Sylvie Simmons – The Muse Patrol Interview (Part 1)

By Dale Nickey

Music, Madness, Leonard and The Uke

I had the privilege of being the first journalist to review Blue on Blue for The Hollywood Times in advance of its release. I decided to repost the article on The Muse Patrol after the album’s release and include an interview with Sylvie for added content. However, Simmons’ backstory and insights were so compelling, I felt the interview should be published as a standalone piece in two parts. Eight months into to this year of living dangerously, Blue on Blue is starting to make the type of noise that could result in a “Album of The Year” pick in many music publications. Here is Part One of my interview with Sylvie Simmons.

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The Muse Patrol: You are one of the preeminent Rock Journalists of our time and have written biographies on Neal Young, Serge Gainsbourg and of course Leonard Cohen, which has been published in over 20 languages:

SS: It’s over 25 now. It makes me so happy, I’m just grinning like a child every time the agent says they’re going to buy it in Russia or something.

TMP: Well “Blue on Blue” is your second album. You must be relieved to get it out there and are now able to bask in the glow of these great reviews you’ve been getting. How do you feel about it now that it’s out?

SS: That feeling of being able to say, ‘I’ve got another album out, guys!, is really just overwhelming.  That it’s finally out there. I hadn’t planned to take six years to make a follow up to my debut album Sylvie. I kind of felt on a roll, I was writing a lot of songs, getting amazing reviews that I had not expected at all because the great laws of music journalism are ‘you don’t make an album’ and ‘you certainly don’t play ukulele’ and I broke them both. I was going on the road having a great time; and then…life has a way of spoiling your plans sometimes. It did in this case. I was working on a book in collaboration with somebody which took a lot longer than we’d originally thought; and also, I had the accident that put my hand out of action for a long long time.

TMP: I don’t think effect of that event (your accident) can be overstated, you began recording songs for your second album in 2017

SS: In the studio that first day, it was just going so wonderfully, you know…everything was going well. And then that same night I had an accident (sighs) and it kind of got complicated afterwards, and so all I was doing really was fighting to get my hand back.

TMP: Yes, without putting you through it, you had every guitarists nightmare, an injury to your left hand.  You had to go through rehab before you could return to writing and playing?

SS: If it was just rehab, I wouldn’t have minded, but it was a whole series of surgeries and procedures and rehabs. It really was madness. I could not move my hand. It was the size of a baseball mitt and the fingers didn’t move. This was my strange horror story of a life. Everything went on hold for a while. It was like suddenly somebody snatched everything away from you. Almost to the point where I could hardly bear to listen to music – and I had to do it for my living (as a journalist) – which was only because I couldn’t play it. I had also broken my knee in half, so I was stuck at home in a top floor apartment. Friends would come over and musician friends would sometimes bring an instrument that they thought I could play with one hand, like a dulcimer or a jews harp, or suggest “you could put your Uke in an open tuning.” And all I would think was, ‘I don’t like this, I want to go home, let me go back to my old life’. But it was lovely they were thinking of things to help. Other friends were bringing food and trying to keep me clean! My life was being taken care of by lovely people, because for the first time couldn’t take care of myself.

TMP: You mentioned Ukulele. When people think of a songwriter accompanying themselves on Ukulele, you tend to think you’re going to get a Ukulele album. Blue and Blue is not that at all. However, the Uke seems to be a connective thread that runs through the album.

SS: It made me smile when a couple of people reviewing Blue on Blue thought that someone was picking a guitar when actually me on my little Uke! I understand there are prejudices with the Ukulele. I had  those prejudices too, I had always thought of the Uke as a toy. And of course Tiny Tim, although he was a great musicologist who knew more about early American music than just about anybody you could imagine – was always considered a bit of a joke. When I got my first Ukulele six years ago, it was given to me as a gift, and I took it with a slight raise of one eyebrow. At the same time, I didn’t have any of my other instruments with me. All my instruments were still In England after I moved out to San Francisco. So, when I first picked up the Ukulele I tried to treat it like it was some sort of four string guitar, but it’s something much more than that. It’s special. And so much more intimate. And the way that you play it, holding it very close, sitting down clutching it close to your heart… There’s something about the Ukulele, for me, that seems to translate emotion so much better than a guitar did. The guitar seems like an instrument where you have to impress someone with your playing. With a Uke, somehow, it’s much more modest and intimate.

