Saturday, March 12, 2011

"I've Got Me Own Album To Do!" "Really? Why?"

The emergence of the solo album, specifically by a member of a functioning band, in my estimation, coincided with their being an excess of money and drugs, and thus inflated egos, and thus a new "art form" called "rock journalism", in the world of pop music. It gave the record companies more to spend money on, gave artists more reason to "seek external inspiration", gave critics more to blather on about...

Of course, all it really did, in those golden years of rock, is shorten the lifespan, either literally or just creatively, of many talented people, cause a financial bubble in the music world, inflate the egos of and create delusions in otherwise level headed team players.

Let's get personal for a moment and explain some exceptions to the rule.

Why would someone, such as, say, I, do a solo project?
a solo project? 
a solo project? 

Believe me, it had nothing to do with too much money or a drug-inflated ego.
I'll save my story for another time. 

I like to think of my ego the same way I think of my prostate. Ignore if you can,  because when it comes a-knockin, the news ain't gonna be pleasant.

Except of course, my talking about myself in the previous and subsequent paragraphs is pretty darn egocentric. A healthy sense of denial is about as useful as an unhealthy ego. I'm just here to entertain. 

This entry is the beginning of a series called "Solo Albums. Why?"

(I'd like to do John Cale's debut soon. And Lou Reed's. And a few others. But for now....)

I'd like to start with the three solo albums that blow the concept out of the water. The most savvy of the music journalists in the Golden Age of Rock As Art (1966-74) recognized Crosby Stills and Nash for exactly what they were: A record executive's dream.
While they weren't created by an outside party, like The Monkees, they were in fact created at a Monkee's house. Peter Tork's house, in fact (party central for every Laurel Canyon hippie and sold, by Tork, to his pal Stephen Stills when it was obvious that houseguest Stills wasn't going to move his party of naked teenage girls and coke dealers elsewhere. Actually, Tork was just as responsible for the hedonism.)
Stills, kind and generous soul that he is, returned the favor, by not allowing Peter to visit his just-sold house when The Rolling Stones were staying there in 1969. "Yeah, Peter, I know you haven't gotten all your stuff out yet. Come back when I'm through being The Most Important Person In Hollywood, maaaan."

This being my blog, and not a thesis, you'll have to take my word for the above story. I've read several variations of it (many Laurel Canyon memoirs have materialized in the last few years), and who really knows the truth? People were so out of their heads and everyone tells their version with such animated conviction that you can only guess that they learned that tone a) in acting school b) through repeated encounters with police c) through repeated encounters with jealous lovers d) though repeated encounters with angry, gun-wielding drug dealers or e) all of the above.

Anyway, CSN began earnestly enough. Founding Byrd David Crosby's ego and distaste for country music (where they were heading) got him kicked out of the Byrds. Stills couldn't handle not being King Buffalo Springfield and his thunder kept getting stolen by the much more interesting and subtly manipulative Neil Young. That band broke up. And Graham Nash was the guy in hit-making UK act The Hollies who fell in love with the psychedelic scene and with the US and wanted to reinvent himself. And thus, introductions were made. And poolside at Peter Tork's, while a young Jackson Browne was getting busy in the pool with some chicks and John Phillips was knocking at the door with a sugar bowl full of not-sugar, and Mickey Dolenz was taking pictures of it all, CSN discovered that when they sang in three part harmony, dollar bills and cocaine would fall out of the sky. They wanted to call their new band "The Frozen Noses" because oh my god, doing all the blow in the world and advertising that fact is just SO FUNNY!

Months later, the self-titled debut album was released. They'd each brought their newest and best songs.
--Stills insisted on playing everything but drums. He also wrote the best songs. But already, he wasn't showing much team spirit.
--Crosby..well, can anyone think of any song that David Crosby has ever written that you can HUM? Or WHISTLE? I cannot. Is it because they're weak? I don't think so.  Perhaps just "beyond mortal or 'wicked high' comprehension?"
--Graham Nash, with his high British voice and pop sensibilities, knew how to write a hit. You take a slogan and a catchy melody and a chorus.
Crosby was allergic to this formula.
Stills knew it well, but was all over the map, for better or worse. Too busy pretending to be a superheo.

Nash's bonafide hits would have to wait 'til the next album, though easily the catchiest song on the album is "Marrakesh Express", left over from the Hollies days, and considered hip because Marrakesh is where all that hashish came from. But it does disturb the hippie vibe with its peppiness. On the other end, unfortunately, he'd picked up from Crosby how to write one of those formless songs that put you to sleep immediately ("Lady of the Island"). Wake me up when it's over. 

Woodstock was their second gig. Already, Neil Young was in the band. Stills was happy, then realized to his dismay he'd walked into the exact same trap he'd escaped from a year earlier. Neil's songs were going to be better. His stoned stage patter would be dryer and funnier. His stage presence would be darker and more mysterious. And his guitar playing would be, if less "technically good", more intense and interesting.

