Talk From The Rock Room

Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Rock Room Reconstruction - Michael Nesmith and Area Code 615 - The 1968 Nashville Sessions


Today in the “rock room” we undertake a reconstruction of a critical yet underrepresented player of the “Country Rock” era of the mid to late 1960’s. Michael Nesmith, singer, songwriter, renaissance man of the Monkees, attempted to bring the country music aesthetic of his upbringing into the pop world of his made for television rock and roll band. As early as the Monkees debut LP in 1966 Michael had contributed his own original music to the group, often facing consternation from the producers who were searching for “hits” written by  Brill Building composers who were kicking out songs like a sausage factory.

Toward the end of the Monkees astronomical popularity, Nez started to focus his energies on his own musical future. From May 31st through June 2nd 1968 country music pioneer, Michael Nesmith, laid down nine of his songs with pro Nashville musicians who played under the moniker “Area Code 615”.  These musicians were the best of the best and offered their abilities to a plethora of famed records and performances from the era including Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.

Smack dab in the middle of a world wide musical maelstrom Nesmith’s extreme foresight and creativity was given the freedom to run with his muse. Following the completion of filming on the Monkees film Head, Nesmith teamed with producer Felton Jarvis (Elvis Presley) to record nine of his own compositions. The original intent was for a Monkees record in which each respective member would be represented on one side of the double record set. While the sessions took place for this Monkees next prospective LP, Nesmith used them to relieve a constipation of unique original music that had been building since his joining the Monkees.

Charlie McCoy, David Briggs, Wayne Moss, Bobby Thompson, Norbert Putnam, Felton Jarvis, Lloyd Green and Kenny Buttrey helped to make up this collaborative who was a veritable “who’s who” of country music session men. All the players would go on to have stellar careers in the field.

Nesmith had been disenchanted for a while in regards to the treatment of his compositions under the “Monkees” moniker, and had started to cultivate plans for his own music. While the Monkees had visited Nashville in late 1967 for sessions, Nesmith had a more finite vision for the May 1968 sessions. He would continue to mine his work during this era for songs for the next five or more years.

Nesmith had already recorded an instrumental album of his own compositions during a 1967 visit to Hollywood which resulted in the July 1968 album The Wichita Train Whistle Sings. Backed by the famed “Wrecking Crew” Nesmith spent $50,000 of his own money to create a proper first “solo” recording.

Inspired by his contemporaries the Beatles and Byrds, and Frank Zappa, Nesmith felt a need to express his artistic abilities outside of the confines of the “bubblegum” Monkees. Still underrepresented in music history for his cutting-edge dissemination of country rock, the lack of tragedy in Nesmith’s life must have made him uninteresting in the analysis of his contributions. Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and others, while deserving of their musical accolades are often thought of before Nesmith.

Nez had been writing country rock for years prior and now that mainstream rock artists were combining genres into new and exciting music, Nesmith felt the freedom to join the movement even though he was the one pulling the cart. Nez remembered, I could just feel this happening, that there was this thing. So, I headed off to Nashville to see if I couldn't get some of the Nashville country thing into the rock and roll or vice versa." The May/June Nashville sessions in RCA Records studio A would unknowingly become the influential lodestone for what would become the alternative country rock movement.

Most of the music recorded during Nesmith’s visit to Nashville would end up being piecemealed throughout several both solo Nesmith records and alternate Monkee releases. Some as Monkee singles, some as “First National Band” cuts and some as unreleased deep cuts.  The “rock room” has taken the liberty to collect the available recordings and collect them into a proper collection. The hope is that someday this effort is done on an official level and Michael Nesmith’s stellar and influential 1968 Nashville sessions are given a proper historical view.

It is the “rock room’s” humble opinion that if the Nashville sessions would have been released as a proper Nesmith solo LP in 1968 it would have been one of the greatest records of the country rock genre and rock albums of the era. Nesmith was authentic and came at the music from the inside. Collecting these tracks together lets us imagine the prospect of a 1968 Nesmith solo LP.

