Art Podell: From The Village To The Canyon, A Songwriter’s Journey

March 20, 2014 - Leave a Response

This is a review I wrote of a remarkable CD, which American Songwriter magazine published on March 19, 2014.

arthur podell
Art Podell
From the Village to the Canyon, A Songwriter’s Journey
(Amsqosh Records)
Contemporary folk music has never really gone away. It’s been happening in living rooms, coffeehouses, college campuses and concerts since the late 1940s, released by small record labels and sometimes very large ones (and sometimes none at all). Every once in a while, it breaks into the mainstream, as it did most recently with the success of Mumford & Sons and the The Civil Wars, both of whom have enjoyed worldwide exposure and record sales and taken home numerous awards including a Grammy for Best Folk Album (for the Wars’ Barton Hollow album).
In 1958, it would have been difficult to win a Grammy for Best Folk Album (or best folk anything) because there was no folk music category in the awards program. It was the phenomenal popularity of San Francisco’s Kingston Trio, whose 1958 single, “Tom Dooley,” sold 3 million copies for Capitol Records, that is credited with rocketing folk music into the commercial mainstream, causing other record companies’ execs to sit up, take notice and start signing a lot of folk music groups.
Art Podell was a Greenwich Village folk singer in 1958. In the rush to capitalize on the folk boom, Columbia Records signed Podell and partner Paul Potash and, as the duo “Art & Paul,” they released two albums in 1960 and ’61, which are sought-after today by folk music aficionados.The boom continued booming and Art & Paul headed west, where the action was. Though the duo did not survive in Los Angeles, Podell joined what was to become one of the biggest folk music troupes of the era.

The New Christy Minstrels was a ready-made group of 10 singers and players who performed pepped-up renditions of traditional folk numbers in their matching suits (most conspicuously for 26 consecutive Thursday nights on the 1962-63 season of “The Andy Williams Show”). Their 1962 debut album remained in the Billboard charts for two years and earned the group a Grammy for Best Performance by a Chorus. The folk life was good.

Though the Minstrels are known for their ever-shifting roster of members (which included, at one time or another, Barry “Eve of Destruction” McGuire, Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, and the aforementioned Paul Potash), Podell remained steady with the group from the beginning through to the peak and down the other side, when the times, they a-changed and the boom stopped booming.

The shift in folk music, toward protest and social conscience, had something to do with the decline of “pop folk” groups like the Minstrels, as did “Sergeant Pepper’s boys,” as Podell acknowledges in the song “Toni’s Poem (Laurel Canyon).” He exited the group in the mid-sixties.

Podell may not have been very active in music in the intervening years, but From the Village to the Canyon is proof that there is no such thing as a former gypsy; Podell’s gypsy heart beats strongly throughout these songs; he enchants with his whispery rasp and references to “Ms. Simone,” Carole King and “a murder.”

The “village” is represented by the uptempo folk and country of “Song for Dink,” “We Sang Our Songs in California” and “She Came Back,” while much of the balance has the singer-songwriter feel often associated with “the canyon.” (That’s Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles which was home to many singer-songwriters, rock musicians, etc. in the 1960s and ’70s.)

Podell’s musical palate covers a good range, from the gentle picking and solo vocal of “But Then You Smile” to the banjo and foot stomp of “Dink” to the darkness and mystery of “Time and the River” and “Golden Apples” (the latter of which, with its cello and piquant dissonance, sounds like it could have been on side one of Love’s Forever Changes, sans that album’s psychedelic eeriness).

From the Village to the Canyon is a love letter to the people and places (and a dog) of Podell’s life, both musical and otherwise, written in the intimate language that exists between people who have a shared history, but it is also the yellow-lit windows of a home with an open door, welcoming you, wayfaring stranger, out of the cold, in to the gathering, and reminding you of what’s important.

It’s available on i-Tunes, CDBaby and via Art’s website, at http://www.artpodell.com
Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com 

Let’s take a ride

March 15, 2014 - Leave a Response

Every once in a while, I will have a drink or two and listen to some music. Less often, I will have a couple drinks and write. Even less often, I will have a drink, listen to some music and write, all at the same time, just to see what happens.

Pick a song in i-Tunes, hit the “genius” button and away we go…

Rick Derringer has been around a long time. He is well-known for a few things, like “Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo” and for being a member of The McCoys, who did the hit version of “Hang on Sloopy” in 1966. Right now I am listening to Derringer do “EZ Action,” a not-too-well-known song from his 1978, album If I Weren’t So Romantic, I’d Shoot You. It’s old school rock and roll: two guitars, bass and drums, gritty vocals and some killer screaming. Oh, and the song! Derringer is all about the song. Now, a lot of great old school rock and roll songs are about sex and “EZ Action” is no exception. In fact, it’s about, uh…underage sex. Rick Derringer (his homepage is quite cool) is a devout Christian these days so I doubt “EZ Action” is in his repertoire anymore. The drummer on this album is the kick-ass Myron Grombacher, who went onto greater fame banging away on all the big Pat Benatar albums in the eighties—a killer rock pocket player.

