At 12:01am, I got an email in my inbox from Bruce saying, "Trick or Treat!" I went to the site, and saw this. It's great. I know it's not a "serious" song, but there are some pretty scary moments. And Bruce looks possessed.
Trying To Get To You
Friday, October 31, 2008
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Last Friday, before his show at the Nokia Theater, I interviewed Southside Johnny Lyon. We had a great discussion about the making of his fabulous new album, Grapefruit Moon, as well as Tom Waits, the soul revival, Scarlett Johannson, the 30th anniversary of his classic Hearts of Stone album and finding one's niche in the world.
Q: You’re known known for being a soul and rock based artist. But the feel and arrangements on Grapefruit Moon are much more big band – Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Sinatra-esque style arrangements which La Bamba did. Had you ever sung that kind of material before?
SSJ: I used to sing it with my parents. They were big fans of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and artists like that. So I used to sing along with Jimmy Rushing (vocalist for the Basie band). But never in a formal setting. But then La Bamba started doing some big band type arrangements years after we had made records together. And I would come up and sing a Billie Holiday song – songs that I really loved and had grown up listening to. And I always thought, “Jeez, I’d love to make a record like that, but who’s going to listen to that?” But then along comes Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart, and I thought, “Well they’re doing it, I’m not doing it.” But I wanted to do Tom Waits too. And then one day it just clicked, that those things would go well together. So I hadn’t formally done it, but I had stuck my toe in the water – I had sung with a big band. My father drove a cab in Asbury Park, and he would listen to jazz broadcasts at night. So in 1938, he was driving in Asbury, and they announced that that night’s show was going to be Count Basie and his Orchestra from Kansas City. He had read about them in Downbeat, but he had never heard them. So he pulled over and listened for an hour to this absolutely incredible music. And he was that enthusiastic about that music until the day he died – and as a kid, some of it rubbed off on me.
Q: Singing those songs in that style – was there a particular approach to phrasing that you had consciously or were you in the moment on it?
SSJ: It takes a little bit of thought and and La Bamba helped me with some things too. It’s different – there are things you do differently in soul, in rock, in blues - because the horns will interject. So you want to sing either with them, or around them. You really have to know the arrangement to do that. I was used to the melody line being the lead instrument and everything worked around that. I learned something that I already knew, but didn’t quite realize; the singer in those things, like Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra at the Sands, he sings with the band – the band doesn’t play off of him. I tried to incorporate some of that too. I also wanted the freedom to let loose, because that’s what I know best.
Q: Do you have a favorite Tom Waits album?
SSJ: The Heart of Saturday Night – but I like all of them. There’s something on every album, that makes you go, “Oh God…I’ll never write another song again." (Laughter) I heard stuff early on. Vin Scelsa was playing him really early on. Bruce was into him right away too, so I might have heard something from him as well. But it was really like, “Who is this guy? We really like him – he seems like he’s from the streets of New York or New Jersey, but he’s a California guy.”
Q: One thing I couldn’t help but think of while listening to the album is that you guys are flipsides of a very similar coin. You both have a strong background in 50’s and 60’s blues and R&B – but he comes from an obvious bohemian tradition, where I would assert that you – and Bruce and Steven for that matter – never really quite fit in anywhere quite the same way that Tom does.
SSJ: Well, I think – it’s that feeling of not being part of the mainstream. And it’s not a conscious decision to be that – we weren't deliberately trying to be cool or buck the mainstream. It’s like when you go to a dance when you’re in junior high and they’re playing songs you don’t like and everyone is dancing to, you go, “Why don’t I like this? What’s wrong with me?” Of course the beats were like that, and all the be-bop guys were like that until they made it through. It’s the same old story – you don’t have a niche that you fit into, so you kind of make your own. And Tom’s is a combination of that bohemian stuff…but he loves Howlin’ Wolf – and you can hear that in his voice.
It’s not outcast. It’s that your sensibility is not common and at first, you angst over it…and then you start to celebrate it, because you realize, you’re not alone in the world, because there are people you really admire – poets, writers, actors – who also have a different sensibility. Then you start to find out where it’s going to take you.
Q: Tom Waits has been covered by a lot artists. When you were first conceiving of the album, did you have a spirit or soul in mind that you wanted to bring to it – a thought of, “Here’s what I can bring to this material that no one else has brought before.”
SSJ: One of the reasons why I didn’t do it before – 10 to 15 years ago when I had a bunch of songs of Tom’s that I wanted to sing - was because I didn’t want to do them the way they were being done. I was thinking, “Who needs another one of that?” Then I was thinking about doing a big band record – Billie Holiday songs – and I was like, “That’s all been done before,” and then it dawned on me…”Why don’t we do the Tom Waits stuff in that format, and see if it works?” And right from the beginning, when La Bamba and I sat down, we were like, “This is it…this is going to work.”
