Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stanley Booth on Jerry Wexler

Stanley Booth, the wonderful Memphis born and raised writer who chronicled the Rolling Stones in the late 60's and early 70's has a beautiful piece on Jerry Wexler in Newsweek. Read it.

Dear Madonna, This Is Dumb

In my neighborhood, there are a lot of people who feel compelled to communicate their left of center political views on either the doors of their apartments or their cars. I’m aligned politically with most of their sentiments, but their expressions are so heavy handed, simplistic and insufferable that I’m usually left irritated and wanting to slap some McCain stickers on their doors.

Such is the case with Madonna this week. I’ve liked some of her music a lot over the years (she’s a tremendous singles artist) and have a lot of respect for her. She works her ass off. But when I read the following, my respect begins to drain:


As Madonna kicked off her international “Sticky and Sweet” tour Saturday night, she took a none-too subtle swipe at the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president.

Amid a four-act show at Cardiff’s packed Millennium Stadium, a video interlude carried images of destruction, global warming, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, Zimbabwe’s authoritarian President Robert Mugabe _ and U.S. Senator John McCain. Another sequence, shown later, pictured slain Beatle John Lennon, followed by climate activist Al Gore, Mahatma Gandhi and finally McCain’s Democratic rival Barack Obama.
Dumb. Really fucking dumb. I’m supporting Barack Obama for president, too. But this simplistic, puerile and nauseating associative tactic is stupid beyond measure. John McCain may support policies that have been disastrous for this country – but he’s not in a league with genocidal dictators like Hitler and Mugabe. It’s the same kind of bad/good, evil/Godly duality crap that the Bush administration used to gain support for its disastrous post-9/11 policies.

It’s this kind of sophomoric crap that gives liberalism a bad name. John McCain may be a lot of things, but evil isn’t one of them. Madonna, you're a really smart woman. Why don't you cut this stupid shit out? It neither serves you or your cause. Unless your cause is really about stirring up some bullshit controversy and showing that you can still be at the center of the news. If that's the case, you're a bigger jerk than I ever imagined.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Radio Deliver Me From Nowhere

I’ve been listening to the radio for the first time in years. Specifically, I’ve been playing New York’s new rock station, 101.9 WRXP. It’s a reasonably interesting concept – a mixture of classic rock and indie rock/alternative. (Thankfully, the classic rock played so far hasn’t been that predictable.) Certainly, it’s the only station I’ve ever heard where the Hold Steady follows Billy Joel and Ra Ra Riot follows the Rolling Stones. It’s not a Jack-FM concept (radio as iPod) – it’s a simply a station that makes the claim that rock is a long continuum, one in which pre-punk and post-punk rock can live harmoniously with one another.

Unfortunately, it’s a continuum that excludes great soul and r&b. Following a decades old tradition, the number of black artists recurrently played on rock radio amounts to one – Jimi Hendrix. It’s too predictable to be dispiriting – but the station would sound a hell of a lot better with some James Brown, P-Funk, Marvin Gaye and Al Green.

That being said, I’ve been enjoying hearing the juxtaposition of newer artists next to the classic rockers. What jumps out at me when listening to the new stuff is that they don’t seem to be writing singles. Perhaps it is because for most of the indie bands (American ones more so than British ones), being on commercial radio is never even seen as a possibility. But while most of the new stuff sounds good and has a cool vibe, it doesn’t leap out of the speakers, make you stop what you’re doing and wonder, “Who IS that?”

There’s one exception: The Hold Steady’s “Sequestered In Memphis.” I’m still not quite sold like others are on their new album, but the vibrancy of the song jumps out of the radio and has me turn it up every time. In a never-ending era of detachment and cool, Craig Finn and company’s passion remind that there’s still a vociferous crew of people out there that still feel about music the way I do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Little Jackie: The Stoop

Imani Coppola is one of those names I've been hearing in the ether for years, but I haven't bumped into her music until her new album, The Stoop, a collaboration with DJ/producer/programmer Adam Pallin that's under the moniker Little Jackie. It's an enjoyable album, filled with fun, smarts and sass (if you read the reviews of Imani's music, "sass" seems to come up a lot), but it's missing that certain something that would make it great.

