Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

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Closing time…

My first Leonard Cohen moment was at the beloved Bla Bla Café in Studio City in the early 70’s. Dreary, dark, late winter afternoon. Sunday showcase. You would get a nice fifteen minute slot to show your stuff. An artist named Van Karlsson was playing. Good artist who had an aloof, European vibe. He said his next tune was a Leonard Cohen song that was written about Janis Joplin. Nice enough descending chord progression, then came the epic line, “…giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.”

Never heard a lyric that strong and unflinching, even from Dylan. No funny business, just pure uncut narrative. That line slapped the room to full attention. Shit, I want that song in my set. I would buy the album ASAP. “Chelsea Hotel # 2” remains one of three songs I can still play cold some forty years later.

The 1974 album, “New Skin for The Old Ceremony” had something about it from first glance. The inner sleeve photo was Cohen shot in gritty black and white from the chest up and he wasn’t happy about it. His mouth wore a default frown informed his by Euro- Jewish heritage, while his eyes shot daggers at the offending camera lens. The music was reflective of that image. Dark, gritty and spare. Any musical event beyond Cohen’s guitar and voice was magnified by ten.

I came for “Chelsea Hotel # 2” but stayed for more superior offerings like, “So Long Marianne”, “Take This Longing”, and “Who by Fire”. This guy was in the elite league obviously. Come to find out all the intellectuals I knew worshiped him. He was in his thirties whereas most of the music stars of 1974 were still kids in their 20’s. Women loved Leonard Cohen it seemed. My best friend’s wife was Jewish and we found discreet communion with his music playing in the background as we all drank and smoked; all the while, this woman’s husband bitched and compared Cohen’s vocal delivery to a guy trying to sing whilst fighting seasickness. Hilarious because it was true. But, it was also part of the fascination. And if you listen to Leonard now, his voice doesn’t sound that odd. He helped change the way we hear music.

The Cohen/Dylan debate will always be part of any discussion about Cohen’s art. However, where Dylan wouldn’t think twice about hanging an epic lyric on a pedestrian 12 Bar or a hastily assembled three chord trope, Cohen’s music was as meticulously chiseled as his lyric-poems. Not a note out of place unless it was meant to be. Often overlooked is the fact he wrote great melodies. Harmonically sensible. Memorable, but still off-kilter. I gave up trying to find a point of reference when I realized he was his own point of reference.

His downbeat, depressed world view shielded the public from a different Cohen. He was serious and reflective to be sure. He suffered from bouts of depression much of his adult life (he finally vanquished that demon in old age). Plowing through the troves of film footage available, (Cohen was a zealous self-documentarian) you saw an elegant and inspired artistic temperament that could also accommodate humor and joy. Cohen was a knowing realist navigating a world slowly going mad. He grabbed his fistfuls of ecstasy with a pinch of guilt – and would be on to the next song.

Cohen came at the music business from an entirely different angle than Dylan or the other Folkarazzi. He was a revered poet and novelist in Canada during the 50’s early 60’s until he decided that compressing his musings into song might actually generate more income. Enter Judy Collins and her immortal rendering of “Suzanne”. It was a folkie sensation and Leonard was on his way – via a prestigious deal with Columbia producer (and Dylan mentor) John Hammond.

In later years, Cohen pulled some Zen time in a monastery on Mt. Baldy. He got robbed blind by the biz like everyone else, but always looked sharp and well heeled. All who have met him in person describe an ‘old world’ elegance and grace in his bearing. He started doing the best work of his life in the last act of his life and was no longer a boomer cult hero. He became multi-generational. The quality of his art was such that it bled into the mainstream despite itself. “Hallelujah” is now a standard. “I’m Your Man” is a money spinner. From Michael Buble’ to contestants on The Voice, Cohen is the guy to cover when you want to upgrade your street cred.

Such was the rich pageant of Leonard Cohen’s life. If I don’t cut it short here, I’ll  end up writing a book about him. Just listen to his songs…as often as you can. Especially now. Foretold in the tea leaves of his lyrics is the current mess we’re in today. He knew The Future, and it was murder.

