Monday, April 22, 2013

Don't Mind Me Cause I Ain't Nothing But A Dream: RIP Richie Havens - 1941 - 2013

Richie Havens died this morning.  And he was the only goddamn hippie worth his salt. 


Sure, hippie culture has plenty of appeal.  Everyone likes sex.  Everyone likes pot. Everyone likes music and dancing and community.  And, no, it wouldn't kill you to recycle.

Plus, let's just get this out of the way: if you've had even one eye open for the past ten years, you should immediately be able to grasp the fundamental value of pacifist politics, and the needlessly tragic consequences of that worldview having been turned into a mean-spirited punchline.

On the other hand, as a kid who came of age during the apex of the military industrial complex, the AIDS epidemic, 80's excess and heavy metal radio, hippie culture seemed to have been utterly trampled by the time I was a teenager, conquered in so many ways by its antithesis.  It didn't seem like there was much to respect about it.

But I made an exception for Richie Havens.  Because no matter his politics or the topics about which he wrote, Havens simply didn't fit the mold of the hippie as far as I was concerned.

Havens wasn't in it for the free love, he wasn't in it for the grass, and he wasn't in it because he couldn't be bothered to get a job.  Richie Havens paid his dues.  He worked. He was a professional.

Havens wasn't a West Coaster. He was a Brooklynite who had spent years hanging out with beatnicks and folkies in Greenwich Village, long before hippie culture took hold. And everything about the way he approached his craft reflected that kind of ethic.

The man didn't sing the kind of ethereal melodies and harmonies with which hippie music is most often identified.  Havens sang like a man.  He roared.  When he did a ballad, he may have toned it down, but his gravelly baritone was always world-weary and utterly masculine.

None of that hippie shit.

That same quality extended to his guitar style, a hyper-percussive, hyper-aggressive strumming technique that always sounded like a vaguely Afro-Carrbean flamenco. And on top of that, his technique of barreing with his thumb continues to be one of the most outlandish things I've ever seen a guitar player do.

No 12 bar blues jams.  Play like a man, hippie.

Was he a leftie?  He sure was.  He sang war protest songs.  He sang about saving the environment. He sang about civil rights. But he backed all of that up with a commitment to activism that many of his generation just couldn't sustain.  In fact, he co-founded not one, but two non-profit organizations (including a children's museum) dedicated to educating children about the environment.

Richie Havens was authentic. He got his hands dirty.

And what better example could there be than his three-hour festival-opening set at Woodstock?  When the majority of the peace-and-love bands couldn't figure out the logistics to show up on time (and the others were too shy to kick things off), Havens stepped up and did it on his own.

When MTV launched a corporate sponsored rape-fest to commemorate Woodstock 25 years later, Havens bowed out and did his own festival.

I thought the guy was awesome.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to see the man perform.  On a hot summer morning, he played a totally free, seven-song set on the Western concourse of  Union Station in Washington, D.C.  No more than about 30 people showed, yet every single person coming off the Metroliner took a very long stare at him as they walked past with their luggage and their attache cases, trying to place that voice.

I was in heaven.  I could not possibly have been standing more than fifteen feet away, watching the guy who opened the Woodstock festival play "Here Comes the Sun," "Freedom" and a handful of other songs that don't immediately come to mind. Afterwards I got to briefly meet him and shake his hand, and I remember being in disbelief at how a person could look so young and so old at the same time.  He was well-rested, well dressed and well coiffed, clearly in excellent health, but still with the deep lines around his eyes that betrayed a life on the road.

It turns out that his appearance at Union Station was part of a five-city railroad station music tour he'd been doing....which only sounded strange until I'd learned that he had penned Amtrack's current jingle (There's Something About a Train That's Magic...which you might know by its other title, "All Aboard America"). 

It also turns out that this had turned into a tidy side-business for Havens in his middle age.  He'd also recorded the Maxwell House jingle, as well as the absolutely elegant "Fabric of Our Lives" jingle for the cotton industry.  Because a guy's got to pay the bills.

God damn it.  I just cried listening to that.
As I try to wrap this up, I'm a little stunned at how saddened I am about Havens' passing. I've been pulling up song after song after song on YouTube, and I have to admit that I'm completely broken up. Just terribly sad.

The thing is, I listened to Havens an awful lot in between bursts of all sorts of jazz and metal and classic rock, I retreated to Havens constantly. And it was never those intense, percussive songs I mentioned earlier.  It was always the ballads.

The fact is, I was incredibly lonely in college.  I wasn't necessarily sad all of the time; I had good friends and I had more than my share of insane fun.

But I felt chronically alone through those years, and the songs "Follow" and "The Dolphins" became a safe haven for me during that time.  

Through the circular hippie-drip of "Follow", every single time I heard Havens sing the lyric, "As I walk on through the garden/I am hoping I don’t miss you" I felt tremendous empathy for every lost, squandered, neglected or aborted connection I'd made  through those years -- often painfully aware that I was fumbling them in front of my eyes.

Then I'd flip the tape and put on "The Dolphins" and obsess over the lyric, "Sometimes I wonder if you ever think of me."

...which is terribly embarrassing. But it speaks to the person I was at that time: a kid who was kind of lost and kind of sad and kind of destructive...and totally, completely longing for a human touch more than he could bear for anyone else to know about.

And it speaks to why I'm so broken up tonight.

