Sunday, March 29, 2009

George Valentine Smith III 1950-2009

Last Wednesday night as we were driving home from a dinner to celebrate my birthday, I got the news that one of my oldest friends George Smith had died. Although George had been sick for quite a while, it was still a shock to lose such a close friend.

George was many different things to many people, but to everyone who know him he was the man who made us laugh. No one had a better sense of humor than George Smith. This humor and his kindness touched many people in the world. With this post, I will share a few of my memories of George. 

I was not around for the early years of George's amazing life story, so I will leave it to others to fill in the blanks correctly. I have heard all of those stories many times: The Trial at Jiskoots, his cross country trip which included an Indian and an arrest in Oklahoma City, the trip to Europe with the Tiernan family when Fatty challenged some locals and ended up hiding under a car while Michael got his nose broken, his brief career at Oglethorpe University that ended at a hotel in Atlanta with George in the hands of the professional gamblers. These are classic Fatty tales that are better told by others and I will defer to their versions of the early years of the legend.

By the late '60's, I began to know George a little bit. I can remember spying on the famous '60's party at the beach club and seeing Fatty dancing in a cage. I can also remember Watch Hill's first rock band Ponce de Leon and the Young Ones. I hope you don't have to ask who was Ponce.

In the early '70's, George had just finished his higher education at the University of B. Altman and was working for his father at GVS Country Store. Suddenly, the two year difference between George and my age group in Watch Hill didn't seem to make much difference. Fatty started hanging with us when he realized that we had certain things in common that his older crowd didn't. In an oft-repeated story, a couple of us went to Peter Calder's house looking for George. When Calder opened the front door, he yelled: "You kids get out of here. George Smith doesn't smoke dope any more." Whatever.

After that summer, GVS became a frequent weekend visitor at Floyd's Hotel in Boston. He was always good for a couple of bags of groceries and a fun time. Fun, if you didn't mind him playing Born in Chicago full blast at 8 in the morning.

When I returned to Philadelphia after college, George took me under his wing. In those days, GVS had a little more life experience than I did. Soon, he introduced me to the Fatty way of life. His apartment served as a club house for many of us who didn't have any other place to hang out. I will never forget the Christmas tree at the house on Berkley Road that was still up in July.

In those summers, we made the long weekend commute from Philadelphia to Watch Hill in Fatty's orange 914 with the dual headphones. I'm not sure how we survived that ride. Each Friday we would go directly from Philadelphia to the bar at the Ocean House and retrace our path on Sunday afternoon. I didn't get much done at the office on Mondays.

George was always passionate about the game of golf whether at Gulf Mills, Misquamicut or Mid Ocean. Relying on his patented Fatty Fade and a lot of golfer's aide, he worked his handicap down to what some said was the worst 7 handicap in the country. Nevertheless, Gussie and the then boy wonder Bakewell Griffin won the 1977 Shinkle Bowl on the 20th hole with a hooded five iron and the birdie putt heard around the world. It was the first victory in the tournament for the our generation and we celebrated like rock stars at the China Village later that night. George went on to mentor Bakewell on and off the course and as his caddie helped him win several club championships.

George's money games with George Kirkpatrick and the "Snicker Set" were legendary at that time and caused Big Daddy, with his hand slapping at his side, to beg Kirko: "Don't play The Kid for nickels." In later years, the Fatty Open became a famous spring stop on the East Coast golf circuit. His tournament reflected George's love for his friends, good fun and the game of golf.

Later when George's ship came in, whatever money he didn't spend renovating the house on Araquat Road (I will never forget the television rising from the floor in the living room), he used to enter his yachting phase. Starting with the first Baabyliner, every year the boats got progressively bigger. Now George was able to create the Fatty lifestyle on the water. Whether at the dock in Watch Hill in the summer or at the Delray Yacht Club in the winter, he was living his dream. We all remember the after parties at the Plimpton Dock, the tales of pirate's booty and the cry of "He's not going to make it."

Unfortunately, as the years went on George began to make some really bad choices. It seemed that he was never as comfortable in his own skin as he should have been. Although we all loved him for what he was, he thought he needed to be something bigger. This led to decisions that turned out badly for him. It is a tragic story, but one that has been repeated many times in the past and will be again in the future.

I am honored to have been one of the 6 people in the world that could call him "Fatty". I will miss you Gussie.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Trap Door by T-Bone Burnett

When I first moved to South Texas in the fall of 1982, I was listening to this EP by T-Bone Burnett. I'm not sure where I came across it. Perhaps there was a review in Rolling Stone, or maybe it was his connection to Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue. Whatever the reason, Trap Door got a lot of play that fall and winter. As I remember, I even recorded it on a cassette tape, so I could play it in the truck as well.

After the playing in the Rolling Thunder Revue, T-Bone formed the Alpha Band which recorded two albums. I have to confess that I am not familiar with either album.

 In 1982, he went into the studio with former Dylan sidemen David Mansfield (guitar), Steven Soles (vocals) and David Kempner (drums). The result was this 6 song EP that contains an intriguing meld of folk and pop music. The lyrics are clever, the rhythms are compelling and each song contains a hook that stays in your mind. Here is the track list:
  1. Hold on Tight
  2. Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend
  3. I Wish You Could Have Seen Her Dance
  4. A Ridiculous Man
  5. Poetry
  6. Trap Door

Born in 1948, T-Bone was raised in Fort Worth, where he made records starting in the mid-60's. In the 1970's, he relocated to Los Angeles and hooked up with Bob Dylan for the Rolling Thunder Revue. Since then, T-Bone has released 8 solo albums, plus a greatest hits collection called Twenty Twenty The Essential T Bone Burnett which came out in 2006. He is a very talented and prolific singer and songwriter.