Little Jackie may have emerged as concept in the wake of Amy Winehouse's success and the "soul revival," (there's an obvious debt to Gnarls Barkley here as well) and by Coppola's own admission, it's designed to "get her back to the center." But Coppola's orientation is much more bohemian folkie than it is soul diva, so you can still hear the strain of anti-commercialism (and more than a touch of arrogance) that has been a noted feature of Coppola's personality. For Coppola, making a record that is actually commercial would be slumming - so Little Jackie is her compromise.

So the album is filled with incisive and sharp lyrics and music that has touches of 60's and 70's soul, while retaining its modernity. (Fortunately, the music is not a exact recreation of 60's soul, a la the Dap-Kings.) "The World Should Revolve Around Me" is a sometimes hilarious admission of her own self-centerdness and "The Stoop" is a statement of pride of her native Brooklyn that follows the tradition of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." But never on the album does Coppola express anything that actually makes her seem vulnerable - and vulnerability is one of the keys to great soul. Nor does the music ever reach the level of truly unforgettable - the songs are good, but not quite good enough. Next time, if Coppola can reach down deeper within herself, give up her opinions about what being commercial is, write about really matters to her and express it in a way that resonates beyond the bohemian, she might actually reach the level of artistry she's always aspired to. And she'd probably be far more successful commercially, too.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ruminations On Jerry Wexler

Jerry Wexler was one of my heroes. As I got into soul music in my late teens, it seemed as though the credit "Produced by Jerry Wexler" was on every album I bought. Aretha Franklin. Ray Charles. Sam & Dave. Wilson Pickett. The Drifters. And on and on. In possession of an obsessive mind, I soon began reading pretty much everything I could about him, and as I made the decision to be in the record business, he quickly became someone I aspired to be.

I admired and identified with him tremendously. He was an intellectual misfit, voraciously reading and loving the work of American writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald - yet he was an underachieving student. His identified completely as a Jew, yet he was a vociferous atheist. He distrusted authority, but he spoke with certitude of taste. His opinion was not just another opinion. He did not suffer fools at all. And, of course, he had amazing taste – able to see greatness in artists no matter what the style, no matter what the genre, no matter what the era. It’s a long and varied road from Joe Turner to Ray Charles, from the Drifters to Wilson Pickett, from Clapton to Led Zeppelin, from Dr. John to the B-52’s and from Willie Nelson to the Gang of Four, but Wexler was able to discern what was special about all of them as musicians and as people, not always in that order, and then he guided, prodded, cajoled, begged and inspired them to create their best work.

Of course, it the triumph he shared with Aretha Franklin that Wexler will be most remembered, and lionized for. He took a supremely talented woman who was hyped as the greatest jazz voice since Billie Holiday - then completely miscast as a singer of pop and lite jazz, and under his watchful eye, had her recreate herself as the most important female vocalist – musically, culturally, spiritually – of the second half of the twentieth century. How did he do it? He created the space for her be herself. “I just sat her down at the piano and let her be herself,” he later said. What an marvelous thing – letting someone be themselves. (And believe me, I’ve worked in the record business long enough to know that letting someone be themselves is the unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule.) If soul was the musical expression of a race of people ready to affirm who and what they were and demand what they wanted (which resonated universally), than Aretha was the epitome of that expression. The miracle of soul music (and Wexler’s legacy) is that it is an affirmation valuing personal authenticity that will resonate as long as people listen to music.

When I had my first interview to be an intern at Atlantic Records in the early 90’s, my vision of Atlantic was what it had been in the mid-60’s. I was bursting at the seams with excitement and tremendously naive. I remember excitedly asking the H.R. person I was talking to, “Does Jerry Wexler still work here?” She smiled, a look of, “I don’t believe this kid,” and told me that he had left the company over 15 years previously. I loved interning at Atlantic – but I was working on Winger, Skid Row and INXS - not the Drifters, Sam & Dave and Donnie Hathaway.

