Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Crossroads, and How I Learned to Love Rush Again

The death of Neil Peart and the amazing outpouring of affection that followed sent me onto something of a Rush listening/watching jag over the past few days.

My thoughts on the band were fairly simple. I was a big fan until I was about 14 and then my attention turned elsewhere. From that moment on I always appreciated/admired their talent and connection to the fans, and I continued to like those songs with which I was familiar (you know, six or seven really well-known tunes). I had just decided the music wasn't exactly for me.

Funny. Even at age 51 and set in our ways, we're able to learn new things. And change our lines.

Because after a few days of listening to Moving Pictures, then Permanent Waves, then 2112, then Signals, then Hemispheres and then, most recently A Farewell to Kings, I have to say, this is music for me. Without question. The mindbending precision. The chops all three have. The songwriting. The integrity. I spent nearly 40 years not really appreciating it, but damn, I do now. It took a re-listening to the Side 1 suite of 2112 for the first time since the Reagan Administration. And Alex Lifeson's advanced mathematics on "La Villa Strangiato." And the joyous musical wonderland explored in "Xanadu," led by vocals from Geddy Lee that remind you just what kind of singer he truly is. And the brilliant, signature-bending ride (not to mention the songwriting) that is "Spirit of Radio." And yes, "Limelight" and "YYZ" and "Tom Sawyer." There is so damn much good here; unfortunately I spent all these years not paying much attention. But I am paying attention now.

And it hasn't just been listening. I watched Beyond the Lighted Stage the other day and, I have to say, I have never seen a better rock doc. Their openness (even the legendarily shy and reclusive Neil) is staggering, and the material is so comprehensive that you get exactly why these three worked as a band for 40+ years. And you walk away with the sense that Neil is one of the smartest people to ever play rock-n-roll, and Geddy and Alex are just two of the most decent people in rock-n-roll history.

I've watched a few concert snippets online as well and reached the same conclusion. Terrific stuff. And I watched their induction to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 and thought it was amazing. Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins couldn't have given them a better or more reverent intro. And Neil, Geddy and Alex knocked it out of the park with their speeches. And yes, to me, Alex's ballsy  "blah blah blah" speech kept getting funnier and funnier.

But it was the end of that night in 2013 that is the impetus for this post. It's long been one of my favorite rock-n-roll moments, and very possibly is my favorite jam session I have ever seen. The sheer talent onstage is staggering. Watch, and a few observations will follow.

I love this clip, and this version of a truly legendary piece of music, so much it is difficult to say.

  • Not sure how this is possible, but on a stage that had all three members of Rush, the Wilson sisters. Dave and Taylor, John Fogerty, Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Darryl McDaniels and Chuck Freaking D, Gary Clark Jr. still manages to emerge as the coolest person on the stage. Damn does he have charisma!
  • To that end, following Chuck and Darryl's awesome intro, I love how they gave it to Gary to take the first verse and get them out of the gate. THAT'S respect.
  • I also love how it doesn't take Geddy long to pick up the hip-hop beat on the bass and start to flesh it out.
  • Dave and Taylor still have their old school Rush kimonos on for the song. Bless their hearts.
  • Taylor + Neil = about what you'd expect. Which is to say, yes please.
  • So cool to occasionally see Chuck and Darryl running around the stage in the background. Adds to the level of fun they are all having.
  • Good GOD can Annie Wilson sing!
  • Around the 1:48 mark, as Ann sings, Tom and Gary exchange a look which seems to speak to how much they love this.
  • Ah, Chris Cornell. Hard to believe's not with us anymore. But it felt good to see him belt it out. And the extended shots towards the end of him and Tom together are very cool.
  • There are quite a few times where you see Geddy in the back just grooving along quietly on the bass. And that struck me. This is a guy who spent 40+ years as a front man, so it might've seemed a little weird being "behind the scenes" for a little while, if you will. But Geddy seems to be enjoying himself.
  • Little random moments. Darryl watching Tom play and looking kind of amazed. Chuck holding his mic up to Geddy's bass. Geddy laughing with Chuck at the 3:00 mark.
  • Alex's solo. SWEET JESUS is that man a monster player.
  • While Alex is playing, his oldest and probably closest friend in the world gives Tom Morello a look and reaction at the 4:27 mark that likely explains exactly what Geddy thinks of Alex.
  • Two different solos for Mr. Morello. Both done in his thoroughly unique way. And no one seems to be complaining.
  • And Geddy is given the final verse. And naturally, he nails it. You can't spend a career as a master prog player without having an advanced understanding of the rock-n-roll basics. Geddy proves it there. And his high five with Fogerty at the end is a little silly and a lot sweet.
It's a damn shame, once again, that it takes a death to spur my listening to some great musics. But I am glad this brought me back to Rush. Very few bands possess this advanced level of talent. None of them have a greater connection to or appreciation of their fans.

