Thinking about Patti Smith

When friend and fellow Mountain Music Club member Dan from coastal Massachusetts recently sent a link to The Guardian newspaper’s Patti Smith profile, the powerful poet-singer came into sharper focus than that background awareness her 1970s work earned. It’s a good overview, in the U.K. paper’s ongoing series recommending entry points into recording artists’ work.

I came late to that party, but the admiration of others, particularly musician friends brought me back to her like the Guardian story. Link, below.

One musician fan, New Yorker City kid Tom Dimopoulos, led a highly theatrical 1980s punk band here called bx721, after its post office box. He told me about seeing her early on, in lower Manhattan. Coming up out of the subway into the light of daybreak on his way home, uplifted by her show, he felt inspired to believe more strongly in himself and his possibilities than he ever imagined. That feeling has powered his art ever since. bx721 was a hoot, fronted by Jack Nemier who wore an electric suit – conventional office garb glittering with hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights. Dimopoulos now lives in Saratoga Springs, works mainly as a scribe and shows up often at the same concerts I do.

Another musician/Patti Smith fan is Michael Eck, sometime music writer, former publicist and now marketing writer for the Oregon musical instrument crafters Two Old Hippies. He revered her and once got to play a show with her. More than the late great Greg Haymes, more than I, Eck was a tough crowd when writing about music for the Times Union. After seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in his “Achy-Breaky Heart Days,” Eck wrote, “I bet Billy Ray Cyrus voted for the fat Elvis stamp” – best lead I ever saw on a concert review. He said Patti’s close-up presence empowered him in much the way Tom D. describes.

Michael Stipe (ex-R.E.M.) is another fan. He turned up, surprising the audience, at her show last year in New York’s Webster Hall. Stipe told Ethan Kaplan of a Smith fan site that he discovered Smith at 15 when her “Horses” album hit him hard. The album, he said, “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order. I was like ‘Shit, yeah, oh my god!’ then I threw up.”

Now, that’s a fan.

As Rolling Stone reported in January, Stipe also has objected to trump using R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as his rallies and that he once told trump off for talking during Smith’s set at a late-90s benefit at Joe’s Pub in New York. Stipe told him to “shut up” and trump left instead. But I digress.

I’ve seen a handful of Smith shows, most notably at MASSMoCA in N. Adams, Mass., early in that venue’s history; and at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. MASSMoCA was really lucky, or discerning, setting the stage for Wilco’s Solid Sound and FreshGrass festivals. Their first-ever show was by Los Lobos. I wrote in the Gazette that, “Los Lobos played the first-ever concert at MASS MoCA on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, masterfully christening a performance space that shouldn’t work half as well as it does. They played in a (13-sided) courtyard surrounded by brick and glass walls that I expected to echo the music in all directions, a cacophonous blur.” 

Smith’s show there a year later confirmed the place worked for music. Her setlist: 

One Voice

Beneath the Southern Cross

Boy Cried Wolf

Dancing Barefoot

Lo and Beholden

Spell

Dead city

Don’t Say Nothing

Because the Night

Pissing in a River

Gone Pie

Strange Messengers

Be My Baby

Glitter in Their Eyes

Free Money

Dancing Barefoot

Pissing in a River

Be My Baby

Free Money

Land/Machine Gun/Gloria

As for Patti Smith at Jazz Fest, I love seeing stuff happen there that’s outside the New Orleans tradition or sound, and watching it work anyway; including Richard Thompson and, surprisingly, Tower of Power. Both debuted there in 2008, my first Jazz Fest; I saw Smith play there in 2013.

Patti Smith at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, May 2013. Michael Hochanadel photo

However, I missed a mid-70s Smith concert at Union College Memorial Chapel. Michael Patnode (class of 1977), reported in a college mag, “Another concert we booked was Patti Smith, whose appeal we thought was more confined to the New York City area. A large number of black-clad audience members appeared on campus, showing us there was a hunger in the area for a diverse range of programming.”

I like the moral force of Smith’s shows. I’ve always liked the band, too. Maybe the most New York ensemble this side of the Ramones, Willie Nile borrowed some of her guys for his first albums and tours. She has that thing I admire most. When she steps onstage, you know in your soul that she means it. And she somehow gives other artists (Stipe, Dimopoulos, Eck) permission to mean it, too.

In this, I see her as a sort of lesser Bob Dylan – professional poet, amateur rocker, masterly persona, towering inspiration – until they welded those parts together so tightly we can’t see the seams any more. Dylan may be better – or, was – at the creative component of myth-making, but she became his equal in self-promotion.

I haven’t kept up with her records since the earliest ones. When I get them in the mail, I put them on the listen-shelf for later and sometimes take years to retrieve and listen to them. Maybe she deserves more immediate attention, as Stephen, host of the Mountain Music Club, has suggested.

Though I’ve enjoyed her books “Just Kids” and “M Train” maybe more than her later albums, when I grabbed some recently she opened my ears again.

I started at the beginning and leaped forward with “Patti Smith Horses/Horses – Legacy Edition.” This two-CD set stands her original 1975 album alongside a 2005 live show of the whole album in London’s Royal Festival Hall – to thrilling effect. 

The original has the home-made fervor that made punk so exhilarating, inspired amateurs blowing past rules of composition, arranging and performance they hadn’t taken time to learn yet.

The live versions, 30 years later, retain all that adrenaline, plus assurance. We hear obvious differences in craft. Her voice has thickened some but still soars and she whips it just as hard. The band plays better but respects the original arrangements. 