Last week, I was at a birthday party for the mother of one my oldest friends. She’d had a recent surgery but looked none the worse for the wear. I am a dumb-as-rocks workaholic. I figured out what I wanted to do with my life rather late in my life, or so it seems to me. So, I constantly feel I have to make up for lost time. I go weeks, months sometimes, without seeing my friends. When I finally do get out, focus goes completely out into the environment: The people I haven’t seen in a year or more. I forget about me and my concerns. I notice how they look. They remind me about something I did or said 20 or 25 years ago and I realize that perhaps I am someone other than the person who is working to build up a new business, to write killer songs and get them published, to, to, to…enough about me. I love my friends and I often feel very sorry for depriving them me and for depriving myself of them.

Right now, the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” is on and it’s just so…weird to hear, compared to the one we’ve been hearing continuously since 1979: Cheap Trick Live at Budokan. The studio version is so quaint, so…cute. No screaming Japanese girls, no edge-of-chaos electric guitar. (Hell, I think it has a banjo on it.)

I am drinking an Anchor Steam Beer (which is weird because I could’ve sworn it was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale when I bought it.)

“What a drag it is, these gold lamé jeans. Is this the coolest way to get through your teens?” asked Alice Cooper on “Teenage Lament ’74.” It’s a weird song, by Alice standards. It’s one of the last songs recorded by his original band, on an album called Muscle of Love. I get weird feelings when I think about that record. (I am using the word “weird” a lot tonight. Weird.) It’s a record full of…interesting songs about bankrobbers and yokels in the big city and…muscles of love but it has no underlying concept, unlike earlier Alice albums like Billion Dollar Babies, Killer and School’s Out. The songs are good but it’s just not cohesive. And listening to it, knowing after the fact it was their last album together and that they’d already peaked? It was a bit depressing.

(As a teen, I was so fixated on Alice Cooper that at one point, at age 13, I lived in a state of anxiety that  maybe I was a homosexual. That anxiety was neutralized by my discover of Playboy magazine.)

One of the most pleasurable afternoons of my entire life was spent on the couch in my living room on a spring afternoon, reading  Alice Cooper, a paperback issued by Circus magazine. I laid on that couch all afternoon, undisturbed, lost in the moment, reading in twisted delight about the twisted origins of this twisted rock and roll hero. More recently, I sold off most of my rock and roll biographies and related books (including another Alice bio I bought for $8 in 1978 and sold last month in trashed condition to some other Alice junkie for $150) but kept that Circus paperback. I am not terribly sentimental but there’s such a good memory attached to that book that I had to keep it.

After Alice, I became a stone Tom Petty fan. I spent the summer of ’80 wearing out the grooves of his You’re Gonna Get It album (which was two years old then). At one time, Petty rated it his least favorite of his albums but what the fuck does he know? Was he ever as big a Petty fan as I was? You’re Gonna Get It was the Heartbreakers’ last indie album, before there was such a thing as “indie.” It was released by tiny Shelter Records, who later sold out to MCA. The band were still struggling (and they would struggle even more after becoming associated with MCA) but it’s the album that put them on the cusp of stardom. It’s rock and roll through and through: rough, rugged, rootsy, raw and a lotta other “R” words. Not to be too sentimental, but You’re Gonna Get It was my 14th summer. It’s a record that’s very close to my heart.

I might be hard for a lot of people to understand why the hell a person gets so “into” music, listening to it, thinking about it and feeling about it enough to devote a significant portion of their life to it—to spend their Friday night, for instance, writing about it. I think I know why: For some, music becomes the company they keep when they find they are unable to be properly understood by the people closest to them. The radio, with messages tailored for the hearts and minds of kids, “speaks” to them. It becomes more “real” than mom and dad. You can trust it. It’s always there, always on, never lets you down. That is how it was for me as a kid. I later discovered that it had remained that way for a long time.

One afternoon, square in the middle of adulthood, on a work day lunch break, I wandered into a local record store. Up and down the aisles I wandered, looking at nothing in particular. I hadn’t come in for a certain disc or book or DVD. But I had come in for something. I just didn’t know what. And I had found myself in this position (both geographically and emotionally) many, many times over the years. This particular afternoon, standing there, on the store’s polished concrete floor, amid the rows and rows of record racks, with some unidentified music playing over the house system, I realized I’d come in there looking for understanding, for comfort. I’d come in there on the same impulse that brought me to the radio over and over as a child and a teenager. While I still love music, however, it no longer serves that function. I have had to find that understanding and comfort elsewhere. Sometimes it’s not easy.

In the mid-80s, somehow or another, I got a copy of the Stones’ Tattoo You and played the cassette over and over in my truck for months. It became my favorite Stones album. To me, it sounds all of one piece but I would later find out that it was cobbled together using songs that were recorded for earlier albums but weren’t used. While it has the big hit “Start Me Up,” that’s hardly the high point for me. Tattoo You has one of the all-time harp-wailin’ blues numbers, “Black Limo.” Do you know this one? I loved that song so much, I started learning how to play harmonica just so I could play along. I used to drive around in my truck, when I was unemployed (for 18 months), blowing that “Black Limo” riff over and over to perfection. In the late 80s, I got to put that riff to great use when me and my friend Bill Berry were hired to create some “soundtrack” music for an, uh…adult film. If you ever bought any VHS videos issued by Plum Productions, you’ve no doubt heard my blues harp playing. (I heard they used that same music in everyone of their sleazy films for years.)

And now The Knack are laying down “Good Girls Don’t,” in all its pervy power pop perfection. I don’t want to admit how much I like this song (and that entire first Knack album) so let’s just move on, shall we?