TMP: Yes, I fell in love with the Ukulele myself, when I found it to be the most practical instrument for sitting on the couch and watching the telly:

SS: That’s exactly my life now in lock down! A bottle of wine on the floor and a glass I invariably kick over – so now I’m drinking white wine just to save the floor. What I didn’t really particularly take to with the Ukulele was the jumping flea aspect of it, the bounciness. You kind of keep up that perpetual rhythm because it doesn’t have a huge amount of sustain. You play a note and it disappears before you’ve even heard it, like a snowflake on a hot day. I liked that it had this little… kind of broken guitar or broken harp feel to it. But as someone who listens to music all the time, I knew it needed more, you need arrangements. To listen to an album of solo Ukulele – unless it’s someone like Jake Shimabukuro – could be a bit much, so the arrangements were very, very important. Howe (producer Howe Gelb) had a huge part in that on both of my albums. This album’s got more musicians on it than last time. We started off with one extra musician which was Gabriel Sullivan (Giant Sand; XIXA), and Gabriel added most of that sort of Spanish guitar, sort of lacey and intricate. Howe played several different guitars, including a lower toned guitar. But he’d be doing that while the guitar was on his lap and he’d be playing keyboards; and being a very tall man with long arms he could play two keyboards. So, I had a sort of one-man band playing with me plus the other members, including Brian Lopez (Giant Sand; XIXA) who played the solos on two songs. But Howe somehow … I don’t know how it happened, but his musical instincts in general were so sympathetic to my own that when he came in with whatever he was his playing, it often tended to be exactly what I wanted and what I was hearing in my head.

TMP: Sometimes producers get so invested in a project they sometimes start trying to make their own album using their artists songs. But it sounds like (with Howe) you didn’t have to reign him in, he knew exactly what you wanted:

SS: A lot of the time he absolutely did. There were times when I stepped in and asked for more or less of something, or decided on something different. But Howe was working with me, to an extent, before I ever started recording. He encouraged my songwriting and kept talking about us making an album together, sending me emails now and then with ideas of what we should do and how it should be. 

TMP: What started you recording your own stuff and putting out records to begin with?

SS: It came down to two people: Howe and Leonard Cohen. My biography I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen had taken a long, long time to write. When it came out in the U.S. in 2012, I’d been staring at my four walls for so long – even longer than lock down – and I wanted to get out of here, you know? The publisher set up a few book shops to talk in. But I wanted to go on the road. So, I got in touch with a few musician friends and they’d say ‘hey, come out to this record store or this bookshop and we’ll do something’. I thought it would be a nice idea if I took my Uke on the road as well as my book and sing a few Leonard Cohen songs. Because I’m a bit of a Leonard Cohen juke box  – I’ve loved his music my entire existence just about – and nobody’s ever nasty to someone with a Ukulele.

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TMP: Yes, the Ukulele is a very friendly instrument:

SS: Yes, so this began to take on a life of its own and by the end of it  I thought…Yeah!  I’m ready to do that album. Howe had been asking me to do an album of my songs for the longest time, so when I got back home I called him and said I would do it. He booked a studio in Tucson. Howe, bass player Thoger Lund and I recorded the whole thing in less than two days live to tape – which I might add was terrifying for someone making their first album.

TMP: A nice thing I appreciated when I was listening to “Blue on Blue”, is I felt like I was listening to an “album”, if you know what I mean?

SS: I know exactly.

TMP: Was that on your mind when you were recording, that you were doing a large-scale work and it all had to fit together in some way?

SS: Kind of… I knew that the songs on Blue on Blue were taking a slightly different direction. It was while sequencing the album – and I had a different idea to Howe on the order in which the songs should appear – that I really understood the story the album told and how it had to fit together. The first album was a bit different. Because it was my first time in the studio I was a little nervous, so I initially I played the songs in the order of which ones I felt most confident about playing – which was the easiest song? “Moon Over Chinatown.” And having done it, it felt like it ought to be the opening song of the album (Sylvie). I knew, for different reasons, what the opening song for this album  would be – and that was also the first thing we recorded – “Keep Dancing”. So that song became a big part of the story, which was about love and loss, and staying and moving on, and  those little moments between the love and loss and leaving or staying – or just looking back at a memory of someone happily dancing alone. It’s really interesting to me that just hours after cutting that song live on the first day in the studio, the accident threw me into a world where I was forced to stay in one place on my own and could only dream of leaving; and months after completing the album, much of the world went into lockdown, borderlines were closed and tours were cancelled, and now many of us are stuck in one place, looking back on memories.

