Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Brush With Corleone

Hey there folks,

Yesterday I was asked a question that I have never been asked before, ever. And I couldn't answer it right away on the spot. But it really got me thinking.

You see, recently I have made good friends with another band over here (they are staying in the same house I am staying in), although I should point out, this band isn't actually FROM here, as they come from Washington state. They're just staying here in Nashville for a couple of weeks while they do some shows in town and thereabouts. Anyway, the bass player has his girlfriend and 3 month old son Gunner (the name's Swedish, apparently) in tow, and we have been getting along like the proverbial (not literal - fortunately) house on fire. So well in fact, that last night they asked me to be their little boy's Godfather.

Now, after I sadly realised that this didn't mean wearing a snappy pinstripe suit and fedora and granting any favour asked of me on my daughter's wedding day, you can imagine I was kind of stunned. I mean, I've known them for all of two weeks. But I guess they thought enough of me to want me to have some kind of role in their offspring's life, which is very nice of them (and potentially disastrous for the poor unsuspecting young one). I am very flattered of course, but also very confused. I don't really know what a Godfather actually DOES.

Now I've been to a few baptisms before, where the traditional role of the Godparents is to be the child's religious and spiritual compass, to ensure that the kids grow up to be good god-fearers just like their god-fearing godparents. That and to step in and take over care of the child in the unfortunate event of the parent's passing when the child is still, well, a child. Which is a little silly, really, as I would have thought most couples would normally have their own parents or other close relatives take over the custody and care of any children should that situation arise.

So, I did some research. Seeing as how I didn't know exactly what the duties of a Godparent is (I never had one, to my knowledge), and how my immediate reaction was that I am not obviously qualified to undertake such a thing, I set about to find out what the role of the Godparent is in today's society. I am not especially religious, so for me to be the religious guide for any young human is a little bit of a stretch. Fortunately in this case young Gunner's parents aren't too religious either, so this poses the question of what do Godparents do in a non-religious context? Is it even a valid role, and given that the term is GODparent, should it be called something else in this case?

I guess 'mentor' or 'guide' would be pretty apt, and wouldn't be too bad. You know, like having a cool uncle or aunt to counsel you on stuff you don't want your parents to know about. I could do that. A scary thought, I know, but I possibly could. I can be pretty responsible when I need to be.

As it turns out, according to many web forums on the subject, that's pretty much what people who aren't religious, but still want to fill a kind of 'Godparent' role in their child's life, are doing. I guess it's kind of like having an additional person on board who pledges to do their best to look after the kid's best interests and stuff like that. That would make sense. It's kind of like the whole 'it takes a community to bring up a child' ethos. I can understand and actually identify with that, from personal experience. Ultimately, it's really up to the parents. I don't think kids need 'Godparents' in order to be brought up emotionally stable and well-balanced, though it doesn't necessarily hurt either, and there are countless examples of both. It all depends on the family and their educational and parenting philosophy. Says me, who doesn't really have any practical parenting experience AT ALL, besides looking after my younger siblings as soon I was responsible enough to. And as my mum would point out, that hardly counts.

So, I haven't given an answer yet, as they said I can take my time to think about it (which I need, quite frankly). It may just give them enough time to rethink their offer, which may put my mind at ease. Gunner's still going to turn out great, whether I get to see how he's doing every so often or not. But, you know, if I was his 'backup-parent', that kid would definitely have a good appreciation of soul music...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Snow - The Jayhawks

Hey People,

Well, I'm in Nashville, where we've had a bunch of snow and 'flurries' lately. In fact, it was 'flurrying' today, to use the term as a verb, which I'm not sure is technically possible. 'Flurries' are a meteorological term denoting patches of light snow, and I've never heard that such a thing existed until about a week ago. That's what you get for being brought up in country Queensland, which could be famous for its lack of snow. Well, unless you're from Stanthorpe, where it does snow occasionally, I'm told. I never saw it though, which was my parent's fault really, neglecting to take me down there and enrich my childhood (just kidding Mum, you're ok). Instead in Warwick we had frequent below-zero temperatures (that's centigrade, folks) that could freeze off the parts of a Monkey he would consider quite valuable, and ice over our horses' water trough (literally). But it would never snow. Come to think of it, I didn't actually see snow until I was 21, and taking an overseas jaunt to Europe. I first sighted this magical by-product of the cold weather in Switzerland, on the top of a mountain just above the village of Leysin, which is above Lake Geneva (if that means anything to you). It was very pretty, and kind of an amazing place to get your first up close experience of snow.

Anyway, seeing as how I'm harping on about snow, I'm going to draw a rather tenuous link between it and the next band I'm going to talk about in my ongoing series of...(drum roll)...

