Monday, June 1, 2020

Take One: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – ‘Will to Love’ – Won’t Be Tamed

Referred to by Neil Young as ‘one of the best records I’ve ever made’, ‘Will to Love’ is not only one of the most unique compositions in Neil Young’s extensive canon, but arguably one with the most detail and depth. While the track is housed on Young’s 1977 LP American Stars and Bars the song, typically to Young compositions has an interesting story and development. Some folks, like Young biographer Jimmy McDonough state that the song was originally planned for Young’s unreleased album Chrome Dreams. Others, have theorized that the song was rehearsed during sessions for 1976’s Long May You Run.  Both of these assumptions make sense as the era between the two albums is blurred. The ‘rock room’ asserts that ‘Will to Love’ was rehearsed during the 1976 Long May You Run sessions because the song was also considered as a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording. 

For those familiar with CSNY history, there were a series of aborted sessions during 1976 when Stephen Stills and Neil Young had David and Graham visit Criteria Studios where they were working on the Long May You Run Album. David and Graham added harmonies to a number of tracks which were unfortunately removed and or discarded when fighting and disagreements set in. One track which has been released unscathed for those interested is the absolutely amazing ‘Black Coral’ featuring CSNY and released on the Stephen Stills box set Carry On. The story goes that when Young met with CSN after recording ‘Will to Love’ at his home, David Crosby encouraged Young to keep the song as a solo cut.

Anyways, I digress, what ended up happening in the end was ‘Will to Love’ was released as a Neil Young solo track and placed, as previously stated on Young’s 1977 LP American Stars and Bars. There was also a promotional single released by Reprise Records in conjunction with the album b/w a live cut of 'Cortez the Killer'.The genesis of the seven plus minute ‘Will to Love’ began with Young recording the song demo style at home on a 2 track cassette recorder in front of a roaring fire who’s snaps and crackles can be heard on the resulting recording. Young has said that the home recording took him about a normal 8 hour work shift to record and mix. The resulting cassette (presumably after Young’s attempt with CSN) would be taken to Indigo Ranch in Malibu, California where the tape would be transferred to 24 track where Young would undertake a series of overdubs onto the song. Briggs and Young made a practice during this era (1975-1977) of recording at Indigo during full moons to great success. The ‘rock room’ can hear wah-wah guitar, piano, vibraphone, bass and various percussion instruments draped over Young’s first home recording.

 In an interview with Bill Flanagan in 1985 Young said the following:

‘Will to Love was written in one night, in one sitting, in front of the fireplace. I was all alone in my house and I was really high on a bunch of things… “I have never sung it except for that one time. That’s what I used for the record. A Sony cassette machine, which I transferred to 24 track and then played back through my Magnatone stereo reverb amp. I brought two tracks of the cassette up on a couple of faders with the stereo vibrato in it, then I mixed them in with the original cassette for the sound of the fish. I overdubbed all of the instruments and mixed it in the same night’.
‘Will to Love’ contextually uses the metaphor of a salmon fighting its way through turbulent waters in order to find a mate. This metaphor is stratified with comparisons and contrasts between our natural world, our primal urges and our need for companionship. The lyrical content expresses a craving for love while also displaying an awareness of the pitfalls of pursuing something that may not exist. The lyric, ‘It has often been my dream to live with one who wasn’t there’ frames the work, by both opening and closing the song. The line also illustrates the author’s constant struggle with his/her own ‘Will to Love’  and how that will can both alienate while at the same time bringing together.