One of wickedest guitar riffs ever played has got to be the main riff in “Hocus Pocus,” by the Dutch progressive rockers Focus. This was a Top Ten record in 1973! Listen to it. One of the wildest rides ever recorded. I mean, they pull off some wild shit on this record! Listen to it! The last time the singer does his yodeling bit, he hits this impossibly high note and then breaks into a celebratory hoot. I bet he choked on that note on earlier takes but on this one, he got it. And that wild, impossible bass guitar…did you hear that? Those guys could play.

I don’t want to be that guy who complains about how music isn’t as good as it used to be. Ask any kid who listens to today’s radio and they will tell you how great Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are. It’s all relative. Sure, our tastes in music seem to be pretty much formed in our teens but who said we had to calcify at that point? That’s the trick: To find stuff today that you think is cool. It’s out there. Find it.

Thanks for taking a ride with me tonight.

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

Songwriter’s Square Puts Distinctive Touch on L.A. Singer-Songwriter Scene

February 17, 2014 - Leave a Response

The Lyric-Hyperion Theatre is a cozy, 50-seat theatre in the round, located in the hilly Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. Its name, derived from the intersection where it’s located—Lyric St. and Hyperion Avenue—coincidentally makes it an appropriate choice for a songwriter showcase.

Songwiter’s Square has been at the Lyric-Hyperion every month for more than a year and half. Curated and hosted by songwriter-singer-playwright Bill Berry, the Square is a twist on the traditional “songwriters in the round”—in which the writers traditionally sit in a line upon the stage of a club or bar—with the writers actually performing in a round, err…square, facing each other. The theatre setting raises the intimacy level and reduces the typical bar/club distractions.

Songwriter's Square

From L to R: Berry, Hurley, Richards, Ebsen

Writers who’ve performed at the Square include Grammy winners Art Podell (New Christy Minstrels) and Julie Gold (1991 Song of the Year for “From a Distance”); Grammy nominees Shelly Peiken (for “Bitch,” who’s also had #1 hits with “What a Girl Wants” and “Come on Over Baby”) and Harriet Schock (“Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”); hit writers Lois Blaisch (#1 hit “Could’ve Been”) and Ruthann Friedman (#1 hit “Windy”); as well performers including John Wicks (The Records), Debbi Peterson (The Bangles) and Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice), among many others.

When the house lights dim for a Square show, the performers take their places and Berry, animated and outgoing, introduces them and some of their achievements. This is usually followed by some banter, which the audience is encouraged to contribute to. The tone is casual, the humor loose, occasionally bordering on…mild sexual harassment, but not quite. Then the group launches into a cover song–something that reflects a current event or the performers’ common artistic ground.

lyric hyperion theatre open mic la

The south side view of the Lyric Hyperion

The January 18th show began with Kiki Ebsen at her keyboard, playing a familiar chord progression that I could not immediately place. However, by the time the group hit the first chorus, I was smiling: It was “Sailing,” the big Christopher Cross hit from 1980 (that seems to have been on the radio ever since). Ebsen went on to explain that she has been a member of Cross’ west coast touring band for years but I personally think she was being modest: Her credits include performances, tours and albums with a who’s-who of popular music, including Tracy Chapman, Al Jarreau, Chicago, Dolly Parton and Kenny Loggins. But, as she displayed Saturday night, she’s not only a world-class session musician but a world-class songwriter-performer in a jazzy vein, with a polished vocal style and songs of substance. For “Over and Out,” she wondered aloud about growing older and being unmarried, chuckled knowingly, and proceeded to tell the story of waking up in a motel room while on tour in Japan. She’d had a vivid dream that she was a pilot, in the image of Amelia Earhart–fiercely independent, “An island,” Ebsen said–who lost control and barely survived the crash, laying broken on the ground with a dying two-way radio, finally willing to accept some help. And the song delivered on her poignant lead-in (as did all of her songs).

Todd Lincoln Richards, looking a bit like Jamey Johnson and sounding more-than-a-bit like Neil Young, brought much of the evening’s Americana-country content, with tunes even more recent than the ones on his recently-released CD, Where I Stand (which features master country picker Albert Lee on guitar). Richards showed skill with imagery and metaphor, in songs like “Let’s Take a Drive,” in which he sang about going for rides in the old truck with his father and getting “them big ol’ twister cones” at the Dairy Queen. In “Ghost Town,” he put a sad-but-brilliant spin on the “heart of gold” methaphor. And on “This Bar Takes You Away,” he had the audience hanging on for the next chorus to find out which classic rock chestnut the bar band in the song was going to do injustice to. Richards is one to keep an eye on.

Next in the Square was Shannon Hurley. Even if you don’t recognize her name, you may very well have heard her, since her songs have been on TV’s The Young and the Restless, American Idol, 90210, So You Think You Can Dance and others, as well as several movies and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver—not to mention four independent releases of her own—and it’s easy to see why: Her bright, melodic pop-rock is instantly likeable (Berry wanted to bang the cajon on every one of her songs) and have brought her a sizable following (who Kickstarter-funded the production of her latest CD, Light).