Both versions of her first songs stand tall with undiminished conviction, a now-weathered but still defiant optimism. The originals rise from the lower Manhattan CBGBs funk-frantic fog on the effortless faith and impatience of youth. The later live ones carry something harder and smoother, polished by effort and endurance, stoic and earned over time.

If the deluxe two-CD decades-apart “Horses” testifies to her enduring relevance; so do “Trampin’” (2004) and “Twelve” (2007) – in effect another two-fer. “Trampin’” is originals, “Twelve” is covers; both made with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with her from the first; plus bassist Tony Shanahan. (Original bassist Ivan Kral [1975-78; “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and “Wave”] died in February. Guitarist Tom Verlaine [Television] and bassist Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] guest on the live “Horses” 2005 tracks. Guitarist Oliver Ray joined the Patti Smith Group on “Trampin’”. But we digress.) 

Here, let me yield to Robert Christgau – greatest record reviewer in print. 

Trampin’ “No, she hasn’t regained her sense of humor, but aren’t you fast losing yours? ‘I’m no Sufi but I’ll give it a whirl’ makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like ‘Trespasses’ or over-generalize like ‘Jubilee,’ the boho reminisce of ‘In My Blakean Year’ represents where she’s coming from, the sweet solemnity of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of ‘Radio Baghdad’ speaks poetry to power. It won’t prevail. But it’s a comfort. B+”

The stand out “Trampin’” songs for me have a lighter touch than the machine-shop rockers: the guitar chiming “Cartwheels,” the relaxed stroll of “Gandhi” and “Trespasses,” the cozy atmospherics of “Peaceable Kingdom.”  “Radio Baghdad” gives both, a Cowboy Junkies intro to a punchy build echoing “The Other One,” down to a recited lament, then a re-rant, then back to Cowboy Junkies’ tree-lined Toronto. The title track maps a pilgrimage to hard-won peace.

Twelve “Three decades after Smith made the transition from poet to rock & roller, we still don’t think of her as a singer, exactly — more a reciter who can carry a tune, kind of. So a covers album showcasing her interpretive gifts is a questionable vehicle. And like most such albums — there are dozens by now — it’s somewhat hit-or-miss. But when Smith hits, it isn’t just a bull’s-eye — the arrow splits the apple and then brings down the bad guy hiding behind the tree. It takes a poet to extract the lyricism of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ from its guitaristics and an avant-gardist to validate a middlebrow tour de force like Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ And though other winners are more obvious, you’ll be convinced that this woman felt ‘Gimme Shelter’ very deeply — and many years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ too.”

OK, these are can’t-miss tunes, time-tested by a billion radio plays; but that doesn’t mean every cover will work. These do, for the same reason the 2005 live “Horses” tunes are good as the 1975 originals. She means it, in an act-her-age way. That’s more important and powerful than how she pans her voice left to right in the same cheap-trick-but-it-works way that Hendrix does in “Are You Experienced?” – great guitar noise, too – оr sings a mix of pinched pop staccato and poet’s flow in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” against Kaye’s Jerry Garcia-like curls and swirls. We might quibble with her mannered, too-on-the-nose Neil-isms on “Helpless,” but she can do Mick all day long on “Gimme Shelter” and even gets the soul bounce of “Pastime Paradise” – love Shanahan’s James Jamerson bass-isms there, too. 

She knows just what to do with these songs she loves as much as those who made them, and those of us who wore out our vinyl originals.

We’ve talked mostly about the sound of her music, but what about the sense of it, the message and meaning?

Four words: “Power to the people!”

Patti Smith is still a punk, a poet, a provocateur. She still feels like coming into the sunlight from the subway – or up from troubles, from confusion, from doubt. 

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/10/patti-smith-where-to-start-in-her-back-catalogue?

Where… was he?

When I first picked up this new megaphone to yell about music, I promised – teased, really – some particular episodes and anecdotes. I teased, “What veteran soul singer answered my impulse-driven phone call having just signed his first record deal in years?

It was one of those “where are they now” musings, of the wistful sort that seldom leads anywhere. And it happened on a slow day in the teletype office – the “wire room” – at the old Gazette building on State Street in downtown Schenectady. 

This was actually the second wire room for me, a windowless room on the back of the building, noisy with machine clacking, where the news from outside first came into the newspaper. My job was simple. For 13 hours a day, three days a week, I cut apart the stories printed on long rolls of thin paper and delivered them to editors in the newsroom who edited them. I rolled type-setting tape corresponding to those stories and placed them on a pegboard, waiting for delivery to the composing room for typesetting. The 17 machines around me ran smoothly in good weather, less so when the air grew humid. 

The first wire room was on the third floor at the front of the building, a floor above the newsroom, so I dropped news stories down a chute to land behind its horse-shoe shaped desk. It was a pleasant enough space, apart from the clatter, with wall-to-wall windows offering a view of Baum’s Newsroom (Harry Leva, proprietor) across the street. There, bookies awaited the racetrack results to see which bets they’d have to pay*. Next door, radiating class, was the Imperial, a fancy women’s fashion mecca. Both are gone now, the Imperial converted into a restaurant called Mexican Radio, Baum’s leveled for its patio. Passenger and freight trains rattled on elevated tracks over State Street to the left, just past the Press Box – an adjunct staff office, with booze. Reporters and editors went out the Gazette door after their shifts – after the paper was put to bed – and into the Press Box just steps away. One woman, a comprehensively Gazette person, worked in the Gazette composing room, then at the Press Box and dated several editors in succession.