Then came the second album,  Deja-Vu. Neil Young was part of the band.
This was a harmony band and Neil couldn't sing on key if his life depended on it! Who cares? His stinging guitar solos gave the band some much needed balls. And, don't worry dudes, Neil won't upstage your songwriting--he'll donate one classic ("Helpless Helpless"), but otherwise, he's got about 50 songs all ready for his imminent HUGE solo career. 
I find Deja-Vu to be fairly enjoyable. Stills' "Carry On" and Crosby's "Deja Vu" are both innovative pieces which point to an almost Yes-like prog-rock direction that the band shied away from immediately after. Too bad.

Nash, of course, made the album a favorite with the maturing/settling down hippie crowd, with "Our House" and "Teach Your Children".

"Ok", Graham Nash was saying to his audience, "you got naked at Woodstock/a love in/a crazy party, and screwed some random folks and your parents will kick down some money for a house if you get married and have the baby".
This is the soundtrack to that scenario.

And of course, they got pedal steel novice Jerry Garcia to play on "Teach Your Children". They could have afforded any of the seasoned pros, but CSN had been spending a lot of time in the Bay Area, "getting their heads together away from evil LA", one would assume.

Jerry had  been playing the notoriously tough and exotic instrument only a few months. He figured he'd have to have a few passes to get something record-worthy. Especially for an album that was going to sell 50x more than any Grateful Dead album.
"Great! Thanks Jerry!"
"Yeah, we were rolling and you nailed it"
"Are you sure?"
"Yup! That's the take. Perfect. As a thank you, we're giving you a 1957 Fender Strat that you'll use on stage for a year or two and you're going to be hearing this tune on the radio for the rest of your life!"

So anyway, I initially just wanted to talk about solo albums.
The aforementioned egodrugsmoney thing came to a head in 1971. CSN(and Y) were HUUUUUGE.
But all was not well. So, they said,  let's all make solo albums and make more money! And see who's the real genius in this supposedly happy hippie commune of a band.

Well, then, ok. Let's have a  look.
First off, I'm taking Neil Young out of the competition. He was and is his own man. Like Michael Nesmith, he came out of the womb with his own agenda. Neil's not gonna do what anyone, except maybe his trusted manager, tells him. And he's NOT gonna play the showbiz game, as much as he perversely loves his fame. 

CSN solo albums: 

--Stephen Stills: Stephen Stills: 1970  

Photographer Henry Diltz says that the white powder on the cover of this album is symbolic, as well as simply what it looked like outside. Stills solo debut has both his strengths and weaknesses right on display.
Crosby and Nash's albums used many of the same session people--i.e., the San Francisco scene. They also used Neil Young.
Stephen Stills used none of the above. He went right for the Big Star Power. 

The opener, "Love The One Your With" is catchy, but seems more antiquated every year. I'm sure even back then, your average person wouldn't have said "have a nice business trip. oh, and if you miss me, just go get yourself some strange action". It's so weird that became a hit, and that you can still hear it at the supermarket. "Hey, lady in the cereal aisle. My wife is at the video store..know what I'm sayin'?" His follow up should have been "If you can't cope with reality, go get wicked high".

Oh also, he HAD Jimi Hendrix on this track, but wiped his guitar track in favor of Stills playing steel drum. Lost to history, I think. Bastard.  Hendrix passed away shortly after.  But he is on another song.

In fact, there two songs in a row, in which Stills tells the world "I'm gonna have guitar duels with Jimi Hendrix, AND THEN Eric Clapton! And then I'll RULE THE WORLD!"
Unfortunately, both songs are bor-ing. I don't care about your solos.

Then there are a couple where Stills pretends he's an old blues man. Again, charmless.
So there are, I think, three good songs on this album: "Do For The Others" (which seems to be about CSN), "To A Flame" (easily the best song) and  some of "We Are Not Helpless".
This last tune was apparently written in response to Neil Young's "Helpless". Stephen is coming across as Mr. Peace and Understanding. Funny, since he was really a self-centered bully who would try to beat up an apparently homeless dude who dared to call him out. Cue "Big Sur" clip.

(about 4:00 in, the fun starts)

--David Crosby--If I Could Only Remember my Name: 1971.

One of the best album titles ever.  Ok, as easy as he is to poke fun at, a couple of facts about David Crosby (when not in the depths of 'base addiction) : 1) He's a very, very intelligent guy. 2) He's got a sense of humor. 3) He's a generous, caring, loving guy.  4) While he may not know how to write a pop hook, or excel at any one instrument, he does know harmony like a master, and does that whole "alternative guitar tuning" thing really well, I'd assume. (I don't know a thing about that stuff).