Host Berry has also written songs for TV (ABC’s Sons and Daughters) and several musicals produced in L.A. He has deep roots both in the local songwriter community and in the traditions and history of American music—and it comes out in his songs. At Saturday night’s Square, Berry skillfully employed the ragtimey-talking blues style (ala “Alice’s Restaurant”) for his own amusing and masterfully-written “My Cross-Country Love” and had the audience fully enthralled through every word of “Piano Tuner with the Lazy Eye,” a poignant and insightful tale leavened by the repeating title hook and Berry’s well-placed inflections and humorous observations. His first CD is in the works and it can’t become available soon enough.

Songwriter’s Square may have changed the “shape” of songwriter’s showcases but it nonetheless carries on Los Angeles’ rich singer-songwriter tradition. Future scheduled guest include Jack Tempchin (writer/cowriter of the Eagles hits “Already Gone” and “Peaceful, Easy Feeling”) and Wayne Kramer (formerly of the MC5).

(This article, by Steve Wagner, originally appeared in American Songwriter magazine.)

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

Where will the music take me?

November 23, 2013 - One Response

I don’t update this blog nearly as often as I probably ought to. When I do, I often know exactly what I want to say. Other times, I just start out with a blank screen.

Tonight falls into the latter category.

I am listening to a playlist of classic rock on i-Tunes. Right now, it’s UFO’s “Lights Out”–a hard rocker from their live Strangers in the Night LP.

I am thinking about this couple I saw in the subway tonight when I was coming home. The woman was baiting the guy, calling him a not-very-nice word. They were on the landing above the boarding platform level. Both were in their late 40s and wore olive drab-colored jackets. Only a few people had gotten off at my stop and most headed left, toward the elevator, away from the glaring couple. I walked to the right, past the two of  them, toward the escalators. She continued calling him the word and as I passed, he drew back, as if here were going to smack her. She flinched. I went up the escalator, their snarlings growing fainter and fainter.

Now it’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Louisiana Rain” from their 1979 breakthrough, Damn the Torpedoes. It’s a song about…begin able to let go of the past, so far as I can tell. Only Petty knows for sure.

Did you see that video about Joey Prusak that went viral this week? Prusak is a 19-year-old Dairy Queen employee in Minnesota who declined to serve a woman who refused to give back the $20 bill that the blind customer ahead of her had dropped.  There’s more. Watch the video: 

One good “Joey Prusak” a week blows away twelve-dozen people being mean to each other in the subway. Now it’s “One in a Million” by The Romantics–an appropriate one for Mr. Prusak (but hopefully people like him aren’t actually that rare).

It’s a minute before midnight.

You might know me well or not well at all but can I reveal something? My life has changed a lot in the last couple years. I have never been all that much of a socializer. I like the occasional party but early in life, it was evident that I was going to be engrossed in whatever I was engrossed in at the moment: at first, with my pencils and paper, then later my bicycles and later on, the guitar and then bands.

I spent most of my 20s and 30s as a well-intentioned and moderately-talented songwriter and singer with a string of non-descript day jobs. I played a lot of slow songs while going nowhere amazingly fast.

But worse that not having the first idea of how to parlay my moderate talent into some sort of a career, I had no confidence that I even could–and, worse yet, I didn’t  know that I was clueless and had no confidence!

Well, somewhere in the last five years, I got several clues and I am enjoying immense and continually-increasing confidence and have been doing what it takes to make my dreams come true. So, it’s no conspiracy that Eddie Money’s “Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star,” from his debut album, is playing. (Being a rock and roll star is not my goal but, taking into account today’s way of speaking, he who attains his goals IS a “rock star,” yes?)

So, how this has been playing out in my life is that I am home a lot in front of the computer, strategizing and laying more and more groundwork for my “campaign of success” as a songwriter. There was a period in my life when I hated to be alone  at all, let alone this much, but now I am so intent on what I am doing that I prefer and I enjoy my aloneness. It’s a strange tightrope, being home all weekend, in the same dirty t-shirt, mostly in silence, doing the things I need to do…and wondering if the rest of life will still be there when I finally open my front door.

It can be a bit lonesome at times but all worthwhile goals, all great creations, require some sacrifice–or so I have heard. Funny how this works, with the music playing: As I write this, Cheap Trick’s “I Can’t Take It” is playing, in which Robin Zander sings “I can’t take it alone.” (But I can take it alone.)

I am more excited about life right now than I have been in many, many years. I have written some of my best songs yet (which I need to make time to record for you) and  my freelance writing-editing is doing very well, too.

In one’s life, dreams are indispensable. Bringing them to being is an adventure that you live “Day by Day,” as The Hooters are currently reminding me with their song of the same name.

To your dreams,

Steve

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

The Smithereens keep the spirit alive

August 4, 2013 - 6 Responses

Carteret, New Jersey’s The Smithereens don’t look like rock stars or put on any rock star airs. To see them on the street, you might imagine they perhaps run a barbershop. Maybe one of ’em dated your older sister back in high school. You might  go get a trim and hang out with ’em every once in a while on a Saturday afternoon. They would probably give you a nickname and you’d always be welcome in the shop, where there would always be some laughs. The only difference is that these “barbers” lit up radio and MTV in the late ’80s and early ’90s with a string of crunchy, ’60s-inspired sing-along rock and roll tunes. Their videos are pretty cool, too.

Last night, The Smithereens headlined the “Downtown Stage,” a weekly summer concert series sponsored by City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and held in Pershing Square Park.

The Smithereens on the Downtown Stage (photo courtesy of James Bone).