To the right from the Gazette and the Press Box, State Street passes with straight-line efficiency through a block of retail and restaurant energy; then, between two churches, it curves up hill past the Plaza, an ornate cinema still showing first run fare when we moved to town. It still housed goldfish in its lobby fountain, but stood defunct that day in 1978 when I picked up the wire room phone. 

One summer night around then, State Street was filled with yelling, marching men. An early wave of layoffs hit GE, among the first salvos of cost-cutting that “Neutron Jack” Welch aimed at the workforce. Like a neutron bomb, he “killed” people with layoffs, leaving buildings intact. Our longtime car mechanic Belechew Emaelaf then worked at GE; he escaped being laid off since his supervisors considered him so essential they hid him for nearly two years. 

Thousands of hourly union workers paraded down State past the Gazette that noisy night, having fun, not angry yet. Protesting but mostly playing, they laughed and joked around, like very big little boys headed into a bowling alley or baseball stadium. If they’d known how doomed they were, they might not have hunched in mock-clandestine crouches to peel off from the demonstration-march and pour into the Press Box. 

Above that straight block where I saw that oblivious throng sat Veteran’s Park where, in the ‘Nam years, demonstrators stood stoic behind signs. Drivers honked in support or spat in derision. Steep enough to sled down, the park widens around a fountain. One surprising night, when I was too briefly home on leave from the Navy, years before, I waded there with the first woman I ever loved, both of us blissfully drunk. 

That first wire room, speaking of love or the search for it, was on the same floor as Classified Advertising, a room of phone-bound young women. Some career types worked the day shift, others came in after high school. One afternoon, one of those high school girls, from a longtime Gazette family, brought in a thermos of whiskey sours to share. I had to pass Classified, then through the Sports Department – quiet by day when its editor took the longest lunches in journalism history, bustling and full of cigarette smoke by night – to get to the wire room. Those newspaper people were my social life until I met the dozens of working class hippies at Stereo Sound on Jay Street a block east.

State Street in the late 1970s was busy; there was lots to watch; so I did, between reading science fiction books borrowed from the library a ten minute walk away. To see directly below to the sidewalk, I had to perch on the desk. I was on all fours once when a touring school group – a handful of high school kids and two nuns – came in behind me, so silent under the complex treble roar of 17 teletype machines that I never heard them and was startled to turn around and find them silently gawking at my ass.

No such fun in the second wire room; no spectacle of State Street flowing cars and walkers in fluid parades, no demonstrations, no whiskey sours, no chance to watch the loitering eccentrics of the sort Schenectady indulged then.

That second wire room was all brick echo and isolation. So, I was bored one uneventful day; when the machines were all running in cooperative smoothness and I didn’t have to phone the Associated Press and United Press International offices in Albany to request repeats or repairs. 

I wondered: “Where is Wilson Pickett now?”

Once a big deal, he’d charted radio hits since 1963, my junior year at Bishop Gibbons High School. But his best years were behind him, that day I wondered about him in the wire room. From 1965 through 1968, “In the Midnight Hour,” “634- 5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.),” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “I’m In Love,” “Stagger Lee,” both “Hey Jude” and “Hey Joe” climbed both Hot 100 and R&B charts.

Born in Alabama, raised in Detroit, and first heard in Gospel groups, he made most of his music in Memphis. Southern soul-style, Pickett’s records layered wild Gospel-y shouts on funk grooves that hit hardest on the two-beat after Jerry Wexler suggested this rhythmic shift. Pickett sang raw, the studio band – Booker T’s MGs, without Booker T – cooked hot. As MGs guitarist Steve Cropper recalled for Kevin Phinney’s liner notes for a Pickett compilation album, “Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”

Hits put Pickett on the radio and on the road. He played here as the Union College Concert Committee, linked to the school’s radio station WRUC, brought top pop, rock and jazz groups to campus. The girl-group Shangri-Las and British Invaders Eric Burdon and the Animals once played here on the same show; jazz genius Louis Armstrong played on campus the next night. Shows on campus were for students only then, so I only heard about them years, decades, later. As I reported in the October 22, 2018 Gazette, when Little Richard played on campus, WRUC DJ Jeff Hedquist recalled their in-studio interview was wild as the stage show. Also in Union’s 60s hit-parade, as Hedquist and his Concert Committee colleague Bob Saltzman told me: the Kingston Trio; the Beach Boys; the Buckinghams; the Blues Project (featuring Schenectady guitarist Steve Katz); Otis Redding (seven months to the day before his fatal plane crash); B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix in an all-star revue. Saltzman said they paired Wilson Pickett with comic Flip Wilson as “Wilson Weekend,” April 27, 1968, in the Memorial Fieldhouse, which then had a dirt floor. Pickett’s single “She’s Lookin’ Good” was no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that week.

Pickett made a big noise, then left a big hole.

Where was he now? Why no hits in more than a decade? Was he alive? Had he lost that exuberant claxon of a voice?

In 1978, years before Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, years before the internet, finding out such things took more work than now.

I think I reached out to somebody with more show-biz industry savvy than I and found “The Billboard Guide” was the go-to source for information on music stars. A fat compendium, published annually, it listed performers by their agents and managers.

So, I phoned Billboard, in Manhattan, and asked. I doubt I knew enough to request contact information on Wilson Pickett as a free sample, pending possible purchase; but I did manage to persuade a kind young guy on the other end of the phone at the magazine to tell me Wilson Pickett was represented by one Jimmy Evans, in mid-town. I don’t recall the street or the number, but I do remember I dialed it right away.