The song begins with a sonic quiver and a ghostly vibrato. Young’s, melodic and double tracked ‘la, la, la, la’s’ initiate motion, as the listener has been plunged below the waterline. Bubbles and smooth rocks surround the subaqueous melody. The ‘rock room’ likens it to listening inside of a dream. Young’s fragile acoustic strumming is in the forefront. The song is pillowed like a homemade recording, the lo-fi aesthetic only increasing the reticent vibe. Young’s fireplace sparks aurally, while Young’s double tracked vocals shadow each other closely leaving aural footprints inside of footprints. There is a tangible atmospheric intimacy in the feel of the recording, almost as if Young has packed himself and his feelings away in an emotional buoy filled with cotton.
Early in the first part of the song one of Young’s vibraphone overdubs from Indigo is discernible as a woody thump. Then following the first ‘chorus’, some spinner bait percussion flashes just beneath the water’s surface in light clinks. While the flow of the song remains steady, the sonic additions emulate the journey’s pools and eddy’s as well as the success and failure of the narrator in reaching his ultimate goal.

Young was operating and recording in a lo-fi fashion in the mid 1970’s, long before it was a sought after aesthetic by artists. The original vibe of Young’s home recording is the foundation of ‘Will to Love’ to which the narrative rests. Young sings the song like a secret over the clear ethereal drift. The second first contrasts fire and water, an eternal primal burning versus the element needed to reach the narrators eventual satisfaction. Silvery clinks glisten in the undertow, Young’s fins visible above the waterline, with another dizzying overdub laid down by Young.

The third verse describes Young, the ‘singer on the stage’ as a jangling piano and off beat drums rattle from the shore line. The song whirlpools toward the conclusion of the verse with the lyric, ‘Sometimes I see what really isn’t there, like my true lover, and I care’. The mantra returns with the gentle chorus chant of ‘Got the will to love’ as both a confirmation and even a question.

‘La, la, la la, la, la, la, la’.

The thoughts of both narrator and salmon, natural world and subconscious combine in the next segment as Young explains that he is a ‘harpoon dodger, and can’t, won’t be tamed’. A spectral wah-wah joins the sonic picture with fluidic punctuation. It’s addition both timely and perfect, its resonance lending a stringy overlay to an already percolating composition.
The song eats its tail, it’s concluding verse a hallucinatory consummation of both the will of the human ‘relationship’ in the narrators consciousness as well as nature’s own will to complete its internal mission of companionship and finding a mate. Only Mr. Young could provide such a magical metaphor for longing. The song concludes with the verse: “If we meet along the way, please sway beside me, let us sway together. Our tails together and our fins and mind. We’ll leave this water and let our scales shine. In the sun above and the sky below, so all the water and Earth will know. It has often been my dream to live with one who wasn’t there”.

The song as of the writing of this blog has never been played live in concert by Young. On the Neil Young fan website ‘Thrashers Wheat’ and anonymous poster wrote the following in regards to Young never have played the song on a concert stage; “I held up a banner at a 1999 show in Houston asking him to play it. He only smiled. After the show at the meet and greet I got up the nerve an asked him why he never plays it and he simply said "that is fucking personal".

In a career, (similarly to friend and mentor Bob Dylan) stockpiled with unreleased tracks, full length LP’s, live concerts and an entire website devoted to cataloging his fifty plus year muse it’s a shaky order to focus on one Neil Young track. It’s overwhelming. Regardless, ‘Will to Love’ is worthy of inspection for its unique recording, deep thought lyricism and diverse construction. It’s just one of many Young sides tucked away on a bulging record shelf that would make an entire career for a lesser artist.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Doors – Live In Pittsburgh May 2,1970 –‘Protect and Serve’

In July of 1969 the Doors played two intimate concerts at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California in the hopes of recording a live album. For reasons known only to the band they decided to not release the tapes of the performances (until over three decades later). Following the famous Miami debacle on March 1, 1969, and eventual Jim Morrison arrest) the Doors wanted to tighten up and righten their musical ship. Because they were unable to get a performance in the can at the Aquarius that they felt good about, the Doors continued to record concerts for the next year and into 1970’s Roadhouse Blues tour. These tapes would be mined and collaborated to make the Absolutely Live album released in July of 1970. These pro recorded 8 track recordings have since been used for a plethora of Doors live releases on the band’s boutique ‘Bright Midnight’ label.