The Smithereens on the Downtown Stage (photo courtesy of James Bone).

The band revived some good old memories and made some good new ones, too.

Now, I have to be honest: Though the group has continued to make records pretty consistently since it’s ’90s heyday, I haven’t bought one since Smithereens 11.  Like most rock and roll bands, they hit their peak in the hit parade, styles changed, a new generation came of age—expected.

So, it was a huge and pleasant surprise to hear that Tom Petty had personally invited the band to open the first leg of the Heartbreakers’ 2013 summer tour.

The reviews were not only positive but glowing, for both the band’s performances and their latest disc, Smithereens 2011.

There’s a million ways to do anything badly and only one or two ways to do it right.  After seeing them last night, I can see why Petty picked them and why the reviews have been so strong: The Smithereens still do what they do very, very right.

For starters, singer Pat DiNizio has a great baritone. The band may work off of a ’60s era garage band blueprint but the difference is that DiNizio doesn’t sing in that wannabe-Jagger style that a lot of those mid-60s “Nuggets” bands did. He sounds at times like, well…a black guy—a soul singer or a Johnny Mathis/Lou Rawls-style crooner. (He always has. It just took me 25 years to realize it.) And somehow, over that ’60s pop backdrop, it works really well.

Me with the genuinely talented and genuinely genuine Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens.

Add to that guitarist Jim Babjak, who played all the songs just like you remember them from the discs or the radio, only not in a “Ho-hum. Yawn. Here we go again” fashion. Rather, he did with spontaneity and fire (and a few Pete Townshend windmills), very much in the here and now. I spoke to him briefly after the show and he said he’d had to play the show “with no beer” (due to the park’s alcohol rules). I don’t know what Jim’s beer performance sounds like but it couldn’t have been better than his dry one.

Dynamic Drummer Dennis Diken may just be, as DiNizio proclaimed, the best drummer in rock and roll. Diken’s classic style was forged early on and he has retained and cultivated it into a unique “Dennisness,” providing a very stable and comfortable groove for the band and the listener.

Bassist Severo “The Thrillah” Jornacion is a spark plug. Bass players—even in rock—seem for the most part to be a pretty reserved bunch. Two notable exceptions would be McCartney and…The Thrillah! He locks in sold with drummer Diken but then there’s his unexpected stage antics:  running across the stage, shouting into the microphone, standing “just like Bill Wyman” when Pat sings that line in “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and generally keeping the audience entertained.

Smitherens 11As a whole, I can’t imagine the band has ever been more on top of their game than they were last night in Pershing Square.

Like “great” anythings, great musicians and great bands are great, in large part, because they practice and rehearse and practice and rehearse. You might think that would take the life out of a performance but, on the contrary, it’s what allows the performer to put life into the performance, because they don’t have to have attention on the words or their instruments. It’s second nature. So all their attention is on getting their communication across to you.  It’s professionalism and, with that, it’s respect for the audience.

The Smithereens have obviously not gathered cobwebs in their downtime, as they had all their moves down last night. They surprised the audience as they seamlessly segued from big hit “A Girl Like You” into the Youngblood’s 1967 hit “Get Together” and then into the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” (with audience sing-along) and back again.  It was probably rehearsed to death but, as pros, they delivered with spark and spontaneity. Not a single dropped beat or blown note the entire set. Clean, in-tune harmony vocals. Rock and roll done right.

Midway through the set, it hit me that The Smithereens have a sound. It is one that is influenced by The Beatles, Buddy Holly and The Who, certainly but they don’t sound as if they are imitating any of those legends. What they have is a certain box of “colors” that they they “paint” from and they paint remarkably well from that box–well enough to have placed albums and singles in the Top 40 and Hot 100.

Musically speaking, it’s the choice of notes in their short, punchy melodies. It’s the repeating, hypnotic guitar riffs in some of their songs. It’s the general subject matter, which I would have to sum up as “wanting” or “reaching” (for a time and place, for a girl, for a situation). It’s knowing that the guitar solo is going to be fat and resonant and that there’s the sound of a jangly 12-string in the not-to-distant future. They have assimilated their influences well and made something new and fun and uniquely Smithereens from it all.

I am off to the record shop to pick up Smithereens 2011.

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

My glass is half FULL!

June 14, 2013 - Leave a Response

I was walking home tonight in the cool, cool, cool of the Hollywood evening, feeling some frustration at not being further along in my music career. This is not a new scenario; it is not a new train of thought either.

Samantha is a friend of mine who, a few years back, pointed out that I tend to dwell on what’s missing and what’s wrong, instead of the parts that are working, the things that are right. She was pretty nice (but firm) about it. There was no mistaking that this, to her, was an important point in life in general. I got embarrassed because, let’s face it: Who wants to be Mr. Negative?

So, there I was, earlier tonight, walking along, when it hit me: I tend to be a see-the-glass-half-empty kind of person. I appreciated Samantha pointing it out back when, but it meant a lot more to me to arrive at that conclusion myself. And as I write at this moment, it occurs to me that my frustration is not so much because nothing good happens in my life but because I tend to overlook or under-appreciate the good things that do happen because I am fixated on “success.”

So, I am inviting you to raise your half-full glass with me and drink to some good stuff that’s happened recently.

Warning Shot #2 - composite“WARNING SHOT” HITS NUMBER TWO SPOT!