A laid-back sort of guy answered, a southern black man from his drawly, molassess speech cadence. I asked for Jimmy Evans, the guy on the phone acknowledged he was the man, Wilson Pickett’s manager; and he told me he was with Wilson Pickett at that very moment. 

Evans reported that they had just walked into the office, five minutes before, and that they were happily toasting, with a good champagne, their elation at having just signed a new record deal. This was Pickett’s first chance to record in about two years, with Big Tree, an Atlantic Records affiliate. “Hold on,” said Evans amiably. Then, way too soon for me to collect myself and in any sense get ready, that astounding voice boomed through the telephone: “Hel-LO!”

I was so astonished by THAT Voice – the voice that launched 1,000 dances, that energized many a “Midnight Hour” – that I stood right up. I stayed on my feet throughout the conversation, and I addressed him as Mr. Pickett, which still seems only proper. He was in the best possible mood and talked at length about his career and his life. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember very clearly a strong feeling of awe. When I told him where I was, he told me he used to come up there, to hunt and fish.

He told me about his new album and claimed – convincingly – that his voice was just fine and all there. He’d recorded it in Alabama, with cats who’d rocked his earlier records, and he felt comfortable making it and proud of the result.

Later that year, Pickett’s A Funky Situation album came out, exploded out, really. It erupted with the best-ever version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’” – as good as his Beatles cover, “Hey Jude.” “Lay Me Like You Hate Me” packed a similar R&B punch. In my “Electric Music” Gazette column in February 1979, I wrote “’A Funky Situation’ finds Pickett growling, howling and crooning with his old irresistible gusto – backed by super-funky instrumentals.”

When he sang those songs, he sounded as he had on the phone with me, confident, strong, having fun with it – just as he looked in the album photos. On the front, he’s in full force-of-nature sing-down-the-house glee; on the back, he’s more contained, gloating a little, maybe. “I’m back, deal with it – or, not.” In addition to the foghorn strength of his voice, Pickett always sounded happy to be singing, and that feeling came through the music.

The rest of the “A Funky Situation” album was OK, but it was clearly designed to hitchhike on the disco wave. It didn’t sell much; I think there was a follow up album that I never got my hands on. 

Next thing I heard, he was getting busted for a drunkenly destructive drive across the lawn of some small-town Jersey mayor. In another mishap behind the wheel, a man died. I heard there were problems with drugs and drink.

Best thing I heard about his later years: in 1991, he was – quite properly, belatedly – inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. For some, that’s a green light to renewed career momentum, a fame transfusion that energizes them, often as some younger star takes up the cause of an elder hero and sponsors a new album. Bruce Hornsby brought back Leon Russell, who expressed gratitude for being rescued from “the rest area.” Tom Petty produced Del Shannon’s last album, his first in eight years; while Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen recharged Darlene Love’s battery before David Letterman and Paul Shaffer made her combustible “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” an over the top holiday tradition.

But that comeback train didn’t stop for Wilson Pickett, Mr. Over-the-Top, himself. He died in 2006 at just 64, before he could complete a Gospel album he’d worked on for years in a return to his church-shout roots.

Little Richard preached at the funeral. In an interview around the same time, Little Richard told me he was proud that Pickett dubbed him the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” a title he cherished.

Now, Little Richard is gone, too – two matchless voices wielded by thrilling wild men giving us intoxicating musical fun. Thinking about them and mourning them both – Little Richard recently and Wilson Pickett more than a decade ago – I realized they both sang happy; Pickett with a raucous but engaging growl, Little Richard in an anarchic spirit, spiced with danger.

How grateful I felt that I got to see them sing, and to hear those voices over the phone.

We’ll take up some other teases later:

What hard-rock singer asked about the size of my unit?

What pre-show bet with my wife Ellie turned into a backstage mini-concert for her alone?

*Race results from the “New York track” – the horse-racing facilities operated by the New York Racing Association, Saratoga, Belmont, Hialeah – produced the “number” – a three-digit calculation that multitudes bet daily before the NYS Lottery began. Betting the right number paid 600 to one, though the odds were 1,000 to one. It worked this way: dropping all the zeroes, adding the digits of the win, place and show results of last three races in order yielded a three digit result. Payoffs for the 7thrace produced the first digit; the sum of 8thrace results yielded the second digit; the 9thrace calculation provided the third and last digit. Gambling lore legend has it that the wire-room staffer would drop the race results out the window to gamblers below who’d dash across to Baum’s and place a bet they knew had won. I never saw this happen, but loved the idea.

Ben Lomio’s Broadway News, half a block from Baum’s and the Gazette, was numbers-betting headquarters. Daily cash pickups required a two-car convoy an hour after the last race. The money car came first, carrying the collectors; then came the gun car, carrying protection. When I told my dangerously witty friend Henry Hunter about this, he immediately hatched a robbery plan. Henry had one arm, and his plan involved wearing two artificial arms. He figured the gun guys would first canvass the area for three-armed stick-up specialists. This wouldn’t take long, but bracing all the two-armed robbers would, before going after the one-armed miscreants. Relating this over lunch to the late, great cartoonist John Caldwell, I concluded my account of Henry’s plan this way: “The key to the caper was his ingenious disguise.” Caldwell lost it, laughing. He sprayed a mouthful of diet Coke across the table and all over Ellie, next to me in the diner booth. To this day, when somebody laugh-sprays a mouthful over their table-mates, THAT’s a “Caldwell.”

