatly informing my own playing and writing.  Above all, this just an enjoyable listen from beginning to end making it an obvious choice for a deserted island selection.

 

Paul Carosi (Pittsburgh) / Designer/developer of the website Pittsburgh Music History (https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/).....If I were shipwrecked on a deserted island that just happened to have a solar-powered charger for my music device, one album I'd enjoy listening to over and over again would be Horace Silver's Song For My Father.  AllMusic's Scott Yarnow ranks it as one of the Essential Hard Bop Recordings.  The title cut was the inspiration of Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number".  I'm bored with the same old simple three-four chord classic rock songs I've heard hundreds of times.  The Beatles 1962-1966 Red album is a good compilation but it would quickly become repetitious.  Song For My Father has a great set of “cool” complex jazz tunes that I could dance to or drum along to, beating on my coconut shells.  The music might also keep me from talking to my friend Wilson the volleyball.

 

Ed Traversari (Pittsburgh) / Former concert promoter & partner in DiCesare-Engler Productions (which eventually became part of Live Nation); currently associate professor in the sports, arts and entertainment management department at Point Park University.....I would say the album I have to bring with me is Legend by Bob Marley.  This is a very hard question to answer, however I have always been a huge reggae and Bob Marley fan and I could think of no better record to play on the island.

 

Josh Verbanets (Pittsburgh) / Musician, Meeting of Important People; co-creator, The Josh and Gab Show kids anti-bullying programming.....I'm going to throw a curve into this one and say that if I was to end up on a deserted island with only one album, I would want it to be Steve Martin's 1977 comedy album Let’s Get Small.  I would probably feel the need to laugh and hear the comforting, familiar voice of another person more than I would want to hear Thom Yorke or Ray Davies singing about the government if I was stuck in one spot for the rest of my life, and there's so many wonderful little banjo ditties on this record too!  I would put it on every morning while lifting coconut weights, listen to it during my dinner of wild boar, and let it sooth me to sleep under the stars, possibly also play it all night long and dream of Steve Martin's silver toupee.

 

Stacy Innerst (Pittsburgh) / Artist and illustrator for books, newspapers and magazines; most recently illustrated The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue by Suzanne Slade, Boyds Mills Press, 2016…..Impossibly hard question, but I think I'd want music that inspired me to believe that someone out there had genius enough to figure out how to rescue me, therefore I think I'd want Mozart piano concertos or something of that nature.  On the other hand, I'd probably need "working music"--something to motivate me while I cut down palm trees with a pocket knife-- like Eat a Peach by the Allmans.  But if I had just one pick that had a bit of Mozart and a bit of roots, I think I'd take Music from Big Pink by The Band--the one with bonus tracks.  "This Wheel's on Fire", "Chest Fever" and "I Shall Be Released" would keep me going for a while.

 

Ron Antill (Pittsburgh) / Longtime on-air radio talent; currently on WISH 99.7.....That’s an easy one--Crosby Stills, Nash and Young’s 4 Way Street.  First of all it’s a two-record set.  A double 8-track, and I burned through two of them in my Pioneer Super Tuner player.  Heh heh!  It’s a “live” collection, complete with feedback from amps and screw-ups left in, and full of everything from protest songs to acoustic ballads, long versions of rock anthems with solos by all four of these legends, and of course, it also features my musical hero, the genius – Neil Young.  This one sounds as fresh to me today (on CD and Ipod) as it did back then while I was riding around in my ‘66 Chevy Corvair “in a cloud of smoke.”  Any Corvair enthusiast can easily explain the “smoke” reference crediting it to burning motor oil, but still…it was the early 70’s, man.  Every time I listen to it, I’m instantly transformed to that time in my life, in my musical time machine.

 

Bob Klaus (Durham, NC) / Original marketing director of Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheatre (1990); currently general manager of Durham Performing Arts Center.....Whiskeytown’s Stranger's Almanac...This album makes me smile, not a big broad smile...but more of a grin.  It's like an old comfortable chair.  I feel at home...remember falling in love, get sad on a track or two as well.  But in the end it circles round and reminds me of home in Carolina.  And that would be a good thing on a deserted island.

 

Rick Sebak (Pittsburgh) / WQED public television producer & narrator.....Why don't I have one of my jam-packed iPods with me?  I mean I've been seriously thinking about seeing if Jerry Weber (Jerry’s Records, Squirrel Hill) will consider taking ALL of my old vinyl albums, so I can't imagine why I'd have an "album" with me when I find myself alone on an island with a record player, but I understand the question.  It's hard to decide.  I think I might be happy to have The Band's second album with me, the brown one with the old black-and-white photos of the group.  It's always been a favorite since my earliest days of buying music.  I never tire of "Look Out Cleveland" and "Jemima Surrender" and the rest, and I think I could stand to listen a few more times.  When I was a foreign exchange student to Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1970, my Brazilian "brother" Edu kept his LPs in a small room under the family's carport, and I remember how happy I was to see his copy of The Band when I first arrived there.  Edu hated the album.  Not enough hits.  I consider it an old friend, and I think I'd be happy to have such an old friend on the island with me.  By the way, which island is this?  Neville?

 

 

 

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Posted 1/23/17.....FLUTE THING

I recently came down with a touch of the flute.  I was dipping into Loggins and Messina’s 1972 self-titled second album, revisiting a song called “Angry Eyes,” a seven-minute-plus exploration that features an unknown (to practically all of us, I would think) band member/flute player named Jon Clarke.  Clark weighs in at about the five-and-a-half minute mark of the song.  His sixty-second passage is lilting and sprightly, floating above the jazz-tinged percolating swirl that leads to the vocal chorus wrap-up of this epic-length Loggins and Messina track…

Listening to this after such a long while made me think of my coterie from high school, the ones who largely obsessed over music instead of sports.  The sports buffs had their gridiron Friday nights and afternoon assemblies and pep rallies, but our particular world of passion played out outside of school; we spent time alone in our bedrooms with fresh album shrink-wrap topping our wastebaskets, or spent it huddled at each other’s houses or all stuffed in one car, talking over and one-upping each other about the newest album we had just snagged from the local G.C. Murphy or Woolworth’s record section.

I had the good fortune back then to be exposed to a ton of new music through these friends and likeminded souls.  We were enthralled with what was going on in our country at that time—those heaving social changes and the like—and at least a partial result of this youthquake was an absolute flood of creativity coming our way.  There were revelations through radio—songs that were fresh and boundary-collapsing—and also an abundance of new artists’ albums showing up in the local record bins, with tantalizing and/or head-scratching covers that lured us into the liner notes and rooted us in that blissful haze of hovering over & hanging out for hours at a time…We were like vessels for the incoming wave, and our heads were full of it.

Anyway, the flute thing…British progressive blues-rock band Jethro Tull was the one that lured me into the possibilities of a lead instrument that could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.  My first exposure to them came through their 1969 album Stand Up, which is exactly what the group did as album buyers ripped off the shrink-wrap and spread open the gatefold cover.  The cartoonish paper foursome stood up as the gatefold spread, their arms splayed in a major “Ta-DAH!” which to me heralded great things waiting within…

The record was a revelation to me.  Frontman Ian Anderson reportedly had switched from guitar to flute shortly after the band was officially formed as Tull in late ’67, after a period of personnel shifts and band name changes.  As a struggling musician who lived for a time in unheated bedsits (a British term for single room flats), Anderson tended to wear a long overcoat for warmth and brought that garb onto the stage along with his new instrument.

And that’s the Ian Anderson that I saw in Pittsburgh at the Civic Arena in the Fall of 1970, a high-stepping possessed pied piper who handled all lead vocals and used his flute to spit and spool out frenzied solos and fluttering accents, all the while breathlessly conducting the band with that wand he wielded.  The group was touring in support of their third album Benefit at that time, still about five months shy of releasing their eventual mega-seller Aqualung.  But even after all these years it’s the Stand Up album that I keep going back to…

  

Stand Up contains the band’s greatest blend of English folk music, rock and blues, with songs like “Nothing Is Easy,” “Fat Man,” “Reasons For Waiting,” and one full-on instrumental that is ageless:  J.S. Bach’s "Bourée," as arranged by Ian Anderson.  This song—and here I don’t want to come off as being too highfalutin—is the best song in the band’s entire catalogue.  It’s a breathtaking melding by Anderson of classical and rock, and his flute work drives this tune to majestic heights.

I’ll leave you now with an ample sample of “All Things Flute”—songs you may remember that incorporate at least a passage, if not full-on solos…and then a few nods to flautists of various genres who will hopefully become instrumental to your next round of listening pleasure:

 

1.) SONGS THAT INCORPORATE THE FLUTE:

“Heard It in a Love Song” – The Marshall Tucker Band…The song is from the band’s 1977 album Carolina Dreams, which was their sixth—but they were flaunting flute from the first, starting with songs like “Take The Highway” and “Can’t You See.” - https://youtu.be/uLhTcXTE8RE

 

“Along Comes Mary” – The Association…The tune is from this California pop-rock band’s first album from 1966 entitled And Then…Along Comes the Association. - https://youtu.be/BD7SvXmjf3U

 

“Going Up the Country” – Canned Heat…This song is famously featured early in the film Woodstock about the legendary 1969 rock festival, and was originally on the band’s 1968 double album Living The Blues. - https://youtu.be/Hf0Dm-OaTNk

 

“The Bottle” – Gil Scott-Heron…In certain circles—which hopefully may be widening these days—Scott-Heron is celebrated as a groundbreaking American musician and activist who flowered largely in the 1970s and 1980s, passionately churning out politically-charged music that hewed to a fusion of soul, jazz, blues and a rapping-style spoken-word.  “The Bottle” tells a tale of alcohol abuse, and was released as the only single from the artist’s 1974 album Winter in America. - https://youtu.be/VYiudchREaw

 

“Colour My World” – Once upon a time, this song from the band Chicago (from their second self-titled album from 1970) sounded entirely fresh.  But it was then played to death at sweaty teen dances throughout that decade and beyond, and then lived on life support on bland soft-rock radio stations for way too long, so the song today just can’t shed the baggage. - https://youtu.be/cWkXmx-0phc

 

“Down Under” – Men At Work…The Australian band’s 1982 stateside hit from their 1981 album Business as Usual. - https://youtu.be/wbWPuECrc_4

 

“Voices In The Sky” – The Moody Blues perfected the late ‘60s/early ‘70s blend of rock music meets classical, as evidenced by this soothing tune from their 1968 release In Search of the Lost Chord.  The flute work here is by band member Ray Thomas. - https://youtu.be/oToyFvGYKH8

 

“Feel Flows” – This song from the Beach Boys (from 1971’s Surf’s Up) was the result of the Beach Boys finally coming out of familiar waters to gain ground on potential new fans who were by and large leaning toward more experimental music.  God only knows the inspirations behind it but the final product is a swirling, aural delight with guest artist Charles Lloyd on flute, and Carl Wilson of the group on lead, backing and harmony vocals, and also on piano, organ, guitar, bass and Moog synthesizer.  That Carl…what a slouch. - https://youtu.be/bp_8GKcNvdQ

 

“The Dawn” – Osibisa…This British Afro-pop band, led by Teddy Osei on flute, tenor sax and percussion, delivered a stellar self-titled debut album in 1971 that was produced by Tony Visconti (Bowie’s longtime studio turn-to guy) and that bore cover album art by Roger Dean (who notably illustrated most of the Yes album covers, beginning with 1971’s Fragile). - https://youtu.be/DxEz5xnedWI

 

“Spill The Wine” – Eric Burdon and War…Burdon, formerly of British band The Animals, went on the path to War in 1970 and this combination spoken word/vocal song from the group’s debut album Eric Burdon Declares “War” became an FM radio mainstay and a Top Five hit on the pop charts.  https://youtu.be/W77Kwh6f0TE

 

“Flute Thing” – The Blues Project…Not too hard to figure out the essence of this one, snappy title and all.  The song hails from this Greenwich Village-based psychedelic folk band’s second album Projections, which came out in ’66.  The group ended up having a life span of only a couple of years, and counted as its members musician/producer Al Kooper and guitarist/future producer Steve Katz.  Both of these individuals went on to form the first incarnation of Blood, Sweat & Tears. - https://youtu.be/uVs4JHxIHZY

 

“Moondance” – Van Morrison…from the 1970 album of the same name that blended rhythm & blues, soul, rock, jazz and even a wee bit o’ Irish folk music in a totally original stew.  Morrison’s voice is the major marvel, of course. - https://youtu.be/TKBQxummaFo

 

2.) A SAMPLE TRACK FROM FLUTE PLAYERS OF PROMINENCE (Rock, Jazz, Classical, etc.)

 

“Spain”Joe Farrell - This instrumental—okay, technically there are wordless vocals on here by band member Flora Purim—is dubbed by many as a jazz fusion classic.  It was written by jazz keyboardist Chick Corea and appeared on the 1973 album Light as a Feather, which was the second album from Corea’s band Return To Forever.  Farrell, a flute and sax player, was with the band throughout the 1970s and issued a number of solo recordings as well. - https://youtu.be/_DHNHmOfqzg

 

 

“Hidden Treasure” Chris Wood – Here’s a well-deserved shout-out to the British band Traffic and its sax and flute player Chris Wood (now departed—from the band and from this Earth).  Wood the flautist was an integral part of this band’s sound and success on many songs including “John Barleycorn Must Die,” “Freedom Rider,” “40,000 Headmen,” and on the captivating opener to their 1971 Low Spark album, “Hidden Treasure.” - https://youtu.be/TRtBvsK1eJs

 

 

“Pavane” – Hubert Laws – Texas-born Laws is a flautist and saxophonist who has deftly crossed genres in his recordings as bandleader and sideman.  I remember being introduced to his music in the early ‘70s when Laws was on the CTI jazz label, a haven for other jazz artists as well at the time including George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, and more.  “Pavane” comes from Law’s 1971 album Rite of Spring, a mix of classical compositions from composers such as Stravinsky, Debussy and others. - https://youtu.be/OrKq6_wpBHA

 

 

“A Hard Way to Go” – Tim Weisberg – American flautist Weisberg crossed over from the jazz and jazz fusion audiences when he collaborated with soft rocker Dan Fogelberg on the 1978 album Twin Sons of Different Mothers, which included the hit “Power of Gold.”  But Weisberg is best experienced by listeners when he stretches out on his own recorded efforts, such as “A Hard Way To Go” from his Undercover release from 1996. - https://youtu.be/2zJv4dYrOpE

 

 

“Push Push” – Herbie Mann – Mann, who passed away in 2003, was an early proponent of world music, and with artists in tow in the early 1960s such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, helped propel bossa nova to wider recognition in the USA and Europe.  His work through the years also seemed to dent the national pop charts (in Billboard magazine, for instance) much more than any of his peers who were more standardly chained to their appreciative jazz audiences.  “Push Push,” from the 1971 Mann album of the same name, is a stunning collaboration with Allman Brothers Band founder and lead guitarist Duane Allman, sporting great interplay between the two and an overall intoxicating stew of jazz, funk and rhythm & blues. – https://youtu.be/y9EMVd1773A

 

 

“Baroque and Blue” – Jean-Pierre Rampal (with pianist Claude Bolling)Rampal was a French-born classical flautist who is laudable as the first to popularize the flute as a solo instrument on a grand scale through recordings and concert appearances around the globe (largely after WWII).  The song here is representative of his praiseworthy work outside of classical as well; the tune is taken from the 1975 collaborative album with French jazz pianist Claude Bolling, The Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio. - https://youtu.be/w-_QOlCJUek

 

 

“Howlin’ for Judy” – Jeremy Steig – American jazz flute player Steig (born in 1942) was initially a student of “standard” jazz but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s got bit by the fusion bug.  Some of his jazz-rock albums were painfully under the radar, but exulted by niche adventuresome audiences.  Upon his death in 2016, one of his collaborators Vic Juris was quoted in the New York Times as saying Steig’s “use of overtones and singing into the flute reminded me of the way Hendrix played the guitar.”  The track here, “Howlin’ for Judy,” is likely his most famous song due to the Beastie Boys’ utilization of a sample of it in their 1994 hit song “Sure Shot.”  Here is “Howlin’ for Judy” in its original form from Steig’s 1970 album Legwork. – https://youtu.be/sAQosYqXuIk

 

“The Lonely Shepherd” – Zamfir – Musicasaurus.com feels absolutely NO guilt for including the “incomparable” Gheorghe Zamfir into the mix.  He is truly—so saith the thousands of late-night television commercials from the 1980s—the Master of the Pan Flute.  I have posted a link to this Romanian-born musician’s most famous piece “The Lonely Shepherd,” but there’s also a bonus link that’ll transport you back to certain evenings in the ‘80s when you were bleary-eyed but not quite bed-bound—and Zamfir appeared to you as if in a vision. - (“The Lonely Shepherd”) https://youtu.be/re_dJhG2MOE … (“Not Available in Any Store!”) https://youtu.be/sH6v84H5pQM

 

AND FINALLY...A BONUS SELECTION (yes, one really gets their money’s worth on musicasaurus.com):  I started off this 1/23/17 edition of A DAY IN THE LIFE writing about Jethro Tull, and courtesy of Rick Sebak—whom I had confessed to last week that I was still in search of flute-related things for my posting—I now have a link to Ian Anderson playing with an out-of-this-world flute partner.  Check it out here!  https://youtu.be/XeC4nqBB5BM

 

 

 

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Posted 1/9/17.....HAIL TO THE CHIEF

(January 9, 2017)….Breaking News….There was yet another explosive WikiLeaks revelation today with regard to Democratic Party emails.  Just one new one has now to come to light, and Musicasaurus.com was both astonished and delighted to find that it revolved around music.

If you are of the Democratic persuasion, you’ll likely applaud the contents of this secret, high-level email.  If you are a Republican, though, you will probably be quite upset at the mapped-out plan of sabotage within, as it concerns the Democratic Party wresting control of the music to be played at one of the Trump inauguration balls.  And if hearing this new bit of leaked info doesn’t cause all Red Map representatives to just about crap themselves, I would think there’d at least be some major pootin’.

The email was sent just after the Tuesday, November 8th election from a mid-level DNC staff person to someone very near the top of the national organization, and it laid out a plan to embarrass the incoming president and his cabinet & advisors in their shining hours of ascendancy in mid-January.

Here are actual relevant snippets from the email that help shine a light on the Dems’ plan to aurally sabotage the presidential inauguration.  Basically, the plan involved commandeering the audio/video tech booth at one of the balls, and replacing all of the Trump-scripted “grand entrance” music with other selections that the Democrats felt better conveyed the spirit of the new four-year term and the incoming leadership.  IMPORTANT TO NOTE:  The songs will be revealed below through their YouTube links, and bear in mind that in this plan of song subversion by the disappointed Dems, the title’s the thing:

1.  Trump’s entrance to the ballroom:  We recommend the following songs to choose from…

 

2.  These songs are possibilities for when Trump’s entire cabinet and key advisors get together for a photo op during the ballroom proceedings:

 

3.  These suggestions are good for the entrance of a recently confirmed special guest of Trump’s from the media world—Megyn Kelly:

 

4.  We hear that Arnold Schwarzenegger may make an appearance as well, so this would be the tune that signals his arrival at the inaugural ball:  https://youtu.be/pN4t_ouqGrU

 

5.  The last “special guest” type that we know of will be Governor Chris Christie, who doesn’t look like he will have a place at the table in the Trump administration (hope this hangry-lookin’ guy at least gets one at the gala):  https://youtu.be/H_a46WJ1viA

 

6.  This next suggestion covers a particular breed of Trump’s cabinet members/advisors, so we hope that these individuals in particular arrive all together:  Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohen, regulatory reform adviser Carl Icahn, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos:  https://youtu.be/X3jOATuxNQo 

 

7.  Speaking of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she seems hell-bent on the following kind of results:  https://youtu.be/sW63o21-hjI

 

8.  This song sums up the ascension of ex-ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State, one of Trump’s comrades with cozy connections:  https://youtu.be/Lcdmq07u2T8

 

9.  This tune should be played loud upon the arrival of new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and we are hoping that at least some in attendance may mistakenly think the powerful scream at the beginning is from the confused masses huddling at Ellis Island:  https://youtu.be/5eHkjPCGXKQ

 

10. Here is one that conveys the feelings of Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services secretary, about the Affordable Care Act:  https://youtu.be/vtrWyRhcO_Y

 

11. Let’s plan on this one when Dr. Ben Carson, now head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, enters the ballroom:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNWXQmKbFjU

 

12. This one might actually elicit a few chuckles from the Trump revelers at the gala, because it should be cued up for Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s arrival.  The song hearkens back to Perry’s original campaign-appearance reflections on this important department:  https://youtu.be/1fjYQdD-B9M

 

13. Trump’s pick for head of the EPA is Scott Pruitt, and here is our spirited pick for the appropriate song to herald his arrival:  https://youtu.be/qvQa04JP73o

 

14. The song choice for Mick Mulvaney, now head of the Office of Management and Budget, will help delineate his approach to existing programs:  https://youtu.be/SmZaLkCA0ZY

 

15. Mike Flynn, the White House’s national security advisor, will march into the ballroom and this song will fill the room:  https://youtu.be/GI_OG4RxyP8

 

16. When Kellyanne Conway enters the ballroom—and here we have to say that some people may actually prefer Kate McKinnon—the tune that will typify her continuing close advisership of Trump will ring out:  https://youtu.be/8CdAfYwEGCI

 

17. This tune tells the tale of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News:  https://youtu.be/VTsF6-R3pWE

 

18. This song explains how the new Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon will serve Donald Trump in the White House:  https://youtu.be/Ulr2d7ohbAU

 

And so, that’s the gist of the just-uncovered Democratic Party’s leaked email on its secret plan to disrupt the song stylings of one of Trump’s inaugural ballroom celebrations…

Musicasaurus.com has a parting thought here:  In a December 22, 2016 article on the Politico website, writer Louis Nelson observed that “with (Reince) Priebus as his chief of staff, Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and (Kellyanne) Conway as his counselor, Trump has set up three competing power centers in his administration, promising a continuation of the competition for his ear that occurred throughout the campaign and the transition process.”  Yes, the next four years will be unnerving for a lot of this country’s citizens, and so the question is, Will some good things ever ultimately be accomplished?  Or, because of Trump’s particular advisor & cabinet picks, and his “pit ‘em against each other” approach to governing, will it instead just be a…. https://youtu.be/INlLtsR_U_8?list=PLcxVzd3wNEUG3rgcYeFhwbeAgtk8LRsHL ???

 

 

 

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Posted 12/26/16.....SPIRIT IN THE SKY

Come the end of December, we calculate our losses.  Who in the realm of music left us this year?  Much has been written and posted already, of course, about the ones who have ascended (I guess we’re saying here that they are all that deserving, yes?)

