Category Archives: Love of Music

Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Lucy

They all loved Lucy.

They all loved Lucy.

Today (March 30) is Eric Clapton’s birthday. Of course the man needs no introduction, so I would rather talk about Lucy. Mr. Clapton is known as one of the pre-eminent and most famous users of the Fender Stratocaster, definitely a guitar that suits his clean and melodic style. But he was not always a Strat man. Back in the days of Cream and the Yardbirds, Eric played Les Pauls and Firebirds. He was a Gibson guy.

One of the most famous Les Pauls in rock history, then, has to be Lucy, the red 1957 Les Paul Goldtop upon which Clapton played the beautiful solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

According to Wikipedia, the guitar was first owned by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, who then gave it to Rick Derringer in a trade for an amp.  The finish became very worn, so Derringer’s father took it back to the Gibson shop where it was repainted red. Derringer did not like the feel of the repainted guitar, so he sold it to a New York music shop, where Eric Clapton found it and bought it. He played it for a while, but because he “already had a Les Paul” he gave it to George Harrison. George was struggling with the writing of “Gently Weeps” so he invited Clapton to come to the recording session. Clapton noted that George’s solo didn’t sound “Beatle-y” enough, so he sat down and delivered. Again, according to Wikipedia, “Clapton laid down the track in a single take; but later stated that he was so high at the time he doesn’t remember it at all.”  George kept the guitar, but it was stolen during a robbery of his Beverly Hills home in 1973, where it traded hands a couple of times, it went to Mexico and eventually was recovered by trading a couple of other guitars. George kept Lucy, and presumably it is still part of his estate.

This leaves me with a couple of questions:

With so many guitars in the world, how come just a handful get to live storied lives like this one?

And also, these musicians have piles of money and access to all kinds of instruments. How come they lend and borrow from each other like this? I think it’s cool, but are they really that stuck for a good guitar? George Harrison’s brown Telecaster has a similar story. It was given to him by Joe Walsh.

It all makes for wonderful lore, and it certainly helps out the marketing of high-end Signature series reproduction guitars, but you have to wonder a.) whether these stories are true; b.) whether any of the world’s greatest guitar solos would have happened the same way if they had just picked up any old studio guitar lying around;  and c.) whether they will live on for centuries, like Stradivarius violins, to be played by successive generations of gifted artists.

Anyway, happy birthday, Mr Clapton. Thank you for making it all look so easy.

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Steven Tyler and the power of networking

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once...

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once…

Today (March 26) is Steven Tyler’s birthday. As the flamboyant front man of Aerosmith he has made a great living playing in and leading one of the world’s most famous rock bands, while not taking himself too seriously. The staccato vocal rhythm prevalent in a lot of his tunes comes from the fact he was a drummer first, playing drums in his upstate New York hometown. He also learned a great deal about composition by sitting under the piano in his home while his father, a classical musician, played. He would write tunes with “two hands” in mind and would go back the studio and say “bass, you play what my left hand is doing on the piano – yes, he can play piano too — and guitar, you play what my right hand is doing. So as weird and strung-out as he may still appear, he is a wise man of rock – very smart in both the ochestration of tunes and of course the choreography of a great live show.

But as with many immortal partnerships (Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Elton & Bernie) the soul-mate connection between Tyler and his amazing guitar player Joe Perry leaves us with the intriguing thought of what might have happened if they never hooked up. According to Tyler’s excellent autobiography, Do The Noises In My Head Bother You (which is even better as an audiobook, read by Tyler sound-alike Jeremy Davidson), Perry was playing around in other bands, and it was only the connection they had to a summer camp that got them together. Perry, as a teenager, was the fry-cook there.

Now this may not be networking in the truest sense of the word, but it goes to show just how much fate pays a major part in our lives. If Tyler had not gone back to that summer camp, would we have Aerosmith? If Jagger and Richards had not bumped into each other and started talking about blues records, would the Stones ever have existed? If Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin had not seen and answered the same newspaper ad, well, who knows?

One of the greatest stepping-stones to personal success and satisfaction comes from the people you know. They provide opportunities, for business, for gigs, for advancement in all areas of life. When we reflect on all of the great might-have-beens and all of the great victories, they are usually due to being in the right place at the right time – with someone else.