Bands or Artists You Should Know But Have Probably Never Heard Of.

Yeah, I know, I need to work on the title. I'll come up with something catchy eventually.

Anyway, the band that I'm about to talk of come from one of the coldest places in the United States, and always gets a lot of the white icy stuff come wintertime. I'm talking about the northern state of Minnesota, and the so called 'twin cities' of Minneapolis and St Paul. This is an area that has been the birthing ground for a number of great bands, but today I'm going to focus on just one, which is The Jayhawks.

The heart and soul of the Jayhawks is the fantastic pop songwriting partnership of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, though this wasn't always the way it was from the beginning. When the band formed in 1985 in Minneapolis with Stan Perlman on bass, Norm Rogers on drums and Louris and Olson on vocals and guitars, most of the songs were written by Olson. The band's first release was self-titled and put out by small independent label Bunkhouse records (a label started by the band's first manager Charlie Pine) in 1986, with Olson dominating the songwriting duties. The album didn't garner any interest from major labels however, so the band went right back to work recording new demos and performing as often as their day jobs would allow. During this time, Louris (despite a brief respite from the band to to being injured in a car accident) gradually started to contribute more songs to the proceedings, and the pair collaborated more frequently on new material.

In 1989 these collected demos from the past three years were collated, ironed out and molded into the album 'Blue Earth'. This was released on Minneapolis label Twin-Tone and the band set about touring the U.S. in order to promote it. After a couple of years and a few lineup changes (by now, Rogers had been replaced by Thad Spencer on drums, and after the tour Spencer was in turn replaced by Ken Callahan) the legend goes that in 1991 Dave Ayers, the president of Twin Tone records was on the phone to George Drakoulias from Def American records, while 'Blue Earth' was playing in the background. Drakoulias was curious about the music in the background, and so Ayers told him all about the band, which led to the eventual signing of the Jayhawks to their first major label deal with Def American later that year.

In 1992, the band had their first major label American release, 'Hollywood Town Hall', produced by George Drakoulias, which was a big critical success and gained quite a bit of airplay. The band continued touring (with new member Karen Grotberg on keyboards and vocals) and in the process found themselves gaining a solid core fanbase, but wider success still eluded them, and the album failed to break into the charts, peaking at #192, although the single 'Waiting for the Sun' reached #20 on the Billboard charts. The album 'Hollywood town Hall' is considered to be a fan favourite, but it was their next record, released in 1995, that introduced me to them.

'Tomorrow the Green Grass' is my favourite Jayhawks record. It was again produced by George Drakoulias, and for me is the moment when the chemistry between Olson and Louris reached its peak, in regard to both songwriting and vocal harmony. The album doesn't have a bad song on it, and for me was immediately reminiscent of another of my favourite bands (and subject of another chapter in the series), The Flying Burrito Brothers. The harmonies between Olson and Lourisstrongly evoke the harmony blend of the Burrito Bros.' Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, none more so on the slower country numbers like 'Two Hearts'. It's a truly great record, and without a doubt one of the best albums of the decade. The album did chart, but due to its expensive production failed to sell as expected, and did not build on the success of their last record. The band toured the record to support it, and found their fanbase and profile growing, but breakthrough mainstream commercial success still eluded them.

Disillusioned with the music industry, Olson unexpectedly left the band in late 1995 once touring had finished. In his words: "We were cooking on all cylinders, and playing shows, and it seemed like before we knew it, the touring was done. I was a little shocked at that, I was sort of thinking like we were going to get through this first round, and then we were going to go for it on our own and make it happen. But that just didn't seem like it was on the cards; we were already having a meeting about the next record. I blew a fuse inside for some of the things that were basically not that big of a deal, so I left the band."

Olson's departure left a big hole in the group, and after a short break where the remaining members (Callahan had been replaced on the drums by Tim O'Reagan in 1995) tried to work out what to do next, they decided to keep going with touring and making records, with Louris as leader and main songwriter in the band. The band released three more albums; 'Sound of Lies' (1997), Smile (2000) and Rainy Day Music (2003), which are all very good records with Louris coming into his own as a bandleader and songwriter.

In 2009, a Jayhawks anthology was released titled 'Music from the North Country', and provides a good retrospective covering all periods and stages of the band's existence. The Jayhawks were a seminal and extremely influential band for just about every serious musician in the 1990's that didn't pick up a guitar just because they saw Kurt Cobain do it. For those who dug deeper and loved classic pop harmonies and melodies, the Jayhawks were a one-stop shop, whose classic records still sound great today. I recommend you start with 'Tomorrow the Green Grass', then 'Hollywood Town Hall', and after that you'll be a fan for life.