Seemingly way back, Bowie went…and Prince, of course, a few months later…and then one that hit literally close to home, Western Pennsylvania’s B.E. Taylor…and now George Michael.  These are the grief touchstones for us…

But Musicasaurus.com wants to pry open the 2016 book of the dead here, digging just a bit deeper in an effort to acknowledge the talents of ten other artists, ones who we can’t really call “unsung” as they did have their zealots—hmmm, maybe we just call them the “lessersung”…

VANITY…..(February 16, 2016 at the age of 57)…..Coincidentally here in 2016 a protégé of Prince also left us for the Higher Elevations.  Denise Matthews, better known as Vanity, was the front woman of the female trio Vanity 6 whose discography amounts to just one album, the self-titled release in 1982 that spawned the sizzling dance hit “Nasty Girl.”  It’s a Prince song alright, but as was his wont, the Purple One bestowed it upon Vanity according her all rights and recognition.  Vanity went on to some solo recording and acting success amidst some growing nasty habits, and bearing the burden of that ‘80s excess (including crack cocaine), she ended up in a near-death experience in 1994 that led her to the Lord.  On that higher path, Matthews renounced her former life and soon became a born-again Christian and evangelist.  Her medical challenges ever mounted, though, and she passed away two months before her former musical mentor.  Here is the once-upon-an-era controversial “Nasty Girl” video: https://youtu.be/a2awcfsL_Uc

 

BOBBY VEE…..(October 24, 2016 at the age of 73)…..Vee, born in Fargo, North Dakota, was a teen idol in the early ‘60s with a string of hits including the memorable “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”  And fate had actually launched him into music on the “day the music died,” February 3, 1959:  On its way to Moorhead, Minnesota, a plane bearing three of the four artists on a touring Winter Dance Party—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper—crashed in an incident later immortalized in Don McLean’s song “American Pie.”  Local boy Vee, then just 15 years old, cobbled together a pick-up band and volunteered to fill in for the ill-fated Holly at this show.  He and his group were well received, and this coincidence out of calamity led to Vee’s eventual rise to pop music prominence.  Here is “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes:” https://youtu.be/3GQAmTznY2o

 

DAN HICKS…..(February 6, 2016 at the age of 74)…..In the musically fertile early ‘70s, I found myself a bit entranced with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and the album Striking It Rich.  Hicks’ style was swing, infused with folk, country, gypsy and more, and humor almost always played a part in the proceedings.  On his website—danhicks.net—there is currently a posting from his wife dated the day he passed away, and she says, in part, “So, Duke, Benny, Django and Stephane -- he's on his way -- you'll be laughing soon!”  (p.s.  A few of his most memorable tracks are: “I Scare Myself,” “Canned Music,” and “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away”).  Here is a live performance of the latter song: https://youtu.be/TWblCPrh-bU

 

BLACK (real name Colin Vearncombe)…..(January 26, 2016 at the age of 53)…..Black was an English singer/songwriter who reportedly penned his one and only hit “Wonderful Life” in 1985 as an exercise in sarcasm, as things had ganged up on him in one big cosmic kick in the arse—an ill mother, a dissolved marriage, car accidents, his current record company dropping him, ETCETERA…But A&M Records heard the potential in this song, and then signed him up and spun him out internationally.  It was Black’s moment in the sun, and I’m glad we have this wonderful one-hit wonder: https://youtu.be/uMXz3TQOS_c

 

BILLY PAUL…..(April 24, 2016 at the age of 81)…..Billy Paul (born Paul Williams in Philadelphia, PA) was a soul singer who was much more than his one hit song “Me and Mrs. Jones” conveys—he had jazz leanings and expertise, and experimented beyond the usual pop and funk that often intertwined with the soul music of the early ‘70s.  He was also part of the growing stable of artists taken in, polished and presented by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the producer masterminds behind an emerging “sound of Philadelphia” that included Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, The O’Jays, and others.  I, for one, will always remember “Me and Mrs. Jones” because my late wife and I actually thought about using this as a slow-dance tune for our 1984 wedding, but ultimately decided, of course, that a song about an illicit affair would not fare well with our otherwise beaming parents: https://youtu.be/n2v98PGBZH4

 

ANDY “THUNDERCLAP” NEWMAN (center in above photo)…..(March 29, 2016 at the age of 73)…..Pianist Newman was one-third of a cobbled together British band called Thunderclap Newman that was basically birthed through the efforts of Pete Townshend from The Who.  Drummer/guitarist and singer Speedy Keen had been a roommate of Townshend’s, and in 1969 while the latter was working on Who material that eventually became Tommy, Keen and the Who's manager Kit Lambert prevailed upon him to complete this side project recording that yielded the transatlantic hit “Something in the Air.”  When this song hit American radio back at the end of the ‘60s, it became yet another embraceable anthem of change for members of the younger generation who were afire from the societal shifts and the flow of empowering new music.  The band was short-lived, but the song resonated beyond its brief time on the national music charts and ended up in films (including The Magic Christian and Almost Famous) as well as covered by a number of other artists (most notably Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).  Here is Thunderclap Newman’s original version: https://youtu.be/_hfZ3WysHKg

 

ALAN VEGA…..(July 16, 2016 at the age of 78)…..Vega (real name Alan Bermowitz) was one-half of the duo Suicide, who were wildly influential for boundary pushing musicians of all stripes who happened to follow the duo’s onstage and recorded exploits in NYC especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The unsettling live shows—a mix of threadbare electronics, droning organ, drum machines and Vega’s vocals channeling Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis—were derided and lambasted by some, but looked on as the Holy Grail by others.  They were one of the first to help coin the term “punk music” (borrowed from writer /music critic Lester Bangs around 1970) and their body of work influenced contemporaries and later like-minded souls such as Henry Rollins, Joy Division, Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and more.  Springsteen was a fan as well, way back, and occasionally still covers the duo’s 1979 single “Dream Baby Dream” in concert; it’s also on his 2014 album High Hopes.  Here is Suicide’s original version: https://youtu.be/qCRTCqgAkfg

 

BERNIE WORRELL…..(June 24, 2016 at the age of 72)…..New Jersey-born keyboardist Worrell was, early on, seemingly destined for a life in music but was the antithesis of a one-note guy.  He was on the ivories at age three, wrote a concerto at eight, and later studied at Juilliard and snagged a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.  He is most renowned for two particular things in his riches of musical experience—teaming up with George Clinton in the wildly innovative collective Parliament-Funkadelic that scored a funkin’ awesome amount of fame and acclaim in the 1970s, and his close association with Talking Heads (on recordings, on tour, and on permanent record in Jonathan Demme’s landmark 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense).  Sample of his handiwork—on Minimoog synthesizers & keyboards—while with Parliament: https://youtu.be/bWurqD68u70   

 

ROB WASSERMAN…..(June 29, 2016 at the age of 64)…..I came to hear about Wasserman largely through friends who followed the Grateful Dead literally and figuratively, and when the band had initially decided NOT to keep on truckin’ after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, the new musical union Ratdog became the chief preoccupation for Dead guitarist Bob Weir and his friend Wasserman.  Well before Ratdog, however, the latter was an in-demand bassist who stinted/recorded with Weir as well as David Grisman, Lou Reed, Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison, among others.  He also released some critically acclaimed, Deadhead revered solo albums between 1983 and 1994 that may be his best bits of a legacy beyond his Weir work.  Here is a sample of Wasserman’s work with Weir, on a cover of Little Feat’s “Easy to Slip:” https://youtu.be/UXY4QsVHZdM

 

LEANDRO “GATO” BARBIERI…..(April 2, 2016 at the age of 83)…..Argentinian Barbieri, who wielded a tenor sax like a man possessed, was a fiery force in the ‘60s in the free jazz corners of the spectrum, but it was his 1970s period of pop-savvy, percolating Latin jazz that captured these ears.  There are two standout tracks that musicasaurus.com still hearkens back to, when it wants to cocoon itself and give in to sensual, masterful tones and colors:  1) “Milonga Triste” from Gato’s 1974 album Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata which starts off slowly, insinuates, and then explodes, and 2) "Europa (Earth's Cry Heaven's Smile),” a cover of Santana’s epic tune from that band’s 1976 album Amigos.  On second thought here:  Forgo the cocoon, and lure in your loved one for an evening of shared pleasures—nothin’ better than a night of consensual sax.  Here is “Milonga Triste:” https://youtu.be/Er0BTB-DZRA

 

 

 

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Posted 12/12/16.....(THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE) HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

I posed this question to some readers of musicasaurus.com a few years back, around this time of year: “What artists/songs have been a tradition around your home through the holidays?” 

See the responses below...This turned out in the end to be a beautifully eclectic list of seasonal favorites, and Musicasaurus.com’s own submission kicks things off:

  

1). B.E. TAYLOR, *NSYNC AND NAT KING COLE

Musicasaurus.com’s founding (some say “foundering”) father:  Around our house during our earlier days of parenting, my wife and I kicked off the Christmas season with self-created holiday music mixes that featured everything from rock to jazz to blues to standard middle-of-the-road seasonal schmaltz (the latter being ever so digestible and defensible at this time of year, of course).  The incredibly infectious and captivating B.E. Taylor holiday tunes figured prominently in these mixes, and a few other artists’ songs stood shoulders above as well, like *NSYNC’s a cappella version of “O Holy Night”.  The five male voices on this latter track sound like angels I someday hope to hear on high.  Also a favorite:  “O Tannenbaum” by the immortal Nat King Cole.  Cole’s version of the classic was played every Christmas morning at a loud volume on the cassette player downstairs, and the song’s first few notes signaled to my young’uns that it was officially time to clamber down the steps to dive into the Christmas presents tucked under the tree.”

 

 

2). RUN-D.M.C. AND PHIL SPECTOR

Al from Los Angeles, California:  Family favorites include:  “Christmas in Hollisby RUN-D.M.C, and A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (the entire album, and before the murder conviction).

 

 

3). THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA, JULIANNE BAIRD AND BINKY GRIPTITE

Dave from Pittsburgh, PA The Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas album Go Tell It on the Mountain, and early music soprano Julianne Baird's A Baroque Christmas.  And since I discovered it last year, “Stoned Soul Christmas” by Binky Griptite (a Christmas twist on Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic”).

 

 

4). ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS

Bernie from Indiana Twp., PAIt used to be Alvin and The Chipmunks in happier times.

 

 

5).  B.E. TAYLOR

Ed from Allison Park, PA:  The favorite around our house is by far the B.E. Taylor Group.  What a great Xmas CD (especially their first one, B.E. Taylor Christmas).  We don't have any favorite songs because we like them all.  Once we begin playing this around the holidays we know that the Xmas season has officially begun.

 

 

  

6). DONNIE HATHAWAY, KEITH RICHARDS AND OTIS REDDING

Chuck from Mount Lebanon, PAIt begins and ends with Donnie Hathaway's “This Christmas.”  But if I had to name a couple others, Keith Richards' version of “Run Rudolph Run” is a close second and Otis Redding's rendition of “Merry Christmas, Baby” is up there too.

 

 

 

7). COUNT BASIE AND VINCE GUARALDI TRIO

Joe D. from Pittsburgh, PA:  “Jingle Bells” by Count Basie and his Orchestra, and “O Christmas Tree” by Vince Guaraldi Trio from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

 

 

8). LOU MONTE

Mark from Pittsburgh, PA:  A classic song every year in our household is “Christmas at Our House” by Lou Monte.  Also, we like his version of “Dominick the Donkey” played this way before it became a current Xmas staple.

 

 

 

9). THE VENTURES AND JIMMY MCGRIFF

Greg from Pittsburgh, PA:  The Ventures’ Christmas Album is a longstanding holiday season favorite in my household.  Another one that gets a lot of play is Christmas with Jimmy McGriff—both are all instrumental, and both are enjoyed on vinyl, naturally!

 

 

 

10). JOHNNY MATHIS AND VINCE GUARALDI

Brenda from Pittsburgh, PAIt wouldn’t be Christmas without Johnny Mathis – the album with the skis and him in his ski sweater on the cover!  And, of course, Vince Guaraldi and the Peanuts gang.  Although the latter is overplayed to death everywhere, it’s still really great!  Vince was clearly really influenced by Dave Brubeck.

 

 

 

11). MAHALIA JACKSON AND B.E. TAYLOR

Steve from Pittsburgh, PA:  I came up in an era when Christmas was associated with rubber.  For some reason, the two biggest purveyors of Christmas music were Firestone and Goodyear.  They duked it out with a flurry of albums and a corresponding barrage of ads while recycling old singers doing old songs.  The only singer who could cut through the crap was Mahalia Jackson.  Her full-voiced version of “Silent Night” (with a line misreading that made the Holy Infant sound like a “tenderly mild” Chicken McNugget) was the song that always introduced my sisters and I to Christmas morning as we waited at the top of the stairs.  I got a Christmas gift several years ago when I discovered a 46Bliss remix of the song that made it fresh and new again....But the real Christmas miracle for me was B.E. Taylor, who reinvigorated all those tired old Christmas chestnuts with unique arrangements.  His music became the new standard in my house (and throughout the region).  Around these parts, it ain't Christmas ‘til B.E. says so.

 

 

   

  

12). BOB RIVERS & TWISTED RADIO, SCOTT PAULSEN AND JIM KRENN, HUDSON AND LANDRY, ARTISTS FROM THE ALLIGATOR RECORDS’ CHRISTMAS COLLECTION, AND FRANKIE FORD

Mark from Tampa, FL:  There are a few staples that I listen to:

 

 

  

  

13). JOHN WILLIAMS & THE AMBROSIAN JR. CHOIR, JEWEL, ANNIE LENNOX, HARRY BELAFONTE, B.E. TAYLOR, EMMYLOU HARRIS AND MANY MORE…

Joe K. from Pittsburgh, PA: 

Christmas songs that bring a lump to my throat and often make me cry are:

Christmas songs that I could listen to over and over again are:

Others I enjoy are:

Regarding Oldies:

The most erotic Christmas song:

“Shimmy Down The Chimney” by Alison Krauss, which far surpasses versions of “Santa Baby” by Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Eartha Kitt, and The Pussycat Dolls.

 

 

 

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Posted 11/28/16.....ROCKIN’ AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Ten gift ideas for the musically minded, from a one-note kind of guy…ENJOY!

 

1.) THE LYRIC SPEAKER.....I know—from the name, you’re conjuring up some sort of elderly, robed, and bushy-bearded keeper of the flame for some lost civilization.  But the Lyric Speaker is a Wi-Fi device that displays the lyrics of the song you are listening to on an LCD screen that also features additional motion graphics.  It’s an audio/video mood ring as well; the designs and patterns swirling amidst the onscreen lyrics shift with the structure of each song.  Perfect for demystifying the lyrics of mumble-mouthed front men (early Michael Stipe) and for deciphering the phlegm discharges of heavy metal singers.  This product—developed by SIX Inc., an Asian creative agency—reportedly sports a database of approximately 120 million songs.  More info @ https://lyric-speaker.com

 

2.) CYMBAL PLEASURES…..Description from the artist’s website:  “Josh Stadlen is a drummer and artist from London.  His unique approach to portraiture has attracted customers from across the globe, ranging from New York to Australia.  The portraits themselves are painted in acrylic directly onto reclaimed cymbals.  The subjects of the paintings span musical genres, from jazz greats to rock legends and modern hip hop and pop stars.”  More info @  http://www.cymbalpleasures.com

 

3.) PINK FLOYD COASTERS…..No, this isn’t a term for fans who could never abide the band’s 1985 breakup; the ones who mope through Life a-wishin’ and a-hopin’ for a Waters-Gilmour personality sublimation and a reconciliation.  These are actual drink coasters so your steaming mug can be planted on Animals or placed on The Wall, and they are available—along with the faces of Rock adorning certain clocks—at this Etsy address: https://www.etsy.com/shop/PopstersUK?ref=l2-shopheader-name

 

 

4.) MUSIC NOTES MAP OF THE WORLD / MAP OF THE WORLD FROM OLD SHEET MUSIC…..For the one-note person in your life who is SO into music that it seems to be all that he or she lives for—and yes, perhaps they are a bit shallow and sheltered, but you love them anyway.  The company is called artPause, headed up by artist Michael Tompsett and located in Shepperton, a town about 18 miles southwest of London, England.  Much of the artwork on artPause’s site can be customized (different colors; printing to specific sizes) so just cross the pond with an email to connect with them; it’s a small world, after all.  More info @ http://artpause.com/maps/100021-music-notes-map-of-the-world.html

5.) SPIRAL DIDGERIDOO…Don’t get the wrong idea from this picture; this is not some sex toy—though it DOES make a drone-like sound.  “This instrument may just be the world's oldest,” says the website page about this product on uncommongoods.com.  “Indigenous Australians created the didgeridoo about 1,500 years ago, and its beguiling, drone-like sound still makes a lasting impression on listeners to this day.  This handheld version is carved by artisans in Indonesia from beautiful suar wood into an elegant spiral.  Purse your lips and blow though the instrument, and as your breath moves through the whirling passages it will make a soothing, resonant tone.  With practice, you can even use this lightweight version to master the circular breathing technique, allowing you to make music without stopping to catch your breath.”  More info @ http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/spiral-didgeridoo

 

6.) CAT BANJO SHIRT…..Everybody loves animals, your married partner and/or major love interest included.  So get him or her this special T-shirt with the bemused-lookin’ kitty who probably could give two feces about being on it in the first place (propped up for a photo with a banjo ‘n all).  But if your targeted recipient truly loves animals as well as music, he or she may not be able to keep their paws off you after they unwrap…

This is another Etsy offering, though it originates from a cool shop in Gilbert, Arizona called To The Moon And Back.  More info @ https://www.etsy.com/listing/100958436/banjo-tshirt-cat-tshirt-mens-tshirt-cat?ref=listing-shop-header-2

 

7.) AMERICANA MEASURING SPOONS:  GUITAR, BANJO, MANDOLIN AND UKULELE…..These pewter-cast creations would be instrumental to your holiday enjoyment, perhaps beyond measure.  The guitar is your tablespoon, the five-string banjo your teaspoon, and the mandolin and ukulele the half and quarter teaspoons, respectively.  Judging from the above photo, that mandolin sure looks to be sporting some Mary Jane but I’m fairly sure that doesn’t ship with the utensils—though it all comes out of Oregon where owner/artiste Tim Rooseboom lives and works, so hmmmm.  But let’s just dispense with that idea, shall we?  More info about this product and Rooseboom’s company Roosfoos Pewter @ https://www.roosfoos.com

 

8.) GUITAR PICK WITH A MESSAGE…..This is perfect for that strong statement kind of gift for your musically talented spouse or partner who plays guitar.  Or, you might want to buy it for yourself if you are the guitarist and think there’s merit (and eventual rewards) in tossing out about 30 of these at your next gig to groupie candidates in the first few rows.  Just sayin’.

You can go through Etsy here, or reach out on your own to track down shop owner Amy Mason at her handmade-gifts store The Bead Pot in Herne Bay, U.K.  More info @ https://www.etsy.com/listing/221214311/personalised-guitar-pick-custom-stamped?ref=shop_home

9.) PERSONALIZED MIXTAPE DOORMAT…..If you don’t have a doormat you already like, and more importantly are not a doormat yourself, then push and pester your significant other to put this on the list.

Mixtapes (cassettes, and later CDs) were often crafted by passionate music lovers for their loved ones and/or lovers with great care and precision.  Graphic artist Jim Holodak designed these nostalgic welcome mats, and personalizes them with your intended’s family name.  More info @ http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/personalized-mixtape-doormat

 

10.) MUSICAL SHOWER HEAD…..This showerhead with a built-in wireless speaker from Moxie® gives you a doubly delicious sensory experience, cleansing your body and your mind.  You can get the full product details from the website link at the end of this review, but I’d like to point out that the benefits for boosting particular aspects of your lifestyle are many:

 

 

 

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Posted 11/14/16.....

Musicasaurus.com was wrestling all last week with various ideas for this posting, and the concept of “supergroups” came to mind—rock artists’ various alliances and dalliances…their tributaries and sideline diversions…and/or their full-on metamorphoses that sometimes led to wider acclaim, but other times to just head scratching and shoulder shrugging from fans and record buyers.

Here are nine examples of "supergroups"—the good, the bad, and occasionally, the lame:

1. Super Session – Al Kooper (keyboards & vocals), Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield (guitars)

This album came out in July of 1968, and two of the three principals here were just departing their current band situations—Stills from Buffalo Springfield and Bloomfield from his melting pot assemblage of blues, rock, soul and R&B, the Electric Flag.  When Bloomfield never materialized for the second day of recording—having contributed to bluesy instrumentals the day before, for side one of the record—session producer Kooper put out a call to Stills to fill the bill, and the latter sizzled on the eventual second side of the album with tracks including a long and luxurious cover of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch”.  This was the first recorded “supergroup” situation, at least in the rock ‘n’ roll realm, and others of greater caliber followed on its heels such as CSNY and Blind Faith.

 

2. KGB – Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Barry Goldberg (keyboards), Carmine Appice (drums), Rick Grech (bass) and Ray Kennedy (vocals)

Comprised of rockers from here and across the pond, KGB featured Bloomfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band > Electric Flag); Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag); Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge > Cactus > Beck, Bogert & Appice > Rod Stewart); Rick Grech (Family > Blind Faith > Ginger Baker’s Air Force > Traffic); and—last and probably least—Ray Kennedy, who sported a decent bluesy, soul-tinged voice but is pretty much otherwise undistinguished, save for co-writing the Beach Boys’ 1973 semi-hit “Sail On Sailor”.

I happened upon this KGB debut album in 1976 while working part-time in Exile Records in my hometown of Butler, PA.  To put it mildly, it didn’t fly off the shelves while I was there.  Not terrible stuff, but all the same, rather uninspiring.  Bloomfield and Grech must have sniffed this outcome, as they decided to leave the group just after the album was released. 

 

3. Kingfish – Bob Weir (guitar), Matthew Kelly (guitar and harmonica), Dave Torbert (bass), Robbie Hoddinott (guitar) and Chris Herold (drums)

(This one likely doesn’t qualify as a supergroup, but it begged for inclusion here as it was a fresh bit of new music way back when, spun off from the central body of one of the ‘60s most influential artists)…In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in San Francisco music circles, there were all sorts of people pinwheelin’ around The Grateful Dead.  Matthew Kelly was a harmonica player and guitarist, and childhood friend of the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and in 1973 when mutual friend Dave Torbert departed the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, Kingfish was spawned.  The Dead had happened upon a break in touring ‘round about 1974, so at that point Weir wriggled on over to Kingfish for the next couple of years, becoming a fulltime band member and helping to produce their fan-embraced, very fine self-titled debut album in 1976. 