Today in the ‘rock room’ I pulled one of these beautiful sounding CD’s from the shelves, the 2008, 75 minute archival release hailing from Pittsburgh, PA on May 2, 1970. This was the second of three shows from May, (Philadelphia on May 1 and Detroit on May 8) all professionally recorded and posthumously released. A bit shorter and more restrained than the previous evening’s performance in Philadelphia, here Morrison is measured and almost laid back in the early stages of the show. The other three Doors are, similarly other shows on the tour latched tightly to one another. The trail behind Morrison following him wherever he needs to go, while also blazing new trails through already familiar territories. The Pittsburgh show does not feature a drastically inebriated Morrison like Boston 1970, an incendiary blues explosion similar to Detroit or the intimacy of the Felt Forum shows; but it does spotlight a well-played performance including a number of unique musical statements. There is a focus that is not always present in this era including the aforementioned ‘pensive’ Morrison who by shows end ignites into a spectacular electric shaman. It must be added that the previous evenings performance in Philadelphia featured an animated Morrison, so it is possible he blew out his voice and was being tentative in the Pittsburgh shows early stages.

As I previously mentioned the sound quality is stellar with all instruments and vocals in total balance. What is an extra treat on the release is the interaction between band and audience, especially Morrison which is no surprise. Listening to the crowd’s requests and reactions is a positive joy. The concert begins with the musical pairing of ‘Back Door Man’ and ‘Five To One’. Dropping the usual ‘Alabama Song’, this ten minute duo contains a well vamped on ‘Love Hides’ tucked into the folds of the two songs segue. ‘Five to One’ continues the patient groove and is text book perfect with the band finding their footing for the evening.

‘Roadhouse Blues’ follows, displaced from its usual opening slot it is a welcome recipient from the prior songs providing a warm up. Surpassing six minutes the band digs into what is in the ‘rock room’s opinion one of the finest renditions from the 1970 tour. Robby Krieger is hot to the touch as he coaxes slippery lines out of his SG, building his solo spot to a longer than usual shimmering peak. While Morrison has been somewhat chill thus far, following diverse Krieger’s solo the band descends into Morrison’s wordless ‘roll roll roll’, vocal rap segment. Here, Morrison raises the intensity as he moans and yells his way through a number of variations on his usual themes.

A standard of the Doors 1970 set lists was their extended medley of ‘Mystery Train’ which could include references to a number of different songs. This evenings version includes Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads Blues’ and a melodic detour through ‘Away In India’, a Morrison snippet. The Pittsburgh version approaches 14 minutes. Per usual Morrison sings a verse of ‘People Get Ready’ urging the crowd to ‘get on board’. The band elicits the slow start of a freight beginning to chug down the track, Manzarek’s  piano bass gains tempo as Krieger lends some swooping railway sounds. Densmore lays down his dependable metronome rhythm while the band blows smoke. Ray plays huge icy swells throughout a solo that gets better as he goes. The band deftly moves through a unique set of changes making the “Mystery Train’ their own private ride. Before long Morrison sings the ‘Away In India’ melody to which Krieger joins in harmony. Densmore slams around his kit lending metallic spashes. Krieger then takes off quoting the ‘India’ melody then dismantling it. Morrison drones his vocals as music increases in an invisible tension.
Morrison moans softly as the band suddenly reaches the ‘Crossroads’ in seamless fashion. Manzarek pumps out the recognizable bass line of ‘Crossroads’ as Jim and Robby again duet the central melody. The group coagulates into a high tempo visit to the historic intersection with Krieger flashing fuzzy licks as quickly as passing cars. Morrison screams for the songs second chorus, bigger than he has all night, including a falsetto train whistle. His train call signals the band approach to the station as the band herky jerks their way to the songs conclusion.

