Tag Archives: Johnny Cash

Million Dollar Quartet

Sun Records

7 Aug , 2012,
Miles
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Sun Records


Sun logo

Sun Records

Sun Records—I was about five years old in the early 1970s, when my grandmother first played a Johnny Cash record for me. I think it was “I Walk the Line”, or maybe “Ring of Fire”. I liked the way the rhythm reminded me of a train. I liked Johnny’s voice, and I liked the guitars of Cash and Luther Perkins. My dad had already played some old Elvis records for me, which I also liked. I had rockabilly in my ear from an early age. What I didn’t know at the time was, this sound that I liked was known as the “Sun Sound”. Both Elvis and Johnny Cash started their long careers at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, with Sun founder, Sam Phillips acting as music producer, guiding and directing their sound.

Sun Records–Sam Phillips and a Good Idea

Sam Phillips at Sun Records

The Sun Sound began when Phillips launched his record company in early 1952. He named it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: it was a new day and a new beginning for Phillips and for music in general. Phillips rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue, in Memphis, for his own all-purpose studio. Sun Records was launched amid a growing number of independent labels, and in only a short time Sun gained the reputation throughout Memphis as a label that treated local musicians with respect and honesty. Phillips provided a non-critical, spontaneous environment that invited and encouraged creativity and vision.

Sam Phillips had a good ear for music. He could tell when something was “good” or merely “good enough”. Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. In the early 1950s, Memphis was home to a diverse musical landscape–gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing were all popular in the South, and were gaining popularity in the rest of the country. Phillips was a businessman who was able to take advantage of this range of talent–and to eventually become wealthy in the process. In one form or another, Sam Phillips found a way for Sun to record all styles and genres of music. Because of the vast pool of talent to draw from locally, there seemed to be no limitations at Sun. Sun Records was already doing well, but the label hadn’t yet found the One to put it on the map

Sun Records–Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

Then, in 1954, by chance, a young truck driver from Mississippi, named Elvis Presley, came into Sun studios to record a song for his mother. In Elvis, Phillips found an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. Elvis helped form the beginnings of the Sun Sound by infusing Country music with R&B. Elvis’s bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Among his Sun contemporaries were Johnny Cash, the “killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet, because of an accidental, impromptu recording session, one Tuesday afternoon in December 1956.

Shortly after those stars were signed at Sun, came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, Harold Jenkins—later to be known as Conway Twitty–and other equally memorable musical talents. All these artists eventually sold on Pop, R&B, and Country charts and grew to international fame.

Sun Records–Rockabilly to the Masses

Sun Studios2

Rockabilly became the major evolution in the Sun Sound. Lyrically the music was bold; these kids sang about things that the generations of young people before had only thought about, but dared not mention out loud. The music itself was sparse and exciting; and it certainly moved in ways that popular music hadn’t moved before.

In the 1950s, Country music rarely used the drums that were so vital to jazz, blues, and jump bands. In fact, at the time, drums were prohibited on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. But in Rockabilly, drums played a vital role in driving teens across the nation to get behind the Rockabilly movement and the revolutionary Sun Sound. Once again, Sun was able to break new ground, recording music of unparalleled diversity and creativity.  The lasting quality of Sam Phillips’ Sun label is vibrancy that survives to this day. Sun produced sincere, passionate music that has stood for almost 60 years. Sun’s music takes us back to our roots, while it moves us forward. It is music that has reached across race, age and gender boundaries. It reflects the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label, and indeed, American popular culture itself. Sam Phillips didn’t set out to change American music forever, it just happened. Sun Records was a place for locals to make some music, and for Phillips to make some money without having to get a real job. Phillips only wanted to pay his rent, and have fun while doing it.

 

Sun Records.

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Elvis

19 Jan , 2012,
Miles
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Elvis

I was just turning nine years old in July of 1977. but, I remember well August 16, 1977 when Elvis Presley died. Of course, I knew his name, and even at that young age, I knew songs like Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel. Being nine, I didn’t quite get it yet.

Elvis1

I remember Dad getting home from work that day in shock and disbelief. Dad kept saying that he couldn’t believe he was gone. I didn’t know what was going on. I had been outside playing Star Wars all day. I don’t think I had even turned on the TV yet. Okay, so Elvis was dead, but it didn’t really mean anything to me then. I was already a fan of the TV show Happy Days. I thought Fonzie was still the coolest thing around. Young Elvis reminded me of Fonzie, and I was cool with that.

