Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

When this album was released in May of 1971, it was a radical departure from the usual Motown sound. Typical Motown songs were made for AM radio with great hooks and lyrics about love and loss like Come See About Me, The Tears of a Clown, Reach Out I'll Be There or My Girl. With the release of this album, Marvin Gaye got as far away from that sound as Dylan did from folk music when he released Highway 61 Revisited. 

Many stories have been written about Berry Gordy's resistance to releasing this album. Fortunately, Marvin Gaye was a star and he was ultimately able to get his way. The music world would be a poorer place without this album.

In the fall of 1971, I was listening to a lot of Dylan (a 65 electric bootleg as well as the rest of the early catalogue), The Band (Stage Fright and the first two albums), and various blues albums. We had a fairly limited play list at Floyd's Hotel at that time.

I can remember going up stairs in Carmichael Hall to the room of a girl we called the Queen of Speed. When I got there, she was listening to a copy of What's Going On. I was familiar with Gaye's earlier Motown music because most of what I knew about music in the '60's came out of an AM radio. This album was completely new to me at the time.

What's Going On had a distinctively different sound from anything I had ever heard on a Motown record. I am not sure of my original reaction to this new sound, but I can tell you now that this has been on of my most favorite albums for the last 35 years. It is a record that was ahead of it's time and still sounds great today.

From the opening of What's Going On, which begins with background chatter, a big alto horn riff and then Gaye's soaring vocal, this was obviously a special album. With a sound that mixes soul, jazz and funk, Gaye sings about the Vietnam war, civil unrest, race and poverty which are common themes today, but were not in 1971 Motown song. Have a listen to the opening track:

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) is another example of Gaye's forward thinking. Who was thinking about this in 1971, let alone singing about it? It is a beautiful song about a subject that was not common at the time.
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

It is a record that is full of great lyrics backed by the excellent playing of The Funk Brothers who were able to stretch out from the usual Motown constraints. From the song cycle that blends from one track to the next, the sound is a unique combination of jazz and soul. Gaye's singing reflects his passion for the material. It is his masterpiece.

If What's Going On isn't on your iPod, it should be. Available on itunes and from Amazon.

Next Post: Let's Get It On.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tour 66: Visions Of Johanna

As I mentioned in my last post, the acoustic versions of the songs that were played in the first set of the 66 Tour were powerful and memorable. Film is from Eat The Document by D. A. Pennebaker

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Before Judas: Tour 66 Acoustic Set

Over the last 30 years, so many articles have been written about the electric portion of the 66 Tour. The hostility of the English fans ("Judas"); the loud sound of the band; the interaction between Dylan and the audience has been well documented in books and on fan sites.

 Lost in this literary shuffle is the brilliance of the first set of acoustic Dylan that opened every show. Each night, Bob would face the audience alone with his guitar and harmonica. The genius of these solo sets can be heard on the official release (The Bootleg Series Vol 4) as well as on many bootlegs including the definitive Genuine Live 1966.

Listening to these songs now, I am struck by the complexity of the lyrics in the set list: Fourth Time Around, Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row and Mr Tambourine Man. These are all classic Dylan compositions, that are full of incredible words. Of all the songs in the Dylan catalogue, these have to be some of the most difficult to perform. For Dylan to come out every night and nail these songs is the sign of a artist at the top of his game.

Much has also been written about the pace of the tour, the drugs and the effect of the lifestyle on Dylan. With this in mind, I think it makes these performances even more remarkable. Without the band, there must have been incredible pressure on Dylan to deliver these songs. If you listen to the recordings, you should agree that he passed the audition.

As the tour moved across Australia and Ireland and ultimately ended with seven shows in England and Scotland, Bob usually opened with She Belongs To Me. This was easiest song in terms of the lyrics and was a nice warm up. Next up was Fourth Time Around (appropriate in England because of it's connection to Lennon and Norwegian Wood). With the flow of words in this one, the stakes were getting much higher. Next came Visions of Johnana which always created a spooky air in the hall. You can feel the attention of the audience to this classic Dylan tale of love and loss.

 5 and a half minutes of It's All over Now, Baby Blue and over 11 minutes of Desolation Row usually filled the next two slots. Again, these are two songs with a lot of words. The set finished with Just Like A Woman and Mr Tambourine Man. Besides the lyrics in the last song, Bob's harmonica is masterful. Think what any BobCat would give to go back in time and hear that set.

Bootleg Series Vol 4 is available at iTunes and from Amazon. Genuine Live 1966 is available from your local bootlegger. Both are highly recommended.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"I will stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table..." Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt

Steve Earle loves the music of Townes Van Zandt and so do I (see my post from June 19, 2008). Earle once said: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." I'm not sure I would go that far, but Townes did write some great songs.

Townes, who died in 1997 at age 52, did not leave behind a large body of work. Compared to someone as prolific as Dylan, his output was quite modest. He never wrote a song that you could dance to (well, maybe by yourself). His lyrics usually describe the sadder and darker side of life, yet he wrote many classic songs that pass the test of time. Pancho and Lefty, To Live Is To Fly, Flying Shoes, Snowing On Raton, Tecumseh Valley and If I Needed You are just a few of his great songs that demonstrate the songwriting genius of Townes Van Zandt. It is a shame that his work is not getting more recognition at this time. Perhaps this record will help.

Earle has just released a CD called Townes which is his tribute to Van Zandt. I have been playing it for the last week. Earle's voice and guitar do a nice job capturing the stark intensity of Van Zandt's lyrics.

I was listening to Steve's show on Outlaw Country called Hardcore Troubadour this morning. He was talking a lot about the record and his relationship with Townes. Steve is very passionate about this project and it shows in the music.

The disk begins with Pancho and Lefty which is the most recognizable song in the Van Zandt songbook and my personal favorite. Steve's growl of a voice sounds at home on this tune. It is too bad he didn't bring in Merle Haggard on the "Lefty" verses. It is a great version nevertheless.

He also covers To Live Is To Fly, No Place To Fall and Mr Mudd And Mr. Gold. The latter has Justin Townes Earle on vocals as well. All of these songs are high spots in the Van Zandt song book.

This CD is a good start for anyone who is not familiar with the great songs of Townes Van Zandt. I recommend it highly. If you really want to experience the talent of Townes Van Zandt, you need to hear the originals. There are several collections that are available on iTunes and from Amazon.