When Weir left the band later that same year, Kingfish still flopped around gasping for similar glory, but critics and fans largely had moved on.  Kelly continued swimming in that San Fran scene, though, and jumped aboard Ratdog (another Weir sideline passion) when that particular group was formed in 1995…One artful parting remark:  The cover to Kingfish’s debut album was painted by artist Philip Garris, who also did The Dead’s Blues For Allah (1975) and Toto’s debut album (1978).

 

4. U.K. – Bill Bruford (drums), John Wetton (bass & vocals), Eddie Jobson (keyboards & violin) and Allan Holdsworth (guitar)

I don’t know that many diehard prog-rock and jazz fusion lovers, but the ones that I do are passionate beyond the pale.  So this listing should give them some ripples up the back of the head…U.K. was a British prog-rock group that lasted about three years in the late 1970s, and its members hailed from a pool of bands that included Yes, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, Curved Air, Frank Zappa, Soft Machine, and Gong.  U.K.’s sound & songwriting is not for all tastes, but the musicianship is exemplary.  The band put forth two recordings—the 1978 self-titled debut and then 1979’s Danger Money, which had Terry Bozzio (another Zappa alum) on the drummer’s stool after the departure of Bruford.

 

5. The Honeydrippers – Robert Plant (vocals), Jimmy Page (guitar), Jeff Beck (guitar), Nile Rogers (guitar), Paul Shaffer (keyboards), Brian Setzer (guitar), Wayne Pedziwiatr (bass), Dave Weckl (drums) and Keith “Bev” Smith (drums)

This group could only manage an EP (an extended play disc in 1984) and not a full album, but it stands as a landmark nonetheless.  Forming this pick-up band for fun in 1981 to indulge his inner R & B, Robert Plant was soon approached by Atlantic Records’ chief Ahmet Ertegün to consider recording some of these 1950s-era covers.  When readying for the EP, however, Plant chose not to utilize his original band picks and instead went with some stellar friends and peers—former Zeppelin band mate Jimmy Page, guitarist Jeff Beck, co-producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers (previously of Chic), the ubiquitous keyboard player Paul Shaffer (SNL > Letterman’s sidekick from 1982 on), and the ex-Stray Cats’ guitarist Brian Setzer. 

After the mini-album’s release, Robert Plant was reportedly appalled that the song “Sea Of Love” was soon his largest selling single ever; he loathed appearing to veer anywhere near schmaltz, and feared teetering on the edge of credibility.  But as we know today, Plant has continued to flower in vocal settings that are off the beaten path of his career-defining Zeppelin days.

 

6. Asia – Steve Howe (guitar), Carl Palmer (drums), John Wetton (bass & vocals) and Geoff Downes (keyboards)

There were some A & R (Artists & Repertoire) people from the record company behind this supergroup’s formation in 1980-1981, but the casting call finally crystallized in the following formation:  Steve Howe (Yes), Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown > Atomic Rooster > Emerson Lake & Palmer), John Wetton (King Crimson > U.K.), and Geoff Downes (The Buggles > Yes). 

The band’s self-titled debut hit the airwaves and record stores in 1982 and really struck a chord with the public, I’m sad to report.  With the assembled credentials of this foursome, Asia could have possibly produced somethin’ to savor, but who knows why that didn’t happen?  In the record company boardrooms and at the pre-release listening parties, the band members could have ultimately been steered away from their passions and asked to suppress and sublimate—and it worked.  When their creation hit the stores in March 1982, every mass-consumption dunderhead seemed to fall into formation, doin’ the glassy-eyed stroll to the cash register, while also clinging to albums by Boston and REO Speedwagon… 

In their defense, I imagine it was hard not to be a classic rock milquetoast back then when it came to this Asia onslaught—MTV was going gaga over a couple of the group’s videos, Top Forty Radio was all over the band’s lead-off singles, and even sports stadiums were starting to blare the suckers.  (Should I get off the soapbox now?  Not sure why this has led to such a tirade—could be the heat of the moment.  Only time will tell.)

 

7. The Highwaymen – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson (guitars & vocals)

This supergroup formed in 1985 and issued their collaboration as “Nelson, Jennings, Cash, Kristofferson” with the album itself dubbed Highwayman.  If back then you lived under a rock, or just lived to rock, then you might have missed this country superstar release—but it’s a powerhouse of talent with these four on board, covering songs from Jimmy Webb (“Highwayman”), Guy Clark (“Desperados Waiting For A Train”), Bob Seger (“Against The Wind”), Johnny Cash (“Big River”), and more.

The four reassembled in 1990 to release Highwayman 2, and it is around that time period (’91? ’92?) that I remember my employer having the opportunity to bring them to town.  I was working as marketing director of the Star Lake Amphitheatre in Washington County near Pittsburgh, and executive director of the facility Tom Rooney was debating with our Houston-based management whether The Highwaymen would be a sufficient draw at our venue.  On the surface, this four-pack of legendary talent seemed like a natural to sell a lot of tickets—but we got skittish over the “asking price” from the group’s touring agent who insisted on a fairly substantial guarantee, and so the opportunity fizzled along with the dream of seeing these four play together as one.

 

8. The Firm – Paul Rodgers (vocals & rhythm guitar), Jimmy Page (lead & rhythm guitars), Chris Slade (drums) and Tony Franklin (fretless bass & keyboards)

Here is the lowdown on this 1984 talent merge:  Paul Rodgers came from Bad Company and before that, the rock band Free, purveyors of the FM Radio staple “All Right Now”…Page started in The Yardbirds and then soared, of course, with Led Zeppelin…Slade was an in-demand drummer who started out playing with Tom Jones and graduated to bands like Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Uriah Heep and AC/DC…and new kid on the block (no capitals there, because thank heaven I don’t mean the boy band) Franklin was twenty-two at the time, and this was his first big break.

The band lasted for two albums, the self-titled debut in 1985 and the 1986 follow-up Mean Business…In concert, Rodgers and Page plugged their ears to audience cries for Bad Company and Zeppelin classics, and instead pushed the new material and dabbled in their respective solo album repertoires.  The song “Radioactive” from The Firm’s debut album was a top choice FM Radio hit at the time, but nothing the band accomplished over their two-album lifespan took root as an enduring classic.

 

9. Damn Yankees – Ted Nugent (guitar), Tommy Shaw (vocals & guitar), Jack Blades (vocals & bass) and Michael Cartellone (drums)

Damn Yankees was a commercially successful melding of three classic rockers—Nugent (monster solo artist in the mid-late 1970s courtesy of “Stranglehold” and “Cat Scratch Fever”, but originally with The Amboy Dukes in the decade before), Shaw (from Styx), and Blades (from Night Ranger, whose mammoth achievement—at least in terms of airplay—was 1984’s “Sister Christian”).

According to Jack Blades—as recounted in an interview at http://www.jemwriting.com/interviews/10-questions-jack-blades-night-rangerdamn-yankees —Night Ranger had just broken up in 1989, and he got a call from Geffen Records A & R man John David Kalodner about Nugent and Shaw writing new material together in New York City but, Kalodner said, “something was missing.”  He encouraged Blades to reach out to the twosome, so the latter hustled off to NYC and by the end of that first weekend, almost half of the songs for the first Damn Yankees record were written.

The group became immensely popular with their 1990 self-titled debut album, and they soon spun out into a year-and-a-half long world tour, which I remember stopped in the Pittsburgh area at Star Lake Amphitheatre (with Bad Company in tow) on Wednesday, July 3rd, 1991.  I was new to the marketing director chair that summer season, and I worked to get a number of rock stations including powerhouse WDVE to promote the show, but one day before the on-sale date I got a call from WWSW’s program director saying he’d like to promote the show as well.  Curious...3WS was the oldies station in town, who only played artists & songs from the 1960s and 1950s.  I remember calling the program director back to make sure he was truly intent on participating, but he stopped me mid-sentence as I started to describe who was in the band.  “I am so sorry,” he said in low tones, “I…uh, I thought you were bringing in the Broadway musical.”

 

 

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Monday, October 31, 2016:  No posting this time in A DAY IN THE LIFE…Please return to musicasaurus.com on Monday, November 14, 2016 for new entries…Thanks!

 

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Posted 10/17/16.....LONG TIME GONE

Okay, it’s an unsettling photo of Rod.  All the coy boy was trying to do was cash in on disco and appeal to his female fan base, and we hung him out to dry…

This is a photo taken in the Fall of 1978, when I was Western Pennsylvania’s in-store merchandiser for the record distribution company Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, based in Cleveland.  My territory as a record store “poster boy” included the area mall and strip-center stores like National Record Mart and Camelot Records, as well as the true indie stores like this one that you see Rod hanging around in:  Exile Records in Wexford, PA.

Exile Wexford was an offshoot of the legendary Butler, PA record store of the same name, a cutting-edge indie music store owned & operated by Dave Kleemann, a musician and business man who struck when the iron was hot in the early-to-mid 1970s and opened up a haven for friends and like-minded souls who were all awash in the passion and thirst of this music-hungry generation.

In February 1977 Dave expanded into Wexford, and friend Gary Uram and I were knighted as co-managers of this precious retail commodity that Dave had plunked down on Route 19 in the Wexford flats.  This born-from-the-flagship store was an instant success, as word spread that there were two young guys there who knew their shit—and yes, Gary and I prided ourselves on having an encyclopedic knowledge of our store’s contents, from rock to folk to blues and all other hues.

We built up a fervent clientele through the rest of 1977, and then early in 1978 Gary and I parted ways—just professionally—as I grabbed the chance to interview for, and then actually snagged, the regional field merchandising position with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic.

Thus my days went from writing up album sales on our store’s front counter, a glass case filled with bongs, pipe screens and record cleaning products, to gripping a staple gun and masking tape as I moved on in my new gig to hit a host of Western Pennsylvania record stores, slapping up displays for new, hot product that the record companies at the time were churning out with abandon.

I made it a point, of course, to return to Exile as often as I could, not only to bring Gary new display materials and do my semi-monthly magic in his store windows and on the walls inside, but also to check up on my friend.

The Rod Stewart stand-up you see in the photo, which had accompanied the release of his 1978 album Blondes Have More Fun, had been shipped to me from Warner-Elektra-Atlantic’s Cleveland warehouse, which typically stockpiled new display merchandise from each of the labels.  Rod, like others of his cardboard ilk, arrived at my Pittsburgh apartment in bundles of twenty-five, so that I could adequately pepper the market.  The managers of the disparate record outlets that I hit on my semi-monthly route—from the stuffy chain stores to the freewheelin’ independents—all seemed to like the stand-ups for their ability to rivet the attention of incoming shoppers.

Gary, though, had a unique idea about where to put Rod, even as I was unpacking the stand-up singer from his shipping container.  He was decrying the fact that Rod had been a rocker but had obviously gone off his rocker to venture into the whole “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” thing.  “Why don’t you forget hanging posters today,” he said.  “And let’s hang Rod.”

Gary nodded toward the small sign that was on the wall to the left of the front counter, one that bore a hand-scrawled headline that said “Rock and Roll Assassins List.”  I knew that sign well.  One year earlier, when I was in my last laps as co-manager before leaping to the new job, Gary and I had written up that list.

The two of us had been settling into unease one afternoon, succumbing to the boredom that sometimes hit us between spurts of customers.  It was inevitable, that feeling of ennui; just a part of the record store workaday landscape.  Gary would be behind the counter, the smoke from his unfiltered Camel rolling up around his head, lost in thought.  I’d be right next to him, thinking about doing inventory just to kill time, but putting it off because it was monotonous and not pressing.  We’d argue a bit about what album to play next on the store’s loudspeaker system, and then usually end up going with a time-honored in-store play selection like Pink Floyd’s Animals, though that just invariably fell into the overall recipe of sameness…

So the Rock and Roll Assassins List was a creative spurt, a departure from the everyday well patterned ebb and flow.  Chained to day-to-day Retail was bad enough, but we also had the misfortune of customers coming in and buying absolute dreck.  And as much as we pushed the newer, genre-warping and innovative bands like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and Television to our customers, the lion’s share of our sales went to certain classic rock artists who predominated on area radio stations.  So that particular day, we set out to right that wrong.

We jotted down our headline, and scrawled underneath it a phrase or two about wanting to smuggle a howitzer into some concerts by classic rockers, and then we came up with a Top Ten list of artists who we felt deserved that kind of comeuppance.  Boston, Journey, Triumph, and REO Speedwagon were the main offenders, as I recall, and all were guilty on several counts:  They were turgid, they were overplayed, and they were way out of whack purchased.

Were we snobs?  Sure…that was the ruling premise of working in an indie store.  We were the “chosen,” and we reveled in the width and breadth of the experimenters, innovators and iconoclasts that we daily tucked into our record bins and handily displayed on our pegboards, and yet just too many damn people persisted in opting for the formulaic bombast. 

But we also realized that we had the job of selling records to make a profit, so a bold, oversized statement just wouldn’t do.  So we settled for a sign that was small but mighty, one that spelled out our anguish but didn’t cry it, size-wise, to the high heavens.  And most of the customers that did happen to spy it as they sauntered over to the 8-track and cassette cases were often amused or worst-case bemused—unless they happened to be on their way to the tape cases for one or two of our Top Ten.

Anyway, back to Present Day, One Year Later, with me and Gary and Rod:  My immediate thought was that my new bosses at the record label wouldn’t take too kindly to their multiplatinum star singer in a noose, no matter how well hung he was.  But Gary persisted, saying that Stewart had turned the corner (and quite a few stomachs) by his foray into disco-like material, so he deserved to be strung up.  I had to concur.  It seemed fitting that Stewart—once known as Rod the Mod, but now clearly morphing toward Rod the Bod—should be hoisted up and hanging out with Gary’s and my howitzer Top Ten.

Part of my job with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic was to take photos of all my displays, in order to prove to my leaders that I was on the beat and covering a lot of ground.  Although I took this photo (obviously), it somehow never made it to Corporate—I just liked my new job much too much, and though the music business (at the time) was cool, crazy, and brimming with characters, I didn’t want to press my luck and test anyone’s patience or sense of humor above my station.

I look back at my days in Exile Records with great fondness; although there were certain moments of Everyman’s Retail—those times when the eyes glaze over or roll back in the head from the sameness of the situation—there were many more moments of abandoning myself to pure joy and satisfaction about living and breathing, on a daily basis, an art form as stimulating and life-changing as music

I’ll leave you with this:  A peek at life in a record store.  It’s not totally representational, but it captures one or two small aspects that were truisms about life in that realm.  Enjoy…It’s a look at Jack Black’s self-professed breakout role as Barry Judd, employee of the character played by John Cusack, from the 2000 film High Fidelity:  https://youtu.be/-ECyX8A3iP0

 

 

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Posted 10/3/16.....BEGINNINGS

Take a gander at the monstrosity above…Is it a towering art installation?  No…it’s a very recent photo of Pittsburgh’s Carrie Blast Furnaces Nos. 6 & 7, once upon a time a formidable producer of iron as part of US Steel’s Homestead Works operation.  Carrie’s industrial-strength reign started in the early 1900s but by the dawn of the 1980s—when our proud “Steel City” nametag was being peeled away by a dying regional industry—the Carrie Furnaces went dormant.

But take a closer look at that photo above.  On the left and right, protruding into the picture, there are staging/lighting grids of the variety used for outdoor concerts.  And that tells today’s tale, really: To the steel industry Carrie’s a ghost, but she’s materializing into quite the host…

I went down to the Carrie Furnaces on Saturday morning, September 24th to check out a music festival called Thrival that I had read just a little bit about the previous year.  My schedule back then didn’t match up to the festival dates, but when Thrival 2016 was announced, I pounced.  Right before buying my ticket, I did a little web surfing about Thrival’s creators and producers Thrill Mill, Inc., and they seemed to be an energizing, very enterprising organization.  And with their shift of the festival site this particular year to Carrie Furnaces, I was hooked on the concept of new music in such a sacred old space.

Thrill Mill, Inc., on its website, explains the origins of Thrival.  As it turns out, Thrill Mill does more than fill a concert bill:  “What do you get when you combine a week of innovation-focused programs — featuring thought leaders, cutting edge technology, new ideas, and forward thinking approaches to 21st century challenges...punctuated by a weekend concert featuring some of the best emerging national music acts and top-tier headliners?  Well - you get Thrival.” 

The website continues: “As an initiative of Thrill Mill, Inc.—a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that serves as an incubator and accelerator for early stage entrepreneurs—Thrival celebrated its ‘proof of concept’ in 2013, welcoming 2,000 attendees for a day of innovation talks, entrepreneur pitches, and an evening concert featuring RJD2, De La Soul, Frightened Rabbit, and Formula 412.  The goal: to shine a light on the new ideas and entrepreneurs that are fueling Pittsburgh’s 21st century economic resurgence…As an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Thrill Mill created the Thrival Innovation + Music Festival with two goals in mind.  First, Thrival serves as a revenue driver as a means for the organization to support local entrepreneurs with a portfolio of resources to grow their ideas—free of charge.  All proceeds from the festival go to support Thrill Mill and its mission.  The second (and equally important) feature of Thrival is the movement to introduce Pittsburgh as the world leader in post-industrial economic development.”

What better way—eh?—to communicate their vision of Pittsburgh as a post-industrial leader than to stage their week’s culminating new-music event at Carrie Furnaces?!!

When I arrived on Saturday shortly before 1:00 pm, I expected a decent-sized and pulsating crowd to match the music line-up I had read about.  The festival had started the day before, late in the afternoon that Friday, but due to pressing obligations elsewhere I couldn’t rightly surface ‘til Saturday.  In fact, from the time I bought my ticket months ago, my calendar for this September 23-24 concert weekend had sprung into conflict to such a degree that I now only had a short window of time on Saturday to see what Thrival was all about…

The gates had opened at 11am, but as I got through the ticket-taking/security wanding checkpoint, I noticed that Carrie Furnaces was a bit of ghost town.  Not that unusual for a festival, I thought to myself.  I knew the crowds would swell later in the day, and based on what a security guard had told me on the way in, the walk-up sales that evening would be strong based on the late, great turnout of the night before.

Well, the two of us were content, nonetheless—me and my iPhone.  With camera capability and no large crowds to obscure the landscape, I roved for the next hour-and-a-half, making note of the nicely plotted positioning of the festival elements and taking photos of the vendor tents, the stages, and some of the artistic ambience onsite… 

What floored me first upon walking in, of course, was Carrie.  She stood tall, high and mighty, and if you can look at the above picture and join me in my photo phantasy here, it sure as hell looks like she’s some kind of Transformer who just got done grabbing the tan brick building and plunking it down on her other side—as if to make way for the stage that now sits off to the right.  Tell me you don’t see that.  Or, actually, don’t say anything.  Just keep reading.

Here is the stage you just saw in the previous photo, a better, full-on version.  On the stage playing guitar along with pre-recorded or on-the-spot tailored keyboard & percussion loops is Chalk Dinosaur, a one-man army of compelling and groove-laden guitar sounds.  Chalk is essentially multi-instrumentalist John O’Hallaron, who a few years back graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor in Film & Media Studies, and who has now amassed quite a library of atmospheric tunes—electro, funk, dance, rock, and synthpop, all undercurrents for his ripping, rippling guitar—available for sampling through his website at http://www.johnohallaron.com.

As my iPhone (in its short bursts of whirring) captured images all throughout the concert grounds, Chalk Dinosaur’s music was my soundtrack—perfect for this clear blue afternoon and powerful in this setting of innovation and vibrancy mixed with industrial decay on display.

The other stage was situated not far from where Chalk Dinosaur was pealing out his soundscapes.  The festival was designed, with two stages in fairly close proximity, to keep the music flowing—as one artist doled out final chords, another would be a stage away, tuned-up and ready to roll.  This photo was taken just as the next artist on the schedule Brooke Annibale was preparing to play.  I had run into Brooke several times previously this summer—as a listener, I mean—at one of WYEP’s Final Fridays concerts at Schenley Plaza in late July, and again in August at the first WQED SESSIONS event in one of the WQED studios.  Alternative-folk singer/songwriter Annibale was imbued with musical leanings early on in life, and spent about six years in Nashville before returning to hometown Pittsburgh in 2014 to further her craft and continue her career.  (http://www.brookeannibale.com

  

The festival grounds had at its edges a nice array of food trucks, a bevy of beverages through local brewers, and a host of exhibitor tents.  I hasten to label all of this as youth culture appeal; with solar, green energy, healthy lifestyle alternatives and others of that ilk represented, it just seemed to me that the festival was trying to heighten the enlightenment of people of all ages.

 

Two whimsical examples of festival ambience / added attractions: Pittsburgh’s performance art ensemble Squonk Opera had two productions onsite—late morning/early afternoon performances both days on their Cycle Sonic bikes, and then capping off each night, a midnight run-through of their performance-art endeavor called Pneumatica featuring their giant blue lady pictured above…

And so yes, I missed Squonk.  And I missed the rest of the afternoon’s and evening’s performances.  Regrets?  I have more than a few…I just couldn’t bail on my other afternoon commitment and the separate evening engagement that had taken precedent.  My cameo at Thrival 2016 would have to do…but that picture above I found from Saturday night says it all—that’s where I will be next year.

 

 

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Posted 9/19/16.....MINUTE BY MINUTE

Inspiration for these A DAY IN THE LIFE postings come from a variety of sources…It could come during one of my self-appointed writer’s Saturday afternoons in the mosh pit of my mind, when single-word concepts begin pogoing up and down, all hoping to be pulled from the pit.  Other ideas can occur to me, though, when all is quiet and I have a steaming morning mug in my hand, gazing out my kitchen window like I’m in some freeze-dried coffee ad.

In this particular case, for this 9/19/16 posting, blame it on the Doobies.  Not the big rolled fatties, though; it didn’t stem from that.  I’m talking about the 1970s band that first dominated radio charts with easy-to-digest material like “Listen To The Music” and “Blackwater” before bringing Michael McDonald on board in 1975 for some blue-eyed soul on top of that rock ‘n’ roll.

It was the title track of the Doobie’s 1978 album “Minute By Minute” that I heard one morning recently on the way to work, and spurred on by the song title and the chorus, I got to thinking about the length of songs and that minutes do matter…

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s remember our favorite FM stations—a lot of them newly-birthed and on a mission—digging deep into new artists’ albums to pluck out the longest songs they could find.  Whether this was just lonesome late-night deejays looking for a bathroom break, I don’t know...but we came to experience, thanks to these record spinners, a number of s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d out classics like the still-gratifying “Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” from Traffic and the still grating “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” from Iron Butterfly, which clock in at almost twelve minutes and seventeen minutes respectively.

Arguably more interesting, though, is that prior to the 1960s but especially in that decade, much shorter songs ruled.  Tunes of three minutes or less were being mightily churned out for radio playlists, perhaps fueled a bit by those master craftsmen of the short and sweet, The Beatles.  The Fab Four, career-wide, produced about 150 total songs that timed out at 3 minutes or less.

