Friday, February 26, 2010

'As sure as night is dark and day is light..'

Today is the birthday of a true giant of American music. Johnny Cash would have been 78.

My dad was a fan and I remember being very young and hearing songs like "Folsom Prison Blues", "Walk The Line", "Ring Of Fire" or "A Boy Named Sue".

Cash's immense catalog, from the early groundbreaking recordings in the late 1950s, through the classic albums of the 1960s and 70s and the rejuvenating American Recordings series produced by Rick Rubin from the mid-90s, continues to grow this week with the release of "Ain't No Grave"

For me, though, it was a song that he didn't write or originally record that poignantly encapsulates the man's pain, heartache and mortality. Trent Reznor's "Hurt" reaches across the years and is perfectly brought to life in this video by director Mark Romanek.

In a piece of synchronicity so perfect it was almost scripted, Apple announced the other day that the ten billionth song downloaded from iTunes was Johnny's "I Guess Things Happen That Way" - evidence that his legacy endures regardless of how his audience engages with him.

And his influence on American music and musicians - and not just in the country genre - has been profound. Here's Bruce Springsteen with a version of Johnny's "Give My Love To Rose" from a tribute show in 1999.

Last year Johnny's daughter Rosanne released "The List" - including a duet with Bruce on "Sea Of Heartbreak" - which originates from a list of "essential" songs that her father passed on to her in the 1970s.

Here, she shares stories and other family remembrances.

(Rosanne also recorded two of my all-time favorite albums, "Seven Year Ache" in 1981 and "The Wheel" in 1993: and this is one of my absolute favorite songs from the latter)


Details were released this week of a new Tom Petty album. called "Mojo" and tour - it kicks off in Raleigh on May 6 (with Joe Cocker as support) and rolls into Madison Square Garden in New York on July 28.

You can sign up for pre-release ticket notifications and hear one of the new tracks, "Good Enough", at

The Heartbreakers provided the backing band for Johnny Cash's third American Recordings album "Unchained" in 1996.

I first saw Tom and the band play in 1983 at the Rosemont Horizon outside Chicago, on the "Long After Dark" tour (the support was Nick Lowe - who was then, I think, still Johnny Cash's stepson-in-law) and they're one of the best live acts I've ever seen. The other night I re-watched Peter Bogdanovich's brilliant movie chronicle of the band, "Running Down A Dream". If you haven't seen it I'd heartily recommend.

In the meantime, here's the haunting "Southern Accents":


Very sorry to hear that the BBC has decided to axe 6 Music.

Phill Jupitus writes in The Guardian about his time as a 6 Music DJ, as well as the station's value and what would be lost.

For example, he says: "We also played two brand new artists on the show every day. Even three years after leaving 6 Music, bands still come up and thank me for giving them their first national airplay. I once bumped into one of my main competitors from commercial breakfast radio on a train. As we chatted, I bemoaned the fact that we only got nine free choices per show. He looked at me somewhat crestfallen and said "I get one … a week."

Opposition is growing to the BBC's move, and you can follow the latest on Twitter using the hashtag #savebbc6music

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

'For you and me..'

According to Today in Labor History (with a HT to Tom Morello) today 70 years ago, Woody Guthrie wrote 'This Land Is Your Land'. You can see the original handwritten manuscript at

Today in Labor History says: "Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” following a frigid trip – partially by hitchhiking, partially by rail – from California to Manhattan. The Great Depression was still raging. Guthrie had heard Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” and resolved to himself: “We can’t just bless America, we’ve got to change it."

Here, Pete Seeger and Friends perform the song at Pete's 90th Birthday Concert.

You can see Bruce Springsteen play the song here, while Bruce and Pete Seeger play it here for President Obama's inauguration.

Here's one of my favorite versions, by Steve Earle:

Monday, February 22, 2010

'Can you hear the spirit calling, as it's carried across the waves..'

On the way home this evening, we had the radio on and unexpectedly came across the fifth installment of NPR's '50 Great Voices', a list of "influential singers around the world — living or dead, famous or not".

I'd heard about the project a while ago when they first announced it, but I didn't know when it was starting and it turned out I'd missed the first few episodes - Iggy Pop, 'Afghanistan's Elvis' Ahmad Zahir, Mahalia Jackson and Maria Callas were the first artists profiled - so I was happy to catch this one, featuring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Like a lot of other people in the West, I'd heard his work with Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, but not much of his earlier material. This really nice NPR piece highlights what a great performer he was and the degree of his influence, both at home and among the Pakistani and Sufi communities around the world. If you get a chance, it's well worth a listen.

The rest of the series will unfold over the coming year, revealing a list that will doubtless provoke plenty of debate.

For example, I don't think I noticed Woody Guthrie on the list of "nominees" but I may have been mistaken. Although Dylan is on there.

Also although Van Morrison makes the list, I was sort of hoping that someone like Tommy Makem or Christy Moore might have been considered to represent Ireland's musical contribution (and not that I've anything against John McCormack of course, but, really, how "unique" was his voice, and wasn't he more famous for interpreting Italian music?)