THAT is one hell of a legacy. One that deserves plenty of attention be paid to it.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

You Either Die a Hero or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain: Robbie Robertson and the Band

This guy.

So thanks to the footage—and the subject matter—this looks like it'll be utterly parts. And because of the damn guy being interviewed, the titular character, the villain of the piece, it's going to be equally insufferable in parts. I mean, I nearly punched my computer screen twice just watching the trailer. Every word that comes out of his mouth feels like it's been written and rewritten and rehearsed a dozen times before the cameras even started rolling. (And thanks to The Last Waltz, we know that's far from unlikely.)

As anyone who's perused Reason to Believe even a bit probably realizes, both Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton are in my list of Top 10 Favorite Artists ever, and Van Morrison's way the hell up there, and his recent dumb comments notwithstanding, I'm a huge Martin Scorsese fan. But it's highly telling that the ones interviewed for this here documentary—or at least who are most prominently called out in the various pieces about the film and in the trailer—are all...solo artist types. They've either never really been in a band or it's been a long damn time since they were and when they were it was for brief periods before imploding.

(Although Springsteen is right on the money when he says:
"There is no band that emphasizes becoming greater than the sum of their parts than The Band."
and nothing makes that more crystal clear than Robertson's perfectly fine but lightyears from legendary solo career—a solo career that's now 43 years long, well over four times as long as the Band's career.)

"Something got broken and it was like glass—it was hard to put back together again." Yeah, d-bag: and you were the one who broke it. You broke The Band. One of the greatest bands ever, and you destroyed it. You knew—or maybe you didn't really know yet—how amazing the chemistry was between these five incredible musicians, and yet you decided you had to be the leader, and virtually the sole songwriter, despite how vital the songwriting contributions of the others (especially the fragile as crystal Richard Manuel) was.

Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt working with those guys was hella difficult, especially once the drugs and drink really started to take hold. But come on, man. Enough with the revisionism. "We thought, let's come together one last time: The Last Waltz." No, homeboy. The others were very clear about it over the years: You decided. They wanted to keep going. Hey, if you want to quit a band, you get to. But don't lie about how and why it happened.

I mean, even the damn title: Robbie Robertson and the Band. They keep talking about how magical it was when these guys got together, and yet the guy who broke them up still needs to have his damn name in the title, even though it runs counter to the precise thesis of the damn film.


You know what would be great? Not just for this documentary—although hell yeah it would've—but in general? Interview guys from bands that were or have been together for a really long time about how goddamn hard it is to keep bands together. Interview the guys from, say, U2 and REM and Pearl Jam and Rush and ZZ Top about what it's really like to be in a band with the same guys for decades. 'cuz there's a reason so few bands stay together for that long.

Footage looks amazing, of course. Can't wait to see it.

(For a much more accurate view of what The Band was really like, check out this video of a 1970 concert. There's little indication of Robertson's future narcissism, and absolutely no indication that he or anyone thinks of him as the band's leader; just the opposite, in fact–if you didn't know better, you'd probably think it was Rick Danko, who sings or co-sings all four songs [including a little ditty he wrote with some jamoke named Bob Dylan] and whose ability to sing beautifully and with such a unique timbre while playing completely independent, deep, finger-busting funky grooves remains astonishing. Or listen to Levon Helm singing "The Weight" for what must already be the thousandth time. This has to be at least the 10th live version I've heard him do, and I don't think I've ever heard him sing those so well known lines the same way twice. What a monster musician. Like all the rest of The Band.)

Friday, January 10, 2020

RIP Neil Peart

One of the giants of drumming died today. Apparently Rush drummer Neil Peart had been fighting brain cancer for years and told next to no one. Which is about as Neil Peart a thing as I can imagine.