Bonnaroo and Bonnie

In a previous post, we talked about Delaney and Bonnie & Friends’ Accept No Substitutes. Fast forward 44 years to a surprise encounter with Bonnie on a visit to my brother Jim in Nashville— one of those trips when music started happening as soon as I got there.

A cab carried me from the airport to SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) in an industrial zone of boxy, anonymous buildings. No sign announced the artists working there that day. But dropping the right names at the reception desk directed me to a large room filled almost end to end with a stage full of players and singers – lights, monitors, front of house PA and teleprompters. It looked just like a show, and held preparations for one. 

I was an audience of one at a rehearsal of John Oates (Daryl Hall And…) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) All Star Rock & Soul Super Jam Dance Party – a big name for a big band. When I walked in on them they were prepping to play Bonnaroo two days later. Up front Oates, James and Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) played guitars. But eclipsing them in presence and power, singer Brittany Howard (then with Alabama Shakes) was destroying the place, killing the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” I couldn’t see past her as she filled the room completely. Only when she finished did I recognize drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (the Meters) and jazz percussionist Cyro Baptista; and I didn’t meet the rest of the Revue until a break: keyboardist Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton’s band), bassist Steve Mackey (hundreds of Nashville sessions); singers Bilal (Robert Glasper and many NYC jazz & hip-hop projects), Lee Fields (the Expressions), Bekka Bramlett (vocals; daughter of Delaney & Bonnie, onetime member of Fleetwood Mac, and a firecracker) and Wendy Moten (session singer deluxe). In the back stage-right corner stood the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horns (sousaphone or baritone horn [a scaled down tuba with the range of a trombone but a darker, fuller sound], trombone, trumpet and tenor sax). Leading them was my brother Jim who arranged the horn parts and was the only horn player (on alto) who’d get a solo in the show; he also played a harmonica solo.  The mood was workmanlike/laid-back and nobody questioned me, or even noticed me much, as I walked around behind my Nikon.

As I watched, Bonnie Bramlett came in to see daughter Bekka sing, sitting next to me on a couch before the stage. The cover photo of “Accept No Substitutes” shows Delaney & Bonnie with two young kids: Bekka is the baby in the photo. As Bekka and Wendy worked out a harmony, I leaned toward Bonnie and suggested they needed her to help shape and sing their parts. Bonnie laughed, told me she considers herself retired from music and related some good-riddance stories about the business. She said she still loves to sing and wanted to form an a cappella crew of women singers to busk on street corners. I’d never seen the Original Delaney and Bonnie & Friends except in TV clips, so I was delighted, awed, to meet her. She was friendly, relaxed and happy to be acknowledged, at peace with her legacy.

Wendy Moten, Bekka Bramlett, John Oates and Bonnie Bramlett at SIR. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

When Oates spotted Bonnie there at SIR, he stopped the rehearsal, ran down and greeted her with glad reverence. During this lull, my brother Jim launched trad.-jazz numbers for fun and the Preservation Hall guys lit up and jumped in. Trombone player Ronell Johnson was especially good on these impromptu numbers and happy to take those rides. He comes from a big New Orleans musical family, though not as big as saxophonist-clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, then 80 and one of 20 children, all musicians. Jim was delighted to meet up with Charlie on Saturday before the show and talk old-time music and musicians. The Preservation Hall guys play what everybody else calls Dixieland but New Orleanians (who hate that term) call traditional jazz— the first music that Jim and I both loved, and still like.

On a break, Jim and I met up with Ziggy Modeliste at the coffee stand. We told him we admired his playing, and he replied, “When I play, I try to speak English” – and maybe no drummer lays down a beat with the clarity he brings to the kit.

OK, that was Thursday.

Then, on Saturday, show day, the band van picked us (Jim, our sister Annie’s son Noah and me) up at Jim’s house and took us to a hotel, Bonnaroo HQ in Manchester, for another rehearsal in a ballroom with the same crew, plus bassist Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone). The other guest stars who’d sing cameos – Billy Idol and R. Kelly – never made the rehearsal, which revolved around Larry Graham’s booming bass. At one point, though, Bekka Bramlett noticed her fellow singer Bilal seemed to be hanging back, as if unsure of his place in the music. She reached around his waist, gave a smile and tugged him right into the song, and he smiled back, grateful and glad. 

Everybody felt upbeat after this last rehearsal, knowing the music was polished and strong, but not too polished. It breathed. It swung. It rocked. It had soul.

Then vans took us inside the festival to backstage at This Tent – Bonnaroo stuff is called What Stage, Which Stage, etc. We could see a ferris wheel lighting up in the dusk beyond This Tent; later, big-ass fireworks hit during intermissions. Jim and I went out front and watched from the photo pit as Beach House played and totally delighted the 12,000-15,000 fans packed into This Tent. When they came off, grinning their way backstage, singer-keyboardist Victoria Legrand looked fresh but partner Alex Scally and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch looked like they’d been playing in a car wash.

Backstage at Bonnaroo were various facilities for artists before and after they played. As Jim’s guest, I had all access— a rock and roll term of art that means freedom to go everywhere backstage. I remember brother Jim getting all excited when he realized who Charlie Gabriel is and that he could just go talk with him, ask him about making music in New Orleans. Now, New Orleans traditional jazz is the first music Jim and I loved as kids. We both still do. So Jim was super-excited to strike up a conversation with Charlie, a living, lucid repository of that music, a natty man with a long memory. Jim invited Charlie into a hospitality tent to get out of the hot sun. Charlie was in an elegantly cut dark suit, dress shirt and tie – like in this video. I considered joining them, but I held back. I wanted to just let Jim have the conversation – without me butting in to ask the sorta questions a non-musician would.