In all, though, the show is a very cool idea indeed and I'll be catching up with the episodes on the NPR site from now on.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall..'

One of the cool things I get to do every few weeks is go through the TV shows I've stored on the DVR and burn the ones I want to keep onto DVD. And since I have to burn the discs in real time, I've had some great shows to watch over the past couple of days.

Apart from big setpiece events like the Grammys, the Hope for Haiti fundraiser - with some truly remarkable performances - or the Civil Rights commemoration at the White House, here are some of the shows I've been looking at:

'Three Girls and Their Buddy' featuring Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin in concert with their longtime sideman and one of my favorite guitarists and songwriters, Buddy Miller. I've been a fan of Buddy (and his wife Julie) for years, so this show is just great, and goes some way towards making up for the disappointment that Buddy was ill when we went to see the tour at the Beacon Theatre in New York. The girls still made it a great night, though.

'Ramble at the Ryman' is a film featuring the drummer of The Band, Levon Helm, with a show of his in Nashville with guests like Buddy and John Hiatt among others.

'Jimi Hendrix - American Landing', part of Ovation TV's series on 'American Revolutionaries - Rock and Soul' for Black History Month. The film looks at how the Jimi Hendrix Experience made the transition from being a huge act in 1960s Britain to breaking the US market. A big part of that was their appearance at the Monterey Pop festival in 1968, and this movie documents that performance.

'No Journey's End' is a short film about the work of Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt, whose distinctively ethereal voice complements many indigenous instruments and styles and can transport you to any corner of the earth.

I had also stored a bunch of episodes of 'Later With Jools Holland' with some terrific spots by an eclectic mix of artists, including one show with the reunited Joe Jackson Band who I remember seeing in 1979, and whose first two albums - 'Look Sharp' and 'I'm The Man' were just brilliant examples of a combination of new wave energy with clever songwriting. Really glad he's still gigging.

Finally, 'You're Gonna Miss Me' on the Sundance Channel, is a sobering and unsettling look at the challenging life of Roky Erickson. A compelling, voyeuristic film, so much of it is not really what you'd call uplifting, but in the end it has something of a bitter-sweet redemptive quality that rewards you for persevering with it.

More video treasures in a few weeks.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"My my my my wooo.."

On behalf of every bar band, everywhere, who ever played this - a genuine can't-miss song - thanks and RIP Doug Fieger.

According to the NME, "Sharona Alperin, the muse for 'My Sharona' and now apparently a Los Angeles real estate agent, paid tribute to Fieger, explaining: "Doug changed my life forever. He left on Valentine's Day, a day of heart and love, and that was Doug, all heart and love."

Here's an item from NYT Artsbeat which celebrates the reach of 'My Sharona' - a song apparently written in 15 minutes that lasted a lifetime - while the always entertaining PopDose has a very nice piece about the band beyond their iconic hit.

In Fieger's NYT obituary Ben Sisario recalls that "The band’s cocky behavior was interpreted as hubris by the rock press, and many critics called its lyrics misogynistic or worse. “Compared to Doug Fieger, Rod Stewart is a paragon of sexual humility,” Dave Marsh wrote in a Rolling Stone review of the band’s second album, “... But the Little Girls Understand.”

And I actually did not know until I read his obit, that he was Geoffrey Fieger's brother.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

'This is the ride I'm on, this is the ride I want..'

Happy Valentine's Day to my wife and to all of you. I hope you're able to spend time with someone you love today, if that's what makes you happy.

Everyone seems to be doing a list of Valentine's songs, or even great break-up songs - i particularly liked the readers' lists over at Valentines here, BreakUps here.

So before you grab your boombox and Peter Gabriel tape and drive over to your ex-girlfriend's house, what follows are just some of my favorite "love" songs - incorporating, it has to be said, varying degrees of joy - that might inspire you or help you get through today.

Catie Curtis - Magnolia Street

Damien Rice - The Blower's Daughter

Marc Cohn - One Safe Place

James Taylor - Shower The People

Peter Bradley Adams - Always

Mark Knopfler - Romeo and Juliet

Bruce Springsteen - Drive All Night

finally and apparently incongruously, The Puma Hardchorus - Truly Madly Deeply (by Savage Garden)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

'Who has the words to close the distance between you and me..'

I remember this like it was yesterday.

And I remember thinking at the time that whatever emotions I had as an outsider - primarily happiness that justice could eventually prevail - were insignificant compared with the feelings among the people of South Africa amid the uncertainty over how their future would unfold.

The challenges they have faced since then have been great, and continue. But the joy of that day was momentous, and the inspiration of the man as a human being remains undiminished.

"It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

'I try to find the key to fifty million fables..'

I was never lucky enough to see The Who live. I'm nearly 50 years old and it's probably the one real regret of my musical life. The closest I came was the night I first saw Bruce Springsteen, at the Birmingham NEC on 7 June 1981, when, as if life couldn't get any better at that moment, Pete Townshend showed up to jam.