Yes, minutes do matter…Artists are always trying to convey certain themes and/or weave a compelling tale, and many of them have tried—quite successfully—to harness the power that comes from brevity.

The following is a minute-by-minute account of some of musicasaurus.com’s favorite songs from my 1960s & 1970s playlists, illustrating the variety of messages both frivolous and weighty that are found in these under-three-minute gems:

Three of the one-minute variety to check out:

1. “Why Can’t I Be Free” from Spirit (1970), the late ‘60s/early ‘70s somewhat psychedelic, stubbornly original California rock band…The song was situated on side one of the band’s classic album Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus—likely better known as the album that had “Nature’s Way” on it.  https://youtu.be/nEORCtyiXYQ

2. “Ram On (Reprise)” from McCartney (1971) from Sir Paul’s second solo album after the breakup of The Beatles…Back when albums were a voyage of discovery—studiously soaking in side one and then flipping the record over for the revelations of side two—a piece like “Ram On (Reprise)” was part of the conceptual flow, and here it was plunked down as a shortened soothing segue to the last track, “Back Seat Of My Car.”  https://youtu.be/4Yv_Od1pPIE

3. Little Feat’s “Don’t Bogart That Joint” (1978) from their classic live double album Waiting For Columbus…The song in its original form—a three-minute version entitled “Don’t Bogart Me” by Lowell George’s previous band The Fraternity of Man—appeared in the film Easy Rider, the linchpin generational-shift movie from 1968 that gave all hippies (and aspirers) a reason to believe.  https://youtu.be/5anAokwZsFI

This next set of songs around the two-minute mark seem to flow from two directions—the mid-1960s pop radio hits, and then deeper album tracks from some rockers of various strains:

1. “Silhouettes” (1965), originally recorded by New York doo-woppers The Rays eight years before, and then scooped up (and sped up) by squeaky-clean English teen sensations Herman’s Hermits who scored a Top Five national hit with it.  https://youtu.be/V2gVH8ggCHU

2. “What’s New Pussycat?” from Tom Jones (1965)…At the age of twelve this was a head scratcher for me, but my mom was head over heels.  https://youtu.be/cB-ur_x-1Hg

3. “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” by The Hombres (1967), which according to some sources is a parody of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”  https://youtu.be/cWEu9Rn-PaE

4. “The Letter” by The Box Tops (1967), featuring the gravelly yet soulful lead vocals of singer Alex Chilton…The song was later covered by the spastic fantastic Joe Cocker on his 1970 stoner stomp through America entitled the Mad Dogs & Englishman tour.  Cocker’s may be the definitive version of this song.  https://youtu.be/HIWY8UyW9bw

5. “Mercedes Benz” from Janis Joplin (1970)…This a cappella tune co-written by Joplin was recorded on October 1st of that year for her work-in-progress album Pearl, and the singer died just three days later from a heroin overdose in her hotel room.  https://youtu.be/Qev-i9-VKlY

6. “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers (1971)…Hard to believe that this song is only two minutes in length when it has twenty-six “I knows” in it.  https://youtu.be/tIdIqbv7SPo

7. “Road” by Nick Drake (1972)…Late ‘60s/early ‘70s British folk singer Drake was clinically depressed and died at 26 from an apparent self-inflicted overdose, but not before leaving us with a spare, beautiful and widely-hailed release called Pink Moon which contained this particular track.  The whole album is a reflective pool of melancholy—just a man and his acoustic guitar—but it’s been an inspiration to a number of musicians and deserves a place, really, in anyone’s song pile.  https://youtu.be/DjZMhzGkghw

8. “We Will Rock You” from Queen (1977)…This song lives in stadiums and arenas to this day, long after Freddie Mercury may have personally pranced there.  It’s a tune with mammoth staying power yet miniscule production—just some layered vocals (all Freddie’s), one guitar, and the four band members’ handclaps and footstomps.  https://youtu.be/nH04kL2Sfvc

 

A LOT can be conveyed in just three minutes…The examples below are from 1960s and 1970s pop stars, protest singers, and boundary-pushing innovators, with messaging ranging from sweet nothings to searing indictments and everything in between. 

1. “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King (1960)…This is the original version of this tune, written by the charmed and prolific songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two of early rock and roll's best song crafters who eventually had 70 total hits under their belts.  On "Spanish Harlem", though, reportedly Phil Spector also had a hand in it (the one not holding the gun).  This is a beautiful tune, however, musicasaurus.com highly recommends you also seek out the Laura Nyro & Labelle cover of this song from Laura's 1971 album Gonna Take A Miracle.  (Ben E. King’s version: https://youtu.be/zOoutJtMCi8 ….. Laura Nyro & Labelle’s cover: https://youtu.be/xb6db0UM0nY

2. “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone (1965) – This tune was originally written for the 1964 English musical production (and eventual Broadway hit) The Roar Of The Greasepaint—The Smell Of The Crowd.  Simone, an American singer/songwriter and pianist, spun the song into a classic for generations to come through this cover version included on her 1965 release I Put A Spell On You.  Singer Simone was also a strong Civil Rights activist, principled, quick tempered, and bipolar; check out the compelling warts-and-all 2015 biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? from filmmaker Liz Garbus.  It’s in your Netflix queue.  https://youtu.be/D5Y11hwjMNs

3. “Tomorrow Never Knows” from The Beatles (1966)…This song from the boys’ Revolver album was at first a mind bending revelation—a deeper dive than the foursome had ever done before—and it was massively influential to peer musicians and fan followers.  The song includes the opening lyric “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,” which was copped by Lennon from ‘60s LSD cheerleader-guru Timothy Leary.  https://youtu.be/7UjvdZm-Tu8

4. “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys (1966)…God only knows how Brian Wilson achieved this, and if these voices—these weaved voices—are the ones rolling around in his head, so be it.  It’s good medicine for us, with its blend of three vocal parts at the song’s conclusion—mesmerizing.  https://youtu.be/uEomFTVGxo4

5. “Purple Haze” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967)…Move over.  And let Jimi take over.  A high school friend laid Are You Experienced on me in class one day, saying his older brother had an import version and that I absolutely had to hear this album.  Imagine the effect on Yours Truly as a 14-year-old boy, cozied up to his plastic turntable in his postered bedroom, listening to the revelatory opening slashes from this possessed, unearthly talented twenty-five-year-old guitar player.  https://youtu.be/zRjE_EFk204

6. “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” by Pete Seeger (1967)…Folksinger/songwriter and activist Pete Seeger—composer of classics including “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—wrote this parable about our country’s escalating involvement in the Vietnam War, and how our leaders were seemingly blindly pushing forward without recognizing the pitfalls and the peril.  Seeger taped a performance of this song for the increasingly provocative (i.e., left-leaning) television variety show the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but its inclusion was first nixed by parent company CBS who then relented a few months later—so Seeger ultimately got his shot at strumming for the faithful with his choruses of “Waist deep in the Big Muddy / And the big fool says to push on”…  https://youtu.be/2fUF6RctQvg

7. “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)” from Scott McKenzie (1967)…Another message song from the ‘60s, though this one hasn’t aged so well, of course.  It wasn’t a call to arms; it was an appeal to place flowers on one’s head and travel to the Bay area to “meet some gentle people there.”  And the song goes on to say “For those who come to San Francisco / Summertime will be a love-in there.”  Dude, where’s my car!  https://youtu.be/7I0vkKy504U

8. “Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard (1969)…Country music legend Haggard’s motivation for writing this song stemmed from viewing Vietnam war protesters and wanting to say or do something in support of our fighting men.  So he crafted “Okie From Muskogee,” an admonishment of the new generation’s lifestyle choices that had come to roost with the rise of the war and the rampant societal changes that were rocking America.  On October 20, 1969, Haggard performed the song live on the ABC network’s Music Scene program.  One of the episode’s guest emcees Tommy Smothers introduced Haggard, and—kiddingly, I think—said it was part of “equal time provisions” that led to Merle to be on the program.  Merle’s voice on this track is golden, and the song itself is a great little shuffle that doesn’t spit venom throughout; it’s doled out as more of a small-town conservative’s view of America, wrapped in a bit of puzzlement over the way some of this country’s youth were choosing protest, free love, wild fashion, and Mother Nature’s herbs:  “I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee / A place where even squares can have a ball / We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse / And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all.”  https://youtu.be/8wMwBwMj0ZA

9. “Willin’” from Little Feat (1972)…This song is highly revered by Feat fanatics but also by scores of today’s alt-country bands and their respective worshippers.  The version listed here is the re-recorded version (at 2:57) from Feat’s second album Sailin’ Shoes.  The debut appearance of “Willin’” was on Feat’s first album (clocking in at 2:24), and the early rendition doesn’t quite have the power and the glory of this remake.  https://youtu.be/iguLpoV0SXc

10. “One Love/People Get Ready” and “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers (1977)…Exodus was the album released in ’77 that indeed made Marley an international superstar, and back here in the States, songs like these joined earlier reggae fever-builders like “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Lively Up Yourself” and “No Woman, No Cry.”  And, truth be told, a lot of young people at the time were taking up Marley’s medicine along with his music—just a tokin’ of their appreciation.  (“One Love/People Get Ready:” https://youtu.be/N3KosOPCSiU ….. “Three Little Birds:"  https://youtu.be/zaGUr6wzyT8

 

 

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Musicasaurus.com has clawed out some vacation time, so the next fresh posting will be on Monday, September 19th ….Please return then!

 

 

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Posted 8/22/16.....I SAW THE LIGHT

 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away at sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne (1572-1631); Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, originally published in 1624. 

The “any man’s death” part of this famous quotation of Donne’s popped into my head soon after I heard the news about the August 7th passing of B.E. Taylor, one of Western Pennsylvania’s most gifted and beloved singer-songwriters/musicians. 

I thought to myself, yes, any man’s death diminishes me—but somehow this one hurt almost like no other.

I looked up the entire quote and dug more into Donne, and then it seemed even more apropos that my mind had first gone to this beautiful phrasing from long ago.  Donne was one of a group of English writers from the 17th century who, I learned, were labeled years afterward as “the metaphysical poets” because their works—sonnets, sermons, elegies, and especially poetry—revolved around two principal themes: love and religion.

Aye, that was B.E.  Or rather, those were the two threads that literally made the man—intertwined, a man defined.  And the third thread, lucky for all of us, was music.

William Edward Taylor was born in Aliquippa, PA (less than 30 miles from Pittsburgh), and from an early age fell into the spell cast by the Beatles and Motown.  His mother had gotten into the habit of calling him Billy Edward which thankfully was eventually trimmed to B.E.—a much better “handle” for the rocker that was rising up within…

B.E. had his own band while still in high school, and along with his exuberance and rock-star long hair, he had…the voice.  I have distant memories of seeing B.E. in concert during my own high school years in the late-‘60s going into the ‘70s, but of course it was the early ‘80s when his passion and talent really grabbed the national spotlight.  His band was one of several in Western Pennsylvania to emerge into the limelight back then, arguably one of the most fertile periods of homegrown Western Pennsylvania talent shouldering open record company doors and edging into more than just the regional radio stations’ playlists.  Groups like Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, Joe Grushecky’s Iron City Houserockers, and The Silencers (with Frank Czuri and Warren King) were all gaining national traction thanks to more airplay and the nascent MTV adding their clips, and B.E. bathed in those waters as well—with “Vitamin L.”

Ironically, this song which became a #1 regional hit AND a national chart climber to #66 on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 in 1984 was one of the only ones NOT sung by lead vocalist B.E.  Drummer Joey D’Amico took the honors on that one.

But, back to the voice…In 1991, in my era of rampant CD collecting and coveting, I ran across local radio station WDVE’s recent music compilation of Pittsburgh-region artists, and B.E. was in the brood.  The song was “You’re Gonna Work It Out” and it was an inspirational power-throated rock ballad that had me from the opening chords and the first vocal slide-in from the perpetually longhaired, eternally impassioned singer.  I kept this song on “repeat” and never tired of the magic B.E. spun with the able accompaniment of the singer’s fast friend and sidekick Rick Witkowski on track production and guitar.

That same year B.E. also found his true calling—quite by accident, according to his close friend, former WDVE on-air talent and current independent writer/producer Steve Hansen.  “It was truly accidental,” Hansen says. “B.E. had contributed a song to another station’s Christmas CD that year, and the reception to it was amazing.  He had reworked Silent Night, and the response was so great that he came up with the idea of doing a full Christmas album—AND putting it out on his own record label Chrishae, which is a commonplace idea now, of course, but was trendsetting at the time.”

B.E. Taylor Christmas was released in 1994, and as Hansen tells it, late in the year B.E. was talked into doing a Wheeling-area one-time performance of the album, and again, the response was electric.  This begat the idea of a holiday concert tour, and it was here that B.E. truly arrived at the intersection of love, religion and music.  With his strong Christian faith, and armed with his love of family & friends and a humble appreciation of his own singular gift, B.E. surrounded himself with Rick Witkowski and a stellar band of comrades, and set sail into holiday waters…

The Christmas season tour took off, and from 1996 onward, B.E. and band were annually packing theater-sized venues in Southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and beyond, amassing crowds of all ages and stripes who seemed hungry for connection in terms of bringing a bit of the real meaning of Christmas into their lives.

Or, truth be told, maybe some of them just liked to rock.  B.E.’s stage show consisted mostly of the time-tested Christmas songs like “Joy To The World” and “O Holy Night” and “What Child Is This”—but each was an ingenious, wholly-satisfying spin on the original, infused with the singer’s alternately soaring and soothing vocal prowess, powered on by his mates.  The songs, whether ballads or up-tempo recreations, were creative set pieces—stirring, moving, emotion-filled and masterfully performed.  And between songs, B.E. avoided the usual rock clichés and stage patter—just not in his nature—and engaged the audience with warm, short asides about his family, friends, bandmates, and oh yes, the God’s honest relevance of this wondrous time of year.

Around September of 2009 after having left a music business job, I joined the non-profit public broadcaster WQED in the broadcast sales & underwriting department, and that same year in December B.E. realized his goal of trying to capture the essence of his Christmas concerts on camera.  On December 14th and 15th, he and his band played their now standard two-night sell-out engagement at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, and videographers and audio folks swelled the numbers of his normal crew, painstakingly recording both nights from which to cull the best performances for an eventual DVD.

B.E. and his wife Veronica called me at WQED a few months into 2010, inquiring about setting a meeting with WQED Management to discuss the possibility of our television station airing his new video, which was still at the time in the “heavy edit” stage.  He and Veronica brought in some clips of some already finalized song stretches, and we huddled with Patty Walker (then the VP/Business & Finance) and Linda Taggart (then Senior Director/On-Air Fundraising), and they were both enthralled.  Literally before the meeting even ended, they told the Taylors that WQED was IN.

Our management team then took it one step further, in promising to submit the completed concert to APT (American Public Television), a subset network of PBS stations who, they said, would most assuredly give serious consideration to airing the video in their respective markets.  The end result?  Beginning in December 2010, a number of other cities’ PBS outlets began airing the seasonal production along with WQED, and slowly but surely B.E’s holiday-with-a-twist became ingrained in their annual year-end schedules as well…

All of this couldn’t have happened to a nicer person—especially one with the vision and perseverance and the talent to bring it to fruition.  I remember talking to B.E. on the phone one day, right after he and Veronica had delivered the finalized B.E. Taylor Christmas: Live at Heinz Hall video to WQED.  I recall frankly gushing about the finished product, and told him—uh, no offense here, PBS—that this show, stacked up against other PBS offerings of holiday concerts, was truly something that all should have aspired to.  Not only was this video a testament to the musicians’ kinship and skill, it was in equal measure a tribute to the emotional power of unselfconscious, right-on-target editing which ultimately brought a seamless, incredibly joyous experience to the viewer. 

With B.E.’s passing this month we’ve lost a native son…a champion for love…a man blessed with an abundance of talent who shared his gift with thousands of people every year for twenty years running.

I believe I’m speaking for a lot of them when I extend to the heavens a prayer of thanks. I am only one of countless others who raised their children on B.E. Taylor Christmas concerts…who took friends each year and turned them into converts…and who went back home after each performance infused with the spirit, reminded to do for others and to be grateful for all the blessings that Life gives to us.

In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Scott Mervis the day after B.E. passed away, another good friend of the singer (and band member) Hermie Granati was quoted as saying this:  “All the superlatives have been said about his musicianship, but the guy that we knew, when he talked to you, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the room.  Very at ease and very comfortable being himself.  There was a light emanating from Bill, and he pulled everyone into that light.  He wore his faith on his sleeve and he lived it.”

Sleep in heavenly peace, B.E....

(http://www.betaylor.com)

 

 

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Posted 8/8/16.....THE LONGEST TIME

For those of a certain age—under 30, for sure—it’s hard to comprehend a world where interconnectedness didn’t reign.  In the live entertainment business back in the early-to-mid 1990s, our means of “getting the word out” about upcoming shows at our local amphitheater revolved around initial secrecy, staging a big reveal, and then basking in a huge media splash that dominated the air waves and the print media for days on end.

How dinosaurish.  But understand, Tech was just then starting to majorly uncork the genie.  It was 1990 before the first web server was developed, along with the first web browser.  In 1993, the first graphical web browser for the general public (which included, for the first time, images and text on the same page) came into being, a product called Mosaic which was later rechristened Netscape.  This was the first widely downloaded browser that brought multimedia content to the non-techies of the world, and it really wasn’t until 1995 that widespread commercial use restrictions were lifted and companies like eBay and Amazon were beginning to hatch…

So there we were in 1994, preparing for our usual rite of Spring—organizing a major press conference-style luncheon in a local hotel ballroom in April, inviting several hundred people from the media and our large venue sponsor network to gather together to break bread and feast on breaking news.  We had shows to tout and talk about, and this was the Pittsburgh region’s first opportunity to get a real glimpse of the outdoor concert season to come.

Star Lake Amphitheater was just four seasons old at that point in time, having opened its doors to the clamoring inquisitives in the summer of 1990.  No one had known what to expect from this once-upon-a-time strip mining site turned outdoor concert venue, but over the course of the first few years the crowds swelled for our wide array of shows, everything from rock and country to Christian, blues and jazz.  And entering our fifth season was a big deal—we had a very healthy number of shows to unleash upon Western Pennsylvania.

Our press conferences usually had a theme.  One year we had hired the local KDKA-TV weatherman Larry Richert to help us reveal the names of the artists on stage with us.  We had a banner that read “Summer Forecast” positioned above a huge Jeopardy-like board that contained individual cards bearing weather-related clues, each of them shielding the card underneath that contained the particular artist’s name.  And Larry would tease out the clue before the expectant throng, and then pull off the cover card to reveal the artist who was headed our way that summer (“The band named after the Windy City?  Why yes, that’s Chicago!”)...and so on.

But in 1994, we went for a less elaborate, movie-themed sneak preview approach.  In the photo above, you see Yours Truly (the amphitheater’s then-marketing director) standing next to Pittsburgh-area concert promoter Rich Engler, and over on the right Star Lake’s executive director Tom Rooney.  The three of us pitched in with the clue readings, and then pulled off the individual slats to reveal the Summer of 1994’s “Leading Men”, “Leading Ladies”, etcetera.

Though we only announced about twenty of the season’s initial offerings that afternoon, no one knew—including us—that we were headed for a record-breaking summer.  1994 became the year we hit 42 shows, the most we had ever booked into the usual May-to-September spread of dates.  Plus it was one of our strongest lineups ever in terms of diversity.  The media, our sponsors, and especially the fans had over the past few seasons built up an expectation of great shows being booked—they knew they could count on country music, rock of all stripes, and other musical idioms to be fully represented in the schedule. 

The summer of 1994 had many memorable moments, but what I remember most was our fight for survival.  I’m not talking about battling hordes of OzzFest numbskulls, or being on the end of a wagging finger of a pissed-off Kenny G female fan stopped from going backstage (the latter just as bone-chilling an experience as the former, I have to say), I’m talkin’ here about a real survivor’s challenge—and this had everything to do with the way the individual show dates had eventually panned out.

Star Lake Amphitheatre had proved over its first four years to be eminently routable as a destination for touring artists.  The booking agents who plotted out these tours loved the fact that Pittsburgh sat fairly close to cities like Washington D.C., Cleveland, Columbus, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, in terms of drivable distances for their traveling artists.

The downside of being very routable, however, usually occurred when a vast number of artists were all touring at the very same time in the Northeast.  With that kind of happenstance—many artists available, but only in a compressed timeframe—we usually ended up with a few back-to-back shows, which we all detested to some degree: There was that specter of ticket-sales cannibalization, especially if the shows were similar and thus essentially competing for the same dollars from our concert-going community.  Also, to a lesser extent, two or three shows back-to-back were a bit of a strain on the staff.

Before that summer of 1994 had kicked fully into gear, I started to notice that August was looking PRIT-tee busy.  I called Beckye Levin, our buttoned-up and very accomplished booker in our corporate office in Houston.  “What’s goin’ on, Beck?” I said good-naturedly, “August is getting smooshed.”  “Baby” she said back to me, summoning up her best Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I don’t think she had shared her complete crystal ball with me at that juncture.  She probably didn’t want me to hang up the phone, throw my amphitheater dog tags in the can, and run for my life.  But it was true—I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

By the time Beckye was done fielding the demands of the booking agents—and adhering to our own fearless corporate leaders who were fixated on the dollar signs associated with squeezed-in shows—we had quite the schedule in the month of August.  It started out okay, with a Jackson Brown/John Hiatt show on August 1st and then a Steve Winwood-led Traffic reunion concert on August 9th, but from there on, we had a hellacious run of shows.

And so this was the finalized mid-late August schedule, when the last bit of booking activity was signed, sealed and delivered:  August 12th Metallica with Alice In Chains…August 13th Chicago…August 14th Mannheim Steamroller…August 15th and August 16th The Eagles doubleheader…August 18th Vince Gill with Patty Loveless…August 19th Barry Manilow…August 20th Michael Bolton with Celine Dion…August 21st The H.O.R.D.E. Festival…August 22nd John Mellencamp…August 23rd Bonnie Raitt with Bruce Hornsby…August 24th An evening with YES…August 25th Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons with The Four Tops…August 27th Aerosmith…and August 28th Harry Connick, Jr.

Fifteen shows in seventeen days...My first thought:  Well, this is certainly inconvenient for our staff—why weren’t the 17th and the 26th booked as well?  Aren’t these two days just an irritating disruption?  Why should our staff have to put up with a normal eight-hour day instead of working an event at night as well—and not once, but twice during this seventeen-day period?!!

I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself…After all, I was only likely to log 12-to-14 hours a day during the August run, as opposed to some of our key production folks who were looking at upwards of twenty hours a day on some of these shows.

I remember thinking that some interesting staff meetings might crop up during this upcoming stretch:

* Executive Director:  “Okay guys, this is Show Number Seven tonight.”