There have been few big-name drummers who cared more or thought more deeply about drums and drumming than Peart. He may not have had the ability to make odd time signatures swing as effortlessly as Phil Collins, nor Bill Bruford's restless desire to never, ever repeat himself—to name two of the three other major prog rock drummers of the 70s—but no one ever strove for perfection like Peart. He'd spend months writing and rewriting and tweaking and honing and finally recording his parts, wondering if a flam here would be more effective or perhaps a ruff would work better or maybe it should simply be played as clean straight notes. And, of course, once the final part was settled, he'd meticulously recreate it night after night in concert, live, with tens of thousands of adoring eyes on him, and tens of thousands of adoring ears listening to every ghost note, every hi-hat bark, every perfect 32nd note paradiddlediddle.

And Peart, notorious perfectionist owner of staggering technical abilities, every one of which he worked relentlessly at, was open about how often he made mistakes. And, sure, he was almost certainly the only one who ever noticed them, but that's not entirely the point: the point is, he did notice them. And whereas a Collins would think, well, that sucks, but the show must go on, and push it out of his mind, and a Bruford would think, well, that didn't work but was really quite interesting, I wonder if there's anything to be learned from that, Peart would obsess over it, determined to do better next time. And the time after. And the time after.

And few professional musicians have ever dedicated themselves to reinventing their technique as late in their career as he did in the 90s, studying with master instructor Freddie Gruber, and changing up his approach to the drums—an idea which would have have been, was, beyond absurd to the generations of drummers would have given their left splash cymbal to have had half Peart's original technique.

But when I think of Neil Peart's drumming, I don't think of the title track to 2112, or the beloved instrumentals like "YYZ" or "La Villa Strangiato," I think about "Spirit of Radio," both because it's one of his finest lyrics, and most of all, because of the sense of humor and obvious love for music that comes through in every measure.

There are places where he seems to almost anticipate the gospel chops of the next century in his (perhaps Steve Gadd-inspired) linear fills, and it changes time signatures more often than most drummers change their socks, but it's the places where for measures on end he plays...the bass drum. Just unadorned quarter notes on the kick drum. The kind of thing he could have played after one lesson as a kid. Hell, the kind of thing he could have played before taking a single lesson. But it was right for the music, so monster drummer Neil Peart—who wrote the part—played the simplest thing possible. What's more, besotted (as the rest of the band was, along with pretty much everyone in the world was) at the time by the Police (and in Peart's case specifically the playing of the band's utterly dissimilar Stewart Copeland), he goes into...reggae. About as un-prog-like a musical style as is imaginable. But it felt right, it fit the song, so into reggae they went, by god.

Sure, there are those other parts where it goes into 7/4, 'cuz hey, that too fit. (And most amusing of all, when the song leaves 7/4 and goes back into 4/4, that's actually the measure which feels wonkiest, as the beat is displaced, ala "Sunshine of Your Love" or "Bell Bottom Blues." A tricksy bagginses, that Peart.)

The world has moved on. And we're unlikely to see the likes of a prog god like Neil Peart ever achieve mass popularity again. So pour one out for the reclusive percussionist, even though he'd probably hate it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Stairway to Heaven

Talk about What Might Have Beens.

Every few years I rewatch this video and it's pretty much always the same. Or, well, the video's always exactly the same, but my reaction is pretty much always the same. Which is that with Steve Winwood on keyboards, Bill Wyman on bass and Simon Phillips on drums, this instrumental version of "Stairway" should be phenomenal.

But, sadly, Jimmy Page was deep in the throes of his heroin addiction and his playing—which even at his most incendiary and risk-taking best was rarely precise live, to put it mildly—is shockingly sloppy. Just listen and you'll hear fumbled notes, slurred chords, terrible timing, and some embarrassing intonation.

What's more, the recording itself isn't always as clear as would be ideal. Or, perhaps, given that Jimmy wasn't at his finest here, maybe that's not the end of the world. Still, a bit of clarity would have been nice, and having the audio properly synched with the video would definitely be a plus.

And yet. And yet when Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck come in at the end of the solo, it can't help but become nearly glorious, as Beck plays and plays with the last phrases of Jimmy's famous solo over and over on his Tele, and Clapton plays Robert Plant's original vocal line on his Strat. In some ways, it makes it all the sadder how much greater this could have and should have been. On the other hand, we get to see Clapton, Beck and Page, all three of the Yardbirds famous lead guitarists, playing the most famous song any of them ever wrote, and even at sub-optimal conditions, that's pretty damn cool.