It was years later, after I got into high school, that I developed a true appreciation for Elvis. I was starting to discover rockabilly in the early ’80s. It was the Stray Cats who reminded me that I had heard these sounds before. In my mind, even though Elvis had become the punch-line to a bad joke among my circle of friends, there was still something that I liked about him. I chose to ignore the cheesy, Las Vegas Elvis, preferring to listen to the younger, ‘dangerous’ version of Elvis.

Elvis–Sun Records

Elvis5Anyone who cares to know, has already heard that in the early 1950s, a young Elvis Presley went into Sam Phillips’ Sun recording studio, to make a record for his mother,and how Phillips later nearly shat himself when he realized that he had found exactly what he was looking for with a young white boy who had the look and sound that would turn the music industry upside-down. Phillips had been looking for a white kid who could match the intensity of what the young black artists were doing at the time. The term Rock and Roll hadn’t even been coined yet, and Phillips was hoping that he could find a way to break into the white audience market with an artist that wouldn’t frighten the money–or the audience–away.

Elvis–the Million Dollar Quartet

Between 1953 and 1955, Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings were cut at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is a melting pot of many types of music: both black music–blues, rhythm & blues and gospel–and white music–country & western and hillbilly. The records that Elvis made reflect these influences.

Million Dollar Quartet

Elvis recorded more than 20 songs at Sun, 18 of them have survived and two tapes are lost. Ten were released by Sun as Elvis’ first five singles between 1954 and 1955,  A year or so after he left Sun Records–although Elvis would never officially record with Sun again–Elvis was caught on tape during an impromptu jamming session on December 4, 1956. Presley had arrived during a Carl Perkins recording session, which also featured a young Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, with Johnny Cash watching on. During a break in recording Elvis sat at the piano and began to sing along with Perkins, Lewis and Cash. Phillips kept his tape recorder running and, seeing an opportunity to promote another of his new acts, he arranged for a reporter to cover the event. The recordings would eventually be known as “The Million Dollar Quartet”.

Las Vegas would come later…

Elvis

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Warren Smith1

Warren Smith

10 Dec , 2011,
Miles
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Warren SmithWArren Smith 4

Warren Smith isn’t a name people just know off of the top of their heads. Most everyone it seems, knows Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Even if they aren’t great fans of the music, people generally know these guys’ names. Warren Smith is a name that gets by most of us.

Warren Smith–Auditions for Sun Records

Smith was born in Mississippi and started playing guitar to ward off boredom while stationed in Texas, in the United States Air Force. When he was discharged from the service, Smith moved to West Memphis, Arkansas to pursue a career in music. After a successful audition at the Cotton Club–not THE Cotton Club in Harlem–this Cotton Club was a local, Arkansas night spot–Steel guitarist Stan Kessler, who was playing at the nightclub with the Snearly Ranch Boys, took Smith to Sun Records to audition for Sam Phillips, with the Snearly Ranch Boys as his band.

Warren Smith 3

Phillips liked Smith’s sound. “Rock & Roll Ruby”–a song credited to Johnny Cash–would be Smith’s first Sun recording. Smith later claimed that George Jones actually wrote “Rock & Roll Ruby” and sold to Cash for $40, but that is a story for a different time.

Warren Smith–Rock & Roll Ruby Out-Debuts Some of the Greats

Smith recorded “Rock & Roll Ruby” on February 5, 1956. “Rock & Roll Ruby” hit No. 1on the local pop charts. Smith’s first Sun Records recording went on to outsell the first Sun releases by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.

Warren Smith–Ubangi Stomp

In August 1956, Smith went back to the Sun Records studio to record his second release, “Ubangi Stomp”. This catchy, rollicking song had a politically-incorrect lyric including an African chief with the the grammar syntax of a bad movie Indian. “Ubangi Stomp” would almost certainly not be well-received today, and in fact, could be condemned racist by the more sensitive listener, but in the ’50s, people weren’t paying attention to that sort of thing. Besides, it is still a fun song.