Stay tuned (or subscribe) for Part 2 of my Sylvie Simmons interview

Sylvie Simmons – Blue on Blue (Album Review)

Compass Records (Release date 8/14/20)

Reviewed by Dale Nickey

Los Angeles, CA (8/16/20) – Singer songwriter Sylvie Simmons has completed her second album Blue on Blue; a set of all original material that has survived a harrowing gestation period of physical injury and emotional trauma. Clearly, much of the blood has made it onto the tracks of the new album.

(Photo: TaraJuell)

Sylvie Simmons is a byline any discerning rock music fan has seen often. She is frequent contributor to the mighty rock rag Mojo Magazine. Additionally, she has also gifted the world with her critically acclaimed (up close and personal) biography of Leonard Cohen; a work which stands as the definitive profile of the man. Her biographies on Neil Young and Serge Gainsboroug are no less revelatory.

Fairly or unfairly, red flags go up when any artist known for one thing explores other mediums. You know, like actors who try their hand at music. Yes Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy, I’m looking at you.

None of that baggage applies here. Blue on Blue is a precise, uncluttered gem. Front and center is Simmons’ ageless vocals and nuanced wordplay. The musical foundation is a soft, gauzy bed of ukulele provided by Simmons. The songs are pastel sketches of dark matter framed by the mood appropriate production of Howe Gelb. However make no mistake, on this record the songs call the shots and all decorative elements defer accordingly.

Simmons’ voice is a girlish, world-weary  instrument of persuasion that punches above its weight; the perfect salted-caramel blend that goes down easy, but leaves you wanting more.

Simmons is an unapologetic Cohen acolyte, and like Cohen, her narratives examine the intricacies of romantic entanglement and the imperfect soul. Moreover, (like Cohen) her narratives carry the deep background hum of mortality.

Here are a few remarkable highlights:

Second track “Nothing” finds the artist sourcing her British Folk roots for this rear-view look at childhood. A view that could only come from the distance of age.

“The Things They Don’t Tell You About Girls” is a perfect light refreshment that girlsplains the idiosyncrasies of womankind. Hiding in the weeds of this affable ditty is the astringent couplet, “Since you’re gone, I keep away from bridges, trains and razorblades”.

“Sweet California” is an immigrant’s love letter to home that brought to mind (Canadian tunesmith) Joni Mitchell’s similarly themed cut from her album Blue. Key line “Want to feel your warm breath on my skin, Let the ocean wash away my sin”.

“The Man Who Painted The Sea Blue” is the one cut where lyrics take a back seat to the music. Specifically, the cinematic sweep of keyboards and electric whammy bar guitar.

The album closes with “1000 Years Before I Met You”, a playful send-up of country music’s guy/gal duet sub-genre; which employs the familiar tropes of hard drinkin’ and good lust gone bad.

Blue on Blue turns the neat trick of being both downbeat and uplifting in equal measure. It’s perfect nighttime listening for a COVID world going mad from isolation and angst. Simmons has given us a mature and comforting work that reminds us pain and pathos are still the brick and mortar for great art.

Emitt Rhodes (1950-2020)

Early DIY pioneer dead at 70

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By Dale Nickey

Emitt Rhodes should’ve been a contender. He had the looks, talent and work ethic. During the swinging sixties he honed his multi-instrumentalist chops as leader of the chamber pop group The Merry-Go-Round which had a modest hit with “You’re A Very Lovely Woman”. At the dawn of the 70’s he signed a solo deal with ABC Dunhill and repaired to his parent’s garage to build his own studio with his $5,000 advance money. There he produced the McCartneyesque’ DIY masterpiece “Emitt Rhodes”. The album charted well (#29 on Billboard) and the critics swooned. All systems were go for a productive career to rival that of Todd Rundgren or perhaps even Macca himself.

ABC Dunhill had other ideas, all of them bad. First they rigidly held him hostage to a contract that required one album every 6 months. Being an artist who wrote, produced, performed and engineered his work in its entirety, this blueprint was untenable and illogical. Rhodes reasonably lobbied for a more sane release schedule. After all, his debut effort was a commercial and critical success. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it, right? No deal. ABC Dunhill not only refused to nurture their budding solo star, they filed a $250,000 lawsuit for breach of contract and withheld his royalties for failure to deliver his albums in a timely manner. Through clenched jaw and gritted teeth Rhodes eventually recorded two more solo albums before calling it quits. Rhodes then walked out of the machinery and managed to sustain himself as a recording engineer and studio owner. ABC Dunhill’s handling of Emitt Rhodes was one of the most colossal corporate blunders since the Boston Red Sox sale of Babe Ruth.