Earlier in the year, my song, “Warning Shot” made it to #2 on the Broadjam.com Country-Alternative Top 10! The song has been in this chart since last December, bouncing between #9 and #6 and then, BAM!, #2.

I queried the good folks at Broadjam.com about how they arrive at these rankings. A live person basically told me that, not unlike Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s due to the cyber equivalent of a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

Listen to “Warning Shot”

“WARNING SHOT” IS A PERPETUAL PICK!

Perpetual“Warning Shot” got some more action recently, when I signed a non-exclusive contract with Perpetual Music Group, who selected the song for inclusion in their library of Americana/bluegrass/Appalachian-sounding songs. What does this mean? It means that Perpetual has the right to pitch the song for TV, film and whatever else it might be appropriate for, giving it a whole ‘nother avenue of chances to be heard (and to generate revenue). Now, that’s something kinda cool that I didn’t have a year ago!

Buy “Warning Shot”

HARRIET SCHOCK AND FRIENDS

I had the pleasure of being among the songwriter’s to kick off “Harriet Schock and Friends,” a new songwriter showcase hosted by Harriet at the Garden Pavillion in Hollywood (5930 Franklin Ave., LA 90028). The first show was June 2 and it was a blast!

Harriet_Schock_Friends group shot

The very first “Harriet Schock and Friends” featured Andrea Ross-Greene, Karen Gedissman, Dan Jablons, Cynthia Carle, Hillary D. Rollins, Me, Bill Berry, Marty Axelrod, Ray Jessel, Harriet Schock, Adrian Bewley, Jennifer Richardson and Joe Lamanno.

Harriet’s gold and platinum songwriting credits include the standard “That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady” as well many others in records, TV and film. She also stars in the Henry Jaglom film, 45 Minutes From Broadway (Yes, she’s an actress, too!). I have had the great artistic pleasure of co-writing “Quietest Part of the Day” with her, which is on our respective CDs. She and her excellent band, including bassist Joe Lamanno, cellist Jennifer Richardson and vocalist Andrea Ross-Greene opened and closed the night and, well…Harriet’s songs are wonderful but, oh, what this group does to make them really shine!

It was a night of quality entertainment and ART with so many great songs that I can’t possibly rave about them all equally in the space I have here. If you were there, you know what I mean and if you weren’t there, may I gently urge you to go to the next one. Hopefully, Harriet will promote it on her website.

A friend was nice enough to grab some video of me doing “Daylight’s Burning,” a song for anyone with a dream:

Watch “Daylight’s Burning”

So, things are GOOD!

And speaking of more good things, I will be doing my singin’-songwritin’ thang with Bill Berry and John Wicks (two great singer-songwriters, in case you didn’t know) at the Redwood Bar, 316 W. 2nd St. Los Angeles, CA. 90012 on Sunday, June 30th at 3pm.

Thank you very much for reading. I would love to hear from you–about anything!

Thank you,

Steve

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

Big Star and big stars

June 4, 2013 - Leave a Response

As a kid, I was a rock and roll geek. If I wasn’t listening to records or the radio, I was playing the guitar. If I wasn’t playing guitar, I was at Boy’s Market or at the newsstand, reading the new Circus and Creem magazines. If I wasn’t at the supermarket, I was thumbing through used records at Moby Disc.

The first time I heard of Big Star was in a record review in Creem, the reviewer favorably comparing some new band’s record to them. I probably knew the record he was reviewing and so was intrigued by this  unknown Big Star. I listened to a lot of radio back then and had never heard of them. I was a sponge for rock trivia and details. “Big Star” got sucked up and filed away in my spongy memory banks.

On a Saturday afternoon in fall 1980, while taking a lunch break from rehearsal with my little garage band, I wandered into a yard sale, where I found a used copy of the first Big Star record, called #1 Record. It was a bit worn but easily worth the couple bucks. It was probably the only copy for miles around.

I took it home and put it on the turntable and it changed my life.

Now…put yourself in the mindset of a 13- to 16-year-old.

Are you there yet?

Okay, good.

The music on #1 record was, for me candy and…a first taste of alcohol. It was new love and secret midnight phone calls…and getting stood up. It was fast rides with the wind blowing through the open windows and being broke down, stranded. It was deep friendship and the sting of betrayal. It was a bit of discouragement but, above all, it was hope and excitement. This little band from Memphis put their all into the making of this record and it shows. The thing just…sparkles.

Cover of #1 Record

Cover of #1 Record

The second disc, Radio City, is also good but not in the same way as #1 Record. If #1 is puberty, then Radio City is late adolescence: a bit jaded, a bit cooled down but still good on its own merits.

As a grown-up rock and roll geek, I have many times heard of a “great lost unknown” band that was “as good as ______” but never made it. With the advent of digitized music and the internet, these leads are not hard to follow up. However, with only a handful of exceptions (like maybe three), I have mostly found the “lost, unknown” status justified. Not so with Big Star.

However, despite resurgences in the late 70s and early 90s (the latter of which gave them a bit higher profile and kept them gigging somewhat routinely for another 20 years or so), for most people, Big Star definitely falls into that category of “great lost unknown” band.