Exquisite timing Leonard…Adieu

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Now Be Thankful – David Swarbrick Remembered

Authored By Dale Nickey:

I am thankful. I saw David Swarbrick perform live. Twice. Both times with Martin Carthy. Both times at MaCabe’s Guitar Shop. And, it wasn’t until I heard about Swarb’s passing that the fog of years parted and I remembered that I actually spoke to the man. A brief encounter to be sure, but still I touched greatness.

 McCabe’s is an L.A. music institution that goes back decades. It sits in the ocean community of Santa Monica; a safe haven for expatriate Brits. While I’ve been alive there has always been a McCabe’s. It a woody, friendly music shop that specializes in acoustic exotica of all sorts. I bought my Mandocello there. Likewise, if you need paddle tuners for your Beach Uke, that’s where you go. They also host concerts. Their main musical affiliation is with folk and blues. They have a big room in the back with a nice stage where you can squeeze in 150-200 punters on folding chairs. I saw Elizabeth Cotton there. Jean Richie, Pentangle, June Tabor, John Renbourn and John Fahey, I even played there once myself in the folk duo Adie and Dale.

On gig night it’s usually packed out. Fresh baked cookies were offered in the front of the store. The restroom was small and you had to wait your turn. One night I bumped into Bert Jansch exiting as I was going in. I once banged shoulders with Yvonne Elliman whilst trying to navigate the crowded upstairs hallway. It was that kinda place. It might still be.

 Anyway, I went there at the dawn of the 90’s decade to watch the duo of Martin Carthy and David Swarbrick perform. I went with my friend Dominic, whom I was in a band with at the time. He was not familiar with either of the folk heavyweights we were about to see. But, because of my recommendation, he decided to check it out.

 It was an amazing show. Martin Carthy had a youthful, bouncy spirit and his chunky, finger styled guitar playing was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Then there was Swarbrick, he played standing for the entire hour plus set. I remember there was a very tall gooseneck microphone stand that arched far above and pointed downward towards his fiddle. He burned for the entire set. He didn’t sing, he just played. Virtuosic and effortless. My companion leaned over and offered that “The Bloke” was a real monster. – the musician’s code word for an instrumentalist of uncommon skill and virtuosity. Swarb would be bequeathed the nickname “The Bloke” for the remainder of the evening and his exploits were discussed at length on the long drive home to The Valley.

I didn’t hear Swarbrick play a bum note the entire set, and he played a lot of notes. If he did hit one, his confidence and experience probably spun it to gold somehow. There he stood, taking the occasional drag from (what looked like) a home rolled cig. He had a bowl styled Beatle haircut. Swarb got the biggest laugh of the night when McCarthy told a joke and Swarb reacted a good half minute later when a helpful audience member in the front row translated it to the diminutive fiddler. Even then, Swarb’s ear problems were legend.

During this period, the duo of Carthy and Swarbrick cranked out two fine albums; “Life and Limb” (1990) and “Skin and Bone” (1992). It was upon their return to McCabe’s to tour the second album that I saw them perform again.

This time I went with a female companion (and future ex-wife). I was sad to find Swarb playing seated for the entire set. His bearing seemed less robust than the first gig I saw. However, the playing remained the same. Flowing, effortless and perfect. My English challenged companion had never heard of these two musicians. She whispered into my ear about “The Little Guy” and how “strong” and “very correct” his playing was.

After the set we loitered at the front of the store, everybody congregated and chatted. My date held court with Billy Connelly, Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy near the repairman’s counter. She was blissfully unaware of the celebrity she was confronting. Martin Carthy laughed broadly and was animated by a sweaty post-gig buzz, Connelly seemed bemused and Maddy looked a bit put out. Meanwhile, I made my way to a hunched, solitary figure sitting at a round wooden table near the album bin. It was Swarbrick. I’m always flummoxed and shy around musicians I admire. I sheepishly told him, “great set” and offered up a rare vinyl copy of “Fairport Convention Live at Sydney Opera House” for his signature. I seemed surprised at being presented with such an artifact. He perused it and quietly mused, “I wonder if I ever got paid for this one?” He then signed, and I slowly backed away and thanked him in the manner of an acolyte retreating from the master. I told it you it was a brief encounter. But we met. I’m so glad we did.