Now Rhodes is gone at 70, and we’re left to wonder what might have been.

Scott Walker Remembered

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SCOTT WALKER: Outsider Composer and 60’s Icon Passed at 76

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Scott Walker (born Noel Scott Engel), American born composer and singer has passed. He was 76.

Walker has been cited as an influence by Radiohead, David Bowie and many others. Bowie repaid his artistic debt by executive producing the 2006 documentary feature “Scott Walker: 30th Century Man”. Bowie was also interviewed at length in the film about Walker and his influence.

Walker was a hero of mine. I came to his music both early and late in my life. He was American born, but had a European sensibility that would have limited his mass appeal stateside; indeed, he referred to himself as a “Continental suit-wearing natural enemy of the Californian surfer”. After brief career as a child actor and teen singing idol, Scott and his group The Walker Brothers (none of the members were related nor named Walker) worked the local club and TV circuit to little acclaim. In 1965 the group relocated to London and produced a number one hit version of Burt Bacharach’s “Make It Easy On Yourself”.  After that triumph, more hits followed, including the stunning 1966 chart topper “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”.

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Scott Walker was a Pop star with a capital P. At one point the official Walker Brothers fan club boasted more members than The Beatles. However, despite their  success and teen appeal, The Walker Brothers had a dark, noir aspect to their music that perfectly encapsulated the depressed, monochromatic landscape of  post war Britain; a landscape hidden from the glare of Swinging London and the mass media spotlight. Even at its most commercial, The Walker Brother’s sound was reflective of Scott Walker’s love of European cinema and literature.

As the initial gold rush and accompanying hysteria around The Walker Brothers began to wane, Scott Walker went solo and released a string of successful albums. His first four solo efforts went top 10 in Britain and contained a heady mix of originals, Jacque Brel compositions and selected covers; Brel was a particularly strong influence and conversely, Walker’s recordings from the Brel songbook contributed greatly to Belgian tunesmith’s popularity. By the time his (all original) solo effort “Scott 4” was released, Walker was in thrall to modern classical music despite his management’s wish for him to become Britain’s version of Frank Sinatra. Indeed, his mainstream success was such that he was gifted with a BBC television special in 1969. A broadcast tragically lost to the BBC’s practice of film recycling.

However, with the release of “Scott 4”, his record company lost faith and Scott Walker lost heart. His 70’s period saw the artist floundering behind makeweight solo albums and economy driven Walker Brothers reunions, all designed to recapture the commercial magic of his 60’s period. Not only did the albums fail to deliver commercially, the artist later lamented the release of these artistically compromised works and disassociated himself from them. However, the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion release “Night Flights” contained four Scott originals that marked a bold and daring direction that was favorably received by the British Music Press.

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At the dawn of the 80’s, as Walker’s life became more hermetic and isolated, his subsequent music became wonderfully strange and impenetrable. Still possessing a world class baritone voice, his compositions reflected the radical influences of Modern Classicism and the Avant Garde. In 1984, Walker released “Climate of Hunter” which marked the beginning of his third period as a solo artist. Ostensibly a “Rock” album with conventional instrumentation, melodic threads began to disappear and lyrical themes became more disturbing and literary.

In 1995 the album “Tilt” was released as Walker dove headlong into orchestral textures and invented percussion effects (which included musicians physically punching slabs of meat). The occasional music video evoked nightmarish scenes, and stark images bathed in darkness and existential pathos.

Walker continued into the new millennium with disturbing and essential works such as “The Drift”, “Bish Bosch” and “Soused”; a grand trilogy that drew only love letters from an adoring British Music press and fellow musicians.