Q: You did a duet with Tom on “Walk Away” which is extremely playful – it’s palpable when listening how much fun you guys seem to be having. Was it?
SSJ: Yeah…the whole track took about fifteen minutes. (Laughter) It’s very playful. I said, “Can we sing this instead of that,” and he was like, “Yeah, that’s fine,” and started changing things around a little bit. Which isn’t something you do with a writer like Tom Waits. But he was so open.
We were in this little studio in California – Tom brought his wife, and his dog – and it was so hippie. Vines growing everywhere…moss…incense burning…Indian blankets on the wall. It was like 1967 in there. But once we got in there- it was just so easy and natural, so it took no time at all. And then we went to lunch – which is how it should be.
Q: Has he expressed an opinion on the album?
SSJ: He really likes what he’s heard.
Q: You’ve been working on this album for a long time –
SSJ: Two and a half years. And it’s been an idea for over ten years.
Q: - and then this spring, Scarlet Johannson comes out with an album of Tom Waits songs. What were your thoughts when you heard about it?
SSJ: People came to me in panic! (Laughter) I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” (Laughter) I was really thinking that unless she was doing a big band version of these songs, there is no interlock – no competition. It’s not like we’re fighting for the same niche. People who like her are going to buy her thing and the guys who like big band stuff or are already fans of mine will buy my album. What – like there’s a Tom Waits fan who’s going to agonize over the choice between her record and ours? Please. It’s crazy.
Q: You’re known as a soul singer. And in the past two years, there’s been something of a soul renaissance – Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, James Hunter. Any thoughts about these artists? Does it please you?
SSJ: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting to me that they’re using classic soul forms – I hear it in Duffy too. The forms of soul are so friendly to a singer – they really project the singer – so you have to have a good voice. I’m glad they’re doing it. The great thing for me is that they have good voices. James Hunter, Duffy, Amy Winehouse – they all have great voices. It’s good to hear that music. I feel like there's been a romanticism missing in a lot of Hip-hop and modern rock - it's angry and angsty - but that romantic spirit has been missing.
Q: You’ve never had a hit single or album –
SSJ: Thank you Jesus!
Q: - but here you are, 30 years later. How does that feel?
SSJ: I don’t reflect much, because I’ve always got something in front of me. This is a big gig for me – this is out of my comfort zone. I don’t reflect that “this should have happened” or “that should have happened,” because there’s always a future in front of me. There are times that I’ve wished I had a million dollars, but I’m glad I never got locked into anything – because hit records can do that to you. I remember when Lou Reed and Neil Young did a lot of different styles of things, and they took a lot of heat for it. I haven’t stepped out that far, but I’ve done some blues things, some acoustic things. I’d hate to have to do the same thing every night. And I don’t have to.
We were very lucky in the beginning in Asbury Park, because we were doing reggae, blues, soul, rock n’ roll…David Sancious and I used to go up and do Billie Holiday songs with just piano and voice. And they put up with it. So you got the idea that if you were honest about what you did, there’d be an audience for it. And I’ve never given that idea up.
Q: In Europe recently, you played Hearts of Stone in its entirety. How was that for you?
SSJ: A straitjacket! (Laughter) In Asbury, it worked really well. But when we did it London, I was like, “I really don’t want to do this next song, I want to do something else,” but I couldn’t – I had to do the next song on Hearts of Stone. So from that moment on I was like, “I hate doing this!” (Laughter) But then we did it in Amsterdam and the audience was just so great, so it felt like freedom again. I don’t like the straitjacket of it, but if it pleases people, that’s ok too.
I’m still proud of that album. I’d love to remix it. Steven and I have talked about that. We were really under the gun on that record. We were beneath the radar so the record company wouldn’t stop us. We had already thrown out eight songs and the record company went through the roof – and our budget was so miniscule anyway. We weren’t supposed to sell records, so they didn’t want to spend any money. And I was on the road, and then I would come back and sing, then go back on the road…it was rough. But for it to come out and be accepted, then I felt vindicated. There are great songs on that record.
Q: I was thinking on my way to meet you that Steven’s character from the Sopranos, Silvio, wouldn’t know Tom Waits from a hole in the wall – but he’d really like this album.