‘Universal Mind’ follows, a Jim Morrison ballad that never found a home on a studio record. A version did appear on Absolutely Live but was ‘frankensteined’ by producer Paul Rothchild. The Pittsburgh version is contemplative and played well, with Morrison in fine fettle. The irony in the line, ‘I’m the Freedom Man’ cannot be lost on the listener as at this point in Morrison’s career he was anything but. Except for one forgotten lyric, this is a stunning reading and a blunt statement on the fragility of life.  The song begins almost a capella and plays like a dark 1950’s doo-wop. After the first chorus the song becomes aggressive with a syncopated groove reminiscent of ‘Five to One’. Krieger’s guitar playing on this track is spot on, in addition to Manzarek’s horror film keyboards that shiver through the songs solo section. While Doors aficionado’s are familiar with the version
What makes the Pittsburgh show unique and special is after playing an unreleased Doors cut, the band follows with the premier of another, ‘Someday Soon’.

Ray Manzarek had the following to say about the song, “This song was never recorded in the studio. I always thought of it as a Hollywood Hills hippie pad song. The hippies are lazing around and Jim walks in and lays this happy song about death on them. He freaks them out and blows their minds. He could be such a tongue in cheek devil that Morrison”. The whole band leans into ‘Someday Soon’, with its gently shuffling groove. The song begins with Krieger’s undulant riff while Manzarek splays funeral organ across the song. Densmore’s playing causes the song to rocking horse, lending an adolescent quality to the melody. Quite ironic when one looks at the lyrical content. This is a highlight of the performance. While Doors aficionados are familiar with the version of ‘Someday Soon’ from June 1970 in Seattle (appearing on the release Essential Rariries), that version pales in comparison to Pittsburgh. Generally the Seattle show in the ‘rock room’s opinion is a step below the shows surrounding it.

The centerpiece of the concert comes next with a substantial version of ‘When the Music’s Over’. Surpassing 20 minutes the band freely moves between song fragments and Morrison’s lyrical diversions in this epic improvised rendition. While the version the evening before in Philadelphia is fiery, the internal makeup is generally per usual. In this version Morrison let’s go of the wheel and the rest of the band takes it and steers us into a disorienting musical journey.
Things begin normally enough, but by the time Krieger enters into his first solo I can tell the band has found something that want to explore deeper and in greater detail. Krieger sounds if he is shoving his guitar through hunks of space steel….. Morrison sings the ‘Something wrong, something not quite right lyric after Krieger’s solo which sends a musical flare signaling the unique music to follow. Manzarek is already getting strange with glittery punctuations following Morrison’s improvised lyrics. Morrison returns to ‘Music’s” normal lyrical content preceding the ‘We Want the World’ segment. Typical to live versions Manzarek plays the two note bass thump while Morrison remains silent and the crown goes crazy. Suddenly, Morrison starts to play with his audience. What starts as some funny hoots and bird calls in short order becomes a shifty hallucinatory break down. Morrison moans, Manzarek takes us from the pub to a space shuttle, Densmore tip taps around his kit waiting to see what Morrison will do next. Ray scatters hallucinations, Krieger continues to coax strange feedback squeals from his rig. All of this chaos congeals into something resembling a rhythm right in time for Morrison to signal, ‘We want the world, and we want it now!’ Morrison lets three distinct screams go that elicit rock, fear and murder, making up for his somewhat ‘mellow’ beginnings.

The band rubber bands around the arena with a substantial climax bordering on the edge of white noise. They take their time with the landing, descending dynamically to the return to the verses. But, instead of concluding the song Morrison begins to sing, ‘There you sit all by yourself’. The band latches in and enters into a delicious funky interlude matching Morrison’s diversion.  Morrison had used the ‘There you sit’ diversion the previous evening in Philadelphia but it appeared in ‘Break on Through. This makes sense in hindsight as Morrison begins to sing the ‘Break on Through’ lyrics to which again the band jumps on but then discards quickly when they decide to return to the ‘Music’ groove.