Your personal network is your best tool for getting ahead, and should really be nurtured every day.

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The Ancient Art of Weaving and Band Telepathy

Keith and Ron and the "Ancient Art of Weaving."

Keith and Ron and the “Ancient Art of Weaving.”

Whether you are a fan of the Rolling Stones or not, one of the most fascinating things about them is their guitar musicianship. When people talk about great guitarists in the worlds of rock, blues and R&B they often highlight virtuosos like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan, who admittedly can play clean and fast like no-one else; but Rolling Stones, as staffed by Keith Richards and Ron Wood (not the Mick Taylor or Brian Jones chapters), draws attention to another sort of expertise, that they themselves call the “fine art of weaving.” These two long-in-the-tooth players roll around the necks of their guitars like two figure skaters on a rink, each doing their own thing, but somehow fitting perfectly. If Keith goes up the neck, Ronnie goes to the far end, and the licks intertwine, as can be heard so well in tunes such as “Beast of Burden.”

It might seem relatively straightforward to do this, with blues-based rock lending itself so easily to lazy lengths of twelve-bars, but most bands do not do this. There is the rhythm guy and there is the lead guy.

The fine art of weaving is a craft that comes from years and years of endless live performance – something most musicians can only dream of, but it highlights the essential element of any successful live band, which is a form of telepathy, in which every member of the band knows what each other will do, and can, as a result, perform confidently. This confidence reflects in everyone’s performance, and then projects out into the audience.

Many bands perform in a woefully under-rehearsed state, having practiced the tunes a few times, but not having perfected the show. Each member is still just a musician, and the five or six of them have not yet fused as a group, and this shows.

On-stage telepathy comes from hours of rehearsal and live play. It comes from an attitude that a performance is more than just knowing the set list. Mick can hand off to Keith and Ron. Phil Collins handed off to Mike Rutherford. Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson both had absolute faith in their musician and dancers to never have to look over their shoulders once to know if all was unfolding as it should.

For the 99.9% of us musicians who aren’t in the full-time professional league, rehearsal time is scarce, and gig opportunities usually hard to come by. But it is essential to recognize that the ability to play one’s own piece of the tune is only a small fraction of the end product. If you are in a five-piece band, ten you are not one-fifth of that band. You are more like one-tenth. Because no matter how hard you practice at home, it is the “act” that counts equally if not more than the actual tune.

In my humble opinion, a rehearsal should run through at least one set from start to end exactly as it would be played on stage, including the prepared announcements and banter (if any). Only then will true telepathy start to develop.

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Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Pink Floyd - The Wall - inside album art

Pink Floyd – The Wall – inside album art

On this day (March 22) in 1980, Pink Floyd’s single “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2” was released, and it stayed at number 1 on the US singles charts for 4 weeks. The Wall remains one of my favorite albums of all time, and the movie, directed by Alan Parker and illustrated by Gerald Scarfe, remains one of my top three favourite movies ever.

To me this film seemed to capture both the craziness of big-time rock and roll as well as the alienation and confusion I was experiencing as a typical teenager. It was an album and a movie I could get lost in: the music, tinged with desperation and anger, and the movie, portraying the visual confusion of a drug-addled rock star played by a young Bob Geldof, that not merely blurred the borders between reality and hallucination, but positively chewed them up.

Other movies have done a good job at portraying the surreal life of a travelling superstar musician, or even wannabe superstars such as in Almost Famous, and even This is Spinal Tap, but The Wall, with its limos, roadies, groupies and drugs seemed to capture it all with all of the glitzy overkill of the early days of MTV and the music videos that were to follow.

As a piece of art. I find The Wall to be amazing. Some might find it dated now, of course, but it reminds me in many ways of The Sting, directed by George Roy Hill, which is another of my three top favourite movies of all time. The Sting used Scott Joplin’s ragtime genius to capture the feeling of Depression-era America, and used a Norman Rockwell-style cinematographyto frame it all. Parker basically used the angry sharp-edged animations of Gerald Scarfe to the same effect.