* Security Supervisor:  “Oh boy, yeah, we’ll be ready for some knock-down slugfests and some lawn fires tonight!”

* Executive Director:  “Well-l-l-l…maybe.  But tonight’s Barry Manilow.  Metallica was six shows ago, and Aerosmith is seven more shows down the stretch.  I don’t know about lawn fires tonight, but you may see a hissy fit or two, if that gets you psyched up at all.”

Anyway, I really began to wonder, would the staff remember—in the midst of the onslaught of shows, with very little sleep—what concert they were actually working on at any given moment?  Would tempers run high after energy ran low, and would exasperation and exhaustion rule the day(s)?

On Friday, August 12th the long s-t-r-e-t-c-h finally arrived.  One show quickly dumped into another, and the days flew by...and the sum total effect of the stretch seemed to be that we were all in fact lulled and dulled by the day-upon-day parade of shows.  Really, I think we can credit a bit of bonding brotherhood along with that lack of sleep, and as it turned out in the end, the staff successfully got into the zone and performed with flying colors—no one uttered a cross word, no one flew off the handle, and no one flared up and flambéed anyone else.  All was right with the world.

At the end of that season of 1994, we printed up commemorative t-shirts for the staff.  The shirts were adorned with the headline “The Long Stretch” and the bulk of the design was a mocked-up calendar, with respective artist names dotting the appropriate squares from August 12th through August 28th.  My t-shirt eventually went to tatters from years of use and too many trips down laundry lane.  But I can tell you that it’s great to have these memories wash over me one more time.

 

 

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Posted 7/25/16.....PHOTOGRAPH

Rummaging can be productive…From storage bins still piled up in my laundry room, I recently unearthed some photos from My Olden Days, spanning from the late 1970s when I worked at an indy record store and then a record company, all the way through the early 2000s when I was the general manager of an amphitheatre.  There are five entries here, ranging from a Bruce concert experience to a questionable record display…from a music-related charity project in Pittsburgh that highlighted our native sons, to an in-store appearance by Ozzy Osbourne…and then we end up with a little bit of country after all that rock ‘n’ roll.  ENJOY…

It was late December in 1978 and Bruce was comin’ to town, and this meant chances were good that some song-opening sleigh bells and piano chords would appear somewhere within the marathon set of this inexhaustible rock ‘n’ roller.

Back then I had recently shifted occupation from co-manager of Exile Records in Wexford, PA to the job of regional in-store merchandiser for the record label group Warner-Elektra-Atlantic.  I still had in my possession, though, an Exile Records Santa cap which my friends Gary and Mike and I used to wear while peddling our albums and tapes during the holiday stretches in that little shop north of Pittsburgh.

I took the Santa hat to the concert with me that night, and when I heard those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling too, I ran up close to the stage from my faraway seat and stopped right beside the front row.  In my moment’s hesitation to actually hurl the Santa hat Bruce’s way, the guy in the aisle seat noticed my pause—and what I had in my hand—and he grabbed the hat and lobbed it up on stage.

Bruce spied it as he was prancing left to right, ducked down and scooped it up, and then crowned himself the king of the holiday spirit in front of one and all, not losing a beat or a breath in his pre-song rhapsodizing.

A friend of mine actually caught this on camera, incredibly just as the word “Exile” in sparkly letters could be captured for posterity.  I realize that you might not share my enduring thrill over this particular photo, and rightfully so.  But there’s at least a cult-sized contingent of folks that would—our late-‘70s record store faithfuls, those loyal customers who’d be damn proud to know that Bruce once had Exile on the brain (if even for the length of just one song).

In 1979 in Pittsburgh, I was employed by WEA—Warner Brothers, Elektra and Atlantic Records—to schlep album covers and artists’ posters around the Tristate area, hitting record stores in order to seize prime real estate inside for my company’s displays.  If I could commandeer as well the store’s front window that was a plus, because if the art (the materials and/or the display itself) was eye-catching enough, people usually popped in to check out things further.

In Oakland one particular week, I scored that highly desirable space at the campus store of National Record Mart.  Atlantic Records had just released a new album from The Henry Paul Band, who’s founding namesake was a country boy rocker who had previously been with The Outlaws and who had definitely followed suit with the new band in terms of the southern-fried guitars and harmony blends.  Their debut was called Grey Ghost—and the title song was an almost 7-minute tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, who famously went down in flames two years earlier in a plane crash that claimed other Skynyrd lives as well.

So the photo above reflects my usual approach.  Not usually content with just taping up a few posters—the lazy man’s out—I did some justice to the value of the space with a little extra garnishment.  I bought a cheap skeleton mask, wrapped it in grey fabric, and placed the death stare in the center of the poster concoction.

And apparently, I rubbed someone at Atlantic the wrong way.  At some point soon after my display went up, I was advised by my bosses that the band wouldn’t be too keen on this literal approach, and that I should keep the window space, of course, but “lose” the ghost.  I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly offensive or insensitive, but I complied and went back to the standard slap-up of just posters and album covers.  Call it an exorcise in frustration.

In 1982 while working as director of marketing at music retailer National Record Mart, I came up with the idea of rounding up local rockers around the ‘burgh for a photo shoot and a subsequent poster to benefit the March of Dimes.  I wondered at first whether corralling these cats was going to be like herding cats—but musician Rickie Granati helped me get the word out to a number of local artists, and one day in January we all assembled at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, who had kindly granted us permission to use their stage for the afternoon.

That’s me on the far right, obviously having a bad hair day.  Even with that tumbleweed of a mane, though, no one confused me for a rock ‘n’ roller.  Photographer Barb Freeman (kneeling before the pack) shot what eventually became a classic Pittsburgh keepsake—the Pride of Pittsburgh musicians’ poster, which was placed on sale a month later at all of the area National Record Marts, raising a decent little sum for a great cause.  (Here is the link to the long ago Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about the project:  https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1129&dat=19820219&id=IdtaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=km0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=5453,4623203&hl=en

I forget what date this in-store appearance by His Ozzness actually took place, but I know it was in the early 1980s after he had left Black Sabbath and embarked on a solo career.

Oasis Records & Tapes was National Record Mart’s “superstore” spin-off brand with several locations in key compass points around the city.  These stores were often the ones that got green-lighted for artist appearances.  If a certain performer was coming to town to play a theater or an arena, the record company’s promotion people often coaxed him or her into doing a quick afternoon stop at an Oasis superstore, to meet the public and sign autographs and hopefully give a kick in the keister to album sales.

The above Ozzy with store staff photo was taken just as soon as he arrived.  I had already spotted Ozzy’s T-shirt, of course—“Hitler’s European Tour, 1939-1945”.  Oh, For the Love of God…really?!!  The normal concerns at an artist’s in-store appearance were obviously all about crowd control, but here we were simply flush with fear that one of the three brother owners of National Record Mart might just happen to walk through the door.  The prevailing opinion was that Sam, Jason and Howard Shapiro were not going to be fans of Ozzy’s casualwear…Luckily none of the owners ended up gracing us with their own in-store appearance.

At Star Lake Amphitheater during the 1990s we were big on plaques.  For noteworthy shows we would spend a few hundred dollars on these commemorative items for presentation to the headlining star that night, inscribing upon them the artist’s name, the concert date, and whatever achievement we were lauding, like a sold-out show or an unbroken string of appearances at our venue.

The artists seem to like this extra touch, but honestly our prime motivation was to get a photo of our amphitheater principals with the star and his or her manager, so that we could feed it to the industry trade magazines like Pollstar and Performance.  A picture is worth a thousand words—we loved to see ourselves in print a few weeks down the line, with the published photo and the caption that inevitably extolled our venue as a hotspot for big shows, big attendances, and big paydays for the bands.

The photo on the left above is of Reba McEntire, one of the reigning queens of country music (especially in the mid-1990s) in terms of record sales and concert tickets.  Star Lake Amphitheater GM Tom Rooney and I flank the red-haired Reba, who is all smiles because of a sell-out crowd awaiting her arrival onstage.  This September 4, 1994 show was her first return to Star Lake since the inaugural season in 1990, and her first sellout at the venue as well (23,000 tickets).

The picture on the right is of Toby Keith, who on September 24, 2004 received a plaque that not only commemorated a sell-out show, but an all-time attendance record he set that very night—the largest crowd at the amphitheater in its fifteen-year history.  Our Nashville-based country music booker Brian O’Connell (second from the left) had been dead set on getting to that particular mark of distinction for Toby, ever since I let it slip to Brian earlier on that the Steve Miller Band had taken the title through a show of theirs in 1999.

Some people call him the Space Cowboy, some people call him the Gangster of Love—but we all called Steve Miller Number Two after that night with Toby.  In the weeks leading up to Toby’s concert, we all had watched the daily ticket sales like hawks, even expanding lawn capacity to potentially uncomfortable levels (sorry, country fans) so that Toby could triumph.  His will be done—the final attendance for Mr. Keith that September night was 27,250, beating back the once-proud Mr. Miller by a margin of 1,096 tickets.

 

 

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Posted 7/11/16.....POWER OF TWO

 

I have lived in Pittsburgh since the late 1970s, and one thing I’ve relished over the years are the memories of nights at The Decade in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, seeing young hungry bands in their larval stage—artists like The Police and U2.  These bands were touring America often for the very first time, fueled more by passion than by gas money, and banging out incredible high-energy sets that left many an indelible imprint on my music-hungry grey matter.

I followed a number of these artists throughout their careers from fledging stage to full blossom, both on album and in live performance, catching them as they swept through Pittsburgh in subsequent years on their inevitable climb up the touring ladder to larger and larger venues.

Pittsburgh would, through the years, mostly get its fair share of these A-list acts when their tours were ultimately mapped out nationally, and I managed to catch a number of them here.  But frankly, these days, there aren't that many artists anymore that strongly beckon me.  I don't know--call it been there, seen that…or maybe it is just that I’ve reached a crescendo of crotchetiness as I begin to settle into my sixth decade.  There's been a feeling that creeps into me lately at arena shows, where selfies truly rule the aisles and people in the rows around me seem to be still mentally lodged at Happy Hour.  And I believe that this ultimately contributes to the chipping away of one’s overall tolerance for these mammoth-size hockey buildings that we all trudge into, praying for that spark of intimacy and emotional connection with what's unfolding on stage...

In this past year I went to Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center to see a longtime hero of mine, and decided afterward that it was perhaps just the right time to start curbing my concert experiences with respect to these hockey and basketball palaces.  Too cavernous…too fraught with distance and distraction…

But then, I literally had one of those up-the-spine-for-a-millisecond pleasure spasms when I stumbled across a tour announcement in January about the teaming up of Peter Gabriel and Sting—two artists who I have respected and reveled in for years who had just decided to tour arenas and amphitheaters together in the Summer of '16. 

This news made me waver a bit in my brand new conviction, and I began thinking seriously about grabbing tickets to one of the shows.  It also quite pleasantly stirred up old memories dating back to my very first rounds of exposure to each of these gifted musicians…

My history with Gabriel is largely just as a fan, though I came late to the game.  In the mid-to-late ‘70s I worked at an independent record store for a few years, and pushed over the counter many an early Genesis record—the Gabriel-led recordings from the band like Trespass (1970), Nursery Cryme (1971), and Foxtrot (1972), which incidentally had all become “cut-outs”—the record biz term for albums that were originally manufactured in large quantities that exceeded fan demand, resulting in discounted pricing and eventual banishment to the overstock bins of record stores.

I never cottoned to these early Genesis records.  Prog rock like this was not my thing, and it wasn’t until Gabriel left the fold in 1975 and began launching his own solo records that I sat up and took notice.  He whetted my appetite with early works like “Solsbury Hill” from his first solo effort, “D.I.Y.” from the second, and from his third, the anti-war song “Games Without Frontiers” and the album’s closing track “Biko”, a moving ode to South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who had died a martyr for the cause in 1977.

I very much liked Gabriel’s growing penchant for humanitarian causes and concerns, and also loved the fact that he f*cked with his record company.  Those first three aforementioned solo albums, and indeed the fourth, were ALL entitled simply Peter Gabriel at the artist’s insistence, much to the exasperation of his handlers.  The record label went along with this early on, though, even poking fun at the conceit by mass producing an in-store advertisement/poster which played up the confusion aspect (see the nurse poster above).

Gabriel’s commercial juggernaut finally came with his 1986 album entitled So (yes, he had finally acquiesced to the record label’s request to give the damn thing a name, and relented with a two-letter album title).  Sales of So weren’t just so-so—the album exploded internationally (aided by MTV) and this rocketed Gabriel out of cult status with songs like “Sledgehammer”, “In Your Eyes”, “Big Time”, “Red Rain” and more…

I caught Gabriel in concert a few times during the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s, and the shows were explosive, brimming with imagination in terms of set design, lighting and pacing.  Too, Gabriel’s band members—including towering, bald bassist Tony Levin—were totally in sync with their parading front man.

Tom Rooney, my former boss from my marketing-director days at Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheater (now First Niagara Pavilion), remembers a classic Gabriel concert from 1993—this one more than a bit outside of routine.  In an effort to help bring certain Third World musicians much more exposure in America, Gabriel had arranged that summer for his musically multicultural WOMAD festival to be brought overseas from Europe to a select handful of amphitheaters in The States.  As executive director of Star Lake at the time, Rooney agreed to book the show when our amphitheater’s parent company offered it up, and it landed at Star Lake on Wednesday September 8, 1993.

“I can think of about 144,000 reasons not to recall the WOMAD show with host Peter Gabriel at Star Lake because that’s how much money we lost,” said Rooney, “the worst loss for a show of its ilk that this here promoter has ever suffered.  Something about that number, you know, sticks, like that that root number of 144 is twelve and there are a dozen times a thousand reasons not to forget about it.  Would I do it again?  Of course not!  There are many lessons you learn from promoting, like never booking a show when you really need one.

“That wasn’t the case here.  This covered two other NEVER DOs.  One, never book a show because you love the artist and Gabriel is my favorite solo artist (as much as I hated Genesis).  The album So is my favorite CD, maybe tied with Bruce’s Nebraska.  The second sin is to think that 1+1+1+1 = anything more than 1.  Festival settings like WOMAD diminish the interest of a major headliner because the presumption is that he/she/they will not do a full set.  And we even got Peter to cut a radio promo to say he would do a full set after the weak on-sale…Oh, well, he did 45 minutes.

“I did get to hang with him walking around the other WOMAD stages that day, and he really appreciated that we did our best to make the facility as attractive as possible.  I did talk to him about So and I was glad that he played “Red Rain” even though it was sunny and we were under a red rain of red ink.  Gabriel was eagerly describing to me each act on the bill—and I can remember none of them.”

I personally remember Gabriel’s set that day as a pretty compelling performance, but I forgot to ask Rooney’s opinion on this particular point and now I’m wondering if he was as enamored as I was—or if he was too preoccupied with buyer’s remorse, wishing he’d said “Whoa!” to WOMAD.

 

Sting is another artist that I have followed fervently through the years, having had a lightning bolt moment in the old National Record Mart flagship store in Market Square, downtown Pittsburgh.  It was late in 1978, about 8 months into my new record company job of fashioning displays in music stores throughout Western PA, and I was up on a ladder stapling some priority Warner Brothers artist posters along the ceiling line.  Suddenly I heard over the store’s stereo system some muscular, incredibly rhythmic, and reggae-tinged power pop that had me spinning around immediately to see what the store manager had slapped on the turntable.

“It’s The Police,” Maurice the store manager informed me, and handed me the Outlandos d'Amour album cover while “Roxanne” and then “Hole in My Life” spilled out from the speakers above.  Back then in ’78, I was increasingly bitten then smitten by a lot of emerging new music that was fresh and far from formulaic, like Television, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and more, and something about this Police album really resonated—almost as if I sensed this trio had the instrumental chops and the songwriting savviness to fan out even further.

When The Police called it quits essentially around 1984, Sting soldiered on in jazzier pop pursuits with his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, and continued from there to mine various influences and twist them into his own idiosyncratic vision.  Always supported by a hellacious backing band of stellar musicians, he has created over the years a body of work that is always keenly captivating if not 100% commercially viable, with excursions into jazz, classical, 14th century carols, Elizabethan-era songs, and even a Broadway musical (The Last Ship).

Arguably, one of Sting’s most enduring songs came from his fourth solo album Ten Summoners’ Tales, released in 1993.  “Fields of Gold”, a Top Twenty-Five song on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 chart, was played to death on Adult Contemporary radio stations across the USA and appeared on the mainstream and modern rock national charts as well, but this ubiquitous exposure never led to listener burnout.  Credit the song itself, a sweet, cushioning ballad with touches of harmonica and Northumbrian smallpipes (bellows-blown bagpipes) imparting a regal, timeless feel…

The song is still a personal favorite of Rick Sebak, a writer-producer-documentarian who works at WQED Multimedia, the non-profit community broadcaster (and PBS outlet) housed in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  Sebak remembers a chance encounter with Sting back in June of 1993, the day after the artist performed at Star Lake Amphitheatre.  

"Whenever I give visitors to WQED what I call 'the ten-cent tour,'" Rick said, "of course I take them through the huge empty space we call Studio A.  We still say it’s the largest TV studio between New York and Chicago.  Huge theatrical style lights hang from the ceiling.  And it’s the studio where most of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shows were videotaped between 1970 and 2001, so it’s now officially named 'The Fred Rogers’ Studio.'

"On my tour, I usually say that of course many famous artists have performed there, been interviewed there, and passed through that studio.  I remember seeing Wynton Marsalis play piano there, and the singer Jewel doing an hour-long closed-circuit show, and when I first started at WQED in 1987, Harry Connick Jr., who had just put out his first LP, played piano and sang 'If I Only Had A Brain' on our local arts program titled Studio 13.

"But I usually say that I will always remember the morning of June 16, 1993 that Sting sang 'Fields Of Gold' there in studio A, and it was sent via satellite to Great Britain where the performance was to be part of that week’s episode of 'Top Of The Pops' on the BBC.

"As I remember it, Sting had performed the night before at Star Lake Amphitheater.  Sting and his band were not very happy to be up early to perform again, but they were there on time for the satellite feed.  And word around WQED was NO ONE WILL BE ALLOWED TO BE IN THE STUDIO DURING THIS PERFORMANCE.  I snuck in, hoping that my friend Patty Walker who was in charge of the WQED studio rentals would make an exception.  She did.  (I recently asked Patty what she remembers, and she says she didn’t know who Sting was, but she knew lots of young female employees were very interested in seeing and meeting him. I think he was already known for his amazing tales of tantric sex, but that’s another story.)

"I had not paid a lot of attention to Sting’s solo career.  I had loved the Police, but Sting on his own sounded somewhat new-age-y, and I wasn’t thrilled by his early solo songs, but 'Fields Of Gold' was different.  I loved the song, its lyrics and its sound, and although I wouldn’t have paid to see his concert, I was very happy to see him sing the new hit in our Studio A.  His band had to play 'air' instruments, not really providing back-up, but pretending to make the background track that had been recorded earlier, probably in the U.K. somewhere.  Sting however would sing 'live to tape.'

"There were a couple of rehearsals, some audio equipment problems, and soon it was satellite time.  It was finally musical magic.  His voice sounded strong and pure.  The band members perked up a bit (although not too much) and the BBC got its fresh recording of a song that was still rising on the charts over there, and here too.  I felt privileged to see an ex-Policeman in Pittsburgh on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday in June."

 

Now let’s worm our way back to present day, for a few revelations / recollections from the Sting and Peter Gabriel concert…which I DID end up seeing.

Yep.  I abandoned my very recently adopted heartfelt stance on not going to arena shows, and broke down and bought tickets.  Though the tour encompassed 21 dates across June and July—most in the USA with a few sprinkled in Canada—there was no Pittsburgh stop scheduled.  So I scoured for the closest hosting city, and it turned out to be Columbus, Ohio—the opening night of the tour.

The date was Tuesday, June 21st and everything’s still relatively fresh in my mind, so I will leave you with a few things I learned that evening or shortly thereafter:

1. How the tour was named:  Rock Paper Scissors was how it was ultimately christened.  On Peter Gabriel’s website, I found a 5-minute video interview with Sting and Gabriel that must have been taped around the time of the tour announcement this past January.  In this clip, Gabriel points out “We were looking for a name.  Rock Paper Scissors came up—Rock, we make some music; Paper, they made an offer we couldn’t refuse.  And after we do the business, we cut away.”  (editor’s note:  The “Paper” that was needed to make this tour a reality was provided by touring giant Live Nation.)

2. How the two artists determined their sets and stage set-up:  Apparently the genesis of this tour (forgive the pun) was Sting touring with Paul Simon during 2014 and early 2015.  On that dual headlining tour, Sting and Simon did two different sets, of course, but also came on stage to briefly play together at the beginning, middle and the end of the show.  So that was the original plan for Sting and Gabriel as well—until these two artists and their band members hit serious rehearsal time, which began two weeks before Opening Night.  Over the course of that two-week period, nestled in the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, the two artists and their band members refined their playlists, throwing out ideas and testing out songs.  There was so much positive interaction between all of the musicians on both sides of the table that Sting and Gabriel ultimately decided to break the mold on these dual headlining situations—on this tour, it would be “all hands on deck”.  All fourteen musicians that comprised both bands, and their respective gear, would all be on stage, all night long…

3. How musicasaurus.com rates the showA stunning success; a spectacle of sound and vision…The stage had three drum set-ups and several keyboards, and back-up singers, and bassists and guitarists, and still, even with this territory squeeze, it strongly evoked musical camaraderie.  The show—over 2 hours and 40 minutes long, with no intermission—had exemplary musicianship powering each song; it had the two leads who were in fine form; and best of all, it had a sustained element of surprise.  No one in the audience knew what song was coming next nor which artist (and their band) would be powering it out, and this was electrifying…Sitting there that night as it all unfolded—really, standing for a lot of it—I felt like I was witnessing some kind of culminating career-achievement celebration of two restlessly creative and pioneering musical icons.  

The full set list:

1.   The Rhythm of the Heat

2.   If I Ever Lose My Faith in You

3.   No Self Control

4.   A Thousand Years

5.   Games Without Frontiers

6.   Shock the Monkey

7.   Secret World

8.   Driven to Tears

9.   Fragile

10. Red Rain

11. Dancing with the Moonlit Knight

12. Message in a Bottle

13. Darkness

14. Walking in Your Footsteps

15. Kiss That Frog

16. Don’t Give Up

17. The Hounds of Winter

18. Big Time

19. Englishman in New York

20. Solsbury Hill

21. Every Little Thing She Does is Magic

22. If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

23. Roxanne

24. Love Can Heal

25. Desert Rose

26. In Your Eyes

27. ENCORE:  Every Breath You Take, followed by Sledgehammer

 

 

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Posted 6/27/16.....ON THE ROAD AGAIN

 

Living on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and just shy of my 25th birthday, I began a new job with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) Corporation, the distribution arm of a record label group consisting of Warner Brothers Records, Elektra-Asylum, and Atlantic.  I started at the company in February of 1978—fresh from co-managing a Pittsburgh-area independent record store—and my new job in a nutshell was to take the merchandising materials sent to me from these record labels and venture out each week to do displays in the Pittsburgh region’s record stores. 