Morrison then quickly signals the band by singing ‘Push, Push’ to which Manzarek replies by quoting a bass line from ‘The Soft Parade’. As soon as this print is left on the glass Morrison starts to sing the ‘Soft Parade’ lyrics from the song’s final movement. The band falls into place and start to hammer musical nails. Morrison digs and tears into the concluding lyrics in convincing fashion. Ray whitewashes everything in day-glo as Densmore slams his snare landing the band into ‘When the Music’s Over’ and its concluding statement fresh from the ‘Soft Parade’ coda. What a freaking highlight, not only of the evening but possibly of the entire tour.
Morrison then speaks to the crowd (this dialog would be used on Absolutely Live) in a wonderfully humorous prelude to the closing sexy good time romp ‘Close To You’ featuring Ray Manzarek on vocals. Morrison lets the assembled throng know that they are in for a ‘special treat’. I won’t spoil the surprise if you are not familiar with this introduction, but it is so typically Morrison. Densmore rolls his snare, ‘Screaming’ Ray starts the ‘Close to You’ bass line and we are off with a rockin’ send off to Pittsburgh PA. Morrison joins on the choruses and just like that, the Doors are gone, have taken the crowd from the pub, to the beach, to the grave and into the psychedelic skies.

Just when the venue thinks the Doors have given all they have the band begins , 'Light My Fire', the crowd roars for what many of them have been waiting for all evening. A small snippet of this performance (first segment of Ray's solo) has been replaced with music from the previous evening in Philadelphia because of missing tape. Otherwise what follows is a fluid and precise version of the Doors most famous song. While Morrison sounds a bit distant at this point, the band is brisk and sends the venue off on a well played and exciting set of notes. A fitting send off.

While some fans and critics say the Doors had already peaked after the Miami debacle in 1969, that statement is not necessarily true. While some of their experimentation had waned, the band after 4 years together had started to come to terms with their musical strengths and weaknesses. While more blues covers and originals had creeped into their sets and compositions, which some attribute to Morrison's lethargy and addictions, in truth the band was also returning to their roots. In hindsight the band was reassessing and retooling for a future that would never come. They were still a band to be reckoned with on the live stage and Morrison on a good night could still raise the dead. The trio of instrumentalists could still corner on a dime, but in all honesty were always subject to the will of their front man. See for yourself, there are a plethora of crispy eight track board recordings available for the Doors fan who wants them. Dig in and see just how good the Doors were in 1970.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Paul Simon -1972 Self Titled Record -'Here's My Song'

Spinning today in the 'rock room' is a introspective singer songwriter classic. Released in January of 1972, Paul Simon’s self-titled solo album initiated his later extended travels into and through world music, while becoming an introductory document into his prolific 1970's output. Paul Simon contains its share of new explorations, but is also filled with deeper, acoustic ruminations that recall his recently dissolved partnership with Art Garfunkel. As such, it plays as a statement of independence, but also as well as a self reassessment of Simon’s own musical standing.

Simon’s 1965 release Paul Simon Songbook is his original and initial solo venture, recorded prior to the Simon and Garfunkel partnership. But it was this 1972 project that signaled Simon’s first true departure into a solo career. A conglomerate of unique island rhythms, spacious instrumentation, and Simon’s tasteful self analysis, Paul Simon is one of the first and finest singer/songwriter albums of the 1970s.

The record opens on the jittery reggae influenced grove of the well known cut, 'Mother and Child Reunion' recorded at Dynamic Studios in Jamaica using Jimmy Cliff’s backing group. The kinetic track is known as one of the first to feature a mainstream rock artist using elements of reggae in a song. Female backing vocalists support Simon’s clean and glassy lyrical lines, and his absolutely addictive melody. The track would go on to be one of Simon’s most recognized and earned him deserved attention for his incorporation of what would later be known as world-music elements. As addictive as caffeine and as sweet as sugar, the LP opens on a stellar note.

'Duncan', the second track of the album, contains one of Simon’s finest and most fascinating character analyses, telling the tale of a fisherman’s son journey of discovery. The tune spotlights Simon on acoustic guitar with Los Incas, the South American musical group who’d earlier collaborated on Simon and Garfunkel’s 'El Condor Pasa', contributing flutes and percussion. The song follows Duncan’s coming of age and learning of life from a new found female companion who teaches him the ways of faith and love. The diversity of the salty seashore instrumentation of drums and flutes once again illustrates how this early album was a breeding ground for Simon’s accelerating and diverse musical references.