Warren Smith Sun1

For the B side, Smith recorded the classic 18th century British ballad, “Black JackDavid”. This English folk song had survived for generations in various forms in the mountain communities of the American south, and may be the oldest song ever recorded by a rock and roll performer. Although it was a great artistic success, “Black Jack David” did not sell anywhere near as well as “Rock & Roll Ruby”.

In 1957, Smith recorded “So Long, I’m Gone”, a song written by Roy Orbison. It did become Smith’s biggest hit at Sun, peaking at No. 74 nationally on the Billboard charts, but Sun had no cash to promote it at the time. Sam Phillips was putting every dollar Sun had behind Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”.

Warren Smith1

Although Smith continued to make rockabilly records for Sun, including a cover version of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love if You Want It”, which was recorded in October 1957, none of these records did well commercially. Toward the end of 1958, Smith, seeing his future in country music, cut a cover version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl”. It was Smith’s final record for Sun. In spite of a review in Billboard calling it “ultra commercial”, this record also failed to sell. Like other artists such as Sonny Burgess, Hayden Thompson, Billy Lee Riley and Ray Harris, chart success largely eluded him. Smith then decided to leave Sun Records.

In 1959, Smith and his wife and son moved from Mississippi to California, settling in Sherman Oaks, not far from Johnny and Vivian Cash. Cash offered Smith a spot on his show, but Smith turned it down, seeing himself as a headliner, not a supporting player. In early 1960, Smith signed with Liberty Records, and immediately scored a hit with “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today”, which went to Number 5 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. This record, and Smith’s subsequent records, were produced by Joe Allison, and featured one of California’s best country session musicians, Ralph Mooney, on pedal steel guitar. Smith scored again with his next record for Liberty, “Odds and Ends, Bits and Pieces”, written by Harlan Howard. Liberty had Smith record several more tracks, mostly cover versions of recent country hits, to flesh out an album called The First Country Collection of Warren Smith.

Smith continued to record with some success for Liberty, and to tour with his band,Warren Smith 5 from 1960–1965. On August 17, 1965, Smith was involved in a serious car accident in LaGrange, Texas, and suffered serious back injuries from which it took him nearly a year to recover. By this time, his contract with Liberty had lapsed. Smith made several attempts to restart his career, first with a small, virtually amateur label called Skill Records, then for Mercury Records; but addictions to pills and alcohol held him back. Eventually, Smith’s drug problems led to an 18-month term in an Alabama prison for robbing a pharmacy.

After his release from prison, Smith continued to struggle to restart his career. In the late 1970s, he got a bit of a boost from the rockabilly revival then occurring. In 1977, he was invited to appear at London’s Rainbow Theatre, on a bill featuring Charlie Feathers, Buddy Knox and Jack Scott. To his shock, Smith was received in London with standing ovations. His reception in England boosted his spirits and, upon his return to the U.S., he began to perform with new-found vigor. In November 1978, Smith and fellow Sun alumnus Ray Smith toured Europe, again to great success.

In 1980, while preparing for another European tour, Smith died of a heart attack at 47 years of age.

Smith’s contribution to rockabilly music has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan has repeatedly featured Smith on his XM Satellite Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, playing Smith’s records “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache”, “Uranium Rock”, “Ubangi Stomp” and “So Long, I’m Gone”. Dylan recorded a studio version of “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache” in 2001 and also played that song and “Uranium Rock” in concert in 1986.

Warren Smith still isn’t a name a lot of people are familiar with. To the rockabilly enthusiast, however, Warren Smith isn’t someone to let slip from your attention too long. Virtually unknown or not, Warren Smith has earned his place at the table.

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Marshall Grant 1928-2011

10 Aug , 2011,
Miles
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Marshall Grant–May 5, 1928-August 7, 2011

Tennessee three

Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s original bass player, helped create the pulsing “boom-chicka-boom” sound that so many of us associate with Johnny Cash and the Tennesee Two.  Grant died Sunday in Jonesboro, Ark. at the age of 83.

I’ve been a fan of Johnny Cash’s music since Grandma used to play his music for me when I was a small boy. It wasn’t until the past fifteen or twenty years that I even paid attention to the fact that Cash had other guys with him, both on stage and in the studio.