Flash back to a day in 1965 when a guitar playing friend of my parents brought me a picture sleeve single of The Walker Brothers, “Make It Easy On Yourself”. After my initial disappointment about not receiving a Beatles record, I dutifully put the on the 45” and listened. Despite the cavernous, melancholy sound I would listen again…and again. There was something about that sound, and something alluring about the grim but charismatic trio of men with impossibly perfect hair on the picture sleeve; especially the dark blond in the Continental suit…Scott Walker. RIP

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Greatest Rock Covers # 5 – Vanilla Fudge “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Vanilla Fudge – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

If Rock Music historians want to track down the antecedents of Prog kings Yes, the logical starting point would be The Beatles. But, I would be shocked if the Yes men of 1968 weren’t profoundly influenced by this musically ambitious American band.  All the prog elements are there. A flashy, jazz influenced drummer, a flamboyant Hammond player, and a thundering, hyperactive Bassist. Moreover (like early Yes), Vanilla Fudge made radical makeovers of pop hits their calling card. This treatment of The Supremes’ top tenner failed to set the Billboard charts alight. However, it’s still a musical thrill ride that rips apart the pop-soul chassis of this girl group plaint and turns it into a testosterone fueled lament of operatic intensity.

Greatest Rock Covers # 6 – America by Yes

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Yes – America

The greatest Prog band in rock history started life as the greatest covers band in rock history. They followed the template of The Vanilla Fudge and decided extreme makeovers were the best mode of expression for material already recorded definitively by the original artists. Original artists Simon and Garfunkel gave “America” a mopey, existentially ambiguous reading. Yes tore it a new asshole and drove it off the cliff. The track belongs to guitarist Steve Howe; who took the track as an excuse to catalog every American guitar lick in his arsenal. The guitarist himself cites Delaney and Bonny has his jumping off point. However, there is much more to enjoy than guitar solos on this track.  This version careens from slow to fast and soft to loud. It further boasts Mellotrons, odd meters, wah wah congas and gleefully swipes musical quotes from Leornard Bernstein’s “America Suite” as well as “My Country Tis’ of Thee”. An edited, single version of the track exists for the convenience of classic rock radio and should be avoided.

Jandek Does Jazz – Dallas Thursday (CD Review)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

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Jandek – Dallas Thursday (CD)

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Recorded Live at The Texas Theater, Dallas Texas – May 19, 2016

Jandek activity has picked up in the last few months; most recently, Jandek aka The Representative of Corwood Industries has released Dallas Thursday. A fairly recent performance from May 2016, which testifies to the robust health of Jandek’s muse.

I have not been reviewing and writing very much since the world changed a few months back, nor have I had any desire to. For me, music has lost its ability to foment revolution in a meaningful way. Without that ace card up its sleeve, its hard to justify its importance in the culture. Then you realize, it’s the only game in town. Despite the trivialization of music by celebrity culture, it still retains its healing powers even as its social relevance recedes into the background hum.

Which brings us to Jandek. Into this swirling vortex of confusion and existential trauma, The Representative of Corwood Industries has dropped a thing of unassailable honesty and beauty; a work that sustains my faith in the artistic spirit. This is Jandek’s ‘Jazz’ album. The Zen Master of cacophonic synchronicity has now given us a hidden place to lay back, gather ourselves and refresh the soul.     http://corwoodindustries.com/

Ostensibly a live album, Dallas Thursday is so transporting in mood and tone, it renders audience response incongruous and spell shattering. Muted trumpet (or cornet?) is the featured instrument. It hovers and moans like a fifties”cool jazz” ghost over the starry night keyboards , dark chocolate bass and the spacy, beat musings of Sheila Smith.

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As with any Jandek album, musician credits are non-existent – as are writing credits. One imagines the horn parts a product of Jandek ‘the facilitator’ rather than Jandek the composer. Certainly the Good Humor Man-on-Angel Dust keyboards carry the Jandek stamp. As far as the spoken word, it would seem that The Representative and Sheila Smith are of one mind now; it happens in musical collaborations that stray into the area of telepathy. Smith has dialed back the agression and displays a deadpan, dusky, beat poet delivery that is hypnotic and engaging, yet retains its edge.

Jandek is now a bigger thing than The Representative of Corwood Industries alone. Jandek is a collective, a brand, an archetype and a way of doing things. I’m just glad that Jandek – the man and artist – has retained his ability to surprise. Dylan always had the ability to throw down a personal masterpiece when his audience needed one. With Dallas Thursday, Jandek demonstrates that same ability.

 

 

 

 

 

John Wetton- Progressive Rock Giant – Dead at 67

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Authored by Dale Nickey:

As if 2016 wasn’t enough….

Time marches on and the parade to heaven has turned into a stampede. Progressive Rock giant John Wetton has passed at the age of 67 from cancer.