'Everything Put Together Falls Apart' follows, and is a sparse commentary on the worrisome and painful situation created by a partner’s substance abuse. A mirror reflection in content of Neil Young’s 'Needle and the Damage Done', and composed around the same era, 'Everything' balances the same tightrope. A serious and firm warning is stated, contrasted by the rocking-chair acoustic lines that run parallel with Simon’s frank and undulating tunefulness. 

Continuing in the same thematic vein, the camera of inspection is turned back onto the narrator with 'Run That Body Down', a gently swinging piece of self analysis. The realities of age, physical condition and lifestyle are inspected, initiated by lyrical warnings from the wife and doctor, all set against an introspective musical backing. Simon’s pensive but self-encouraging vocal lines make the song, with the musical bed lending a plush pillow for Simon to rest his worn-out head.

The first side of the album concludes with the exceptional 'Armistice Day', another stunning composition to be discovered in Simon’s collection of string-bending folk blues. Here gently alternating picking patterns shadow Simon’s tempered verses. Accompanied by percussionist Airto Moreira, the song dynamically enters a quasi-patriotic funk jam at its peak, as Simon travels to speak to his congressman.
Flipping the wax, the second side of the record begins with one of Simon’s biggest hits and most popular songs: 'Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard' which also lends its central striding acoustic riff and central groaning bass to the influence of reggae. The Grateful Dead's own 'Scarlet Begonia's would draw its influence from the Simon track. It’s the second powerful opener of the record. The tribal thumping groove was completely unique to hear on FM and influenced a number of musicians’ forays into international music. All of the elements that comprise a perfect rock song are on display here.

'Peace like a River' flows as a straight-forward blues, becomes a starry twilight verse, and continues a falsetto dressed, blurry-eyed ballad, born of sleepless New York City nights. Simon’s instantly recognizable finger picking delivers a flurry of buzzing low note strikes and elastic bends.

'Papa Hobo' continues with the intimate theme of the second side of the record, with an instrumentation featuring Simon’s simple acoustic, a carnival harmonium and creaky bass harmonica. The song is a Rockwell portrait, its imagery as vivid and timeless as a hand painted capture.

Fittingly, 'Papa Hobo' is then followed by the instrumental 'Hobo’s Blues' , a brief ditty composed by the duo of Simon and famed violinist Stephane Grappelli and recorded in France. The quick interlude is a perfect jazzy match for the organic series of song created on side two.

Possibly referencing Simon’s relationship with the 'big bright green pleasure machine', in addition to his own companions, 'Paranoia Blues' is a bucket-kicking hand clapping stomp. Gritty horn interjections and silvery slide draw out the color as Simon sings and rattles percussion. The song nervously knocks and slides to the point of quaking like a quivering wagon wheel about to fall off its axle. Similarly to the narrator's own jittery existence, the song makes the listener wonder, 'Is paranoia just a heightened state of awareness'?

Concluding the record is the sly and beautifully sung 'Congratulations', the title a sarcastic commentary on a deteriorating relationship. The lyrical content goes deeper, with Simon asking for peace while explaining the seriousness of the emotion of love. Plush blue keyboards work in conjunction with the understated backing by the three piece band, adding up to a gentle R&B sway that makes for a fitting end.

By it's conclusion, it’s clear that Simon has curated the map for the next phase of his life and career with the recording of this record. The music contained in the LP grooves blends familiar contexts with a new direction, combining Simon’s creative past while still keeping a hand in the contemporary world. Simon follows his already successful muse, but allows for outer influences and interpretations to guide the direction of his compositions. The result of his artistic attitude is a record as warm as its principal pictured on the jacket cover, snug in a parka, with a slight knowing smile crossing his lips.