San Quinton 1

Marshall Grant played acoustic and electric bass with Cash from 1954 to 1980.  His bass lines gave songs like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, “the Man in Black” and many of the other Johnny Cash songs and recordings that foundation that reminds me of a damned train.  Grant was at least partially the ‘sound’ of Johnny Cash’s music that we take for granted, as exemplified by the Cash recordings at Folsom prison and San Quentin.

Marshall Grant– 1/3 of the Tennessee Three

Luther Perkins was the other original member of the Tennessee Two. Perkins played lead guitar and created the scratchy rhythm pattern overlaying Marshall Grant’s bass lines. With the addition of the drummer W.S. Holland in 1960, Cash’sMarshall Grant 1 backup became the Tennessee Three.

The group’s signature sound came into being pretty much overnight, as Grant recounted on a number of occasions. Shortly after he switched from rhythm guitar to bass–which he didn’t really know how to play–he and his fellow musicians began experimenting with the group’s new configuration.

tennessee three“We finally got it [bass] tuned, and then we stuck adhesive tape all over the neck with the notes on it, and then we started playing little rhythm patterns,” Grant said when he and Perkins were inducted into the Musicians’ Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn., in 2007. Grant never claimed to be a great musician. He and the band just did what they did. “The only thing that we could do was what the world now knows as the boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom sound that we established that first night.”

Marshall Grant–Cash and Sun Records

Marshall Grant was introduced to Johnny Cash in 1947. After the band failed tosun records logo1 impress Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips with their first audition, the trio passed a second audition and began recording in 1955 on a roster that included Elvis Presley and other early rock and rollers, such as Carl Perkins. They earned modest success quickly and built on it with appearances first on the Louisiana Hayride and eventually the Grand Ole Opry. In time, that simple rhythmic pattern would infiltrate country music and would soon change everything.

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three recorded and toured together for the next 25 years. Grant was a teetotaler and non-smoker, and it kind of fell to him to take on the arduous responsibility of shepherding Cash to performances through the years of his well-documented drug abuse and erratic, self-destructive behavior. “I took every step that he took, I looked out after him,” Grant said in a 2008 interview with the website classicbands.com. “I did everything you could do for a person.”

Marshall Grant–a “rock” said Roseanne Cash

“Marshall was a solid, solid rock,” Roseanne Cash told The Nashville Tennessean. “I cannot imagine what would have happened on those tours without him. He understood how complicated my dad was, that he was a great musician who had real demons.”

After parting ways with Cash, who died in 2003, Grant managed the Statler Brothers, with whom he had recorded the 1965 hit “Flowers on the Wall.” After a nearly 30 year silence between Grant and Cash, the two later reconciled and performed together on stage in 1999. I was glad of that.

Marshall Grant–one of my heros, even if I didn’t know it

Marshall Grant 3I remember hearing bass lines when I was a kid. McCartney was my first bass hero,Marshall Grant –although I didn’t know his name at the time–was my second.

McCartney1

 

 

 

 

Marshal Grant

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Wall of Voodoo

7 Aug , 2011,
Miles
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Wall of Voodoo

Wall of Voodoo 2 band photoEven as a kid, I knew Wall of Voodoo. I remember in the late 1970s and very early ’80s, seeing Wall of Voodoo on SNL and hearing them on the hip radio stations in Southern California. Those guys were a little strange to me. I liked them. Mexican Radio was the first song I heard by Wall of Voodoo, and it’s the only song of theirs that I remember off of the top of my head. I had just started listening to KROQ–Modern Roq of the ’80s!–and my world, at least musically, was expanding at a furious rate. I was discovering New Wave and so much of what that realm encompassed.

Wall of Voodoo–one of my early New Wave experiences

The years 1979 and 1980 blended together to me, musically. By that time, disco and the Bee Gees were pretty much done, and I was just beginning to hear a different music. I was going on 12. Pop radio just wasn’t interesting to me. I was out-growing what I was being spoon-fed by some of the traditional, commercial radio stations, and I wanted to hear something different.

b-52s yellow album

The B-52s’ Rock Lobster was a song that turned my world upside-down the first fewtimes I heard it on the radio. So was Dance This Mess Around and Planet Claire. I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about Rock Lobster and the B-52s soon. I remember when Devo’s Gates of Steel was released after their first two singles, Freedom of Choice and Whip it! As damned silly as I recognized New Wave was, there was something about it that I liked. There were some other good Devo yellow albumsongs and artists that got my attention in my early-adolescence. One artist–one band in particular–I have been thinking of for the past few days is Stan Ridgway and “his” Wall of Voodoo. Wall of Voodoo was one of the sillier bands to come out of that time, and that was okay with me. Music was changing for me. I still held my parents’ Beatles, Stones, and Dylan LP collections in the highest regard, and I felt that I had so much more to learn.