 Besides his own records, he has been a producer for other artists like Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, K.D. Lang, The Wallflowers, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. He also produced the brilliant How Will The Wolf Survive for Los Lobos (see post from December 7). In 2002, he won four grammy awards for the music from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?  More recently, he was the executive music producer for the Johnny Cash film Walk The Line.

Unfortunately, Trap Door never made the transition from vinyl to CD. Unless you still have that turntable handy, this could be a problem. You can find some of the Trap Door songs on Twenty Twenty. It is available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Bob Dylan One Too Many Mornings (Live 1966)

Video of One Too Many Mornings from Eat The Document. Check out Robbie's guitar solo that starts at 2:00. Also, Bob singing through his hands on the last verse beginning at 2:37.

  Beautiful photography of a great song from the 66 Tour. If you haven't seen all of this movie, you need watch it as soon as possible. It is the definitive record of the legendary 66 Tour.

Monday, March 16, 2009

One Too Many Mornings: Bootlegs and My Life Part 1

In January of 1969, a bootleg was a football play or illegal alcohol. At the time, no one knew that there was a huge body of Dylan music out there just waiting to be heard. Those were the dark days before The Great White Wonder changed our musical lives forever.

That winter, I was attending school in Pottstown, PA. A friend who had been in New York for the weekend made a tape of a Scott Muni show on WNEW and brought it back to school for me. Muni was the gravelly voiced DJ who was a pioneer of the radio format that became known as progressive rock radio. 

 My friend gave me this magical tape that contained 11 Dylan songs. Some of the songs I had heard before in different versions, but most of them were new to my ear. Here is the song list as written on the tape box now over 40 years old:
  1. The Mighty Quinn
  2. Tears of Rage
  3. Nothing Was Delivered
  4. One Too Many Mornings
  5. You Ain't Going Nowhere
  6. Wheel's On Fire
  7. Tiny Montgomery
  8. Like a Rolling Stone
  9. Too Much of Nothing
  10. I'll Keep It With Mine
  11. Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
At the time, I didn't know anything about the origins of these songs, but I knew I liked what I was hearing. Looking at this song list now, we know that the tape was a mixture of Basement demos, live 66 Tour cuts and two other outtakes. Today, as we await the release of Dylan's 46th studio album, it is hard to remember that Bob then had only released 8 studio albums. Product was slim in those days. I had played each of those first albums over and over until the grooves wore out. I knew every song by heart and had analyzed them all to death. Even though John Wesley Harding had just been released, a tape with 11 new songs was a really big deal.

The song that really stuck out when I first listened to the tape was One Too Many Mornings. I was very familiar with the song, because it was one of my favorites on The Times They are a-Changin'. To hear it go from a gentle folk song to this rocket fueled version from the 66 Tour was quite a shock.

 From the first swell of the Garth's organ mixing with Manuel's piano that leads to Bob's tortured vocal, this is a song that has grown up. When it gets to Robbie's solo, you are hearing the essence of the 66 Tour and some of the best work of that Mathematical Guitar Genius. I also love the Band's backup vocals as they shout: "Beeehind" at the end of every verse. Great music and the first hint of what was to come from the 66 Tour.

This tape was a real "ear opener" at the time. I will continue this trip down bootleg memory lane with the next post on The Great White Wonder.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I have just seen the future of country music and his name is JAMEY JOHNSON

In 1974, Jon Landau saw 25 year old Bruce Springsteen play at the Harvard Square Theatre. Afterward in an often quoted article in the Real Paper, he wrote: " I saw rock and roll's future and it's name is Bruce Springsteen."

Well, tonight I saw the future of country music and his name is Jamey Johnson. I just came back from the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida where I saw Jamey open for Willie Nelson. 

If you are reading this blog, you know that I have gone crazy for Johnson's music. When I first heard him in early December, I was immediately impressed with his songwriting. His songs have a real connection back to the best work of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. 

 Seeing him live tonight only confirmed what I have been saying. Besides being one of the best songwriters working in Nashville today, he has the stage presence of a super star. Johnson is a big man and he is riveting on stage. All of his songs sound great live. Listening to him sing, I thought I was hearing Waylon Jennings before he snorted his voice away.

 His band is outstanding. The keyboards were good. The steel player was terrific and the rhythm section was rock solid. The lead guitar doesn't look like any country player I have ever seen, but he played some tasty guitar. He also sang some nice harmony with Jamey.

 In a 30 minute set, he hit most of the high spots from That Lonesome Song. He opened with High Cost of Living which has to be one of the best country songs every written about the dark side of drugs. Check out these lyrics:

That southern baptist parking lot
Was where I'd go to smoke my pot
Sit there in my pickup truck and pray
And staring at that giant cross
Just reminds me that I was lost
And it never seemed to point the way

I tell you the high cost of living ain't nothing like the cost of living high

He also played Mary Go Round, In Color, Mowin Down The Roses as well as my favorite Place Out On the Ocean. Each song was tasteful executed by the band and well sung by Johnson. The crowd got pretty excited by the end of the set. I think there were a few people like myself who were there specifically to see Jamey.

At the risk of having Texas lightning strike me dead, I have to confess that I didn't even stay for Willie's set. I was so happy after seeing Jamey play for 30 minutes, I gave my ticket away and went to the house.

 If you don't own That Lonesome Song, you are missing the best country album released in a very long time. Available on iTunes and from Amazon. Buy it, please.