I saw John Wetton live before I even knew who he was. The year was 1973. A buddy had a spare ticket to a King Crimson show supporting their (then) new album “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic”. I was familiar with Progressive units like ELP, Yes and Genisis. All I knew of King Crimson was that ex-yesser Bill Bruford was now in the band and that Greg Lake used to front the outfit.

The venue was the Long Beach Auditorium. Now long since demolished, even at the time it had an ancient, musty ambiance not unlike a manure werehouse. However, in this case, the smell was decidedly herbal in nature and enveloped the entire audience in a dense fog. Even a non-smoker (at the time) like me couldn’t ignore the psychotropic effect of breathing common air fouled by two thousand androgynous, longhaired stoners.

Guitarist Robert Fripp was the featured player, but it was Wetton and Bruford who stole the show. Bruford played around, under and over the pulse of the music while Wetton matched him step for step. The  snap, crackle and thunder of Wetton’s bass underpining his smooth, masculine lead vocals. The crowd was out of its mind and hung on every note played.  It was a true testament to Wetton’s talent that he could step in for the likes of Greg Lake and take the band to new levels of popularity in his place.

Wetton then joined the ranks of Roxy Music and (with new recruit Eddie Jobson) helped catapult the band into the elite league as a live act. Listen to the band’s live album “Viva’ Roxy Music”. Three bass players are featured on the album. However, Wetton’s tracks slam with an epic energy that the band has yet to recapture.

After a brief fling with Uriah Heap, Wetton pilfered Jobson from Roxy and formed U.K.; a band that not only introduced the world to guitarist Alan Holdsworth, but set the template for what would eventually become Prog-Pop super group Asia.

After U.K. folded, Wetton took in Yes refugees Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes and formed the archetypal super group  Asia. Drummer Carl Palmer rounded out the line-up. Surprisingly, they pivoted away from lengthy, segmented compositions and turned in a Pop-Rock masterpiece with their debut (1982) album “Alpha”. Wetton was the main writer (with Downes) and his vocals were resplendent. “Alpha” shot   to number one in America and multiplatinum status. Predictably, egos clashed and the group disintigrated at the speed of light. No matter, Wetton could finally boast his first worldwide chart topper.

After that, Wetton kept productive with solo albums, side projects and session work. You’ll find his name on a slew of legendary albums with Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Peter Banks and Steve Hackett. He would leave Asia to be replaced temporarily by Greg Lake (oh the irony), only to return in the early part of the century and tour the world again with the original Asia lineup.

I would see him again some 30 years after the King Crimson gig. It was at a club called The Canyon Club in Agoura. They played their first album in it’s entirety. They seemed far too big for the room. Wetton (of course) shook the room to its foundation. The staff at the club said they had never seen a crowed that large at the venue. We were packed like sardines, but I feel lucky and honored that was my last view of the man; commanding, virtuosic and playing his own music to an adoring throng.

Somehow Wetton has remained in the dark unvisited corner of the Rock pantheon when it comes to celebrity. Many lesser talents clog the celebrity pages and magazine covers. Wetton was a musician first and a star second and third. However, he was indeed a star. His legacy will only accrue more depth and  resonance as the years pass. RIP John Wetton.

Another touchstone of my youth taken far too soon.

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

The Purgatory of The Open Mike – “The Girl From The Basement Church”

guitar_girl_by_monkato

The purgatory of the open mic.

by Dale Nickey

The ad in the Recycler read, “Wanted: Singer/Songwriters, Poets and Artists for Open Mic at the Basement Church. Sign Ups at 07:00 p.m. Sunday Night”

I decided to go and perform at The Basement Church in Echo Park. My twenties were gone. My rock star dreams were gone. I now played music because it was an obsession; like sex, like alcohol or drugs. So I started going out and playing open mics as one would go out for casual sex. It was about satisfying an urge.

I showed up a little early as was my custom. The Basement Church was indeed in a basement, but looked very little like a church. As soon as I walked in the door; a smiling, puffy faced gent wearing a puke colored cardigan sweater walked up to me. He was holding a steaming mug of black coffee. He introduced himself as Deacon Jim and invited me to sit at his table. I accepted his invitation. It was a welcoming environment.

I asked him what slots were available and he said he could fit me in third. I could play fifteen minutes. That suited me fine. If I curtailed my stage banter, I could squeeze in five songs.