The wall also represented an excellent example of the concept album: something you were expected to listen to from beginning to end – two full LP’s – a style of entertainment that is less welcome in the age of downloadable singles.

I am not sure if there is a “Making of The Wall”documentary out there, but I would love to get my paws on it if there is.

 

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Ike Turner’s Pantsuit is in Beijing

The Bar at the Hard Rock Café, Beijing

The Bar at the Hard Rock Café, Beijing

Just got back from a trip to Beijing – a wild place – the biggest city I have ever seen – glass high-rises form the canyon walls, eight-lane streets from the canyon floors, and they extend in every direction. In Beijing, drivers use the gas-pedal-and-horn technique. No braking. Cars slip in and out of lanes like fish moving around  a coral reef, and if there’s no room to park on the street, then they park on the pavement.

A welcome respite from the furious, progress-tinged pace of Chinese life is the Hard Rock Café, located sort of up-and-to-the-right of the Forbidden City, nestled in a grove of upscale Western hotels, not too far from Embassy row. As fascinating as Chinese life is, the Café is a wonderful oasis, where the music of Elvis, The Pretenders and the Stray Cats complement onion rings, burgers and (gasps with delight) Guinness. The large central area has a stage, already set up with drums, guitars and mikes. And around the walls are the glass cases containing guitars from McCartney’s Wings, Tom Petty, and Prince, just to name a few. One-piece outfits belonging to Elvis, Ike Turner and even Fred from the B-52’s stand silently in glass cases, and there’s even a row of signed drumheads.

I guess the Hard Rock is like Starbucks for the musically inclined: a consistent customer experience that varies little from city to city. Beijing is a fabulous place, especially if you like high speed and crowds, which I do, but I tell you, two hours at the Hard Rock was an oasis of the cool, beautiful glamour of Rock, Soul, Blues and Motown.

Hard Rock Café Memorabilia

Hard Rock Café Memorabilia

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Walkin’ in Memphis

Memphis - Beale Street

Memphis: Beale Street. Everyone who is anyone has played here.

I went down to Memphis in the Spring of 2010. I wish I could say we went down as a band, but that time has not quite come yet. I went down on business, but mainly so that I could walk the streets of that hallowed city. It isn’t hyperbole to say that there truly is something in the air down there. Beale Street at midnight. That’s where it happens. A couple of blocks closed to traffic, and almost every establishment jumping with the sound of blues, soul, funk, played by people who really should be doing it professionally, on tour with the greats of the business. Who knows, maybe some of them do. I stepped into B.B. King’s and watched in awe. One guitar player looked like Matt “Guitar” Murphy. The other looked like John Byner, the comedian. He played a Strat upside-down, the way Hendrix did, but musically he played like Stevie Ray, except his face constantly was contorting with grimaces and and open-mouthed stares, as he pulled every note – note perfect – out of himself and through his beat-up instrument.

Memphis breathes music. Around the corner from Beale Street is the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, where sequined and fur-lined jumpsuits belonging to the King, as well as to Isaac Hayes and a host of other giants, nestle quietly and forever, alongside the mixing consoles from Sun Studios and from Stax Records, and guitars from Carl Perkins.

Between Beale Street and the Museum, and just up a slight rise that makes up part of the banks of the Mississippi, is a statue of a young Elvis, hips and acoustic guitar swinging.

Steve outside Graceland

Steve outside Graceland.

I had a driver who took me to Graceland, which was once a stately mansion, but now looks more like “just” an affluent home. Nice, to be sure, but not on par size-wise with the mega-homes of the Billy Joels of the world. Elvis might have owned two planes (they’re parked across the street), but he couldn’t have taxied either one of them into the foyer, which I think Billy Joel can, and John Travolta still does. My driver patiently took my picture outside the gates of Graceland, and was able to keep the shot tight enough so that the gas station and the fast food restaurants that now flank the estate did not make it into the picture. But of course, the mansion’s true size is in its history. What it stands for as a home and shrine. It is worth the detour to see it.

I have been lucky to have visited many cities in my day, but few come close to having the palpable air of the love of music that Memphis has. New Orleans, yes. Parts of New York City, perhaps. But it seems to all come together, there, next to the big gray river, and it’s a place to which I long to return.

– Steve

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