This field merchandising position was created in the Pittsburgh area during an upswing of the biz—records and tapes were flyin’ off the shelves, new artists were being signed left and right, and competition was keen.  The record companies thus wanted to have “feet on the ground” at Record Retail, and I was assigned the job of not only plastering up posters in the stores, but also building relationships with all of the managers, handing them free promotional copies of brand new albums each time I walked through their front doors.

      

      

      

With this fierce and escalating competition between the record label groups—those in our fold and everyone else’s—my mission was, in essence, to tie up for my WEA employer the premium display space in each store on a very regular basis.  Yes, this was a battle for prime real estate—every record label wanted these key in-store positions to be adorned with THEIR artists’ new releases.

As I started my job and my appointed rounds—which included southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and northern West Virginia—I found myself juggling a jumble of label priorities.  Warner Brothers was releasing new product like the debut albums from Van Halen and Rickie Lee Jones, as well as brand new efforts from Talking Heads, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Devo, and Rod Stewart.  Elektra/Asylum was pushing product from The Cars, Queen, Linda Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon, and also some lesser-household names like Patrice Rushen and Jay Ferguson.  And the Atlantic roster included bands with just-issued records from the prog-rock group Yes, the Rolling Stones, Blackfoot, Firefall, Sister Sledge, and AC/DC.

Was I ready for this?  Unlike my hero Bruce Springsteen, who a few years earlier had sung that he was “chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line,” I was wobble wheeled, inspection rejected, and schleppin’ out clearly over my head.  I had a car that was unreliable and pert near undriveable.  It was a Vega hatchback, my very first car, and after about a month on the job I traded it in for a used, two-tone blue van which ended up being perfect for lugging three record companies’ worth of merchandising materials to all of my targeted record stores.

 

I lived in a reasonable-sized apartment in Pittsburgh with my good friend Mike, and our dwelling fast became a “WEA Warehouse.”  All of the display materials from our Cleveland branch office were being shipped directly to me, as there was no official company office anywhere in the ‘burgh.  In short order I became best friends with the trucking company rep who delivered these huge boxes and packages to my door thrice weekly; one day, during the first month of my employment, he wiped his brow and said “Ya know, this is a ton of shit.  How do you keep up with all of this?!!”

EXCELLENT question, as I recall.  And as necessity is the mother of invention, I quickly schemed up a system of hitting all of the Tri-State record stores with fairly good frequency, making sure to cover as much ground as possible in a fourteen-day period—and then I would start it up all over again.  In that way, I was able to keep up with the influx of merchandising materials that were relentlessly deposited at my doorstep.

The merchandising materials themselves were varied and innumerable.  I had cartons and containers spread out all over my bedroom, in the hallways, and in the living room—only the beeline to the bathroom and the path to the fridge were sacred turf.  I had life-size cardboard stand-ups—sometimes as many as 25 each—of artists like comedian Steve Martin, teen idol Shaun Cassidy, and rocker Rod Stewart.  I had battery-operated and artist-emblazoned self-standing floor displays—with display tops that would spin under their own power—of artists like The Band (for its soundtrack release The Last Waltz) and for Warner Brothers anchor act Fleetwood Mac (for their Tusk release).  Also—thank The Creator—I had normal-sized packages of posters and album-cover reproductions as well, that I could then use for the simpler wall displays.

Along with my regular assignment of constantly commandeering in-store space for WEA artists, I also helped out when one of my company’s “stars” came to Pittsburgh for either an in-store appearance or a live concert.  I remember being asked to do a massive display for the debut album from Van Halen in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh, in preparation for an in-store appearance by that band.  The store was called Oasis, which was the oversized “superstore” brand that the Pittsburgh-headquartered National Record Mart chain owned and operated. 

On the day of that in-store appearance, the fan turnout was fairly sizeable and so the four VH boys strode in the back way to avoid the crush at the public entrance.  As I went in the backroom/warehouse area to intercept the arrivers, I was immediately struck by the supersized swagger & aplomb of one David Lee Roth.  He brushed right by me—insignificant gnat that I was—muttering under his breath “Where are the CHICKS, man?!!”, so I followed him and his trailing bandmates out to the public area of the store.  God, the Roth Man was truly in his element; the female fans were all aflutter and the in-store atmosphere was circus-like, with David Lee—at ease and oozin’ sleaze—masterfully holding court as he leered at the foxes and high-fived all the stoner dudes.  I recall wishing I had a testosterone dipstick, just to see whether his levels were as off-the-charts as I thought they might be...Pretty sure that man needed no toppin’ off.

 

Concerts were another emphasis for me, especially with regard to blanketing the market at least two weeks before a particular WEA artist hit town.  One of my favorite displays ever centered on the band Roxy Music, and one of their late 1970s appearances at Pittsburgh’s storied Stanley Theatre.

I had swept through the area record stores in the ten days or so before that Roxy Music concert, peppering the premium display spaces with posters and other material that bore the cover of the band’s latest release Manifesto.  On that album cover, there was a tight-shot photo of a grand, gala party scene with revelers sprinkled with confetti and multi-colored ribbons.  The partygoers all appeared to be hip and upwardly mobile, but far less, uh, outwardly mobile—which made sense considering they were all mannequins.  This intriguing cover spurred me to borrow the top half of a mannequin from a friend who worked in a dress shop, and in the National Record Mart store location that was closest to the Stanley Theatre, I then grabbed ribbon, confetti, and prime window space, and replicated the cover of the album.

Backstage at the concert about a week afterward, the Atlantic record company promotion rep and I showed Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera and the other band members the pictures of all of the Roxy displays I had done in the Pittsburgh area.  The Brits were pleased as punch with the results, especially with the extra effort expended on Manifesto’s cover re-creation...

 

Even on a day-to-day level while doing this WEA work, I never quite wanted to settle for less than a dazzling display if Time and Motivation were on my side.  One day I approached George Balicky, the record buyer for the chain of National Record Mart stores, and convinced him to put a discount sale price on all of the Elektra-label albums in one of National Record Mart’s flagship stores in Pittsburgh—but only for one week, and only, on a daily basis, from 9am when the store opened through 12 noon.  Why the limited sale hours?  Because I had come up with what I thought was a masterstroke—the “Morning Becomes Elektra” promotion.  What an inspiring tie-in, I remember thinking, mentally patting myself on the back.  Here was something I had concocted that would most assuredly appeal to the more literate strand of music lovers who frequented the store.  And they’d not only “get” the literary connection, but also then gleefully grab up an armful of Elektra-label albums such as the latest ones from The Doors (American Prayer), Queen (Jazz), The Cars (self-titled debut album), Warren Zevon (Excitable Boy) and a whole lot more, saving $2.00 per album in the process.

In advance of the first day of the “Morning Becomes Elektra” sale I asked an artist friend of mine, Mike Loren, to do an oil painting of a pajama-garbed stoner, rendered as just rolling out of bed, the sun shining brightly outside his bedroom window.  I also asked that there be a Doors album somewhere in the painting, as well as—nice touch here, I think—little capital letter E’s (the Elektra label’s logo) dotted all over the dude’s pajamas.  When the painting was finished, I then hung it directly over the sale-priced product display, right in a heavily trafficked area near the front of the store.

What a success the sale was....not.  The words “underwhelming” and “D.O.A” come to mind.  The store sold maybe eight or ten Elektra albums total between 9am and noon over that one-week period.  Wasn’t my fault, though; the store obviously needed a smarter clientele, one who would have appreciated the sheer brilliance of the concept—you know, linking Eugene O’Neill and a deadbeat dude with E’s on his PJ’s.

A few last words here about my tendency back then to hurl myself headlong into those “extra” kind of efforts:  It paid off in the end.  December 1979 had rolled around (a year and ten months after my start with the company), and I found myself one gray morning travelling to an airport coffee shop to meet with my Cleveland boss.  A few days before, he had called and requested that we meet and talk.  At that airport breakfast, he broke the news to me that some layoffs were going to occur by the end of December; sadly, the Pittsburgh and Buffalo display-person positions were being eliminated due to company-wide cost containment initiatives. 

There was a bit of a silver lining, however.  Though my position in Pittsburgh was being eliminated, my boss wanted me to move to Cincinnati to take over the role of the display person in that market.  The Cincinnati position had survived the corporate “cuts analysis” and was being preserved, however, my boss wanted that Cincinnati guy gone in an effort to keep me in the company fold.  All of my extra efforts out in the field had been noticed by my boss and those above, and they were all essentially orchestrating this plan to save my ass and send it to Cinci.

So, hard work and a creative drive DO pay off, once in a while.  Though after the dust had settled on that December day, I began to reflect a bit more about the looming move to Cincinnati—and soon thereafter, I informed my bosses that I would officially be turning down that transfer offer, thus leaving the employment of WEA altogether and staying behind in Pittsburgh to plot out my next move...

And that, as they say, is a story for another day (sorry about resorting to a cliché for my final line; totally unexpected, I know, coming from the Mensa Man behind Morning Becomes Elektra).

 

 

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Posted 6/13/16.....BAD TO THE BONE

Music can be torture.  In our own government, and others, it’s been practiced of course.  I recently spied an article on the songs that our country’s warmongers, protectors—or whatever your label might be—have cued up in the past to wear down prisoners in order to glean the information that they so desperately need.

The songs chosen for this purpose are so wide ranging that I’m thinkin’ there’s a whole cadre of “deejay dementos” within our armed forces, people whose sole mission is to pore over music files and lists, ultimately delighting in their success when they’ve scored the right tune or two that leads to a real breakthrough—and a breakdown.

Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me”—so here you have it.  The songs range from none-too-surprising entries like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”…death metal band Deicide’s “F*ck Your God”…alternative/speed/industrial metal band Dope’s “Die Motherf*cker Die”…and heavy metal band Drowning Pools’ “Bodies.”  And on the way other end of the spectrum, the not-hard-to-figger selections include The Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever”…the jingle from the Meow Mix cat commercials…Neil Diamond’s “America”…the Barney & Friends song “I Love You”…David Gray’s “Babylon”…and the theme song from Sesame Street.

Whew…Methinks this is not a rabbit hole we really want to go down any longer, so let’s surface, dust ourselves off, and go for a much more gentle spin through some songs that a number of recently-surveyed musicasaurus.com readers had sent to me.  But first it should be noted that the question I posed to them DID involve a bit of torture—I wanted to know from each of them the one song that, above all others, perturbed them the most.  My wording was this:  What is the worst song you've ever heard?  One that haunts you, and/or one that makes your skin crawl every time you chance upon it?"

The respondents run the gamut of real-life occupations—there are several concert promoters, a comedian, a few entertainment writers, two design artists, a venue manager, a tourism guru, past and present radio station personalities, an art gallery owner, a magazine publisher, teachers, tech writers, lawyers and more…ENJOY:

                       ....e t c e t e r a ....

 

Tom Rooney, Pittsburgh:  There are a lot of Eagles' songs I like or can live with...I actually really like Don Henley's solo stuff...but “Witchy Woman” is/was a song that had me reaching to change the station almost at the cost of wrecking my Pontiac.  Just hate the whole idea and the attempt at the spooky chorus made me cringe.

 

Gab Bonesso, Pittsburgh:  “What’s New Pussycat?” by Tom Jones is the creepiest song I have ever heard in my life, and I grew up with a father who made me listen to the Moody Blues.

 

Michael LaManna, Pittsburgh:  I can't stand “American Pie.”  Not only is it played way too often, it's way too long.  These people in the song were put to rest so long ago now it's time to do the same with that song.”

 

Scott Tady, Beaver Falls, PA:  Bryan Adams’ "Summer of '69".  Whether he's waxing nostalgically about a year he can't possibly remember, or referencing a bedroom position with a lyrical clumsiness that would make Kiss wince, the songwriting is utterly woeful.  And the keyboard-led melody is the bad kind of cheesy.  Yet it's endured as a popular cover song for rock and country bands!  Takes me back to the darkest days of WDVE when songs like this and John Parr's "Naughty Naughty" were wrecking the playlist.

 

Sandrina “Sam” Swider, Pittsburgh:  Rihanna had a song out called "Bitch Better Have My Money.”  Talk about making my skin crawl every time I heard it, and I knew my grandchildren probably also were listening to it on the Pop stations.

 

Jeff Koch, Pittsburgh:  Worst song ever?  All songs about butts…but specifically Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.”  Why?  Play it.

 

Keith Sparbanie, Chandler, Arizona:  "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen…and, it’s so easy to pick Starship’s “We Built This City” which took FOUR songwriters to compose.  But THIS annoying piece of simplistic schlock sold over 18 million copies, has over 833 million YouTube views and actually received two Grammy nominations including “Song of the Year!"  Seriously?  Gag me with a spoon!

 

Jack Tumpson, Pittsburgh:  "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" by Dead or Alive.  We (Next Big Thing Productions) played this "band" in 1988  at the Syria Mosque Ballroom.  A packed house watched lead singer Pete Burns gyrate and then lip sync his way through a 33-minute set.  Just plain bad.  Every time I hear this song I get a queasy, greasy feeling in my stomach.  Post Disco Pop Crap.

 

George Balicky, Pittsburgh:  “Dance With Me” by Orleans.  First off, it’s a song with “dance” in the title that you cannot dance to.  And everytime I hear these lame lyrics, even for a few seconds, I’m singing it to myself for weeks.  I’m singing it right now as I’m walking on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.  I can’t stand it!

 

Beckye Levin-Gross, Houston, Texas:  “(You're) Having My Baby” by Paul Anka.  It's bad.  It's dumb.  It's creepy. 

 

Dave Blaushild, Pittsburgh:  America’s "Horse With No Name."  Musically this song is boring with a melody that can cure insomnia.  But worse than that the lyrics make no sense:  “I've been through the desert on a horse with no name / It felt good to be out of the rain / In the desert you can remember your name / 'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain.”  It rarely rains in the desert.  And who is going to give you pain when you are in the desert?  I think they were sitting around trying to come up with words that rhymed.  A 4th grader could have done a better job with the lyrics.

 

Dave Helwig, Pittsburgh:  My first impulse was to name Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” but that would be unfair to both her and to Yoko Ono, anything by whom must be the hands down “winner” of this contest.

 

Tinsy Labrie, Pittsburgh:  Anything by Cat Stevens or Jim Croce.  “One” by Three Dog Night (another band I never cottoned to) even though I loved Harry Nilsson who wrote and recorded it first.  And “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler.  Ugh.  One note of any of these on Sirius makes me leap to the scan button. 

 

Joe Katrencik, Pittsburgh:  Years ago I wrote a "Jukebox From Hell" article for Star Lake's magazine.  "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore was No. 1 then and still causes discomfort.  Coming in second is any song by Gary Lewis and the Playboys…Another category is Guilt - everyone else seems to like this music and why don't I?  Included are Chicago, Buffalo Springfield and Jimi Hendrix.

 

Alexis Samulski, Pittsburgh:  Can’t decide between “What’s New Pussycat?” by Tom Jones, or “Muskrat Love” by Captain & Tennille.  Actually, as I’m writing this to you, my husband Joe is reading the lyrics of “Muskrat Love,” so it is definitely the worst.

 

Steve Acri, Pittsburgh:  Let me preface by saying there are dozens of such songs to choose from throughout growing up in the 60’s and 70’s.  But in my adult life I cringe pretty much any time I hear Guns N’ Roses, especially Axl “singing” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”  I can’t think of a worse Bob Dylan cover.

 

Charlie Brusco, Alpharetta, Georgia:  Not sure if this is the worst song ever but the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy is one that drives me nuts.  There was a period of time when you could not get away from the song.  It was on radio, TV, in stores—everywhere you went you heard the song or saw the guy dancing.  Just not my cup of tea.  Overkill. 

 

Stacy Innerst, Pittsburgh:  It has to be “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock.  It creeped me out as a kid and the thought of people writing, playing, and actually recording it just annoys me.  Utter stupidity.

 

Val Porter, Pittsburgh:  Just one?  For me it would be a toss-up between Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” or Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands In The Stream.”  And I don’t know why I hate them so much.  Hearing either one of them makes me want to smash whatever it’s coming out of.  

 

Steve Emery, Pittsburgh:  The first two that come to mind for me are Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”—I guess there’s a reason I’ve never stopped in Las Vegas.  But the winner is Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung.”  I’ve always hated Tull—can’t deal with the electric flute—and for years “Aqualung” was ubiquitous.  It makes my skin crawl!

 

Mark Wallace, Tampa, Florida:  Over the years, there have been so many songs that I just ignore, rather than throw up.  The only exception to that is any Led Zeppelin song; if I hear just the beginning, it's "Arrgh, change that station!!"  The cause being that to me, they are the consummate rip-off band, stealing blues riffs or songs (usually from Chicago guys) and then claiming them as their own.  It is no surprise—and perhaps justice served—that they are currently being sued by Spirit for doing that with "Stairway to Heaven.”

 

Gayle Irwin, Pittsburgh:  “What’s New Pussycat?” by Tom Jones.

 

Rege Behe, Pittsburgh:  "Let Me Lie" by Trey Anastasio/Phish.  Insipid lyrics and a sappy melody about taking a bicycle ride indicate this was written when Anastasio was on some sort of controlled substance.  This song is so bad that when he sings “Gonna use my brakes/ When I go downhill” you almost wish the brakes had failed.

 

Brian Drusky, Pittsburgh:  “Marry Me” by Train.  It’s just them trying to write a song for a wedding, and the lyrics are dumb, forced and don’t seem sincere.  

 

Morry Feldman, Wexford, PA:  This question is a very tough one since there are numerous ditties that come to mind.  I will submit—but not submit to—“All By Myself” by Eric Carmen.  Excruciatingly teeming with soppy self-pity.  Makes me feel like—with that kind of whining/poor me approach—perhaps he truly deserves to be all by himself.  How could this be the same guy who led the Raspberries in singing “Go All The Way?”  After “All By Myself,” perhaps WE should sing “Please Go Away.”

 

Ted Sohier, Pittsburgh:  "Feelings" by Morris Albert.  About as inane as lyrics can be.  But then, there's "I Write the Songs."  Barry Manilow could certainly write a melody, but lyrics…And, ego, anyone?  How about "Eve of Destruction?"  My last band liked to play it as a gag…On the other hand, I just heard McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" on a road trip this weekend.  I never thought much of that ditty, but after this latest hearing, I've changed my mind.  I now see it as typical McCartney—simple, original, and well done.

 

Bill Johnston, San Diego, California:  I need not think about it; I know the answer well.  There have been so many awful tunes.  Shit, 1976 to 1980 had so many.  But the crawling skin reference evokes one in particular from much earlier.  And I recall as clearly that I have you to thank/curse for its memory, since I'd never have heard it had you not played it for me.  Bloodrock: D.O.A. (editor’s note:  I stand convicted, though I had just been turning Bill onto this song back in 1971 because of a first-year college roommate, who had gone off the deep end for this particular band and song.)

 

Steve Hansen, Pittsburgh:  While I don’t hate it, “Can’t Buy Me Love” has never been a favorite, even though it sounds like all of the other Beatles songs of the era that I absolutely love.  Go figure…Also, any Air Supply song would rank near the top of my Most Hated list.  Were the list to include music videos the easy winner would be the Jagger/Bowie “Dancing In The Streets” trainwreck.  But I’ll give the ultimate honor to “Baby Come Back” by Player, a bland, insipid song that represents the bland, insipid period of rock that gave rise to the miracle of The Ramones and punk.

 

 

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Posted 5/30/16.....DEEP IN THE MOTHERLODE

I got to thinking about the joy of discovery back in the 1960s when the music world was beginning to leapfrog from the leftovers of the WWII generation--crooners like Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, Doris Day, and Tony Bennett--to the coming wave of socially-conscious and society-upending singers, songwriters and musicians who then exploded onto the scene in the last half of that decade.

That era was a great time to be young and alive (editor’s note:  I want to interject here that it is also great to be old and alive; every day above ground--preferably with ear buds and a full playlist--is a good one.)

You can search out tomes of why this quantum leap in music in the ‘60s started up, but in that mix for certain was the eight-year period when The Beatles reigned.  That ’63-‘70 span was when the Fab Four went from mop-topped boy wonders doing early rock and R&B covers to a band of peerless songwriters and fearless experimenters, and their unassailable talent fomented changes in society as well as reflected them.

This surge of youth rebellion in the ‘60s and the generational schisms that followed shook this country by its buttoned-up shirt collar:  There was racial strife, anti-war protests, liberated libidos, and recreational drugs--a perplexing time for parents but a galvanizing call-up to youth, who felt suddenly (and somewhat unjustifiably?) emboldened, enlightened, righteously alienated, and empowered out the wazoo.

   

On the individual level I found this time of life to be thrilling, especially as it pertained to the trickle-then-flow of this exciting new music.  Of course there was no web back then, but we spun our threads nonetheless, creating inestimable bonds with other teen voyagers who were likewise ravenously exploring this brave new world of music.  Our glue (don’t fret; I’m not talkin’ inhalants here) was the solidarity we felt in sharing the sounds and vision of a changing America, and our news from the front lines came largely from the early rock magazines like Crawdaddy! (born in ’66), Rolling Stone (’67), Creem (’69), and Circus (’69), all of which faithfully kept us abreast of the newest bands and album releases as the standard bearers of our new reality.

But to this day what especially intrigues me when looking back at that era was the way that certain 1960’s bands became incubators for superstar hatchlings that had yet to make their mark.

Here in the USA there were wellsprings in California that bubbled over with talent in the mid-late ‘60s.  Two of the bands from which a number of gifted musicians came forth were The Byrds (’64-’73) and Buffalo Springfield (’66-’68).

Both of these folk-rock bands were formed in L.A., and each has left a musical legacy that helps us define the ‘60s (The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, to cherry-pick just two). 

From The Byrds, out flew the following:

   

From Buffalo Springfield, these particular stars scattered to higher altitudes:

                                      

                                                                               

Across the pond in England, there was a white blues musician in 1963 that lent his name to an ensemble he’d just formed called John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers.  Through the next four years, this unit brought into the ranks and then spit out into the musical gene pool an amazing core group of legendary artists.