Album Discography

The Jayhawks (1986)
Blue Earth (1989)
Hollywood Town Hall (1993)
Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
Sound of Lies (1997)
Smile (2000)
Rainy Day Music (2003)
Music from the North Country (2009)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Harrisburg Diaries

Hi People,

So here I am in Harrisburg. "Where?" I hear you all ask simultaneously? Why, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, of course. OK, a few things about Harrisburg:

It's actually the state capital of Pennsylvania, which was apparently decided after one of the former national capitals of the USA, Philadelphia (also in PA - the two letter abbreviation for Pennsylvania), was deemed to be inappropriate as the state capital as it was already the nation's capital. But then it was decided (by the powers that be, I guess) that the capital of the USA needed to be in a neutral territory, to prevent bias and favouritism amongst the states, and thus the capital was moved to the newly created city of Washington, in the District of Columbia.

At least, that's what the nice lady I was sitting next to on the plane on the way here yesterday said, who may or may not have had a few drinks before she got on the plane. But her explanation, although overly and perhaps unnecessarily flirtatious given that the subject was American history, seemed to make sense at the time to me, seeing as how my brain was fried after a 5 hour delayed layover in Washington-Dulles airport. For those after cold hard facts, a better version can be found here.

Harrisburg is also the home of the famous Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979 and nearly destroyed the world. So wish me luck while I'm here. Although this could be the perfect opportunity for me to mutate and get special powers, providing that special power is perhaps an ability to glow bright green in the dark.

Anyway, I'm here to do a showcase for the Millennium music conference, which I in fact did earlier tonight in the lovely Midtown Scholar Bookstore. If you're ever in Harrisburg, then I recommend a visit. It's one of those stores that won't necessarily have a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for you, but if you're interested in Huguenot Silverware in England (1698-1764) then you just might find what you're after (I actually saw a book with that title).

Anyway, being at another one of these music conferences I am again forced to try and find my relevance as a musician, artist, and performer, which is always a fairly confronting task, particularly when faced with the possibility one may not be so relevant after all. The whole thing about the music industry than can be so disenchanting is that everyone's trying to make a buck or fame out of it and you can smell the desperation in the air. It's enough to actually make me consider a career change, as I don't think I particularly fit into this ethos. Sure, I'd like to be able to make a living out of this, but it's not WHY I do it. In fact, if you did ask me why I do it, I might not be able to tell you, but it has to do with the music; the creation of music, what it means to be able to create music, and how it makes me feel to listen, play and create MUSIC. So yeah, while being at one of these things is good in the way it challenges you to think about your relevance to the music industry, it is also a very sobering experience, as it does make you think about your career.

Anyway, as I sit in my hotel room at the end of the day with the TV on mute (a left-wing satire show - on HBO of course) sitting here writing this and thinking about the bigger picture, these are my thoughts. On Sunday it's back to Nashville and a different slice of music industry reality. When one is an artist, it's hard to look objectively at what you do and see it as commerce. Maybe the trick is not caring about it so much, and not applying any set of guidelines or pre-conceptions.

As Frederick Nietzsche once said: "We have art so that we do not die of the truth".

Over and out.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Memphis - Big Star

Hey Folks,

Hope all's going well. I'm writing to you from one of the most historic musical places, or musical hallowed ground, if you will, in the world. It's a city in the southwest of the US state of Tennessee called Memphis, which you may know from the title of the Chuck Berry song called, um, "Memphis, Tennessee". Chuck doesn't really talk to much about Memphis in the song, other than referring to "the southside" and "the Mississippi Bridge". Instead the song is actually a brilliantly executed lyrical gem, where Chuck writes about a young girl called Marie trying to get in touch with him but he missed her call. We of course initially think that Marie is of course a character of romantic interest for Mr Berry, but in the third verse, we are turned onto the truth by the line "Marie is only six years old", and it turns out that she is his estranged daughter, giving the song all new added poignancy. It's really a masterpiece, and I never cease to marvel at how well written a song it is. Chuck Berry, aside from being the first "guitar hero", really was one of the most lyrically talented songwriters that Rock'n'roll has ever seen in my opinion, and the deftness and structural genius of his lyrics is often criminally overlooked when discussing this giant of Rock music. Instead, everyone just thinks of that guitar riff from 'Johnny B Goode'.

But anyway, I didn't come on here to write about Chuck Berry, although maybe I will at a later date. I thought Memphis would be as good a place as any to start writing my blog series about bands and artists that you've probably never heard of, but should have. The first chapter in this series is about a band that is now regarded as one of the most influential, yet completely unsuccessful bands and thus one of the greatest commercial misfortunes of the modern rock era. This band's name is Big Star.