When Jim and I decided to go eat, security radio’ed a golf cart which picked us up and hustled us through the throngs to the Artist Hospitality area. There, our Artist wristbands admitted us into a tent complex with a giant buffet (GOOD food, too! – grilled salmon, tofu and T-bones; baked potatoes; cauliflower; broccoli; sweet potato fries; fresh rolls & bread), salad bar, juice bar, dessert bar, open drinks bar, picnic areas and a barbecue shack. The Lumineers were playing right beside us; very cool dinner music. Then the golf cart took us back to This Tent where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was just about to go on. I was worried about how they’d go over, because they’re old guys in black suits playing antique music. But the same people who loved Beach House loved them, too, and that was really fun. Jim James came out and sang with them and the crowd went comprehensively bat-shit. 

Sound effects-comic Michael Winslow came onstage unannounced in Hendrix wig and clothes and uncannily imitated Hendrix’ Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” with just mouth noises and effects-pedals = astounding! 

Then the Rock & Soul Super Jam hit it at 12:35 a.m. and it was joy supreme: old soul and rock songs, done right and with spirit by pros/fans. When they finished “Thank You Falettinme Be Myself” – Larry Graham led the big bunch of Sly songs – and went off, the crowd kept chanting the refrain for about 5 minutes, really together and really loud. Then the Super Jam crew came back onstage, introduced guest R. Kelly and they tore up “Change is Gonna Come” and “Bring It On Home to Me.” Kelly left and out came Billy Idol to sing “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Neither Kelly nor Idol had ever showed up for rehearsal and nobody knew if they’d make it – but they both raced over after their own sets and threw themselves completely into the music, delighting the musicians. Brittany Howard roared through “Satisfaction,” Otis Redding-style, and Idol stuck around singing everything: When brother Jim raced down front from the horn section for his harp solo at Jim James’ vocal mic in “Take You Higher,” the last song, he bumped right into Idol and they both laughed. I was in the media pit between the stage and the crowd, with a dozen other photographers and a video crew through the whole show, and it was really thrilling to be that close to so much energy.

Then there was a big backstage hang with lots of drinks afterward: Everybody was in a great mood and really friendly backstage because they knew they had just destroyed the place and the crowd loved them and the songs. Most times when an artist wants the crowd to wave their hands, they get maybe 30 to 50 percent: when Larry Graham did it, he got about 300 percent. 

The band van wandered from musician’s place to musician’s place, dropping Bekka Bramlett at her converted school house in the country where she hugged everybody good bye. When Bekka Bramlett hugs, you stay hugged. We got back to Jim’s house on Nashville’s south side at 6 a.m., daylight was already poking around houses and across the neighborhood. I haven’t done a rock ‘n’ roll all-nighter in years and neither had Jim.

Chase this link to some video, backstage and onstage.

Rock in Peace, Little Richard

Late in Sean Rowe’s 80s-themed live-show-from-home Sunday afternoon, a lyric grabbed me by the throat. 

In his now-familiar dining room festooned with tiny hanging lights, he stepped to the mic right in front of the camera, strummed quiet chords on his Takamine acoustic six-string, decorated with bold bars of colorful duct tape and sang this:

“For seven years I could not cry, but that has left me now.”

Me, too.

I hadn’t wept since my parents passed, until last Saturday night when I sat next to my son, stream-watching “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and sipping the good stuff. Then, for no reason relating to the movie or the Woodford Reserve bourbon, I started thinking about Little Richard.

And the dam broke.

And I sat weeping, gasping, shattered.

There was no stopping this, no way to rationalize away the devastating sense of loss I felt. 

Sitting here now, trying to make sense of it, I reach back almost in vain for some predecessor moment that felt anything like this. 

The first time I mourned a star going out as a personal loss was Nat King Cole, who passed in 1965. But this had a delayed impact for me. In spring 1968, I sat by myself in a barracks on Goodfellow Air Force Base in west Texas, a closed SAC base where I was training in electronic intelligence. Gacked on Dexedrine smuggled from Ciudad Acuna, I wrote a fast blurt. I addressed it to Nat Cole’s spirit, telling him how I felt the world now had a huge, aching hole in it, left by his departure and the silencing of his elegant, polished music. 

Now, Nat’s smooth sound was anything but rock and roll.

He chose songs and sang them in such a restrained, mainstream, low-pressure way that our parents could dig him, and did.  

Yet there I sat, a year after Monterey, when music grew hair and mighty moral force to become a giant noise, and I mourned Nat Cole in words I wrote right to him.

No other loss hit me so hard, not Bob Marley, not John Lennon; not the holy trinity of the Iowa crash: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. I was in Seattle when its neon native son Jimi Hendrix died, in the rainy sadness of a whole city in tears. I don’t recall where I was when Janis Joplin followed just a month later.

But I’ll always remember I was quarantined in my house by the trumpandemic when Little Richard died.

Is that it? I thought at first that maybe I felt his loss so acutely because of all the other loss we all feel and fear now.

But, no.

I realized it’s really all about him, the Georgia Peach, the self-proclaimed Architect of Rock and Roll. 