The “rock room” presents Michael Nesmith and Area Code 615 – Listen to the Band:

This Side:

Listen to the Band- Our opening track on side A was recorded on June 1, 1968 and ended up being the only Monkees A side single composed by Nesmith when released in 1969 (with later overdubs). The song was recorded in Nashville and features stratospheric pedal steel and a catchy series of chord changes that Nesmith revealed came from his song “Nine Times Blue” but played backwards. A powerful cut that Nez would recut with the First National Band in 1970. A rare Monkees live version was spotlighted on the 1969 television special 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee. A tune of such majesty that it's title has become synonymous with its author.

Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)- One of Nez’s earliest compositions, the reading found on Missing Links Volume 3 hails from the first day of sessions on May 29, 1968 and is a superior rendition. An earlier solo demo circulates with a more up-tempo rhythm, while this version has slowed to increase its poignancy. Glittering Nesmith twelve string strums carry some of his finest vocals ever. Double tracked and harmonizing with himself, Mike’s mature grasp of the country form is stunning. In hindsight, Mike’s compositions from this era (also to be inspected on his Fall 1967 demos) are beyond his contemporaries, but unfortunately obscured by his pop culture backlisting by the hip musical experts of the time.

St. Matthew- One of Nesmith’s finest unreleased songs. First attempted during The Birds, Bees, and the Monkees sessions, Mike returned to the song on June 2, 1968. Nesmith reveled in an interview that the song was influenced by Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and that he later understood that the track was a commentary on Dylan’s biblical representations of the Holy Ghost in his songs. The instrumentation is the perfect collaboration of rock, country, funk and feel. Over a strong arrangement of mush of chorused guitars, slick fiddles, and steady drums Nesmith’s hearty echoed wail comes down from the top of the hill, telling the tail of beautiful St. Matthew’s doings.

The Crippled Lion- The gentle clip clop of “The Crippled Lion” is an enduring Nesmith melody, sparse in its 1968 arrangement allowing the melody to focus on Nesmith’s reassuring timbre. Acoustic guitar, drums and steel delicately drift over Papa Nez’s reclining chair arrangement. The song would reappear on Nesmith’s debut solo record Magnetic South, but this particular reading (found on The Monkees Missing Links Volume Two) emits a confident magic that evades description.

That Side: 

Good Clean Fun- A song that would become the opening number of the Monkees 1969 trio LP The Monkees Present. Nesmith is his typically sardonic style turned the song into band management with the title of the song not mentioned once in the lyrics. This was after he was told by a publisher that single's needed to be "Good Clean Fun". A undistilled country number the song moves eagerly on squiggling fiddles and honky banjo.

Don’t Wait For Me- The work done on this song on May 29th, 1968 resulted in the track being officially included on the Monkees 1969 LP Instant Replay. The song, another Nez weeper, features his 12 string acoustic guitar and Lloyd Green’s mournful steel work. A highlight of Instant Replay and a definite departure from the overall sound of the record.

Some of Shelly’s Blues- A song originally released in 1968 by Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys, Nez’s definitive Nashville recording from May 29th would remain unreleased until its appearance on 1990’s Missing Links Volume 2. Pleading double tracked vocals and emotional lyrical eavesdropping highlight the chilling recording. While Nez would re-record the song on 1973’s Just Your Standard Ranch Stash, there is something in the water on the Nashville 1968 recordings.

Hollywood- A song that would never see and official release by the Monkees, “Hollywood” is a shuffling country lament about leaving the glitz and glamor of the left coast behind for a more comfortable living situation. Nesmith’s swinging vocals nurture the fiddle heavy shit kicking arrangement. If this track would have been released as a single, the future Flying Burrito Brothers heads would have exploded. Nesmith would revisit the song on 1970's Magnetic South.

How Insensitive- We close our hypothetical Michael Nesmith solo record with his dramatic cover of a bossa nova standard by Antonia Carlos Jobim. Nez takes the Brazilian and makes it country with a low key rearrangement and an emotive vocal. Banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle weave a lacy spell under Nez’s almost monotone rendition. A fitting closer, and a song that sums up our hypothetical collection from the 68' sessions.

Thankfully, Michael Nesmith was well aware of the cache of amazing music he had in his grasp in 1968. While mainstream recognition was plentiful, Nesmith’s personal musical satisfaction remained out of his grasp until he left the Monkees. Nesmith struggled with his early pop family connections for much of his life. The songs he recorded in Nashville in 1968 while alluding their confirmation as era specific examples of the country rock movement, have now been recognized due to Mike’s own career accomplishments receiving a reinspection.