Big Star was founded in Memphis in 1971 by original members Alex Chilton (guitar/vocals), Chris Bell (guitar/vocals), Andy Hummell (bass/vocals), and Jody Stephens (drums/vocals). The band was formed when Alex was invited by the others to join their original band Icewater, after hearing some of Alex's songs, which he played for them on his trusty acoustic guitar. The band befriended local music figure and owner of Ardent studios, John Fry, and immediately started working on their first album. The band also adopted the new name of 'Big Star' after the grocery store nearby that the group visited for snacks during recording sessions. According to Jody Stephens and John Fry, Chris Bell was the 'tinkerer' of the band, spending hours in the studio playing around with new guitar parts or ideas for songs after the band had already cut the original rhythm section 'beds' for the tracks. The resulting album was called '#1 Record', and is often considered to be the first power-pop album; combining elements of British invasion-esque pop harmonies and jangly guitars with riffs and bass lines not unlike those in rhythm and blues music. The album was released in 1972 on Ardent's own label, and distributed by powerful Memphis record label, Stax records. It was critically acclaimed (Rolling Stone called it "exceptionally good"), but due to mismanagement and mishandling by Stax the album was virtually unavailable in stores for purchase, which practically eliminated any chance of sales or charting.

The subsequent disappointment in the lack of the record's success resulted in a lot of tensions emerging within the band, resulting in some physical violence between band members and destruction of equipment. Chris Bell also left the band, being very frustrated and disheartened by the poor commercial performance and handling of the record by Stax. Nonetheless, the band returned to Ardent to record a follow-up record, which would become their second album 'Radio City'. The record was recorded at Ardent by Chilton, Stephens, and Hummell, with technical assistance from John Fry. Chris Bell had already collaborated on some songs with Chilton before recording, and his influence is still felt in the harmonies, but it is really Chilton's edgy guitar that dominates this record. Released in February 1974 it was again met with great critical accolades, but due to a disagreement between Stax and a new deal it had made regarding its own distribution with Columbia records, the album languished in record label limbo. As a result of the disagreement, Columbia refused to distribute Stax's catalog, not promoting the release and additionally making the record extremely hard to get, and subsequently the record only sold around 20,000 copies (which was still more than '#1 Record). To compound the band's woes, Hummell left the group just before the record's release to finish his studies, and the record sank almost without a trace.

In late 1974, Chilton and Stephens, aided by an array of other musicians, returned to the studio to work on a third record, which was to be produced by Memphis luminary Jim Dickinson. More a series of recordings than an album, the record is still regarded as an essential part of the Band's ouevre (there's a fancy word), despite its dissimilarities to the first two records. The sounds are more disjointed, minimal, and contain synthesisers and horns and female backing vocals in place of the jangly guitars of previous releases. It is easily the most innovative record by the group, and well worth a listen, as it contains some great songs and incredible vocals from Chilton. It was regarded as too uncommercial for release, despite John Fry and Jim Dickinson's best attempts to sell the record to a new label following the demise of Stax in 1975 (another story). It was finally released under the name 'Third/Sister Lovers' on a couple of small independent labels in 1978, and was well received by somewhat puzzled critics at the time, yet still retained the unfortunate characteristic of all Big Star records: it was a commercial flop. It has recently developed more attention due it being the great 'lost' Big Star album, and was re-released on CD by Rykodisc in 1992.

Following the recording sessions for 'Third/Sister Lovers', the band officially broke up and Alex Chilton went on to a solo career of mixed success, and Chris Bell was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after the release of their final record in 1978. After leaving the band Chris Bell actually recorded and released a phenomenal solo record called 'I Am The Cosmos', but it too was a commercial failure, though it has now been re-released on CD. It is really worth checking out, and is a bit of a lost masterpiece.

Big Star actually re-formed (with Chilton, Stephens, with the assistance of Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from The Posies) in 1994 due to a renewed interest in their music, released a new album 'In Space' in 2005 and still does the occasional gig. However, the unfortunate circumstances and label disputes that combined to ensure the commercial failure of a group that was seemingly destined for success due to the quality of its music, is really nothing short of a rock'n'roll tragedy. I strongly recommend you check out Big Star's music, and revel in the superb songwriting, production and undeniable talent of these four young men, who never really got to fulfill their musical career aspirations, but still created some of the best music ever recorded. '#1 Record' is a good place to start, and just go on from there...


#1 Record (1972)
Radio City (1974)
Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
In Space (2005)
Keep An Eye On The Sky (Box Set - 2009)