Wall of Voodoo was a concept by Stan Ridgway. Ridgway had started a film-score business in Hollywood. Acme Soundtracks was right across the street from the Masque, one of Hollywood’s early punk clubs. He had  been making tapes–with overdubbed, synthesized drums and keyboards. and vocals–in the studio with a friend one day. Ridgway was fooling around, layering sounds, feeling pretty good about himself, when he compared his multiple-drum tracks and Farifsa organ-rich recordings to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The friend laughed and commented that they sounded more like a Wall of Voodoo. That was it. Wall of Voodoo. The original line-up for Wall of Voodoo was Stan Ridgway, Marc Moreland on guitar, Bruce Moreland on bass, Chas T. Gray on keyboard, and Joe Nanini on drums.

Stan Ridgway–Wall of Voodoo’s First EP

Wall of Voodoo released a self-titled EP in 1980 which featured a unique, synthesizer-driven New Wave version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, which didn’t entirely suck. The second half of “Ring of Fire” features a dissonant guitar and synthesizer solo covering the theme to the 1966 film, Our Man Flint, and was interesting for a young Johnny Cash fan to hear.

Wall of Voodoo–Dark Continent

Wall of Voodoo cover

In 1981, Wall of Voodoo released their first full-length album, Dark Continent. Bruce Moreland left the band–for the first time–soon after this, and Chas Gray performed on both bass and keyboard during this time. The band recorded their biggest-selling album, Call of the West in 1982. That same year, Wall of Voodoo opened for the Residents on part of the cult band’s first tour, “the Mole Show”, in Pasadena CA in early summer. The track “Mexican Radio” was their only Top 100 hit in the USA and the video for the song got some good exposure on the newly created MTV. Bill Noland was added as a keyboardist soon after the release of this album.

According to Stan Ridgway, the situation around Wall of Voodoo was becoming increasingly chaotic due to a lot of drug use and out-of-control behavior by the the band members. And, there was the sketchy behavior of the band’s managementand record label, who were jerking the band around over money.

Wall of Voodoo–Play the US Festival…then Disband

Wall of voodo 2Wall of Voodoo appeared at the largest show they had ever done–possibly the largest show in Southern California since Cal Jam II a few years before–the second US Festival–on May 28, 1983, immediately following the US Festival, Ridgway, Nanini, and Noland all left the band, and Stan Ridgway soon went on to a successful solo career, appearing as guest vocalist on a track on the Rumble Fish score and releasing his first solo album in 1986.

Ridgway’s Wall of Voodoo music could fairly be described as a cross between early synthesizer pop and the soundtacks to old,  Spaghetti-western films. Creating this distinctive yet strange sound were unusual percussive instrumentation–including many kitchen cooking utensils–some twangy guitar, and Ridgway’s unique vocal stylings.

Stan Ridgway–30 Years Later, What Does He Care?

Stan Ridgway probably has plenty to think about these days. He has a lot going on. Ridgway has had a pretty good career since his Wall of Voodoo days.  He probably doesn’t care that there is a guy out there who still thinks about and finds himselfband photo Wall of Voodoo4 singing what is possibly his favorite line ever– “I wish I was in Tiajuana, eating BBQed iguana…”. But, I gotta tell you, Wall of Voodoo was one of those bands who helped turn everything around for me as I made my way through puberty, saying goodbye to the ’70s and wondering what the 1980s would be about. Stan Ridgway and the Wall of Voodoo  helped bring me into New Wave.

 

 

Wall of Voodoo

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X–I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

4 Jun , 2011,
Miles
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;

X–I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.

I awoke this morning at my mountain top, the smell of coffee and bachelor chow ala campfire caught my attention. My sister’s

EXENE and JOHN DOEbirthday would be coming soon. It’s almost June. June is No Negativity Month. I like it.