Among the artists who moved in with Mayall for a spell were:

                                                   

                                                

Also at one time or another in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers--and here we arguably get a bit obscure for most folks, except for those of you who have no life--the following artists rolled on through: 

  

One other British band that somehow lured in gestating supernovas was The Yardbirds, who formed in London in 1963.  The band is best remembered for a couple of high-charting UK and USA hit singles from 1965, “For Your Love” and “Heart Full Of Soul”.  Personnel-wise, they had a deep bench--no whiffers and some serious riffers.  In fact, in their 6-year existence, the band sported 3 of the all-time greatest guitarists in rock.  The Yardbirds’ nest was feathered with all of the following:

 

The Yardbirds started dissolving in 1968.  Founding members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty departed that year to indulge their fondness for more traditional genres of music, eventually forming the prog-rock, folk-classical amalgam Renaissance.  The group hit some sort of critical and commercial stride beginning in 1971 with the additional of vocalist Annie Haslam; a few of their more significant albums from that era include Turn Of The Cards, Scheherazade And Other Stories, and A Song For All Seasons.

 

And then as these Yardbirds were about to chirp their last, 24-year-old sole remaining member Jimmy Page brought in new personnel:  20-year-olds Robert Plant and John Bonham, and 22-year-old John Paul Jones.  By the end of ’68, the group had completed a tour together while still called The Yardbirds; at the end of that road trip, they changed their name and secured eternal fame as the newly rechristened Led Zeppelin.

This concludes the flashback look at Rock’s innovators and influential artists from the 1960s who shared some common incubatory career-settings.  There are other breeding grounds than those described above, of course, but the 1960s in particular brought about some truly legendary starts (‘twas good to go deep into the motherlode on this one!).

 

 

 

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Posted 5/16/16.....THIS MAGIC MOMENT

Music in the MoviesIf the classics come immediately to mind, and you wanted an official ranking by a well regarded, relevant organization such as the American Film Institute, you would find that the top 100 songs in American cinema are things like “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, and “Singin’ in the Rain” from the film of the same name…

Movies, though, hold music magic in many forms.  It could be the perfect coalescing of some wordsmith’s ballad and a scene onscreen that captivates…or an incongruous mix of a dusty old pop tune and a particular plot thickening that delightfully defies expectation…or an instrumental passage that, paired with the visuals, successfully mists you up, puts that lump in your throat, and derails you from what’s unfolding onscreen just quick enough for a peek left and right to see if anybody is seeing you start to blubber…

In no particular order, then, here are some excursions into music in the movies—some of musicasaurus.com’s favorite occasions of masterful application or intriguing slapdash.  Come run the gamut with me…

RISKY BUSINESS

In 2005 Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch, a defining moment of weirdness as the actor professed his love of new paramour Katie Holmes (rumor has it she was thoroughly vetted by Cruise’s Scientology brethren before the match was made).

Twenty-two years before that, though, in the 1983 film Risky Business, he evidenced a bit more Cruise control.  He expertly played a teen soon headed off to college, but who first fell into predicaments and into lust/love, with cool and foxy call girl Rebecca De Mornay.  Cruise had hit the couch back then, too, but that was in the film and part of his living room prance—dressed in undies and pink dress shirt—to the stereo’s blasting of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

And that is NOT the movie music moment that I treasure from this film.  Instead, it’s the hypnotic moments in the score by Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group who were pioneers (in that ‘80s time period) of digital technology related to music sequencers and synthesizers.  Tangerine Dream had a cult following from regular album output, having formed back in the mid-late ‘60s, but many fans came aboard after that through exposure to their cinema soundscapes.

The gem from the film is the late night subway ride on Chicago’s “L” by the two main characters.  It’s incredibly atmospheric in terms of lighting, editing, etc., but the emotional lynchpin is Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train,” a warm tonal massage of a tune that sizzles, burbles and sighs in perfect harmony with the onscreen coupling of Cruise and De Mornay.  The clip here is 4:51 in length.  Watch it from the beginning to get a better sense of the film, and to hear another soundtrack bite, this time of Phil Collins’ performing “In The Air Tonight.”  Then Tangerine Dream comes on little cat feet, beginning about 2:30 into it… https://youtu.be/KqDzznnumk0

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

Another electronic music trailblazer back in the 1980s was Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (pronunciation? Greek to me…) who went the Madonna and Prince route in public with just one name:  Vangelis.

Born in 1943 in Agria, Greece, Vangelis’ first forays into music were through a 1960s psychedelic/progressive rock band called Aphrodite’s Child, but by the turn of the decade the artist had already ventured into film scoring in and around Paris, where the band had relocated from their native country.

Vangelis is best known for his 1981 soundtrack to Chariots of Fire and the film’s signature song of the same name, which, a year later upon its release as a single for radio, caused people to run in droves to record stores (though not in slow motion).  The song was also notably adopted by Steve Jobs for the public unveiling of the first Macintosh computer early in 1984…Other films on the heels of Chariots of Fire that Vangelis scored included Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Costa-Gavras’ Missing, and on PBS, the Cosmos series featuring Carl Sagan when the latter borrowed from Vangelis’ earlier works.

Back in 1982, I went to the movie theater the same week that The Year of Living Dangerously hit Pittsburgh.  I had become aware of the Australian director Peter Weir, who had previously made some interesting art-cinema style films (not the usual box office fodder) including Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977), and Gallipoli (1981), the latter one of the earliest films to star Mel Gibson and one that helped world-widen his appeal.

The Year of Living Dangerously—basically a love story set in the turbulent mid-‘60s in Indonesia under the besieged leadership of Sukarno—was principally scored by Maurice Jarre, a French composer and conductor.  His work here was exemplary, but the song that nabbed me, though, was one—the sole one—borrowed from Vangelis by the director.  It was “L ‘Enfant”, from the composer/musician’s 1979 album Opera Sauvage.

Not a long piece at all…But a stirring, contemplative match of mood and music, as Sigourney Weaver’s character Jill Bryant reflects on her growing attraction to Mel Gibson’s Guy Hamilton, and ultimately appears in his doorway… https://youtu.be/vsBOxDM_Vek

RESERVOIR DOGS

Stealers Wheel, a Scottish folk-rock band helmed by Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, had a surprise hit off their 1972 self-titled debut album, a song called “Stuck in the Middle with You.”  The song was a late-bloomer, topping the national radio and sales charts a year or so after the album’s initial release, and the duo was dumbfounded by this—here was a song they originally conceived as a parody of Bob Dylan’s lyrical style and his distrust of fame, the media, record company types, etc., and it had become a bona fide smash.

It was a catchy, perky pop tune, though.  And along for the buoyant ride were memorable lyrics like “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”  Back in 1973 what made this song even harder for me to shake from my cranium was playing the damn thing a thousand times as a college deejay at Penn State’s main campus.  The song eventually faded from view, of course, and by the time of their third album’s release in 1975, Stealer’s Wheel had already wobbled into dissolution…

Flash forward almost twenty years: First-time film director Quentin Tarantino breathed new life into it, choosing the song as the sick centerpiece of his deftly demented indie debut Reservoir Dogs (1992).  If you’ve seen it, you know that actor Michael Madsen (“Mr. Blonde”) forever altered the way our brains process this song...I remember in my youth reacting to overplayed songs on the radio with an “ARRRGH” and both hands going up to cover my ears; with “Stuck in the Middle with You,” you only need to cup the one—and run.  https://youtu.be/ye7x3jbi_TE

PULP FICTION

I love the scene where Travolta and Thurman are twistin’ up a storm to Chuck Berry’s 1964 rock and roll classic “You Never Can Tell”—but really because of my mother.  Unbeknownst to me, at some point within the first few weeks of the movie’s release in 1994, she had caught the movie trailer on television one night and decided then and there to see the film. 

As she explained to me on the phone one evening afterward, “I saw the preview on TV and saw John Travolta dancing with a girl, and I thought, ‘Oh, this must be like Saturday Night Fever,’ so I went to see it with one of my girlfriends.  Oh, I did NOT like it, honey.  SO much violence.”  She went on to tell me that “the guy in the projector booth” must have mixed things up, too, because “parts of the movie were out of order.”  Swear to God, we had that conversation.  Here’s the dancing clip from Pulp Fiction… https://youtu.be/si5RyLmJupg

Others to check out:

WITNESS

In Peter Weir’s film Witness (1985), Harrison Ford’s character Detective John Book rests and recuperates within an Amish community in Lancaster County, PA, on the run from corrupt Philadelphia police officers who are in clandestine pursuit of a young Amish boy who’d witnessed a murder…The scene here is an exquisitely edited barn raising, buoyed by film score maven Maurice Jarre’s grand instrumental “Building The Barn”… https://youtu.be/a7kLSk9-TRg

ALMOST FAMOUS

Consider the source.  Writer-director Cameron Crowe based this not-too-far flung tale (released to screens in 2000) on his youthful experiences as a writer with Rolling Stone magazine, and it is well acted and true to the times.  Musicasaurus.com is a sucker for movie scenes that depict organic song breakout, and here it’s on the tour bus as the band Stillwater and their hangers-on (including groupie Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson) roll on down the road… https://youtu.be/QHH3FoJUEbg

  

BLUE VELVET

I think you have to be in the mood for creepy, crawly, portent of doom kind of stuff onscreen.  And David Lynch delivers.  I saw his first movie Eraserhead when it came out around 1977 and I don’t think I’ve been the same since.  I remember leaving the theater feeling like the film gave me the flu.

But Lynch followed up three years later with a film of classic elegance, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins…then the hot sci-fi mess Dune in 1984…and then in 1986, Blue Velvet, which starred Kyle MacLachlan (later of Lynch’s TV triumph Twin Peaks), Isabella Rossellini, Dean Stockwell, and Dennis Hopper in a searing career-comeback portrayal as a gas-huffing psycho killer (I’d like to think it was a stretch).

The movie is critically acclaimed and tops a lot of film lists, and it is a visceral viewing experience that ramps up the queasy quotient and stokes the dread.  Hopper is magnetic as the villainous Frank Booth, and Lynch injects the film with some great music moments that of course contribute to the viewers’ increasing unsettlement.  The following clip centers on Frank Booth’s partner in crime Ben (played by Stockwell) who lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s song “In Dreams” which is creepy in its own right, but then really ratchets up the foreboding as Frank starts to fume…Click on the link, pop two Tums, and hope to feel better in the morning… https://youtu.be/d0PbwLTLKA4

WAYNE’S WORLD

In 1992 Mike Myers and Dana Carvey cobbled together a 95-minute film based on their ongoing Saturday Night Live skit entitled Wayne’s World, which premiered there on the late night comedy sketch show during its ’88-’89 season.  The movie is a pleasure to watch, with lovable metal heads Wayne Campbell (Myers) and Garth Algar (Carvey) as the hosts of a public-access cable TV show that is broadcast out of Wayne’s parents’ basement in Aurora, Illinois…

The movie is full of knowing pop culture bon mots, and scenes flash by with great stoner panache, and so this one’s a tie in terms of providing you with clips to view.  There’s the car ride with Wayne and Garth and three buddies who plop in a cassette and rip into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” while the opening credits roll, and then the short, inspired stoned mammal dance by Garth in the restaurant, after he spies his “Foxy Lady” and jams a coin in the jukebox to release his inner Jimi… https://youtu.be/thyJOnasHVE (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and https://youtu.be/Ue0UpQBmA5s (“Foxy Lady”).

 

 

 

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Posted 5/2/16.....THE COLOR PURPLE

Prince is gone.  The inscrutable, mega-talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.  And there was a mystical coincidence in his passing, which has undoubtedly been pointed out somewhere else in the recent barrage of news reports, reflections and tributes to The Purple One that followed the artist’s death in his Minneapolis recording studio/home on April 22nd

Arguably the album that pushed Prince into the limelight beyond his then already feverishly-devoted cult of followers was 1984’s Purple Rain, and in the very first track—“Let’s Go Crazy”—Prince talks-sings of his religious devotion, and urges all of us to life to the fullest:  “…in this life / Things are much harder than in the afterworld / In this life / You’re on your own / And if de-elevator (read: the devil) tries 2 bring u down / Go crazy—punch a higher floor.”  And thirty-two years later, Prince dies in an elevator and indeed punches that higher floor…

My friend and former Live Nation colleague Roy Smith—now the sales & marketing manager at Pittsburgh’s Hard Rock Café—was a Prince fanatic.  Back in the early 1980s Roy was in high school, and had just started doing deejay work for his school’s dances and other events.  Prior to Prince’s song “1999” hitting pop radio in 1982, Prince had not really fully penetrated Western PA consciousness.  But with the release of the single “When Doves Cry”—the first taste of Purple Rain, the album on its heels—Roy was smitten.

“It all changed for me,” Smith remembers.  “I went and bought everything that was available, and when Purple Rain came out I ran to the National Record Mart at the Beaver Valley Mall and got it the day it was released.  My style of deejaying for school events was to use props and to act out the songs in different routines as the records played.  It was the video age back then—MTV, etc.—and Prince, Michael Jackson and others had great visual images that I could convey with simple embellishments.  For Prince it was taking my "Billie Jean" fedora and wrapping it with lace that would hang over my one eye—just like at the end of the "When Doves Cry" video—and I had my dad cut out of plywood the Prince curved guitar from “Purple Rain," which I then painted white and ran wire to it to simulate a guitar.  So with hat on head and guitar in hand, I would jump around, hop on the tables, jump from the tables, but never do splits; I could never do those.  

“So I would often do middle school dances that were set up by the PTA to take place at my high school, and there was a stage with a curtain there, which I would leave closed until the room went dark.  Then it was showtime.  I would have a taped set of songs for the intro and then pull the curtain open to reveal an empty stage.  Then I would jump into action with the first chords of the Prince song, in full Prince get-up (or the best I could pull off, given I made everything myself).  At the time I didn't believe in boundaries—and still don't—and I would be doing a "Darling Nikki" stage hump with a bunch of screaming middle schoolers cheering, and PTA mothers around the corners of the room with their arms crossed.  Somehow I still kept the gig.”  

Ed Traversari, formerly a concert promoter with DiCesare-Engler Productions and then Live Nation, and now an instructor in Point Park University’s Sports, Arts & Entertainment Management program, feels a similar passion about and reverence for Prince.  “The early shows that we did with Prince back in the beginning of the ‘80s were great.  He was an incredible performer, pretty risqué for the times, with a fair share of simulated sex, etcetera—things that certainly seem more commonplace today.  At one show, my boss Rich Engler was right beside Prince before he went on stage, and he was wearing a cape, but then Rich saw he had nothing else on underneath except a pair of black bikini briefs.”

I asked Traversari about how those early Prince shows came about for Pittsburgh.  “We first had him in town as the warm-up act for Rick James, two nights at the Stanley Theater, in March of 1980,” said Traversari.  “About a year and a half later, he came back as a headliner and played the Stanley again.  There was a promoter in Detroit named Quinton Perry who had some kind of strong link to Prince and his management, as well as two guys in Baltimore named Jeff Sharp and Dennis Heffernan.  These guys called us about helping out locally with these shows, coordinating the local marketing push and the on-sale details.  For whatever reason, though, when Prince became huge with Purple Rain, that particular tour never made it to Pittsburgh.”

According to an article in the music business’ bible Billboard Magazine back in November 1984, the Purple Rain tour began in the Fall of that year, hot on the heels of the blockbuster film of the same name.  The article’s author Nelson George reported that the tour was slated to kick off in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for a multiple-night run, and from there hit major markets and some secondary cities in a planned eight-month trek.  Nelson also wrote, “The tour…could potentially have demanded ticket prices of $20 or more.  Instead, according to Chuck DeBow, director of marketing for Prince’s management firm, Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, the high end will be $17.50 ‘except, perhaps, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where union fees and other expenses could drive it up a little bit.’”  (Editor’s aside:  Ahhh, the nostalgia overwhelms, just thinking about those fair-priced concert experiences of yesteryear.)

Mark Wallace, back in the time of the Purple reign, was the Warner Brother Records’ promotion man for the Pittsburgh region.  Presently he’s an English teacher and part-time radio deejay in Tampa, Florida, but he had started his music career right here in Pittsburgh as a disc jockey on WZUM-AM and then on WYDD-FM, before grabbing that coveted Warner Brothers’ regional promotion position.  His job, plain and simple, was to secure airplay from the local radio stations for all of Warner Brothers’ priority artists.

Wallace remembers there was a lot of pressure from his label to take Prince to a whole new level with Purple Rain.  “Regarding ‘His Purpleness’—as our Warner Brothers Burbank headquarters called him—I honestly remember more about the film-leading-into-the-album from one of those ‘Invite all the locals to Burbank’ kind of things” (editor’s note:  It was a common practice of the major record companies to gather up all of their regional people and summon them to headquarters to firsthand communicate the importance of a high-priority new release).  “We heard the songs and of course, and felt the push.  Put it this way: if you wanted to keep your job, you got the songs—"When Doves Cry", "Let's Go Crazy", and "Purple Rain", all in that order—played and not just at the R&B stations.  Typically, B94 and (of course) 96KX were slow learners, but when the film came out and was such a big hit, it all pretty much fell in line.”

Earlier efforts to “break” Prince into the record-buying mainstream were not as successful, said Wallace.  “When Warner Brothers’ first signed Prince in 1977, at age 18, I had gone to Brother Matt at the R&B station WAMO-FM and said: ‘I don't know much about him but he is 18 and Warner just signed him to big contract, so you better play this (the "Soft and Wet" single from the first album)…Around the beginning of 1983, the song “1999” (from that new album of the same name) became Warner Brothers’ first pick of a single and it did ‘just okay’ at Radio.  The 12” B-side of that song was “Little Red Corvette”, and it attracted enough attention that Warner flipped “1999” to “Corvette” a year later, and it became a Top Ten hit across both R & B and Pop radio.  I remember I bought little remote-controlled red corvettes from Radio Shack, and ‘drove’ them into radio stations when I was hawking that single.”

Wallace only met Prince one time in his career, and it was a very quick backstage hello at one of his Pittsburgh arena shows in the early-to-mid 1980s.  “What I remember most about him,” Wallace said, “is how quiet he was, and that he was a brilliant guitarist, and that we fought with Top 40 radio constantly with just about all of his songs.”

Tom Rooney as well remembers those 1980s-era shows with Prince, as he was the arena director of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena for most of that decade (Rooney is currently president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group and prior to that, was executive director of Star Lake Amphitheater in the early ‘90s after his arena stint).

Rooney vividly recalls the peculiarities of Prince when it came to booking, which is something that Traversari had mentioned to me as well.  It was not uncommon for Prince’s booking representatives to call local promoters and venues, put a date on their calendar for a show, let everything swing into motion in terms of prepping for the on-sale, and then pull the plug, sometimes a few days—or even in one instance, a few hours!—before the on-sale was to happen.  Rooney, though, managed to get a memorable arena show under his belt in the late ‘80s, as part of Prince’s Lovesexy tour.

“The window for booking arena acts is on the short end six months and on the long end, one year,” said Rooney.  “That’s the period from the date first being booked, to it being put on sale, to the play date.  So in early October 1988 when Prince’s booking team called from Baltimore to hold a date—‘the 28th’, they said—we asked them ‘Which 28th?’ and they replied, ‘the one later this month.’  Highly unusual to say the least and on top of that, as soon as the show was built on our ticketing system, it went on sale without an announcement.

“So it was with other Prince dealings in the future,” said Rooney.  “My own favorite anecdote involved NBA star and current TBS commentator Charles Barkley.  We had booked an NBA preseason game with his team, the Philly 76ers, to take place the night after a Prince concert, but the team came to town a day early so Barkley rang us up through our NBA-event partner Russ Potts.  Barkley ended up hanging out with us all night at the show and then decided on his own to ‘crash’ backstage to see if he could meet Prince.  Barkley was a mountain of a man; Prince quite diminutive.  I imagined the Princess Bride with Andre The Giant.”

  

Parting thoughts:  I will leave you with three suggested video tracks.  If you cannot track them down in various sites on the web, know that they are still commercially available on DVD, but hurry—oldsters & nostalgia buffs now fear for DVD’s life, and rightly so.  It is withering away in its physical form and headed for The Cloud.  But things change, and we have to adapt and accept—just as we will have to, with the passing of Prince.

RIP, and our best wishes and prayers 2 u, Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016).

 

 

 

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Posted 4/18/16.....THE SHOW MUST GO ON

Once in a while I’ll look over some notes I had stashed away from my former life as general manager of Pittsburgh’s major outdoor concert venue Star Lake Amphitheater, which has been a part of the cultural and communal scene of southwestern Pennsylvania since its doors first opened in the summer of 1990.  I do this to remind myself that I once had an often demanding, sometimes confounding, always exhilarating job that was like few others I’d ever run across in my occupational life.

Live entertainment events are—certainly on the scale of amphitheater/arena-level attractions—a real adrenalin rush to help produce.  Each tour rolls into town with its own set of peculiarities, and those who work on the facility end have to be nimble and adept in handling both artist and audience expectations so that in the end, the experience is a total “win” for the fan who laid his/her money down…

What follows are some pint-sized recollections from a few shows chiefly from the 1990s, the amphitheater’s first ten years of life.  Some I mention because I’m a fan, and others are listed to give you a glimpse of behind-the-scenes; though each show is unique, they are ALL a heady mix of vitality and volatility.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Joe Cocker—June 28, 1990

A great show but scant attendance, as the heavens had poured down on Star Lake prior to gates-opening time, and there was uncontrollable flooding at the bottom of the pavilion seating area in front of the stage.  None of the fans converging out in the venue’s parking lots were aware of the drama unfolding inside.  Tom Rooney, at the time the executive director of Star Lake, remembers that he was in a “battle” with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tour manager who was insisting—as he looked down from the stage at the churning waters below—that Tom move to declare this show “cancelled”.  Rooney redirected that decision-making right back to the tour manager, knowing that if the venue was the one to decide to cancel—entering a guilty plea, essentially—Star Lake would then be responsible for paying Vaughan & Cocker their artist guarantees even though they hadn’t performed their sets.

Rooney went into overdrive, though.  With the help of a pumper truck from the local fire department from Hanover Township, and the crack Ops team at Star Lake, the invasive floodwaters were soon successfully hoovered out and the show went on, albeit running wayyyy behind schedule.

 

The Eagles—August 15 and 16, 1994

Probably the commercial and artistic highlight of the summer of 1994 was the reunion of a band who hadn’t played together in fourteen years—The Eagles.  When word of this reformation was trickling along the internal booking pipeline of our company in late Spring of that year, a lot of us were initially elated but then quite concerned when we learned about the very ambitious ticket prices being discussed for the upcoming tour.  We were starting to think that the term “Hell Freezes Over”—the tour’s official name—could also serve to describe the likelihood of fans making eventual decisions to buy these unprecedented high-priced tickets. 

As it turned out, demand for the Eagles was swift and decisive.  The $110 Gold Circle seats sold out quickly and even the $45 lawn tickets were scooped up by the talon-full.  Both of these August evening shows ended up as sell-outs.