When examined as a greater whole and as one-piece Nez’s prolific songwriting and musical acumen during the Nashville 1968 recordings is confirmed as revolutionary, important and endearing. All that matters is the songs, and they have thankfully been exhumed for enjoyment. For five days in May and June of 1968 Mike Nesmith’s crowning achievement in the country rock sweepstakes was recoded in a marathon of creativity. While never compiled as such, hopefully in the "rock room" we can just pretend.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Now Playing: Gene Clark - 'The Deep Cuts and Lost Tracks'

Gene Clark, a founding member of the Byrds and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most intriguing troubadours, has often been suspended in the rock and roll gray area between obscurity and popularity.
Throughout a long musical career that concluded with his untimely death in 1991, Clark was at the forefront of musical innovators leading the way to the next big musical movement; whether it psychedelic, country rock, singer/songwriter, or his own brand of ‘Cosmic American Music.’ Gene was a reserved musical revolutionary. Unfortunately, the more tragic tales of other musicians of the era have distorted Clark’s deserving accolades. The path's that Clark blazed are often applied to others through posthumous campaigns.

Peering through the heavy haze of drugs and alcohol, picking through the failed album tracks and poor production choices, and inspecting the obscure and dusty melodies, a collection of forgotten yet stellar Gene Clark compositions comes into greater focus. Fans and scholars-in-the-know realize that Clark was and is a melodic innovator and by choosing any of the albums in his extended discography one can be witness to his deep and spiritual contributions to rock music.

Clark’s voice will always be remembered for its milky deep baritone, his lyrics for the revealing and detailed glimpse into his minor key reflection of life. If Clark only had one hit song during his solo career, or if some enterprising record executive had the foresight and insight to push his records instead of burying them, Clark’s musical landscape would be completely different. The deep cuts the ‘rock room is spinning today are powerful, beautiful and revolutionary in their own unique ways and deserve much more than a cursory mention on my internet list.

While most if not all of Clark’s solo work could be considered brimming with deep cuts, for this list I have distilled my choices to five songs from his discography of 11 solo records, two of them with ex-Byrd partners Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Depending on your familiarity with the Clark discography, you may have contrary choices to my own, but that’s the beauty of lists. A collaborative review and constructive discussion of the dusty cobwebbed corners of Clark’s career can reveal long concealed jewels and shine a brighter light on the obvious gifts of his songwriting abilities …

‘ONE IN A HUNDRED’, (WHITE LIGHT, 1971; ROADMASTER, 1972): A song filled with so much promise and melodic strengths that it held a spot on two albums. First recorded in 1970, the song is actually Byrds reunion track, containing all of the hallmarks of a classic Byrds LP cut with contributions from all of the group’s original members. The jingle-jangle guitar is present and accounted for, in addition to thick and sugary sweet harmonies and Clark’s unique vocal melody lines, all of its elements as distinguishable as a finger print.
The Byrds’ version of the song languished in the vaults until the release of the Dutch LP Roadmaster in 1973. In the interim, Clark, aware of the optimistic songs superior strengths, released an alternate version of the track on 1971’s White Light. This stripped down acoustic version is highlighted by Jessie Ed Davis’ serpentine slide guitar and features an airy yet woody arrangement that showcases this song’s internal strengths.

‘STRENGTH OF STRINGS,’ (NO OTHER, 1974): The combination of his refusal to tour as well as the creation of an LP way ahead of its time unfortunately sunk the album No Other before it ever had a chance to leave the ground. Tucked away as the side-one closer on this now unjustly forgotten album, the mammoth “Strength of Strings” contains a beautifully sung wordless introduction, and a slowly ascending main structure that seems to gain momentum as the song rolls forward. Imposing and towering vocals stretch out toward a huge sinking orange sun outlining the cosmic range.
The track is an anomaly; there is no music from 1974 that quite sounds like this. Instruments wrap around one another like a DNA helix, voices take flight, and melodies elicit images of universes colliding and exploding. The song hails from an album that Clark considered his finest moment and that once again fell into the wrong marketplace at the wrong time. ‘Strength of Strings’ is a revolutionary chapter and a song that continues to impress through its historic musical relevancy, one of Clark’s finest moments.