But they are no kind of disappointment. That first album really is as good, in my opinion, as the Beatles, Badfinger, the Raspberries (who nearly suffered a Big Star-ish fate), America, the Eagles or any other two-guitar rock-pop band with lots of harmonies. #1 Record and Radio City contain not just great music, but enduring music. And some hit-worthy stuff as well. Their albums are all available now on CD and mp3. Check ’em out–particularly the first and second ones (I’d never ventured to listen to their third, having repeatedly heard that it was chaotic, disturbed and depressing, which, for my tastes, turned out to be true.)

Better yet, rent Nothing Can Hurt Me, a very lovingly done documentary of the group, which was recently released. I watched it tonight on i-Tunes and couldn’t help but feel how much life the makers and participants of the film injected into it.

Nothing Can Hurt Me showed that a lot of people were behind Big Star. A lot of people loved them. They had the talent and the chemistry. They made a gloriously beautiful debut album that, due to apparent “bad luck,” hardly anyone got to hear. Or, if they did hear it, they were unable to find a copy in their local record store.

Biography of Big Star published 2006

Biography of Big Star published 2006

(Personally, I am not a big believer in fate and luck. Things don’t just happen or fail to happen: People make things happen or fail to make them happen. My feeling is that somebody or perhaps several somebodies prevented #1 Record from being distributed or promoted more widely or didn’t work as hard as they could have to ensure that it was. The movie does not go into this because such personalities don’t publicly advertise such deeds, so no one ever considers the possibility. Yes, you may smile and roll your eyes or call me crazy, but when things go as wrong as they repeatedly did for Big Star, it’s not coincidence.)

There is a moment in the film which particularly affected me. Band co-founder Alex Chilton had died of a heart attack at age 59, a few days prior to a Big Star reunion appearance at the 2010 South-by-Southwest (SXSW) expo in Austin, Texas. Because there were so many performers in town who were also Big Star fans, they turned the performance instead into a memorial and celebration, the performers singing the songs of Chilton and co-founder Chris Bell (who passed away in 1978). Among those performers was alternative country singer Tift Merritt.

Now, among people who follow these things, it’s no secret that after a certain point in his life, Chilton preferred to make nothing of Big Star–to treat it with…indifference, at best. He evidently refused to provide any interviews for the movie (same as for a Big Star biography published in 2006). I remember buying and listening to the 1993 Big Star reunion album recorded live at Columbia University and having the stark realization that Chilton not only wasn’t “phoning in” his performance–it seemed he hadn’t even bothered to dial the number: No interest, no excitement, just…a feeling of carelessness about it, as if would have been so uncool to take any visible pride in Big Star. I recently listened to an interview done with Chilton following some Big Star reunion shows in Japan. The interviewer politely but repeatedly probed for some kind of enthusiasm from Chilton about the shows, the audience response, etc. but Chilton just gave very cool, business-like responses that denied any interest in the subject at hand.

Then along comes Tift Merritt. You only get a couple seconds of her, singing the opening line to “Thirteen,” from #1 Record, but she sings it with all the feeling it truly deserves, putting herself into that line…giving you something.

Maybe he wasn’t the big star he’d wanted to be. I sincerely hope Alex Chilton was at least able to “Feel” (the title of the first song on #1 Record) the love and appreciation that so many people have (and had) for Big Star and how important their music is to a lot of people.

I guess what I love about Big Star is not just #1 Record and Radio City but the fact that, despite the lack of both broad recognition and commercial success, their music, like the proverbial flower that pushes up through the seemingly unyielding concrete, found its audience; it could not be stopped. Heck, all three of their albums made Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.

Go pick up a copy of #1 Record.  If you don’t want to shell out any bucks, then at least check out some of their songs on YouTube. I doubt you will be sorry. Here’s the Nothing Can Hurt Me trailer:

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

.38 Special and the power of imagery (yeah, seriously)

April 30, 2013 - 2 Responses

There’s a song I hadn’t heard since 1982, when it was first released. It wasn’t a huge hit but it got a little airplay on L.A.’s local FM rock station, 94.7 KMET. I guess I got lucky and heard it a few times.

The first line of the song stuck with me for years, long after I’d forgotten the rest of the tune: “I hear your high heels clickin’ down the boulevard.”

What a great opening line!

That line has been floating around with me since 1982. It would come to me every now and then when I wasn’t really thinking about anything. It’s so sensual and so concrete. It engaged my senses of sight and hearing: I see the sidewalk and the spiked heels and I hear the clicking and it’s night time. It painted a picture in my mind. It made me wonder where the singer was, that he could hear those high heels clicking. That single line has, for years, provided me with amusement, entertainment and mystery.

Recently I was texting with my friend Karen from Minneapolis and we got to talking about music. Her tastes are squarely American classic rock: bands like Boston, REO Speedwagon and .38 Special.

.38 Special.

.38 Special…

.38 Special?

I had never even thought of .38 Special as being among classic rock bands. But then, I’d never really given a whole lot of thought to .38 Special in general. I think this is because they are just ubiquitous (everywhere): All over classic rock stations, the Muzak in the elevator, the Muzak at the supermarket, etc. Though they had  a string of huge to moderate hits in the 80s and early 90s, they are, like a lot of classic rock bands from the 70s and 80s, sort of faceless. You know the songs, even if you don’t know the band:

“Hold on Loosely”

“Caught Up In You”

“Rockin’ Into the Night”

“Second Chance”

“Fantasy Girl”

“If I’d Been the One”

“Back Where You Belong”

When Karen mentioned .38 Special, I went right back to “high heels clickin’ down the boulevard.” I quoted it to her–the first time I think I’ve ever consciously thought about it, let alone mentioned it to another person.