I looked around the room and it had a nice dark vibe. There was a small bandstand and two mics. The bandstand was a nice bonus. It added gravitas and drama to a performance. I was disappointed to see they had no stool. The height a stool provides gives you a psychological advantage over the audience. If you sit in chair, you are closer to eye level and the performer/audience dynamic is compromised. I didn’t like playing acoustic gigs standing up, so I would use my old trick of swinging my leg over the back of a chair and play standing up on one leg with one foot resting on the seat of the chair; show them you mean business.

There were four or five performers scattered throughout the room. All were concentrating intently on tuning their acoustic guitars and running through chord changes. Most looked fidgety and nervous, as though their futures depended on what would happen during their fifteen minutes onstage. I sat quietly and chatted with Deacon Jim. He seemed interested in talking to me for some reason. It was then I noticed The Girl. She was sitting at the back of the club with her nylon string guitar; the right side of her face obscured by a curtain of clean, straight, brown hair.

Her side view revealed a straight strong back and a beautiful curvature down to her buttocks. Her hands were thin, long and had a musculature that suggested a life of work. Perfect for guitar. Her arms were slender and toned. She was playing a rudimentary classical piece. It sounded nice. She seemed to have a grace about her that none of the other neophytes in the club possessed. I suddenly wished I had a sketchpad and a talent for drawing.

My meditation was shattered by a blustering, but harmless buffoon who entered from a kitchenette in the back. His name was Roy. He was stocky with thick black hair. Deacon Jim seemed well acquainted with Roy as he sat at our table without invitation. I gathered that Roy was a church elder of some sort. He was one of those people who stared at you a little too hard and a little too long. Deacon Jim cut him off gently and stood up to start the proceedings.

First up was a serious, bearded, long haired kid. He was far more handsome than he was talented and seemed to know it. He sang a James Taylor tune and a Leonard Cohen tune. He also sang a couple of tunes I assumed were original. He stumbled on chords a couple of times and wore a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on his face the entire set.

Next up was a balding, forty-something blues devotee. He had a poorly camouflaged beer gut and played a cheap nylon string guitar. His repertoire was exclusively blues standards; all of which he strummed unimaginatively in first position chords like a folk singer. Midnight Special, Stormy Monday etc…. He had a harmonica strapped around his neck which he played often and badly. I spent his entire set staring into my cup of coffee in solemn prayer that someone would shove that damn harmonica up his ass. The Basement Church.

I was up next. Even though there was nothing on the line I still got that nervous buzz in anticipation of performance. It was a good feeling. Deacon Jim fiddled with my mics while I checked my tuning. I noticed The Girl at the back of the club. She seemed to be looking at me attentively.

I was at the peak of my musical powers. I saw no reason to hold back and played my most challenging and risky songs. Deacon Jim would interject questions and comments between songs. I didn’t mind. He would say, “Good tune, yours?” Once or twice, buffoon Roy would start to blather during a song and Deacon Jim would shush him quietly and efficiently. The Girl’s dark silhouette sat ramrod straight during my whole set and never seemed to move a muscle.

I closed my set to polite, scattered applause. I sat down back at the table with Deacon Jim and Buffoon Roy. Another gent followed me and did an extremely serious set of originals. He strummed way too fast and hard, and sang way too loud. He grimaced, sweated profusely, and his face turned beet red. I guess he thought perspiration might mitigate a surfeit of inspiration. I looked in the direction of The Girl to find she and her guitar had vanished.

I should have left at this point, but something was keeping me there. Buffoon Roy pontificated and swigged coffee. He obviously fancied himself an armchair Socialist. As Roy continued his cartoon tirade I watched The Girl quietly and gracefully take the stage behind him and fuss with her hair and guitar while Deacon Jim attended to her microphones.

She was nervous, but game. She played that simple classical piece she was working on earlier. She was obviously taking lessons and practicing. She froze a couple of times, but took the piece to completion. The poorly lit stage added allure to her looks. The curtain of straight, brown, clean hair effectively cut her face in half. The half I could see was lightly made up with strong and pretty features. She surprised us by terminating her performance after one song. Deacon Jim gallantly asked her to sit at our table and play another. She said, “The only other tune I know is ‘Ten Thousand Miles’ and I barely know it.” Deacon Jim helpfully said, “I’m sure Dale could wing it on guitar”.