‘POLLY,’ (THROUGH THE MORNING, THROUGH THE NIGHT, 1969): ‘Polly’ hails from one of two albums featuring Gene Clark and Doug Dillard from 1968 and 1969 respectively. Exploring the theme of freedom and flight later reflected in tracks such as ‘Silver Raven,’ ‘Polly’ sways like a weather-worn back porch swing in a smooth Southern breeze. The song moves in the manner of a secret passed between friends, soft and breathy, portraying a resonant sense of loss felt the narrator.
Sparkling acoustic arpeggios in addition to patint strokes across the strings elicit an intimate empty narrator’s room, a slow horse drawn rhythm supports the full community of group vocals that hang delicately in the air. While lyrically brief, Clark’s words, slow and languid expose deeper meaning with every listen. The resulting musical creation is a lacy waltz adding color to the black-and-white outline sketched by Clark’s honeyed vibrato.

‘LONELY SATURDAY,’ (TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY, 1977): After the disappointment felt by the relative commercial failure of 1974’s No Other, Clark returned with another record label and 1977’s release Two Sides to Every Story. Sticking to a theme that seemed to be developing, the record had little success, but the gift of hindsight shows this to be a well-made record containing the usual Clark classics that sit unnoticed like the a beggar on a cold city street. The LP has many choice moments, but the one that sticks with me because of its essential Clark elements is ‘Lonely Saturday.’

The song is a classic country tale of being left behind by a woman who has moved on, but what makes it worthy of inclusion on Clark’s Deep Cuts list is its definitive Clark vocal. You will be hard pressed to find any rock vocals more saturated with emotion. Weeping pedal steel, honky-tonk barroom piano, and the stale smell of a barren dance floor work in conjunction with Clark’s stomach-twisting vocals adding up to a song that will make any grown man cry at the bar.

‘GYPSY RIDER,’ (SO REBELLIOUS A LOVER, 1987): The So Rebellious a Lover LP was subject to positive reviews upon its release, a major change for Clark. It seems that, with the passage of time, some critics and musicians were actually catching up with Clark’s sensibilities. The fruitful collaboration with Carla Olson brought out a number of new Clark songs, the one featured here being one of his finest late-era compositions.
‘Gypsy Rider,’ originates from Clark’s comfort zone, a dusty cowboy ballad dealing with travel, escape and a vagabond searching for answers along the rutted highway of life. Built on Clark’s acoustic guitar and still hearty yet gently quaking vocals, the song balances on the rhythm of the stringed instruments and melody until a tender clip-clop percussion joins in mid-song. ‘Gypsy Rider’ illustrates that Clark’s penchant for melody still remained, despite its arrival toward the end of his tiring existence. Even tucked away on this now-rare album, Clark calls out from the grooves remaining relevant, singing for you.

The above list could go in a myriad of directions with the amount of rare quality material and hidden tracks to be found in Gene Clark’s discography. With a prolific artist such as Clark, material was always being created; he could never turn off the tap; and an abundance of material still awaits discovery. If only Gene could have hung on for a few more years and escaped the grasp of his demons, he would have collided with the current renewed interest and respect for his work.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Rock Room on the Road - Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus 45th Anniversary Tour - Point of Bluff Vineyards 9/25/22

Famed rock and roll grooves-men, Little Feat brought their  45th anniversary celebration of the renowned live album Waiting for Columbus to the picturesque Point of Bluff Vineyards in Hammondsport, NY. A heavy overcast day did not dampen the spirits of the band who played an incendiary set comprised of the entire 1978 Columbus LP.

Longevity is the hallmark of this highly influential band that has weathered several lineup changes and losses since the 1979 death of founding member Lowell George. Underrepresented by the mainstream, yet respected by their peers, Little Feat remains a celebrated group of musicians who continue to thrill on the live concert stage.

The current lineup of Little Feat features core members, keyboardist Bill Payne, Sam Clayton on percussion and Kenny Gradney on bass. They are supplemented by drummer Tony Leone who joined in 2019, guitarist Scott Sherrard in 2020 as well as longtime Feat guitarist Fred Tackett. The band wasted no time in cracking open familiar melodies and arrangements with exciting musical approaches. This current collaboration of Little Feat is not a nostalgic jukebox but an eager disseminator of fresh takes.