Rest in peace, Richie Havens.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reviews in Bad Taste: Must-See Music Documentaries (non-metal version)

A great music documentary is a wonderful thing.  Because if you love music enough, you almost can't help but to have some desire to better connect with the people who create it. Call it voyeurism, call it artistic curiosity, call it being a fanboy.  In my case all of them are true.  Ultimately, it boils down to an appreciation for the passion, sacrifice, ego and drama that is associated with all forms of creation.

For years I have been an addict for music documentaries, and I thought it might be worth sharing a few of my favorites.  This list is by no means comprehensive.  Hell, I've forgotten more great music films than I can remember, and I have no doubt that within 20 minutes of hitting the "Publish" button, something obvious will come to mind.

Nonetheless, have a look, and let me know what I've forgotten.

(Note: metal version is to come).

24X5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones
The Stones have released a gold mine's worth of great documentaries in the past 10 years, but this one is my personal favorite. Despite being released around a relatively blah chapter of their musical career, the Stones are captured at a mature and reflective moment in time, seemingly grateful to have their legacy intact after years of infighting.  Highlights include footage of both young and old Mick and Keith writing together, Charlie Watts conducting rare (and extensive) one-on-one interviews, and a massive amount of archival footage that had been unseen by even the biggest fans at the time of release.

David Bowie: Cracked Actor
Up front: there isn't much of a story arc here. And quite frankly, any insights into Bowie's art is completely obscured by the primary appeal of this film: the spectacular thrill of witnessing Bowie coked out of his fucking mind 24/7.  As such, there is a vitally important cautionary tale to this film: although nothing particularly shocking takes place, it does provide proof positive that even the most brilliant individuals turn to total fucking idiots when they do cocaine.

(Corollary: his vocal arrangements at this moment in time happened to be absolutely fantastic and completely inspired. Damn you, cocaine).

The Pixies: Loud Quiet Loud 
The term "indie music" doesn't really mean what it used to (if the term even exists anymore), which is why its so important to recognize the infighting and drama the Pixies slogged through on their way to pioneering the genre.  Shown through the eyes of an older, fatter, more mature band, this surprisingly subtle documentary finds all bandmates seemingly resigned to their legacy.  To that end, this is less a story of overcoming dysfunction as much as it is a story of coping with it; in fact, there are no fights or arguments anywhere in this film, yet the tension is always present in the form of uncomfortable silences, deep sighs and rolled eyes.

Stay tuned til the very last second to see Kim Deal soldier through a truly hysterical and cringe-worthy life-on-the-road moment.

End Of the Century: The Story of the Ramones 
Shot during the short years between the deaths of Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, this film is heartbreakingly charming, funny, sweet and tragic.  Seemingly unappreciative of their status as punk rock icons, the members of the Ramones face the ends of their lives nearly overwhelmed with a sense of own failure to be commercially successful. Moreover, each member of the band is up-front about the unfortunate state of the personal relationships between them, culminating in the revelation of one very closely-guarded (and incredibly sad) band secret.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco
Often slow and occassionaly downright boring, the story of how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came to be is worth watching less for all of the creative angst and more as a proof point that record companies are staffed by complete idiots.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Despite the well-intentioned (but clumsy) use of a live Funk Brother's concert performance as the unifying thread of the film, this documentary provides an essential reminder that Motown is an absolutely vital part of America's musical and cultural history.  

Documenting that, of course, is the easy part.  Stringing together a compelling film about the house band that made all of that music is a taller order. 

Nonetheless, I promise you that there will not be a dry eye in the house as Bob Babbitt describes being smuggled out of Hitsville USA as race riots ignited Detroit.

Quite simply, this is my favorite music documentary of all time.  And the vision behind it is absolutely mind-blowing.  

Chronicling the early years of "rival" Pacific Northwest bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, DiG! captures the triumphs and the miseries as one band breaks big and another simultaneously implodes.  

Between the fist fights, the melt-downs, the drugs and the emotional abuse, one still has to wonder how filmmaker Ondi Timoner knew that the reels and reels of footage would ever deliver a payoff for either band. 


Some Kind of Monster
Wait?  Didn't I say that metal documentaries will be featured in a future blog post?  

I sure did.  I'm including this one here because, quite frankly, this film has nothing to do with metal.  

It has everything to do, however, with rock stars having mid-life crises.  And that - together with hearing Lars Ulrich shout "FAUUUUUUUUUK" every five minutes - makes it a totally worthwhile watch.

(Truthfully, I'm conflicted about this film because it captures such a powerful band at such a helpless point. Yet, that is precisely what makes it great).

New York Doll
So very much like the Ramones, the story of the New York Dolls has always been one of "could've, should've, didn't."  Yet, with David Johansen's relative success as a solo musician/personality, it is easy to forget how absolutely trampled the rest of the band became after the Dolls broke up.

Oh, everyone knows about the demises of Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan.  And if you scanned TimeOut NY enough over the years, you could always find Syl Sylvain playing the odd, sad gig somewhere on the Lower East Side.

But no one ever thought to look for Arthur Kane.  When director, Greg Whiteley, finally did, he found a timid, middle-aged man living an impoverished life surrendered to God. Sober, but broken; spiritual, but not at peace; Kane comes across as a borderline bitter figure, fixated on the ludicrous fantasy of his old band reuniting.

But we all know that sometimes dreams do come true. 

Another sure-fire tear-jerker for yours' truly.

Your turn.  What did I forget?