(I also walked past John Entwistle as he was waiting for his car outside a hotel in New York, the day after the band had played at the Javits Center in the summer of 2000, but I don't think that counts, since I was too speechless to actually say anything to him.)

But the whole band - the real band - sadly no.

When I was about 12, I heard "Tommy" and, along with The Beatles' "Abbey Road" around the same time, it changed how I thought about music. This wasn't "pop", this was literature. They're still two of my favorite albums and are as clever and magnificent today as they were then.

So, Pete and Roger got some tough press over their SuperBowl show the other night. Not all of it completely undeserved - the sound mixing at the start of the set wasn't great, but the staging was as impressive as is possible in such an impersonal performance - but to a certain extent the reaction the next day seemed to reflect a generational understanding of what the band means and their place in history.

"Live At Leeds" is possibly one of the best live albums ever made. My friends who were at The Valley in '74 or '76 will always argue that those shows - dysfunctional and acrimonious as they were - may have embodied the height of the band's powers as a live act. That may be and certainly after Keith Moon's death, things were never the same.

That's why I found myself sadly nodding in agreement at pretty much everything Caryn Rose wrote over at Jukebox Graduate.

I think what resonated with me the most was the realization of what's been lost and what we're in the process of losing.

When she mentioned that U2 are the only band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that still has its original members, the value of what I'd missed out on with The Who was crystallized.

Every live performance is special because it is, by its very nature, unique. Some will be good and some will be bad. That's how it is with live performances; you know that's the gamble when you buy a ticket, and you know it when you've seen a band a few times that some days they're on, some days they're off.

But when part of them isn't there, by definition, they're always "off". Even when they're "on", it's someone else, it's something different.

I said earlier that the closest I came to seeing The Who live was when Pete Townshend jammed with Bruce. Strictly that's true, but in my heart, it's a different story.

On the evening of October 20, 2001, I was working the overnight shift at my paper's office in midtown Manhattan. I was alone in the office while ten blocks away at Madison Square Garden, the Concert For New York City was being broadcast live, and The Who were doing this:

With "Baba O'Riley" I was up and dancing around the desks. As "Won't Get Fooled Again" blasted into the empty office with the volume up as high as it would go, I was windmilling frantically in front of a glass window looking onto The Avenue Of The Americas. And I didn't care who saw. For me, still a relative stranger in this city in the wake of September 11, this was my old country talking to my new one; it was our musical history putting an arm round everyone here and saying: "we're the same," at the same time as we're singing: "I don't need to fight to prove I'm right."

To all intents and purposes, I "saw" The Who that night, because I got The Who that night.

So before you judge anything by those twelve corporate minutes on Sunday night, just think of what you've missed. God knows, I do.

And if you've any lingering doubts that this band has an enduring relevance beyond just the CSI crowd that hears the band as some kind of FM ambient noise, then just take a look at the recent VH1 tribute. Yes, there were cheesy parts, but it was real, and it was sincere. And this was just one part of it, a part that made me feel young again:

This is music. This is our life. This is Who we are. From my generation to the next.


Thanks to the brilliant Rock and Roll Today we learn that today, 49 years ago - and a whole month and a half before I was born - The Beatles made their first appearance at Liverpool's Cavern Club.

Then, exactly three years later, Beatlemania came to America with the band's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and subsequent appearances at Shea Stadium.

Who'd have ever thought we'd end up writing something like this?


And rounding off this 'British Invasion' edition, this is just great...

I love The Kinks. Go get 'em, Geoff!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

'The city's aflood, our love turns to rust..'

SuperBowl tonight. Without a dog in the fight, will be rooting for the Saints.

As a mark of how assimilated we all are, the wife and I are going to watch it with some English and Russian friends.

Looking forward to seeing The Who. For now, though, this is still the best halftime show I can remember.

Friday, February 5, 2010

'It's not as though my life ain't hard enough to do..'

The New York Times today has a genuinely sad story about someone who by all accounts was a good man.

He was certainly a wonderful guitar player. My favorite album of his is "Spirit World", which opens up with a track called "YoYo" - one of those songs that you hear once and instantly wish you were able to play, let alone write.

This is another favorite:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

'I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance..'

On this day in 1959, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in a frozen field in Iowa.

It became "the day the music died" and there's a nice collection of appropriate video links on Roger Ebert's blog, as well as a great playlist at Wolfgang's Vault.

It was Buddy Holly and the Crickets who helped popularize both the twin guitar image for bands and the Fender Stratocaster - a lineage that would stretch through players like Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Ry Cooder, Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer; and - on the other side of the Atlantic - Hank Marvin, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler.

That's quite a legacy right there.

But as if to prove that even those who break new ground in rock and roll aren't always appreciated, take a listen to this phone conversation between Buddy and an executive at Decca Records from February 1957 about his contract release and what happened to his recordings from the previous summer.

Here's "That'll Be The Day", the only one of The Crickets' singles that topped the charts in both the US and the UK.