After all these years, I Googled the snippet of lyric and it came up: “You Keep Runnin’ Away.” Add it to that list of songs above.

So, I downloaded it from i-Tunes and I am a satisfied customer. It’s one of my favorites.

What’s even a bit more amusing to me is to see pictures and videos of this group. They look like Lynyrd Skynyrd (the long hair, bearded Southern rock look) but they play these really cool pop rock love songs. The band actually started out with more of a Skynyrd sound. Their founder and vocalist, Donnie Van Zant, is the little brother of original Skynryd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, as well as Ronnie’s replacement, brother Johnnie Van Zant.  So .38 Special are not just a bunch of Southern rock poseurs.

Here’s the video for “You Keep Runnin’ Away,” which, thankfully, features a scantily clad girl.

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

Burnout

April 29, 2013 - 2 Responses

My definition of “burnout” is “fatigue and mild apathy, mixed with some disillusionment and disappointment that comes from working on something in an obsessive manner, to the exclusion of all else but breathing and getting up to make another cup of coffee, in constant pursuit of an end product(s), a goal, a “done”.

To state it more briefly, if not more concisely: All work and no play makes Stevie an apathetic boy.

I was under the mistaken assumption that if I just narrowed my focus and plowed ahead, I would get ahead. But instead, I got a headache.

I forgot to just have fun sometimes. I have been like this throughout my life. It’s finally come home to me: There is no living where there is no fun.

So, I took off an entire weekend last week. Saturday night I let my friend Lisa take me to dinner for my birthday even though I had come down with a fever. Then we went to see a show at a little performance space in Burbank. The two actors, David Kaufman and Jacqui Bowe, are people I have known at different times in my life but had not seen in 15 or 17 years. I played in a band with David in 1982 and again in the late 80s. I knew Jacqui from the L.A. open mic circuit in early 90s.

How these two people came to know each other is a whole other story but the fact that I was seeing them together at the same place on the same night…strange. Oddly enough, the show was called “Coincidence or…Conspiracy?”

It was great to sit and just enjoy the show for a couple hours. David and Jacqui did a good job of keeping it moving along and interesting and even funny!

I also did some other creative work. I designed and produced a birthday card for Lisa and a “Welcome to your new place” card for my mother. I was great to exercise a different creative muscle–and they loved the cards, too.

Despite the resultant burnout, I wrote seven songs in the first quarter of 2013 and I swear that two of them feel pretty, eh…major, for lack of a better word. I am pretty excited!

So, it was worth all the effort, to get the end results, the “dones” and to realize that sometimes, you’ve just got to back away, go do something else.

Steve

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com

Toys vs. talent

March 4, 2013 - 9 Responses

I have fried my ears twice in the last couple months. It’s because I love music.

I love to make it, record it, mix it, perform it and see the reactions from people.

Mixing music requires very careful and critical listening. Creating a really knock-out final mix of a song requires for instance, that I, as a guitarist, don’t lean too heavy in favor of guitars, if that’s not in the best interest of the recording.

This past weekend, by the end of the day, the space normally reserved for my brain felt instead like someone had stuffed it with dirty rags and I had a headache coming on. (OK, I guess I had a “rag ache” coming on.)

But upon listening back to the finished product, it was worth it.

A friend of mine who was really impressed with it asked me if I did it with ProTools (probably the most-used software for professional digital recording), which I thought was an interesting question–a question that I myself probably would have asked at some time in the past.

I use Apple Logic, which is another big one that’s used in professional recording situations. But mostly what I used was my ears. I am just a one-man operation with modest equipment, working in my apartment. I used to think the deck was stacked against me, that I would never be able to create anything competitive-sounding–that only the big boys with the big toys in the big studios could get a decent sound.

I am finding that it’s not true.

I may not be ready for the Billboard Hot 100 but I am finding that with a lot of practice and understanding of one’s equipment (modest or otherwise), you can get a terrific result.

Now, I know this might all seem targeted to a very specific audience (people who make and/or record music) but perhaps it’s true for any endeavor. Perhaps you don’t need to be the best-equipped or to have the latest and greatest in order to get the job done. A kick-ass drummer can blow your mind even on your kid brother’s little beginner drum kit.

I have heard of backyard mechanics doing perfectly good repairs without a shop or a full array of tools.

My brother whips up some exotic dishes in his modest (albeit marble-countered) kitchen.

And we’ve all known or known of artists or writers who produced excellent work without a college degree.

They all just knew they they were doing. They practiced. They learned. They made mistakes and started all over again.

I am routinely learning something new about how to create high-quality, competitive and even dazzling recordings.

(I record other things too, like spoken word, etc.)

Here’s the latest completed project, “Flyin’ with the Windows Down,” which will be available on i-Tunes and elsewhere soon.

Thanks for reading & listening!

Steve

Reunion faceSteve Wagner is a copywriter and editor with clients worldwide, including Press 8 Telecom (Austin, TX), Green Gold Group Cooperative (Jamaica), U-Office.com (Sydney) and many other authors,  entrepreneurs and small businesses. His work includes articles, blogs, sales & marketing copy, website content and more. He keeps this blog for when he is inspired to write about music. His website is http://www.writer-editor-etc.com