Where Nat Cole was slick and cool, Little Richard was hot, a human high explosive. He came onstage (or screen) with his eyes wild, wide in joy and mischief. You knew on sight that he was trouble of the most delicious, shocking-to-our-parents power. Just check the clothes. Nat wore tastefully narrow lapels, Richard’s reached out to grab you, to cut through the air and close the distance to your pleasure centers. Hair heaped high in a sculpture of challenging effrontery, he was more than bold. He was a walking, strutting, howling, piano-pounding outrage – exhilarating and uniquely empowering, whenever and however I saw or heard him. He was raw, a shout of possibility. He made me feel free, or at least free-er.

At first, I didn’t quite understand it; I knew how his music made me feel, but at some point I wanted to know why. Wikipedia reminded me the answer was New Orleans.

Little Richard’s father was both a deacon of his church and a bootlegger who owned a nightclub; so how could Little Richard have turned out any other way? 

He preached a gospel of forbidden fruit, of in-your-face-transgression that felt righteous because it was so inescapably real. He toggled between the uplift of the divine and the dive bar all this life. His was the church of raw exultation, his nightclub one where forgiveness lived. 

In an early 90s phone interview, Little Richard told me of his famous re-conversion to devout Christianity aboard a plane to Australia as if it had happened to him yesterday. He spoke of the joy of performing with the same immediacy, and I wish I’d known to ask him about meeting Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When she heard him singing her songs outside a Macon concert in 1947, she asked the 14-year-old singer to open her show. Little Richard said he’d decided to play piano after hearing Ike Turner play “Rocket 88;” so he learned from perhaps the two most influential pre-rock and roll giants of his time.

When Little Richard started recording, producer Bumps Blackwell saw him as a new Ray Charles, but Little Richard instead wanted to sound like Fats Domino. So Blackwell recorded him at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studios in New Orleans with drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen and others from Fats’ band. When I pilgrimaged there during Jazz Fest, I found the building was a laundromat, as shown in “Treme.” When those records didn’t hit, Little Richard wrote “Tutti Frutti” in the Dew Drop Inn, but Blackwell had to hire songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up his sex-charged lyrics. In September 1955, Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” and cracked open the radio.

Of course, he went to New Orleans to make that music. 

I should have recognized its Fats-inspired rolling swing right away, but I thought of it then as fully Little Richard’s invention, totally original. I didn’t know for years that it came from South Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. I just knew how it made me feel. For me, after “Tutti Frutti,” nothing was the same. It was the Big Bang that let that wild, raw, explosive, brash and beautiful man and his music out of the bag, loose into an uptight world where Elvis was just starting to make his mark. Little Richard’s stardom was even more startling, a blast of joy, at once engaging and confrontational.

Others could play his songs – even that whitest of white-bread imitators Pat Boone. But even his most ardent and talented admirers couldn’t sound like him.

I didn’t know until I read Charles White’s authorized biography that Little Richard was gay or, as he described himself, “omnisexual.”  But I wondered if ignoring conventional gender borders liberated him to become the person he invented. 

He arguably invented others, too. Paul McCartney learned his scream from Little Richard and the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard’s follow up to “Tutti Frutti.” As “No Direction Home” shows us, Bob Dylan wrote in his yearbook of his ambition: “to join Little Richard.”

However wide his influence has been, even in those years when McCartney was learning Little Richard’s scream and Bob Dylan was learning his fearlessness, we somehow knew we’d never see another one.

In a moment of humble self-awareness, Elvis once reflected that he’d been fortunate to come along when there was no trend. Little Richard came along when there was nothing like him, and there never will be.

Getting back to Sean Rowe for a moment, let’s give another original his due: the Troy-born troubadour of bottomless voice and spooky resonant guitar.

Rowe was doing house concerts long before quarantine time, so he moved easily into performing from his own dining room. These shows feel all the more human for those moments when he pauses to adjust something; using the clasp of a pen to clip a folded bill into his guitar strings, say; or visiting the bathroom.

As he wrote on his website:

“This is why I do house shows: I want to connect…I want to take you on an intimate musical journey that you and your friends will remember forever. Do I love club shows? Hell, YES. I love the vibe, the energy, the lights, the heat. I want to see you out there, too. But this is a different beast. Maybe a gentler, more homey beast.”

In his May 10 show, Mother’s Day, he sang 1980s pop and indie rock songs, and his own.

And the one that hit me with a vivid evocation of Little Richard – though Rowe writes and sings nothing like him – is “Flying.” Little Richard performed with big bands in matching outfits. A human trumpet himself, he surrounded himself with saxophones. In dark t-shirt and two-tone beard, Rowe is a bass, a cello; and he sounded glorious singing these tunes, familiar or not. He helpfully listed them for his listeners in an email after he put his guitar away.

Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes)]

With You or Without You (U2)

Surprise

Wrong Side of the Bed

Lady in Red (Chris DeBurgh)

We’re Not the Same

I’ll Follow Your Trail

Squid Tattoo

Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)

You Don’t Have to Worry

A Forest (The Cure)

Psycho Killer

Tornado Head

It’s hard, if exhilarating, to imagine Little Richard singing in your house, in ANY house. 

As young confined Catholics, brother Jim and I would imagine a loud rock and roll takeover during mass. The Rolling Stones or the Mothers of Invention would burst onto the altar, elbow the priest aside and rock the joint, to the gaping horror of the pious multitude. 

Now, I believe that seeing prime and primal Little Richard do that would be even better. In clothes you could see from Vancouver, hair up to THERE, pounding the piano as if to demolish it, howling octave over octave, he’d give the congregation something to worship, all right.