I am not the biggest Eagles aficionado, but I have to confess that the two concerts were spectacular in terms of musicianship and tour production—great lighting and even better sound, and the level of passion infusing this crowd of 23,000 people per night was unparalleled.  Also, I was particularly jazzed in that every one of our venue sponsors was there in his or her corporate box for both nights, most of them CEO-level or at least pretty far up the food chain.  Everyone from the boxes back to the top of the lawn seemed to be in love with the whole experience.

There was one negative in the mix, however, and of course this was traffic-related.  Star Lake sell-out shows were notoriously bad in the traffic department, on the “in” as well as on the “out”.  And as that first night of the Eagles doubleheader came to a close, a business acquaintance of mine saw me in the plaza and ran over to say “Great show!  Talk to you later; I’m runnin’ to my car and getting’ out of here”—and I thought to myself, “Yeah, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…”

Harry Connick, Jr.—August 28, 1994

Harry’s thing had usually been big band & swing.  We were sufficiently warned at the time we booked him, however, that he had gone into a funk, musically.  Two years prior, his appearance was a summer highlight as he brandished his big band repertoire.  Alighting here again in ’94, Connick had turned toward a more funky bent, and although in advance of the concert we heavily promoted this musical departure to forewarn his loyal following, we found out that the message just didn’t get through. 

Connick’s tour management team elucidated this for us, as they pulled into town on the day of the show.  In all of the tour’s previous stops before Star Lake, there were vociferous protests from some of the audience about this musical switcheroo—a vocal minority had risen up in each occasion, clamoring that they were no longer wild about Harry and were now just catatonic over Connick.  They just couldn’t fathom the funk…and with this kind of empty reward for their experience, they often ended up at our internal box office windows, demanding their money back. 

By the time the Connick tour got to Star Lake, the tour management had been happy enough to just get through each night, offering up actual refunds right there on the spot for the truly disgruntled fans.  We actually ended up reimbursing about 800 people that night.

 

Traffic (the band)—August 9, 1994

Founding members Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi reunited this particular year to record a new album and mount a tour, and the announcement had local tongues wagging above drool cups.  Die-hard fans all around the tri-state area were clearly salivating over the chance to see this late 1960s/early 1970s classic rock band who had not toured for the past twenty years.  Pittsburgh’s deeply rooted rock station WDVE helped us promote the show, and we offered Traffic fans a real deal—$10.25 for a lawn ticket, courtesy of 102.5 WDVE.  The results?  Our enticing pricing didn’t ignite sales; the show only did about 8,800 people at the end of the day.

Of course we were perplexed about this, and a few of us joked later on that maybe our fans had misinterpreted our promotional announcements for the show.  Could have happened, you know—a few of our fans hearing the commercial and turning to a buddy to say “Traffic at the amphitheatre.  I’m sorry; is that news?!!” ..... or .....“Traffic at Star Lake for the first time?  BULLSHIT!!!”

Could have happened…

 

Aretha Franklin & Little Richard—July 27, 1996

This was a show with killer co-headliners.  This pair only played together once like this, and in fact, we were the ones to cobble it together at the local level (our Houston-based vice president did 99% of our Star Lake bookings, but once in a while those of us at the venue got the chance to experiment).  The show was set up as “pavilion-only,” meaning no lawn tickets were sold for the event; only the 7,000-capacity fixed-seating pavilion was offered for sale. 

The performances were spectacular.  Magic roared out of Aretha’s mouth all night long, and she was followed by Little Richard just after dusk (due to the show falling on Saturday, his Sabbath, the latter’s religious beliefs had dictated that he start his performance only after the sun had gone down).  Little Richard was mesmerizing, and he was so enthralled with playing and sermonizing to the assemblage that he started purposefully ignoring our offstage cues to finish things up and end his set.

As he got increasingly frantic signals from our offstage production folks, Little Richard began incorporating into his R & B song of the moment a soulful rap that went something like “They’re tellin’ me to stop the show, but I really don’t wanna go”.  He repeated this musical mantra about five more times during the song, all the while his eyes darting to the sidelines, and just before we were ready to bring out the Big Broadway Hook, Little Richard relented and reluctantly wrapped it up.

He was scolded a bit backstage by our production team for going into “overtime”, but he was unrepentant—like a true rock ‘n’ roller.

  

Rage Against The Machine & Wu-Tang Clan—August 24, 1997

Rage had just come off an opening slot on U2’s PopMart tour, and started up its own headlining summer outing with Wu-Tang Clan.  There was a lot of tension backstage that evening at Star Lake, as whispers abounded that this politically-charged pairing of Rage and Wu was headed for dissolution.  The tour had early on been dogged by police protests in some cities due to Wu’s sometimes violent and anti-cop song subject matter.  The controversy both helped and hindered ticket sales, making it a must-see for some and a must-avoid for others.  In the end, around 14,000 fans trekked out to the amphitheater to see this musical Molotov cocktail.

X-Fest—May 29, 2000  

WXDX-FM Pittsburgh (“The X”) started up an annual alternative-music fest in 1998, and from the beginning had managed to put together some powerhouse lineups for their shows.  In this, the festival’s third year, the station brought on Stone Temple Pilots as the headliner and true to the whiffs of legend that wafted our way beforehand, lead singer Scott Weiland was a rule breaker and alleged partaker. 

At one point late in the day before the band’s headlining set, I was called on the venue radio by my security chief to immediately come backstage.  There I found Scott Weiland standing near one of our venue golf-carts literally in the grip of two venue security guards, one on each arm.  A local township police officer was also on hand.

Weiland looked distracted and discombobulated.  The security guard on Weiland’s right sported a beautiful new shiner, and the police officer recounted a quick tale of Weiland’s efforts to hotwire (with a screwdriver) one of our golf-carts for a joyride around the venue.  When the security guards tried to stop him from cart-jacking, Weiland reportedly unleashed Linda Blair-worthy expletives and then had to be physically removed from the driver’s seat.  He apparently then calmed down and asked the guards to please let loose their grips--and then he sucker-punched the guard to his right.

Now back in the grip of the long arms of the law, Weiland fidgeted and mumbled as the police officer asked me The $100,000 Question—did I want him to be arrested for assault?  All eyes were on me (including the guard who could now only open one of them).  The answer was easy—an apology would suffice, and the spacey yet truculent lead singer would be remanded to the supervision of his own tour manager, with assurances that all such off-stage antics would cease.

As Weiland walked off with his handler I heard another roar out front from the sell-out crowd of 23,000, all greeting the next main-stage artist who was filling the slot right before Stone Temple Pilots were to take the stage... 

Case closed on this one:  Yes, we let the wily Weiland wiggle free and justice wasn’t served—but with a full house out front, clearly this was neither the time nor the place for “An Eye for an Eye”.

 

 

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Posted 3/7/16.....SHOW ME

Recycling is a good thing—in the case of old archived musicasaurus.com posts, this applies to one in particular, a compendium of concert tales from some prominent Pittsburgh musicians, radio jocks and live entertainment promoters.  I had asked the following of these individuals:  “What was your most memorable concert or concerts, from the standpoint of ‘most harrowing’ or ‘most enlightening or enchanting’?”  And they responded thusly:

Joe Negri / Jazz guitarist, composer and educator (also, for all time, “Handyman Negri” on PBS’ Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)..... About six years ago I recorded an album with Michael Feinstein called " Fly me to the Moon".  The CD release performance of that recording was scheduled to take place in NYC at approximately 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening at a book store on Broadway.  The date involved just Michael and myself on guitar. 

My wife Joni and I were to leave Pittsburgh quite early for New York.  I think we had a 10 a.m. flight.  Well, the delays started appearing: The flight was delayed for an hour...then another hour...I started trying to get us on another flight but to no avail.  The hours passed and before you know it was afternoon and we're still walking the halls of Greater Pittsburgh Airport. 

Finally at about 3:00 or thereabouts we departed for La Guardia Airport.  I think we landed sometime after 4:00, found our limo driver (thank goodness) and began our trek into Manhattan.  It was a harrowing, and hectic journey--I remember at one point closing my eyes because I just couldn't stand to look at the traffic and the way the limo driver was weaving in and out of it.  Long story short: At about 5:15 we pull up to the bookstore on Broadway...make a mad dash in…upstairs to the auditorium...a large crowd was already in their seat…and it was show time.  

We were still in our traveling clothes.  I was able to dash to the bathroom and splash some water on my face.  A good friend Howard Alden had brought me a guitar, one that I had never seen let alone played.  I didn't even have time to tune it, let alone play it a bit, and I didn't have a clue as to what Michael had planned for the program.  The next thing you know we're on stage and it's show time it went beautifully and the audience was very pleased.  I had a few anxious moments trying to adjust to the strange guitar, but eventually got with it and found my groove...It was quite a day and quite an experience, one my wife and I and Michael will never forget.

 

Paul Carosi / Designer/developer of the website Pittsburgh Music History (https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/).....My most rewarding experience in concert promotion came when I did publicity for “The WDVE Steel Workers Benefit Concert” held at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater on April 15, 1982.  In the early 1980s the great steel mills of Western Pennsylvania closed their doors, and in the four county areas surrounding Pittsburgh, 22,000 steel workers had lost their jobs.  The unemployment benefits of the steelworkers were running out and thousands of homes were being confiscated in foreclosures. 

Members of Homestead Steelworkers Union Local 1397 asked Rick Granati of the Granati Brothers to organize a benefit concert.  They wanted to raise funds to help the unemployed and raise awareness about their plight.  DiCesare Engler Productions then graciously agreed to donate the Stanley Theater for the concert, and Rick Granati convinced WDVE to sponsor and promote the show.   The concert featured the Granati Brothers, the Iron City House Rockers, Billy Price, and Rare Experience, and Jimmy & Steve of WDVE were the emcees. 

Using my contacts I was able to convince Jerry Vondas to write a full-page story in the Pittsburgh Press that captured the attention of Bob Dvorchak of the AP and led to national coverage by the CBS Evening News, the Today Show, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and the UPI.  Rick Granati and local steel workers were interviewed on the Today Show.  A story about the unemployed in Pittsburgh that included a clip of the Iron City Houserockers concert performance and an interview was shown on the CBS Evening News.   As a result of the concert and attendant publicity, the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department put a moratorium on home foreclosures.  The proceeds from the concert were used to found a food bank that provided unemployed steelworkers with $60 in groceries every two weeks.  The local 1397 food bank paved the way for the creation of the Great Pittsburgh Community Food bank that is still serving Allegheny County families today. 

  

Scott Tady / Entertainment Editor of the Beaver County Times.....The basement of the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh around 1986.  Steppenwolf, Alvin Lee and Roger McGuinn.  For some reason it was BYOB, and so you had all these biker dudes swigging from MD 20/20 and bottom shelf liquor.  Tables were covered in bottles.  The show started late, and the crowd was restless.  They respected McGuinn, but hearing him croon "Chestnut Mare" wasn't what the "Born to Be Wild" crowd was craving.  A Yuppie tried dancing to "Magic Carpet Ride" until he felt a meaty hand on his shoulder and heard, "Sit down, son."  Can't say I was physically threatened at any point, but that was one of my first shows, and I remember being rather nervous.  I learned not to make eye contact.  Have a good time, but get out alive!

Russ Rose / aka Whip, 105.9 WXDX on-air talent (among other duties for iHeartRADIO Pittsburgh).....Back when I was on-air at 102.5 WDVE, part of my job was going to every show in town and setting up the van and its promo set up before and after the event, handing out stickers and having people hassle me for T-Shirts.  So I went to a lot of shows that I enjoyed, but also a few that weren't my style.

Emerson Lake & Palmer was at the AJ Palumbo Center in 1993, and I had to go do my 'DVE thing at the show.  Since I was also doing overnight shifts at the time, I walked around in a perpetual state of exhaustion.  As "luck" would have it, I wound up with front row center tickets for the show, which I have to admit, was not my style.  I had a hard time keeping my eyes open at this show, and about 15 unbearable minutes into Emerson's droning Moog solo on "Lucky Man", I fell asleep in my seat, all of 5 feet from Greg Lake staring down at me in my 'DVE T Shirt.  My date nudged me and said that falling asleep from boredom right in front of the band was a bad idea.  I had to agree and we left to sit in the van. 

As the fans left the show I took an ear beating from one of them that 'DVE should play more ELP as they are more important to music than Beethoven.  HEY- I might have been tired, but I wasn't stoned!  (By the way, Ryan Adams is a close second in my book for most boring live show.)

 

Josh Verbanets / Musician, Meeting of Important People; co-creator, The Josh and Gab Show kids anti-bullying programming.....I was 16 and at a great Pittsburgh venue on Route 22 called American Music Cafe (remember this place?) when I first saw a performer, in the flesh, that made me realize how fun and unpredictable rock n' roll could be.  Until this point, I liked "funny music"--Weird Al, Adam Sandler...and "serious music"--Pink Floyd and Radiohead.  But the two never mixed.  David Gilmour was serious and played guitar and sang seriously, and was to be respected.  Adam Sandler mugged to the audience and got big laughs.  But this was the first that I realized both could blend together, and it changed my life forever.  There was a local band playing a dingy little show...I think they were called I Need This, and the band's lead singer would mess up songs, scream unintelligible words on purpose, fall into his amp, knock his microphone out of the mic stand, and slap his guitar until he bled.  I had never seen David Gilmour scream obscenely into the mic and fall on his face.  This band could get away with it because their songs were incredible, and the strange mix of unpredictability and humor was the extra reward.  It all clicked for me, and I spent the decade falling into my amp and screaming into a mic.  But I'm a serious musician now.*

*false

Jeff Sewald / Former music journalist and lifelong rock fan.....My most harrowing experience at a concert happened while I was still in high school in the summer of 1978.  As a friend and I waited amid the throng that had amassed outside Pittsburgh's Civic Arena for an appearance by the "Motor City Madman" himself, Ted Nugent, all hell broke loose.  It was a "festival seating" event, which meant that, if you were quick and agile (and didn't get trampled to death beforehand), you might just get to see your favorite artist from the best seats in the house at cheap-seat prices, which was only $8.00 at the time.  

When the time came, for some reason, the arena management elected to open only some of the doors and, when they did, the humanity assembled outside the hall pushed forward en masse trying to squeeze through only a handful of entryways.  People were knocked to the ground and many were screaming, while others--including one immensely fat, pimpled-faced guy--simply lowered their shoulders and shoved.  I managed to keep my balance and maneuver my way through one opened door, but my friend wasn't so lucky.  He got pinned up against the outside edge of a door that was only partially opened and, as the mass of bodies pressed toward the hall, was in danger of being cleaved in two by that very door.  With no way to fight the tide of sweaty flesh and get back to him, I was helpless.  Finally, a security guard grabbed my friend by the shirt and yanked him free of the door's edge--saving if not his life, then at least his sternum and "family jewels." 

As if the experience of getting into the arena wasn't bad enough, during the show, some fans in the sections nearest the top of the dome began tossing M-80s into the crowd on the floor.  The house lights went on and a warning was issued--to no avail.  "The Nuge," in typical Nuge fashion, refused to stop playing, even for a moment.  Years later, Ted would tell me in an interview that pushing a crowd to the very edge of disaster was "the ultimate" for a rock performer.  Even then, only in my early 20s, I thought, "I'm getting too old for this.”

Mike Sanders / Concert promoter, Opus One Productions.....Pink Floyd, October 1994.  Yep, I was at the last 2 concerts the band ever played (not including the 3 song reunion at Live8).  Hosted at the Earl's Court in London, these shows capped out the worldwide 'Division Bell' tour.  Took a train from Salzburg Austria, crossed the English Channel in a Ferry, showed up without tickets and purchased scalped tickets on the street for at the time an absurd amount of money, $125.00 each.  It was the perfect setting, a small arena about the size of Pittsburgh's old Civic Arena and there I was at those legendary shows.  Second set each night Floyd played Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety which was a rarity on that tour.  For those diehard Floyd fans I also witnessed a proper hometown crowd.  No standing, no dancing, no typical stadium American debauchery by the fans.  Everyone just sat there and watched the concert.  The importance of those shows speaks for itself.  Those same shows were captured on the brilliant Pulse Live Album and Concert Video.

 

Steve Acri / Longtime music fan; former record store manager; currently in the audio-video business.....Harrowing experience at a concert?  That’s an easy one.  Ozzfest at Star Lake, 1997.  I took my son who was 11.  Fortunately we were seated well within the covered pavilion so as to not be so directly affected, but experiencing the hail of partially filled cups and bottles, chunks of the lawn turf, and anything else that might be launch-able was very harrowing.  It was especially bad in between sets.  Trying to get from the pavilion to the concourse made you a target.  You literally ran the gauntlet. I truly was concerned for our safety.

In addition (or perhaps because of), there was an almost palpable sense of evil in the air.  A lot of not-nice people around.  Headliners were Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson.  I’m not the kind to stereotype, but if ever there was justification in doing so, this was it.  Probably needless to say, we were like hockey players and got the puck outta there before the gates of hell opened.

   

Joe Grushecky / Musician, singer-songwriter and bandleader (Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers).....I have been going to concerts and shows for so long it is impossible to pick the best, but there is a show that I always think of as being the first really balls to the wall rock AND roll show I ever saw.  It was waaay back when in the last century.  There was a teen nite club in Greensburg, PA called the Red Rooster.  In those days there were clubs like that all over the greater Pittsburgh area, The White Elephant, the Varsity House, and the Grove to name the most well known ones.  The concept was the clubs would play the most obscure rock and roll rhythm & blues records they could find (the Pittsburgh sound), kids would dance, and at some point of the night a recording artist would play.  I got to see Junior Walker, Sam the Sham, Wilson Pickett...the list goes on.  I would get close to the stage and watch intently trying to pick up the tricks of the trade.  This particular night Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were the headliners.  “Jenny Take a f**kin’ Ride”.  Jimmy McCarty was the first really badass guitar player I had ever seen and Johnny B was a monster on drums, laying down a groove that shook me to my very soul.  Mitch sang his ass off and the band still to this day is one of the best I ever saw.  I walked away a changed boy.

Susan Drapkin / Director of Sponsorship of Live Nation, Greater Pittsburgh Area.....The one that comes to mind might just be both harrowing and enchanting.  I was working at First Niagara Pavilion, then called Post-Gazette Pavilion, and KISS was performing.  I had never seen them before and I wasn’t exactly a fan.  But I was looking forward to experiencing a full-on KISS show and everything that meant--pyro, fake blood and Gene Simmons flying through the air.  After the show, I was in the catering area and learned that the band was doing a meet & greet there.  I don’t know why, but I expected them to come to the meet & greet in street clothes and without makeup.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when they walked in—all that make-up, the costumes, the dragon platform shoes, and a 7ft tall Gene Simmons.  At one point, I was behind Gene Simmons as he was backing up toward the door and he didn’t realize that he was backing me into a tiny corner space.  As we kept inching backwards, I had nowhere to go and wondered if I might get crushed.  He suddenly turned around and there we were, Gene looking down at me, me looking up at Gene, right into each other’s eyes.  He didn’t say a word and neither did I.  He just reached down, pinched my nose, smiled, and then walked away.  Super cool.

Scott Blasey / Musician and lead singer for The Clarks.....I had my most harrowing and most enlightening concert experiences within sixty seconds of each other.  September 11, 1980--me and a buddy went to the Civic Arena to see Ted Nugent on the Intensities In 10 Cities Tour.  It was festival seating and Humble Pie opened the show.  We were about twenty feet away from the stage inside a mass of freakiness that I'd never encountered before.  Everything was cool until the lights went down for Ted.  People started pushing to get up front and it got really crowded.  The audience began to sway and we had no choice but to sway with them because everybody was packed so tightly together.  I was just a young, skinny teenager and I thought for sure I was going to be trampled underfoot like those kids at the Who concert the year before.  It seriously scared the shit out of me.  

Just then the lights came up and Sweaty Teddy swung across the stage from a vine dressed in a loincloth.  Let me repeat that, he swung across the stage, on a vine, in a loincloth.  It was the most rock-n-roll thing I've ever seen.  He tore into “Stranglehold” like a man possessed.  I was transfixed.  I was still scared, but I was completely in awe.  We watched the first two songs from there and then moved back and found some seats, where the sweet smell of...y'know, popcorn, filled the air.

Tom Rooney / Former executive director of Star Lake Amphitheatre 1990-1994; currently now president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group.....Harrowing:  The Jimmy Buffett show at the then Coca Cola Star Lake near Pittsburgh in the early 90s when lightning made a direct hit on the main transformer rendering a sold out show in darkness before JB hit the stage.  We were standing on the backstage deck when we saw the bolt hit and we were all lucky to survive.  We were saved by two things: The Iguanas, the opening act, traveled with a portable generator and Mark Susany, our electrician, ingeniously hooked it up on the main stage and we got (barely) through an unplugged show.  Next day Buffett’s management required a full backup generator for every show, anywhere!  I still remember the local fire departments showing up with their trucks to provide lights for the parking lots…Honorable mention, our Kenny Chesney show in 100 degree heat and thunderstorms in Cincinnati in 2012 at Paul Brown Stadium, when we had to pull Tim McGraw off the stage and clear the entire stadium floor.  We got through it, though…Also, any Ozzfest show where we had 20,000 crazy fans ready to erupt at any moment.

Enchanting & Enlightening:  Many artists who I was not personally fond of but blown away by their live performance, and these include Phil Collins, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, the latter having had three sold out nights at Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

Val Porter / longtime WDVE on-air talent; currently Music Director and a member of the station’s acclaimed morning show.....Without question, my most memorable moment was a Motley Crue show at the Civic Arena, sometime in 1998, I believe.  It was the tour in which they were causing trouble at just about every stop.  I went on stage before the band came out to do announcements about upcoming shows and no smoking, and that sort of thing.  Well, the crowd goes crazy when I get up there.  And I’m thinking “Yeah!  A real rock crowd ready for a big show!”  As I’m walking off the stage someone said “Be glad you don’t know what was going on up there.”  Then someone else offstage said the same thing.  When I got back to my seat, I was told that while I was up on stage they were showing a very graphic porno on the very large screen behind me.  And that’s why the crowd went crazy.  A friend told me that the screen was so big I looked like an ant in front of it.

 

 

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Posted 3/7/16.....TIME HAS COME TODAY

When casting about for a new writing topic for this latest entry of musicasaurus.com, I kept coming back to the concept of “This Day in Music History”—or rather something else along those lines but a bit larger in scope.  So I began corralling music milestones from the month of March over the past five decades, thinking that this would really resonate for some readers—young people who might be interested in gaining perspective through tidbits of music evolution, and old people who might be interested in having chest-pain revelations over how friggin’ ancient they’ve become.

I found some nuggets.  Fifty years ago this month, in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay decided to form a band called Buffalo Springfield, a named coined from a steamroller company headquartered in Springfield, Ohio. 

And where was I?  In Butler, P