My second summer at Atlantic, I interned for Jerry’s son, Paul Wexler, a wonderful guy, and we became friends. (Paul – if you’re reading this, email me – I’d love to reconnect.) By my second summer in the record biz, I knew enough that I had to play things cooler. When I found out whose son Paul was, I didn’t approach him and go, “Wow! You’re Jerry Wexler’s son! Tell me everything!” I just did my job for him and we began to talk about our mutual love of the Grateful Dead (Paul turned me on to the great Binghamton, 5/2/70 show, a legendary one in Dead-lore) and other artists. The best compliment Paul gave me was one day a couple of weeks into my internship, when he said, “You know your stuff.”

Eventually, Paul talked to me a bit of what it was like to be Jerry Wexler’s son. It wasn’t easy. Jerry was on the road for most of Paul’s childhood, and when he was home, it was all about him and the business. Jerry was opinionated to the point of arrogance, even with his kids, so when Paul would play some early Rolling Stones (consisting of covers of many songs that Jerry had produced in their original versions) or the Grateful Dead, Jerry often would irritably inquire, “What are you playing this shit for?” And being the son of a famous/legendary father is never uncomplicated. Paul told me a story that when he met Eric Clapton, Clapton shook his hand and said, “tough act to follow.” I learned that there was a great price paid for all of that success. And I knew it left its mark because Paul never referred to his father as “Dad.” It was always “Jerry.”

(This was in the early 90’s – judging from the tone in which Paul spoke of his father in the obituaries today, I am guessing that they got closer in the past 15 years before Jerry’s death. I certainly hope that was the case.)

Jerry Wexler was a giant of American music. It's almost impossible to gauge the impact he had. But whether it's the legacy of Aretha in singers like Mariah & Christina (Jerry hated Mariah - thought she oversang), the term R&B itself (Jerry invented it), the legacy of Stax, the rise of Southern Rock and so much more, Jerry Wexler was a contribution to it all.

What a thing to be.

Jerry Wexler: 1917-2008

I am sad to hear of Jerry Wexler's death today at the age of 91. I will be writing my own thoughts about him either today or tomorrow, but for now, I recommend reading a lovely tribute to Wexler that's in today's Rolling Stone online.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Soul "Revival" Hits U.S.A. Today

Today's U.S.A. Today features a lengthy piece on the "resurgence" of soul. It namechecks many of the usual subjects - Amy Winehouse and Duffy, and then goes into a bit further depth about Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Eli Reed and James Hunter. For U.S.A. Today, it's not bad.

I will say this: The potential for a true resurgence for soul has barely been tapped. Simply put, the right artist hasn't emerged yet with the right songs and the right sound. Amy Winehouse has come the closest. But mark my words, this could get much bigger. And better.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Issac Hayes: The Coolest

Isaac Hayes had the coolest voice I’ve ever heard - deep, sexy, velvety, totally commanding and thoroughly vulnerable. It was imposing as well; he may have sung about the bad motherfucker that was John Shaft, but I always thought of him as the truly bad mofo. After all, he was real and Shaft was fiction.

But beyond the wonder of his voice (and his sublime 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul), I’m most grateful to Isaac Hayes for the incredible soul classics he wrote with his songwriting partner, David Porter. “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Soul Man,” “I Thank You,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” (one of the most beautiful love songs ever), “B-A-B-Y” and more. These weren’t simply great soul songs – they were incredible songs, period, worthy of the songwriting teams that Hayes lionized, like Holland-Dozier-Holland and Bacharach-David.

Isaac was obviously a key figure in the history of soul. After Otis Redding’s death in late 1967, he took the Stax sound into a lusher, more orchestral direction, adding hints of jazz and a new sophistication. But it was still soul – just put on “Walk On By” (from Hot Buttered Soul) and you can hear his brilliance as a producer and arranger, taking the Dionne Warwick hit (written by Bacharach/David) and turning it into something darker and richer.

I only saw him once, this past June in Prospect Park. He was obviously tired, having been slowed down by a recent stroke. But the voice was still there, in command, reminding me of a white haired prophet from the Old Testament. The world seems a little less cool without him. Farewell Isaac – you’ve earned your rest.

Buy Isaac Hayes at the Amazon MP3 Store

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I'm Back

Blogger blocked my blog for the past three weeks - they had suspicions it was a spam blog. Getting them to unblock was a task of Kafka-esque proportions, but no matter, I'm back. Looking forward to posting again...