Fast forward to the new century. I was pleased when David Swarbrick accepted me as a Facebook friend. Oh, me and lot of people. I’m sure he would not have remembered my name, we only exchanged the odd thumbs up and the occasional pithy aside in the comments section. But I valued the connection none the less. It’s one of the few upsides to this digital media world that David Swarbrick could still remain present and connected with fans and friends the world over despite his restricted mobility. Think about all the musical giants of the previous century who lived out their winter years with only a rotary phone and a black and white television as their links to the outside world. Forgotten and sad.

I’m at that age now. I’m surrounded by so many friendly ghosts and people preparing for the great transition. I’ve been lucky so far but I am nervously clutching my ticket number dreading my turn to be called. Swarb did alright in the life sweepstakes. He made it to 75 with loads of memories, accomplishments and a loving family at the end. He laughed in the face of death twice. He was a one-off. It seems like this year more than any other, the great upward migration has begun. RIP Swarb.

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David Swarbrick Dead at 75

 

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News has just come in to The Muse Patrol that Folk-Rock pioneer David Swarbrick died on June 3. He was 75.

Swarbrick has courageously beat back illness and infirmity for decades. He will always be remembered as a key member of the greatest Folk Rock ensemble in the history of British Music, Fairport Convention. The line up of Swarbrick, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings was a virtual all star band dedicated to giving British traditional music its groove back during a time in the late 60’s when The Band was similarly reviving interest in American roots music on this side of the pond.

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David LaFlamme was America’s electric violin pioneer during the late sixties. In Britain, it was David Swarbrick.  ‘Swarb’ was already folk royalty in Britain when the call came to join Fairport Convention in their desperate attempt to retool and recover after a road accident that claimed the life of drummer Martin Lamble. Swarbrick took the gig just in time to feature on the band’s 1969 masterpiece, “Liege And Lief”. Suffering and conquering the agonies of stone-age electric violin technology, Swarbrick found his inner rocker and became a star attraction in the band. He even multi-tasked as Fairport’s lead singer after the departure of Sandy Denny. Eventually, ear problems and other health issues forced his retirement from the band and active touring. He’s cheated death twice. Once after a premature obituary was published in the “The Daily Telegraph” in 1999; and again after a risky, but successful double lung transplant in 2004. 

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For a brief time during the late sixties and early seventies, British Folk-Rock threatened to make a big splash on both sides of the Atlantic. It was old music played by young guns at high volume. This outdoor performance from 1971 is a period curio that captures the genre and Swarbrick at their peak.  This performance could also well be the precise time and place where the spirit of the sixties died. Now Swarbrick has also passed. British music will be forever poorer in his absence.

 

Ashes to Ashes (Bowie Remembered)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

 

 

Superheroes aren’t supposed to die…

David Bowie loved to surprise and shock people. Sadly, he saved his best for last as he passed on Sunday January 10, 2016 at the age of 69. No one saw it coming.

Everything he did in life was art. The way he looked, his elegant speech, videos, film, music…above all, the music. It makes sense that he would orchestrate his final exit to perfection and go out on top. And somehow, leave us smiling through the tears.

Born David Jones, Bowie entered the music business through the same portal as many other seminal British artists during the sixties; he attended art school and cultivated a passion for music. He paid his dues playing in R&B bands on the London club circuit. The Kingbees and The Manish Boys were among the more notable ensembles Bowie played in during that era.

 

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His recording career was going nowhere in particular until he released the epic single “A Space Oddity” in 1969 (five days before the Apollo moon mission). It became a hit single in Britain (and later in the U.S.). Although “A Space Oddity”” didn’t catapult him to worldwide stardom at that time, its success earned him the opportunity to make more records until he found his stride.

In 1971 he released “Hunky Dory”, arguably the finest album of his career. It was a gigantic leap forward from his previous album, the spirited but scruffy “The Man Who Sold the World” where Bowie grabbed the attention of the press by shooting the album cover lounging on a chaise in a dress. “Hunky Dory” yielded the classic rock evergreen “Changes”. The rest of the album is a masterclass in songwriting; ranging from the acid folk of “Andy Warhol”, to the Punk Glam snarl of “Queen Bitch”, to the dour S & M imagery of “The Bewley Brothers”. There was no filler, only brilliance. But, how could he possibly top himself?