After my first coffee and choker, I was thinking of the band X. more specifically, I was thinking of the bass part from I Must not Think Bad Thoughts, from X’s 1983 Electra/Asylum release, More Fun in the New World.

When we were in high school, our youth minister, JD had the greatest vinyl collection–indeed, one of the greatest music collections–I had ever seen.  JD was a divorced guy in his mid 30s.  JD was the guy who could make a twenty minute drive in ten minutes when he had to.    He was pastor of the Methodist Church.  His favorite band is probably still the Rolling Stones.  JD introduced us high school kids, living in the hills, to lots of punk rock and new wave…and the band X.

 

 

 

X–Will the last American band to get played on the radio, please bring the flag?

x los angeles coverIt’s funny that although I liked the way the Americans played rock and roll–we invented it, for cryin’ out loud!–I was still neck-deep in both British Invasions–Beatles, Stones, Sex Pistols, the Clash,  I already knew who Sioiuxsie and the Banshees were, and my friends and I were starting to get into more American rockabilly.  Some–okay, a lot of–the early Sun Records material still sounded kinda hokey to us at first.  This would take some getting used to, but we would manage.

I already knew a little about Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins from my grandmother.  Dad taught me about Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets when I was younger–wasn’t rock Around the Clock  used as the opening for the first season of Happy Days?

Anyway, I wasn’t just being plunged into ice cold 1950s rockabilly without any preparation. I was already a Stray Cats fan.  I knew a little about rockabilly, I just preferred to work my way back to the original artists slowly.

One day after school, my friends and I went to see what JD was up to.  When we got to his place,  JD was watching a beta–anyone old enough to remember Betamax?–copy of an X concert  that we watched.  I was about 16 at the time.

X–Talk about presence…john doe

I was drawn to X.  I remember not being able to take my eyes off of Exene Cervenka.  Billy Zoom, standing like a damned statue,playing all the right guitar notes.  And to me, X has always been about John Doe and his amazing, perfectly-timed and phrased bass parts and vocals.

X wasn’t even really rockabilly, exactly.  I heard the term “Cowpunk” a few times to describe X’s sound.  I like it.  I think it fits.

Discovering what other American bands were doing in the early 1980s

I had pretty much been a Clash guy for a few months at that point–with other music drifting in and out–but when I heard I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, and the long list of perhaps unjustly over-looked American bands, I knew I was on a mission.  I had to find out about some of this music.  I had heard of many of the American artists they mentioned in the song, but I had really yet to discover “…the Minutemen, Flesh Eaters, D.O.A., Big Boys and Black Flag…”

I was looking forward to the journey.  I still enjoy the journey.

Yeah, don’t get me started on the band, Journey.  June is coming soon.  June is “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” month.  I’llbilly zoom rant against the band Journey again soon enough, I suspect.

In the Beatles’ song, Let it Be, Paul McCartney tells us that in his times of trouble, he is comforted by Mother Mary and her words of wisdom.  That’s cool.  I’m glad.  I often like to listen to X and remind myself that I must not think bad thoughts.  In many ways, it’s the same thing.

From the top of my mountain, morning chores and devotions over, I listen to the band X, and I don’t have to remind myself not to think bad thoughts.    X.

 

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Train Songs

31 May , 2011,
Miles
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Trains

Trains.  On and off for over twenty years, no matter where I lived in my adopted home town, I could hear the trains from one of the two sets of tracks running through town. It was comforting to me in some ways. The sounds and rhythms are still familiar to me. Sometimes, I miss the sounds of the trains. I remember the first week I stayed in my new apartment at the corner of Glen and Sant Fe–near Hoover school. I was working the overnight shift at the radio station six nights a week. I was pretty much a day sleeper. I had heard the trains coming through town, but this was insane! I was trying to sleep while it seemed to me, that the trains were coming right through the damned building. It took some getting used to. For our various photography classes in college, we would often find ourselves at the 23rd street tracks, snapping all sorts of images of trains and all things railroad. We saw things and paid attention to aspects of trains that we had never noticed before. After class, we’d all head back to our place, drink coffee and listen to Johnny Cash as we did homework. 

I always liked how johnny Cash’s and Luther Perkins’ guitars sounded like trains to me when I was small and would sit with my grandmother, and we’d listen to Rock Island Line.