The band took the stage to a prerecorded reading of “Join the Band” and immediately jumped both feat into “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” The three-pronged rhythm section trident immediately propelling the pulse of the band with a churning groove.  The group sailed through the song’s off kilter changes with lead guitarist Scott Sherrard slicing and dicing with his amped Stratocaster slide guitar.

Following a pleading “All That You Dream” that revealed a ravenous jam itching to get out from it’s original skin, the group floored it down I-75 for a Bill Payne performance “Oh Atlanta”. Payne filled the tank with boogie-woogie fueling a high octane performance.

After a groovy Tony Leone sung “Old Folks Boogie,” Bill Payne dedicated “Time Loves a Hero” to past Little Feat legends, Lowell George, Richie Hayward, and Paul Barrare. He meant it, because “Time Loves a Hero” became a multifaceted exploration with each player listening intently to the others culminating in a inspirational peak. Once again the rhythm section of Gradney, Leone and Clayton percolated beneath the soloists providing a perfect shifting bed of percussive interplay.

“Day or Night” followed and unexpectedly became the biggest jam vehicle of the evening thus far with each respective member getting a chance to spotlight their chops and assert themselves melodically. The jamming was a series of relentless grooves and high musical acumen. This hearty version of "Day or Night" was only a lead in to the major crux of the show.

“Mercenary Territory” was played deliciously funky, yet suspicious with Payne’s organ undertow providing a sinister layer to the groove. Sherrard stepped comfortably into the substantial loafers of Lowell George with stellar vocals as well as piercing peaks on slide guitar.

A devastating double banger of “Spanish Moon” segued into “Skin It Back” kept the propellant rhythms moving while allowing Fred Tackett to take a dirty solo spot in “Spanish Moon.” Payne broke down the mid song arrangement with a piano, keyboard and synth wash disorienting the changes before Sherrard took the second solo spot down like a shot and with big riffs. His soloing initiated a seamless transition into “Skin It Back.” Kenny Gradney, thumped out a rotund and frisky lead bass line which would remain standard for the rest of the evening. A highlight performance.

A fifteen-minute medley of “Dixie Chicken” into “Tripe Face Boogie” hit every beat, change, start, stop and lick one could hope for and was relentless in it’s delicious and vicious instrumental improv. Fred Tackett even played some trumpet. Bill Payne illustrated why he is one of the finest pianists in the history of rock and roll history with a well spring of melodic fragments, accomplished playing and band direction. By the time the band hit “Tripe Face Boogie” the seated were forced to stand and the band was smiling in satisfaction. Sherrard and Tackett took the "Boogie" over the edge with frothing string bending and guitar weaving.

Following the exhaustive jamming, the band brought it down low for some slow stony swaying for the first time in the performance. “Willin” received great applause assisting in a poignant version with an extended opening instrumental. Bill Payne then introduced “Don’t Bogart That Joint” as a, “song from my old band” while eagle eyed Scott Sharrard spotted someone partaking in the crowd.

While the assembled cooled out, the band played the penultimate song of the set with a straight and neutral “Apolitical Blues” sandwiching Sam Clayton singing a welcome take on Muddy Waters “Long Distance Call.” The band again got to show out their skills, this time inside the twelve-bar framework. Little Feat then offered their own unique take on the blues, and closed the set with the appropriate sendoff of “Sailin' Shoes.”

After a hearty encouragement to return to the stage, Little Feat initiated their farewell with “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.” Members of the opening act Miko Marks joined the group on backing vocals as a big sing a long ensued. Played even faster than classic line up versions, the Feat rolled through the night and onto their next gig with a big truck version. Jamming until the last drop, “Let It Roll,”, the only deviation from the Waiting for Columbus LP closed the show with the proper message to take home.

Far from nostalgia and still jamming strong, Little Feat’s celebration of one of the greatest live albums in rock history is a worthy endeavor. Having experienced loss, the group has found something new and worthy of their legacy. Collectively they retain a strong sense of their history, and still a fearlessness to take new musical detours from long familiar roads.