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1972 saw the release of “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars”; an album that (in its own way) changed the world as much as Beatlemania. The Beatles only hinted at an androgynous parallel universe where the languages of art, love and lust were freely spoken. Now we had a painted, sequined poster boy who not only talked the talk, but came armed with classic tunes that could outlast the critics and the naysayers. Bowie made it OK for a man to wear makeup and look beautiful. Well, for a little while anyway.

“Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” comprise one of the most potent trilogies by any artist in the history of Rock Music. 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” was brilliant but something had changed. Bowie dumped his faithful backing band and was clearly eager to jump into the artistic void.

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“Young Americans” used Philly soul to capture the ears of America. The album yielded Bowie’s first American chart topper “Fame” (co-written with John Lennon). With “Station to Station” Bowie entered a harrowing phase of drug abuse that saw him lose his memory and a significant portion of his body weight. Didn’t matter, Bowie was now an artist for the ages who couldn’t make an inconsequential album

Bowie had to rehab and reboot or snuff it. For Bowie, that meant taking his buddy Iggy Pop and moving to Berlin by The Wall. He did things like shop for his own food and wash his own laundry. The austere cold war environment inspired his second great trilogy of albums. “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”. Bowie brought Art-Rock heavyweight Brian Eno in to collaborate and help him explore his inner Stockhausen. Never had such a commercially potent artist taken such a radically uncommercial detour. Bowie was reinvigorated, his muse was overhauled and ready to meet the challenge of the 80’s.

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Bowie was famous and successful. But, he had not yet achieved ubiquitous celebrity in America. That changed with “Let’s Dance”. It was a pure commercial dance record by design. Bowie brought in Chic hit maker Niles Rodgers as producer and introduced the world to an unknown guitar slinger by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Massive hit singles “China Girl”, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” pummeled the charts, radio and MTV. David Bowie owned the year of 1983.

Bowie would never scale those heights again. He still made good records. He also did some big tours and stayed ahead of the curve by selling shares in the David Bowie brand on the stock market. He also accurately predicted that streaming and file sharing would destroy the music business as we knew it. He did several films, live theater, raised a wonderful family and manfully followed Queen after their epic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.

People sometimes forget he was a good sax player. He did all the horn parts on his early albums. He was a one take wonder. Super producer Ken Scott rated him as the best studio singer he ever worked with. There were no bum takes on a David Bowie session. He wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople; and who can ever forget his duet with Freddie Mercury, “Under Pressure”?

He was also a heavy smoker. He packed up in later years, but who knows what damage had been done. He died of cancer far too soon. However, he remained trim, youthful and dapper to the very end. He died a dignified and peaceful death surrounded by family. Listen to his music and be amazed by the wonder of it all.

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Chris Squire – Founder of Yes – Dies at 67

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Word has just come in to The Muse Patrol that Chris Squire, founding bassist of the Progressive Rock band Yes died Saturday after a battle with Leukemia. Squire began his recording career with Yes in 1968;  along with Paul McCartney and John Entwhistle, Squire was a key figure in dragging the electric bass out of the shadows of the background mix, making it a full and equal musical partner in the band dynamic. Squire was also a superior singer/composer and was a key architect in forging the airy three part harmonies that were a signature element in the Yes sound.

Squire was among the first bass guitarists in Britain to popularize the Rickenbacker bass guitar. The Rickenbacker was unique due to it’s stereo electronics and futuristic (yet classic) body design. The upper registers of the instrument had a serrated twang that Squire exploited to cut through the maelstrom of guitars, keyboards and drums (in Yes) to establish his own sonic identity. Chris Squire could be found playing a variety of cutting-edge designer basses throughout his career. But, it was the Rickenbacker he repeatedly returned to.

Squire recorded and performed in the psychedelic rock band The Syn before forming Yes. It was in The Syn that Chris Squire met guitar player Peter BanksChris Squire and Peter Banks – together with singer Jon Anderson – would form Yes and change the landscape of Rock Music in perpetuity. Not only did Yes introduce cutting edge technology to music making and stagecraft; they (along with other “Prog” groups) would ultimately give the late 70’s punk music movement something to rebel against. Other bands would arouse the ire of the DIY crowd, but it was Yes that would remain public enemy # 1 of the punks. Moreover, Yes would repeatedly suffer the slings and arrows of snarky music journalists when Progressive Rock fell out of fashion in the late 70’s.