Trains–Woody Guthrie

I knew Woody Guthrie’s name, and that he was an American icon, but I never really understood just how much of Guthrie’s music was ingrained in me, just from living in America in the 20th century.  I still don’t know as much about Woody Guthrie as I wish I did.  I think I have ittrain2in my mind that it was the music of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Leadbelly first made me want to ride trains.  A little over twenty years ago, a buddy and I rode a boxcar down to beautiful, downtown Fresno.  We were in Fresno until it looked like we were going to be locked in the stockyard  with a couple of pit-bulls.  We called dude’s girlfriend to come pick us up.

I shared this story about trains with my uncle last week, who told me about the time he and a buddy of his hopped in a boxcar and rode trains from Los Angeles to  San Bernardino in the early 1960s.  By the time they had been on the trains for a few hours, they decided to just catch some Chinese food in town and hitch-hike home to Los Angeles.

Trains are so Americana.  No one likes being stuck behind trains, especially when we’re late, but for all of our technological advances over the years, trains are still the best way to get some things from point a to point b.  And we Americans seem to have this thing about our railroads and trains.  There has been a romantic attachment to hopping trains and seeing where they take us.  And, the thing is, so much of the notion of the glory of hopping trains and being free is romanticized bullsh*t.   Traveling alone and unarmed with cash and musical instruments can be dangerous.  No one wants to get rolled and ripped off.

Trains–traveling and coming home

And there is always that call to travel.  Not necessarily a call to arrive anywhere in particular, just to make the journey. And I like taking trips.  Every once in a while, I will take a look around and realize that I’ve been ‘here’ too long.  It’s time to go.  Bob Dylan talked about the feeling of wanting to go home.  In the early 1960s, Dylan travelled across much of the United States by different means, I’m sure.   I’ll bet he hitch-hiked a lot, and I think he probably rode a lot of  trains.

leadbelly2Dylan claimed that although  he didn’t really know where home was, he wanted to keep traveling until he got there.   Bob Dylan hopped a lot of trains and slept in a lot of boxcars during the early 1960s.

A few months ago, I re-discovered a sense of wanting to come home.  That wore off quickly as I found that in so many ways, I had come back home.  Yet, in so many other ways, home was a time and not a place for me.  Perhaps I’ll keep traveling.  Make a new home for a while.

So…trains.  Trains are great.  Trains make for great rhythm tracks–Ha!  Get it?–for music.   When I think of american music and trains, I guess the people I’m thinking of are Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Johnny Cash specifically. but I suspect that many other artists working in other genres have used the sounds of trains as the foundations of their music.  Yeah, trains are good.

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More About Johnny Cash…

24 May , 2011,
Miles
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How much more can I say about Johnny Cash?

I was introduced to Johnny Cash’s music when I was a little kid in the 1970s. My Oklahoma-raised grandmother listened to Johnny Cash since I can remember.

The first Cash record I can recall from before I could read, must have been Ring of Fire. Seems like I remember a 35 or 40 year old Johnny Cash standing cross-armed, like a tough guy against a purple background with concentric red rings like a bulls-eye, centering on Cash himself.

I’m reasonably sure that Ring of Fire had to have been a compilation record. It was my favorite at four years old. I loved hearing Cash’s guitar, sounding like a train leaving the station–Donk!-Chick’a, Donk!-Chick’a!

I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Rock Island Line, so many good songs on one record.

 

Introduction to Cash’s music

At home, my cash2folks were all over the music spectrum. My brother and I would hear everything from the Beatles and Stones to Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. One of the many things I liked about going to Grandma’s for the weekend, was getting to hear Johnny Cash.

In some ways it was a little weird, as I look back. I wonder how many of Cash’s lyrics Grandma actually listened to. There was a whole lot of drinking and cussing, fighting and killing, adulterous activity and general naughtiness that Grandma would not have approved of in real life.

Grandma read trashy Harlequin romance novels, too. After I learned what those were all about, I was shocked when I realized that Grandma had dozens of trashy romance novels, which as far as I know, she read her entire life. So, my grandmother was tough. She was an Oklahoma, Dust Bowl, depression-era, farm-girl. She could handle Johnny Cash.

