Monday, March 25, 2013
You Can't Escape the Master Keeper: Remembering Randy Rhoads
Last week marked the 31st anniversary of Randy Rhoads' death. I've always liked Rhoads' work an awful lot, so I thought it might be worth discussing the man.
There are a lot of reasons to consider Rhoads' death tragic. First and foremost, he was young, and between his time in Quiet Riot and being in Ozzy's band, he was kind of on top of the world at the tender young age of 25.
Moreover, while his death was needless (downright foolish, in fact), it wasn't the kind of rock and roll cliche that we all know so well. No overdose. No choking on vomit. No suicide. He simply put his life in the hands of someone who wasn't very responsible. (Perhaps that is a rock and roll cliche, actually).
And then there's the issue of his wasted talent.
Whenever a noteworthy musician dies in his prime, the phenomenon of "iconic sympathy" takes place: overwhelmed by the loss of the artist, the masses drastically inflate the talent and legacy of that individual.
It happened to Dimebag. It happened to Sid Viscous. It happened to Jim Morrison, Keith Moon and Biggie Smalls. It even happened to greats like Tupac, Hendrix and Cobain.
(There are exceptions. Say what you want about Michael Jackson, Miles Davis or even John Bonham, but I'm not really sure you could overstate their talents by all that much. Probably should throw John Lennon in there, even if I don't particularly want to).
And, of course, it happened to Rhoads.
It has, in fact, become somewhat fashionable to group Rhoads in with the many also-rans in the post-Van Halen era. As you may recall, from 1980 until that goddamned "More Than Words" song came out, it seemed like the metal media was fully obsessed with crowning a "new Eddie Van Halen" every six-to-nine months. All of these guys were talented, and they each brought something new to the table. But few of them have much of a legacy today outside of hard core guitar nerds.
To that end, one must remember just how early Rhoads was on the scene. He did all of his recording with Ozzy (including the concerts for the stellar Tribute album) between 1980 and 1981. And while this puts him well behind Mr. Van Halen, it puts him far, far ahead of the likes of George Lynch (Dokken's debut didn't come out until 81), Yngwie Malmstein or Warren DiMartini (neither Steeler, Alcatraz nor Ratt would have a record out until 1983), or Nuno Bettencourt (who was probably about 12 at the time).
Moreover, it was the posthumous Tribute album that truly catapulted Rhoads into "dead superstar" status. Released in 1987, however, it hit the streets at a moment when Los Angeles was awash in wiz kids whose musical ability rarely exceeded the wheedeley-wheedeley phase.
The point is that by an odd twist of circumstance, Rhoads is more often seen as a follow-along 80's slasher, when he in fact was one of the early architects of 80's metal guitar. An endless stream of guitar players would emulate his ability to incorporate classical technique into hard rock and heavy metal solos, but few ever pulled it off without formulaic cop-out hammer-ons or total pretentiousness.
For me, however, that's only half the story.
I believe that the genius of Rhoads was his ability to play multiple guitar parts nearly simultaneously. This capability might easily be compared to Robert Johnson's famed technique of alternately plucking rhythm and playing slide leads, but a more apt comparison might be towards Nina Simone's piano method.
If you haven't heard Simone, she was a phenomenal (and phenomenally tortured artist). While she's largely known as a vocalist, she was actually -- like Rhoads -- a classically trained musician, and possibly a virtuoso on her given instrument (the piano). Much of the beauty of her technique was to play her chords all around the beat -- which is totally normal for jazz piano. What is more spectacular, however, was her method of dropping in melodic flourishes all over her songs -- sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes complex, often simple, but always rooted on the beat.
And THAT reminds me exactly of how Rhoads approached his guitar, especially on his live performances. Naturally, ALL the parts were on the beat (no rock and roll worth listening to strays far from it), but the flourishes have that same nature -- seemingly lost, quickly bordering on chaotic, only to land exactly where they need to be.
(I admit, the comparison is kind of self-serving and ridiculous, but I like it.)
Anyway, by and large, Rhoads has a much larger chance of being the victim of an overstated legacy than the other way around. But mindful of the backlash, I still wanted to offer that defense.
In the meantime, enjoy some of my favorite performances of his.
Check out the second verse, specifically.
I Don't Know
Practice makes perfect.