SSJ: Yeah! (Laughter) They’d play this upstairs at the Bada Bing! If Silvio’s still around! (Laughter)
Friday, October 24, 2008
Earlier this year, Scarlett Johansson released her album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head. It was awful – tuneless, emotionally one dimensional and utterly vacuous. Neither Johannsen’s vocals or Dave Sitek’s (of TV on the Radio) production penetrated Waits’s songs, and they added nothing to them. But given that it was coming from a famous actress, produced by a member of a hipster cred band, with contributions by the Godfather of Downtown Cool, David Bowie, the album garnered a ton of attention and press.
Last month, Southside Johnny Lyon (with LaBamba's Big Band) released his own album of Waits covers, Grapefruit Moon. It hasn’t received much, if any press, and what’s predictable is that like all of Johnny’s albums, it won’t do much commercially. This would be a shame - because Grapefruit Moon is one of the best albums of the year.
Wonderfully produced and arranged by Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg (Johnny’s former trombonist with the Asbury Jukes and better known as a member of the Max Weinberg 7), Grapefruit Moon swaggers, swings and struts with a big band sound reminiscent of Nelson Riddle and Billy May’s great arrangements for Frank Sinatra during the 50’s. It’s part blues, part swing, part New Orleans, and it’s all fantastic.
Tom Waits gave his own blessing to the project, and his duet with Southside on “Walk Away” is one of the album’s numerous highlights. Other great moments include a stunning version of “Tango Till They’re Sore,” the almost “Peter Gunn”-esque “All The Time In The World,” and the album’s title track, “Grapefruit Moon,” where Johnny proves himself to be a sublime balladeer.
Like the protagonists of many Waits songs, there’s a loneliness and solitude that is all-pervasive; these songs are the wry observations of an eclectic soul, late at night and alone at the bar. But while Waits is an artist that has always fit into a great bohemian tradition, Southside Johnny is an artist that has never quite fit in anywhere (much like his other Asbury Park comrades) and in that, you can hear a loneliness that penetrates a bit deeper than Waits’s.
It’s doubtful that Grapefruit Moon will get much love from the denizens of cool – but that will be their loss. This is one of the best musical surprises of the year. Bravo!
*Southside Johnny and La Bamba's Big Band will be playing the Nokia Theater tonight. I will be conducting an interview with Southside and then posting early next week.
Southside Johnny on Waits and the genesis of the project (from SouthsideJohnny.com):
I first heard Tom Waits on the radio and was so intrigued I went out to search for the LP that very day. After a couple of weeks, I finally tracked down a copy of his first record in a little mom-and-pop store. It became one of my favorites on first hearing. He seemed to embody a number of elements I was already into: the Beats, jazz, rhythm and blues, romantic music like the Drifters and Billy Holiday, and a gruff, sarcastic, gimlet-eyed love for the down and outers who populated seedy places like Asbury Park, NJ. And he was funny. In the years that followed, I tried to keep up with his music while I was busy making my own. It was to my great delight that he came to a show we did at the Roxy in L.A. in the late 70's. He sat by himself at a table against the wall and nursed his drink and hid behind his be-bop hat. After the show he came backstage and we talked and hit it off pretty well. We stayed in touch in the random fashion that musicians do, and whenever I was searching for an idea for my next record, I would invariably think, "Damn! I'd love to do an album of Tom Waits tunes." But others had beaten me to the punch, and I didn't want to do another rehash of the same arrangements. When I first heard LaBamba's charts for his sporadic gigs with the Big Band he had put together, I knew I wanted to utilize his talents and eclectic taste in horn-driven music. He doesn't give a fig if something is cool or hip or any of that crap. If he hears something he likes, he absorbs it and it comes out in his work. I knew he would write a wide assortment of things for any project he got involved with, and I wanted to be a part of that. Then one day I had the long overdue idea of combining the two concepts: LaBamba arranging Tom Waits for me to sing. And it only took 2 1/2 years to bring it to fruition! I must say that it came out much better than I ever dreamed, and I'm very proud and a little stunned that we got it done. For all the time and effort and money and fist fights and broken microphones, it was worth it. Life is good.Buy Grapefruit Moon at Amazon
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/24/2008 01:01:00 PM
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
For me, the time to listen to the Four Tops was always at night, alone and in the dark. Their sound, possibly more than any Motown act, was the sound of yearning and longing, sometimes with a happy ending, sometimes not. But it was also the sound of companionship and friendship – hearing Levi Stubbs’s voice was the sound of knowing that while you may have been experiencing loneliness, you’re weren't alone in feeling it. That’s something.
When I heard that Levi Stubbs died last week, the first word that I thought of about him and the Tops was “dependable.” That may seem like faint praise, but it’s not - far from it. They music always occurred for me as a stalwart friend, and if they lacked the flash of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and a couple of others, their greatest songs, “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There,” “Ask The Lonely,” “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” and “Baby I Need Your Loving,” are testaments to the to eternal power of warmth, openheartedness, friendship and love. To have survived with their original members intact for over 40 years, they had to do more than just sing about those values. They had to do something far more challenging – they had to actually be them. And they were.