She sat down. She was sitting between Buffoon Roy and Deacon. She had a flinching posture when sitting at the table. I watched her hands on guitar while she ran through Ten Thousand Miles. It was a typical minimalist folk song. I picked up the chords and she sang the song in a sweet, pleasant – if slightly amateurish – falsetto. I caught her shooting a couple of glances at me. She was pretty, in her late twenties and had a smoking hot hippy body and brains. However, the curtain of hair over the right half of her face seemed to have a purpose. She was covering a scar. A made a point of not staring. She seemed shy and pensive enough.

Buffoon Roy was blathering about art and the disappearance of the friendly neighborhood bar. He complained how you couldn’t walk into a bar anymore for conversation and fellowship. He said every bar in town was either a strip bar or a gay bar. I silently wondered how he would know. At the first appropriate pause, I bent over to put away my guitar and made my excuses to go. The Girl immediately mentioned to Deacon Jim that it was getting late and she had to go to school in the morning. Deacon Jim said something unintelligible. Then, Buffoon Roy blustered, “well…I could take you home, it’s on the way!” Deacon Jim ignored Roy and turned to me and said, “You’re going back to The Valley right?” I said that I was.

“Fine, I’m sure Dale wouldn’t mind taking you home Gail”. I looked at Gail and told her I was fine with giving her a ride home. At that point she smiled and started putting her guitar away to leave. Buffoon Roy looked defeated. Deacon Jim took a self-satisfied slurp from his coffee mug, happy with his handiwork.

I offered to carry her guitar if she would negotiate the door. She walked on my right side as we approached the car. She stood well back when I opened the car door for her. All her movements seemed choreographed to shield her scar from my view. Fate even conspired to only show me her unblemished left side as she sat beside me in the passenger’s seat on the ride home.

We talked. She told me of her love for classical guitar. She also asked me what I was doing playing at the Basement Church. She told me I should be famous.

She lived in up in the foothills near The Church. I couldn’t tell if the neighborhood was ‘funky but chic’ or old and poor. Her apartment occupied the entire second floor of an older building. It probably started out life as a nice two story house that hard economics had morphed into a split level duplex.

Stand-up_comedy_-_Stage_-_cropShe invited me up for a cup of tea and I accepted without hesitation. I carried our guitars as she walked up the stairs ahead of me. This allowed me a discreet examination of her body from the rear and it was exquisite. Her slim, shapely body was housed in skin tight jeans and a leotard top. I doubt men stared at that scar on her face for long.

We entered the apartment and it immediately felt comfortable. I guessed it was built in the 40’s or early 50’s. The most noticeable feature was the hardwood floors that were common to the era. Gail had wisely decorated the apartment sparsely to maximize the esthetics of the wood. Clearly she was not rich and there was no money to waste on ephemera. However, this was the eighties, when it was still possible for those not rich to live in scruffy dignity.

She bounced around the apartment cheerfully and purposefully. I leaned in the kitchen door way while she prepared our tea. She kept her back to me while she performed her kitchen duties. She interrupted her task only to look at me over her left shoulder to reveal her pretty and alluring profile. The stove was a vintage 50’s model reminiscent of our old family stove that first educated me to the pain of fire.

She chatted about school and casually took my hand to show me the view from her apartment. The view was from an empty spare room at the back of the apartment. There were faux French double door windows that opened to a view of a thicket of trees and a small ravine. A very green, lush and (I assumed) dangerous piece of inner-city vegetation. We held hands. My arousal was immediate and sustained. She was proud of the humble but soulful niche she had carved for herself. Clearly she enjoyed my company. At the same time, she did not seem solicitous. She produced a joint and we smoked and chatted amiably and easily.

I finished my tea and it was time for me to go. She stood up and faced me square for the first time. I could see the scarring on the right side of her face was more severe than I thought. I moved closer and I could see through the curtain of hair that her cheekbone was missing; a sunken crater in its place. She was covering more than a scar. Her face was tragically disfigured. I did not hesitate. I put my hand gently on her shoulder and softly kissed her beautiful left cheek. Her body relaxed and her posture was welcoming. It was then I could see the sadness in her smile.

I thought about staying the night. I arrogantly assumed I could do so and her disfigurement did not repel me in the least. I know Gail would have been an amazing lover. However, I couldn’t love and leave her so cruelly. I was better than that. Or maybe I was just too shallow to shoulder the inevitable burden of stares and questions from family and friends. Maybe it was a little of both. Regardless, I made my excuses and left.

I knew I would never see or speak to her again. But, I thought about her every second of my drive back to the Valley. I solemnly prayed for the safety and happiness of The Girl from The Basement Church.