Now, this album.
Crosby enlisted half of the San Francisco music scene (members of The Dead, Airplane and Santana) as well as his band mates Nash and Young. Stills is absent. He and Crosby had butted egos several times and needed a break from each other.  
"Music Is Love", the opener, is notable for one thing: Hearing Neil Young singing the hokiest lyrics you'll ever hear him sing. "Everybody knows that music is love..." His voice is just not made to sing communal hippie choruses. It sounds sarcastic coming from him.
What else is there? Some multi layered a capella things that show Crosby's adept skill at fancy harmonies. Several songs that are more "vibes" than anything, if you know what I mean.

A highlight is "Cowboy Movie", a long one which has a shouted/sung/spoken lyric which is somewhat buried by the music, but apparently tells a metaphorical tale about CSNY. I always assumed the duel, left/right panned lead guitars in the song was Jerry Garcia and Neil Young trading licks. Wrong. It's two Garcias, though one of his tracks sounds like he's "doing a Neil". Kind of neat, especially since he's usually one of those players that sounds like himself no matter the setting. It's worth a listen--one of Jerry's best studio performances. Here's all 10 minutes, but maybe have it on while you're doing dishes.

This album was embraced by the so-called "Freak Folk" deal a few years back. Odd, but cool. I am all for hippie stuff being embraced by non-hippies.

There are actually a couple of, to me, more interesting bootlegs out there surrounding this album.
One is If I Could Only Remember These Sessions, which some folks out there have blogged and posted. It's headphone listening (a lot of soft, but amusing studio chatter) with lots of breakdowns, writing ideas thrown around, talk about music gear, and weirdness. One odd thing is Jerry Garcia teaching the song "Loser" to Crosby, as if it's going to be a Crosby tune. Of course it became a Garcia/Dead song not long after. Good thing. Crosby's just not getting the chords.

There's also a bootleg called "David and the Dorks", a one off concert by Crosby, with Garcia on lead guitar and Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh as the rhythm section. An oddity to be sure. Mostly material from the Crosby album, a cover or two and a messy, first ever version of the future Dead stalwart, "Bertha".  Has its moments. But not a very together band, for obvious reasons.

The "Laughing" on it is cool.
Sounds Velvet Underground-y.
Drone-y and stone-y.
Recorded at The Matrix, SF-- 12/15/70. Check it out.

Graham Nash: Songs For Beginners: 1971

Lastly we have, in my opinion, the best of the three. Graham Nash may have been Laurel Canyon-ized, but he was always that high-voiced Brit who added an air of purity to CSN. He also never lost his Britpop sense of how to make a song catchy. His songs have good choruses. "Our House", from Deja Vu, is painful, indeed, but it's a heart warmer (even if he and Joni Mitchell--its subject--broke up not long after).
Songs For Beginners was recently re-released, remastered, repackaged. I listened to it and there are several nice moments. It's largely an album of confessional, coherent, piano-driven soft rock.
It's a bit like listening to the first couple Paul McCartney solo albums, for me at least. It was too cute when I was younger. Now, I truly appreciate the songwriting and arranging. 

Like Crosby's album, Nash also used many of the San Francisco scene, with a few exceptions. He also used Crosby and Young, but, again, no Stills.

One of the coolest line ups on a song is "Man In The Mirror", which boasts Graham Nash – lead vocals, acoustic guitar;  Johny Barbata (Turtles, CSNY) – drums, Neil Young – piano;  Jerry Garcia – steel guitar;  Chris Ethridge (Flying Burrito Brothers) – bass

The tune "I Used to be a King" has Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh on bass.

"Phil Lesh is either the best bass player in the world, or the worst." Graham Nash once observed. "I mean, it's not like he keeps time".
True that. I'm sure it's what turns a lot of people off. But it works on this tune.

There's a bit of politics ("Chicago"), and the album opens with Graham's autobiographical "Military Madness".
Most revealingly, though a-little-too-self-confessional-for-this-writer (I just can't hack the over- sincerity, as I've written before) is "Simple Man". That it's his heartfelt goodbye to Joni Mitchell is indeed touching, and we've all been there, but still...I don't need to hear about it.

I don't do stars or grades. I just tell you how much I want to hear stuff, combined with if it floats my boat.

Stills: no. not really. boat no float.
Crosby: I've been in the mood just a couple-three times. It inhabits a unique place, that's for sure. It could have been a big, big pretentious mess (like, say, a Paul Kantner concept album), but Crosby has always been on the right side of professionalism.  It really just sounds like a very very stoned record that floats aimlessly through the room.
Nash: easily the most enjoyable listen of the three.

Irrelevant, but related opinions:

--I like Deja Vu better than CSN, even if I don't ever listen to it.

--Stephen Stills late 70's song "Dark Star" is a great congas and coke Latin disco tune. (from 1977's CSN)

--And last time I was laying in the dentist's chair, I really paid attention to 1983's "Southern Cross" when it came on, and realized it's a very very good song.

I'll leave you with a great singalong from Songs For Beginners, which I would love to do with some people as a huge sing along. Let's do it. Has someone already covered this?
Ok, if anyone actually takes me up on this offer, the mood may have already passed. Still, it'll stick in your head. Thanks for reading. 

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