One of the cool things is Grandma introduced me to Johnny Cash’s music. I don’t think I would have been exposed to Cash if it were not for her. Toward the end of her life, when she could still play in the kitchen, I was visiting and we were making

cash3

pumpkin bread or something. I brought my copy of the first record Johnny Cash recorded with producer, Rick Rubin, American Recordings, which we both enjoyed.

Cash in Oakdale, CA 1996

In 1996, my buddy, George and I saw Johnny Cash at the rodeo grounds in Oakdale, CA. Oakdale boasts of being the Cowboy Capital of California. Oakdale, Smokedale, ain’t no Jokedale. Seemed like the perfect place to see Johnny Cash in concert.

We couldn’t find tickets at TicketMaster. We had to go to the local feed and farm supply store to get our Johnny Cash tickets for $14.

There was a time when Johnny Cash could fill arenas in California. Now her was playing the country fair-like atmosphere of the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. Nice. I don’t know how Johnny Cash felt about it, but it seemed to me like he was coming home.

The show was great! In many ways, it was like the culmination of a dream. I saw McCartney in 1990, and Johnny Cash

million dollar quartet in 1996. Cross those off the list.

Johnny Cash. Damn! There was some authenticity in American music for you. When I was in high school I would record Grandma’s Cash albums from the 1970s onto a 90 minute TDK cassette. I didn’t tell anybody that I liked Johnny Cash. But sandwiched between the New Wave, Classic Rock and everything else I was listening to, Johnny Cash was always in there somewhere.

My grandmother and I didn’t share a lot of the same tastes in music.  We could always find common ground in Johnny Cash.

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Guns and Roses’ Appetite for Destruction..!

7 May , 2011,
Miles
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Guns and Roses in 1987

I was thinking about the early part of the summer I turned 19, before I had ever heard of Guns and Roses. It was 1987. Nothing much was happening in my sphere of music that year, and I was getting bored. I would catch bits and pieces of bands like Sonic Youth, Husker Du, and others. Some, like the Minutemen, were over and done before I had any exposure to them. But, generally, I was bored. I was visiting a high school buddy in Venice, CA in mid summer. Sean and I used to listen to a lot of weird bands in high school, like the Boomtown Rats, X and some of the more popular New Wave. Now, Sean was doing the ’80s metal Hollywood thing.

The record Sean introduced me to that summer almost two months before it hit the rest of the world was Guns and Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. Damn! That record, going to Venice, getting into clubs underage, seeing Guns and Roses at the Troubadour, and generally feeling like Axl in the Welcome to the Jungle video, all hit me at once.  Here I was a 19 year old farm boy from Cathey’s Valley, going to school to learn and working in the recording industry in Hollywood in the late 1980s.

Guns and Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine has one of my favorite guitar solos ever

Years ago, my brother and I sat down to determine our favorite guitar solos in history.  We came up with a three way tie for first place.  First, was Little Piece of my Heart by Big Brother and the Holding Company.  I haven’t heard that song in a while, but I remember that’s a good one. Our second choice for greatest solo ever was Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4.  We used to play that in marching band in high school.  That put the song in our heads.  So we listened to the record again, and were astonished that a band as heavily-reliant on horns would have one of the three greatest guitar solos of rock and roll history. The last was Guns and Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine.

Where to start with that song?

First, Sweet Child of Mine is perhaps one of a small handful of Guns and Roses songs that can be turned into an acoustic campfire song.  I have a rendition of what it might sound like if Johnny Cash were to play an rendition of Sweet Child of Mine.  Next time we have a campfire, buy me a beer or two and I’ll play it for you.  Sweet Child of Mine is simple.  When I play it, I start on D.  But, that guitar solo!  Damn!  Easily one of the Top Three ever. Want to argue?  Bring it on!  If you’ve got something better, I’d love to hear it.

I haven’t heard it in a while, but seems to me that I remember Sweet Child of Mine actually having two solos in one.  There’s the first part of the solo where Slash is getting warmed up, and it’s pretty cool. It begins at about 2:53 But, about 2/3 of the way through the solo, at about 3:25, Slash gets airborne!

Guns and Roses debut record.  Not bad at all.

I recall that all of the tunes on Appetite for Destruction were pretty good.  Some of the stand-out songs by Guns and Roses, for me were Welcome to the Jungle, My Michelle, Paradise City, Sweet Child of Mine and maybe You’re Crazy.

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