In June 1995, Little Richard played here for the last time before retiring. A bit incongruously, he was on whatever SPAC’s Jazz Festival was called that year, a non-jazz box office classic-rocker added to the line-up to sell tickets to mainstream fans; like Chic this year before that Fest, like all fests, was canceled. Though he had to grab a band member’s hand for stability, Little Richard still climbed on top of the grand piano. He was still a force of nature. All the voice was still there – like the clothes, like the hair – and he seemed likely to pound the piano down through the stage. 

It wasn’t 1955, or even 1975, but it was “Tutti Frutti,” and it was glorious.

I didn’t know then that I’d never see Little Richard again.

And so, when the full, awful wrenching pain of that recognition hit me – beside my son on the couch in my quarantined house – I had no way to dance past the grief. 

There’s no hiding from our loss of Little Richard. There’s only gaudy, funny, fierce memories of his brilliantly engaging and noisy nonsense, blurred through tears.

A wop boppa looma, a wop bam boom.

From the Record Shelf: Accept No Substitutes

Son Zak suggested I grab and gab: pick out, listen to and talk about an album. So I picked a buried treasure, Accept No Substitutes, a half-forgotten masterpiece by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. It’s a 1969 classic from the mid-south by way of LA, a record Jimi Hendrix described as “Call it spiritual, and leave it at that.” I’ve loved it since the summer of Woodstock.

Acceptmay be less well known than Motel Shot, a later effort whose bulging talent roster boasted British superstar Eric Clapton. “Slowhand”/God jumped the sinking ship of Blind Faith to sail instead on the soul-gospel-R&B wings of the loose crew of flyover-state pros Mississippian Delaney Bramlett recruited from LA’s Wrecking Crew studio gang. An elastic ensemble, Delaney and Bonnie’s “Friends” featured top talent including George Harrison, Duane and Gregg Allman, Dave Mason, King Curtis and more. Clapton once said Bramlett taught him how to sing. This album shows those lessons in Delaney’s confident soulful swagger. Then-wife Bonnie – likely the palest ever Ikette (background singer in Ike and Tina Turner’s Revue) – more than holds her own with power and subtlety. 

Like the Mad Dogs and Englishmen touring juggernaut he launched a few years later behind Joe Cocker, and with some of the same players, Leon Russell was the guiding principle shaping the Friends as keyboardist and arranger.  But here, the hit-record aim of LA studio cats animates the music more than the laid-back Tulsa shuffles that dominated his later music, while also miraculously retaining a proud regional tang.

Acceptis a glorious monster of deep soul. 

Only Dan Penn’s exhortation “Do Right Woman” stretches past five minutes and most tunes hit it and quit it in around three. They’re righteous radio-ready blasts of concise power. 

Like “Do Right,” many songs urge better behaviors, but without preaching or pretense. They deliver their wisdom from the neighboring barstool, not the pulpit. Huge sonic generosity confers a welcoming acceptance that renders the album title deliciously warm, un-ironic. 

There’s a dancefloor beat under nearly everything. Voices and horns mass into choirs with soloists standing up amid muscular harmonies. They shake out their robes and reach for the stars; most later became stars. The Friends on Acceptinclude future luminaries Jim Keltner, drums; Carl Radle, bass; trumpeter Jim Price, organist Bobby Whitlock and saxophonist Bobby Keys, guitarist Jerry McGee and singer Rita Coolidge. But the album is less about star-time than about speaking to us since these masters play with such low-key, well, human-ness and a well-oiled command of sounds that, like The Band’s music, predates commercial trends of the time. It helps that Keltner’s drum sound feels way clearer and cleaner than most percussion engineering of the time. 

The opening “Get Ourselves Together” enlists the listener in the vibe right out of the box. More than reminding us that we’re all in this together – a lesson compelling enough in these times – it announces that we’re doingthis together; active and energetic. Just try to listen passively to Accept– can’t be done.

Next, “Someday” revs the sonic-righteous force with a tempo shift in the middle that carries your pulse with it, inside it.

“Ghetto” is Delaney at his most powerfully plaintive, riding Russell’s choir-loft piano like sun sparkling on moving water, until women’s voices edge their way in, pushing him into falsetto, then shouts, as strings gang up on us for a minute.

A march beat chugs foursquare under “When the Battle Is Over,” Bonnie’s voice answering Delaney’s power in “Ghetto,” This time, stirring women’s voices lock to bluesy piano-and-guitar chords before Delaney knocks on the door, walks in, sings his piece (or peace?), both challenging and decorating Bonnie’s lead. On its face “Battle” may seem a simple, obvious report on the battle of the sexes – and Delaney and Bonnie divorced three years after this album hit. So the next three tunes – “Dirty Old Man,” “Love Me a Little Bit Longer” and “I Can’t Take it Much Longer” – deliver pleas powered by defiance more than desperation. In “Dirty Old Man,” Bonnie warns, “Darling, listen here” and growls strong in accusation.

If “Do Right Woman” is the album’s moral fulcrum, its last two tunes bear enough heft in exultant forgiveness to balance it. The pulsating “Soldiers of the Cross” waves the flag of united action, in humility, before breaking out into “This Little Light of Mine,” Bonnie leading in proud exhortation. After its up-and-down dynamic, you wipe sweat from your face and marvel that this great band drove us so hard in just a few breaths over three minutes.

Where to go from there but “Gift of Love” with its serene mid-tempo benediction reassuring us that “love is everywhere.”

As it fades, Bonnie’s voice rings in the choir behind Delaney’s comforting words.

Fast forward 44 years in a future post.