Levi’s voice and the Four Tops songs are so ingrained in our cultural DNA that for some, they may sound cliché. But the next time you’re home, late at night by yourself, put “Baby I Need Your Loving,” on, real loud. Get present to the beauty of it – the arrangement, the rhythm, the strings and the backing “ooohs.” But most of all, listen to Levi Stubbs. Hear the longing, the intensity, the vulnerability and strength side by side of one other. When you do, you’ll get that Levi Stubbs’s was one of the greatest singers we’ve ever been lucky to have.
Thursday, October 02, 2008
I just received this email from my file hosting site:
---------- Forwarded message ----------Now, no one from the R.I.A.A. contacted me to find out the situation with this. They just took it on "good faith" that I did not have permission to use the track. That is not so. I did have permission from Atlantic. I don't post downloads from new artists without permission. (If you see my Raphael Saadiq post from last week, I use an Imeem link.) But there was no communication to me from anyone at the R.I.A.A. before they contacted my hosting services. This could have been cleared up quite easily.
From: RIAA Antipiracy
Date: Wed, Oct 1, 2008 at 12:49 PM
Subject: Unauthorized Sound Recordings
October 1, 2008
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am contacting you on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America, Inc. (RIAA) and its member record companies. The RIAA is a trade association whose member companies create, manufacture and distribute approximately ninety (90) percent of all legitimate sound recordings sold in the United States. Under penalty of perjury, we submit that the RIAA is authorized to act on behalf of its member companies in matters involving the infringement of their sound recordings, including enforcing their copyrights and common law rights on the Internet.
We believe your service is hosting the above-referenced file on its network. This file offers a sound recording for download by the artist known as Lykke Li. We have a good faith belief that the above-described activity is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law. We assert that the information in this notification is accurate, based upon the data available to us.
We are asking for your immediate assistance in stopping this unauthorized activity. Specifically, we request that you remove the infringing file from the system, or that you disable access to the infringing file, and that you inform the site operator of the illegality of his or her conduct.
You should understand that this letter constitutes notice to you that this site operator may be liable for the infringing activity occurring on your service. In addition, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, if you ignore this notice, you and/or your company may also be liable for any resulting infringement. This letter does not constitute a waiver of any right to recover damages incurred by virtue of any such unauthorized activities, and such rights as well as claims for other relief are expressly retained.
You may contact me at RIAA, 1025 F Street N.W., 10th Floor, Washington, D.C., 20004, Tel. (202) 775-0101, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, to discuss this notice. We await your response. Kind regards.
I just emailed Traci Crippen and left a message for her. I will update you all with a response.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
A reader writes:
Here's the funny thing. I'm a music supervisor. I put music into films, television and commercials. Your posting of the Lykke Li track brought her to my attention. If I end up licensing a Lykke Li track it will be because of your blog. The music industry is killing the music industry.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/01/2008 06:04:00 PM
I just got this lovely piece of email:
Blogger has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that certain content in your blog infringes upon the copyrights of others. The URL(s) of the allegedly infringing post(s) may be found at the end of this message.What's so is that I got permission from Atlantic Records to post a track from Lykke Li. The post was taken down without anyone contacting me or asking me about why or how I posted it. Very lame.
The notice that we received, with any personally identifying information removed, will be posted online by a service called Chilling Effects at http://www.chillingeffects.org. We do this in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Please note that it may take Chilling Effects up to several weeks to post the notice online at the link provided.
The DMCA is a United States copyright law that provides guidelines for online service provider liability in case of copyright infringement. We are in the process of removing from our servers the links that allegedly infringe upon the copyrights of others. If we did not do so, we would be subject to a claim of copyright infringement, regardless of its merits. See http://www.educause.edu/Browse/645?PARENT_ID=254 for more information about the DMCA, and see http://www.google.com/dmca.html for the process that Blogger requires in order to make a DMCA complaint.
Blogger can reinstate these posts upon receipt of a counter notification pursuant to sections 512(g)(2) and 3) of the DMCA. For more information about the requirements of a counter notification and a link to a sample counter notification, see http://www.google.com/dmca.html#counter.
Please note that repeated violations to our Terms of Service may result in further remedial action taken against your Blogger account. If you have legal questions about this notification, you should retain your own legal counsel. If you have any other questions about this notification, please let us know.
The Blogger Team
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/01/2008 04:41:00 PM