Chris Squire solo releases were few and far between. However, in 1975 he turned in what is considered (by consensus) the finest Yes solo album in the band’s discography when he released “Fish Out of Water”.

In the early 80’s, Squire nearly pulled together one of the major super-groupings in Rock history when he and (Yes drummer) Alan White began rehearsing and recording demos with Jimmy Page. The band was called XYZ  and it was Page’s stated hesitance to form a band so soon after John Bonham’s death that derailed the union.

Members of Yes came and went, but until his death Squire was the one contiguous member that remained in the band from 1968 to present. He was most responsible for the band’s resurrection in the 80’s as a commercial entity (courtesy of monster # 1 single “Owner of A Lonely Heart”) when he inducted Prog-Pop renaissance man Trevor Rabin into the band. The band would fall out of fashion again in the 90’s with the advent of Grunge but would retool and reboot for a triumphant return to the Hockey arenas of yore with their 2002 Reunion featuring their their classic line-up from the 1970’s.

Chris Squire was a thunderous and towering figure in the history of Rock and Roll. He leaves behind four children.

The void in The Hall remains.

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JACK BRUCE DEAD AT 71

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Word has just come in that Jack Bruce died on October 25, 2014. He was 71

John Symon Asher “Jack” Bruce was born May 14, 1943 in Bishopbriggs Scotland. He trained in his youth to be a classical cellist but soon adapted his skills to bass guitar during the British Blues boom in the early sixties. He referred to himself as a Jazz musician and his discography reflects this eclecticism; ranging from his critically acclaimed 1969 solo album “Songs For A Tailor” to his surprising 1995 solo piano foray “Monkjack”.

Bruce was already a grizzled veteran of the British Blues and Beat scenes before he ever strapped on a Gibson EBO bass for Cream. Bruce played with Manfred Mann, John Mayall and Alexis Korner before he formed the supergroup in 1966 with Ginger Baker and recently anointed “God” Eric Clapton.  Cream was one of the first “jam” bands to crash the Billboard charts. They had monster hits with “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “White Room” (both featuring Bruce’s supple bass work and his honey-sweet tenor).  Jack Bruce’s voice was able to sell the hits as well as the blues standards that were the backbone of Cream’s live repertoire. Moreover, his voice and playing remained strong even in his later years despite the travails of substance abuse, a harrowing 2003 liver transplant, three divorces, and financial misadventure. In Cream, Clapton got the accolades and the celebrity, but Jack Bruce delivered the panache’.

Jack Bruce was a towering figure in the history of Rock and Roll despite the fact he was (sometimes) overshadowed by the Eric Clapton “brand” during his tenure in Cream. Bruce is survived by his wife and two children.

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Later in his career, Bruce began exploring the fret-less bass. His bass playing always had a rubbery, liquid quality; so the move made sense.  Bruce could be as athletic in his playing and singing as you could want. But, his roots were the blues. Here is Bruce at the 2005 Cream reunion unbowed by a recent near death surgery, deconstructing Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign”. Note his comping behind Eric Clapton’s guitar solo. A master class on how to play the blues without being a root-chugging automaton.

Glenn Cornick (1947-2014) – Postscript

Author: Dale Nickey

Jethro Tull w/Glenn Cornick played The Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970 to an audience of between 600 and 700 hundred thousand people (Guinness book estimate). It was Britain’s answer to Woodstock only bigger; however, feel good vibes were definitely in short supply. A large mob who had not paid for admittance to the event took exception to being fenced out. They set about tearing the large corrugated steel fence down. Police and fans squared off. It was the music that calmed nerves and avoided a riot.

Tull played the fifth and last day of a very long festival. And similar to Woodstock, they faced a large, cranky and sleep deprived throng. Tough crowd. Woodstock looked like the beginning of something. Unfortunately it was the beginning of the end. The bitter end was Altamont and finally the Isle of Wight Festival. The Isle of Wight was the last festival of its kind for decades.

Tull took the stage with a tough brief and blew the doors out of the place with an electrifying performance. Glenn Cornick was throwing flames in particular. He gets some bass/face time in the second half of this performance. It’s worth the wait.