Talk From The Rock Room: September 2019

Friday, September 27, 2019

Tools Of The Trade: Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson's 1965 Fender Telecaster - "I'll Bring Over My Fender and Play All Night For You"

Today in the rock room we examine one of the most famous guitars in the annals of rock and roll history. Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson’s 1965 Fender Telecaster traveled the globe, was cheered and jeered on the road while also being played on many of rock and roll’s most enduring recordings. While first played by Dylan, then Robertson, the guitar was also caressed by the hands of Eric Clapton and George Harrison throughout its rarefied existence. This guitar recently (2020) went to auction and sold for nearly a half a million dollars. The exorbitant sale price a reflection of the guitars historic importance. To quote Robertson, “This guitar has been on the front lines of so many phenomenal events”.
When Bob Dylan decided in the late summer of 1965 to take his electric music on the road following his legendary appearance at the Newport Folk Festival he started to put together a touring band. Once he made his decision to have a Canadian group, The Hawks as his backing group, guitarist Robbie Robertson took Dylan out to pick out a stage guitar. Dylan's knowledge was limited to acoustic guitars, so Robbie was able to lend some electric recommendations.

Robbie played a Telecaster in the Hawks, so it made sense that he recommend the same to Dylan. After shopping around, the duo decided on a 21 fret, black 1965 Fender Telecaster guitar, serial number L97811. The guitar’s body made of alder wood, its neck made of maple with black dot fret markers. The date of manufacture is noted as June 3, 1965. The stock guitar had at the time both bridge and neck pickups, volume and tone control knobs as well as a three switch pickup selector.

Weighing just over 7 pounds, both Robertson and Dylan felt the guitar was perfect for touring. After placing the guitar into Dylan’s hands, Dylan and the Hawks had a dual Telecaster attack for their upcoming performances. For Dylan’s purposes the guitar expressed a metallic scrubbing rhythm underneath the Hawks churning and swirling R and B grooves. 

Bob played the guitar for the entirety of his 1965-1966 World Tour concerts as well as the accompanying studio sessions where it assisted in disseminating some of the most aggressive and creative rock and roll ever. The live shows were confrontational and defiant and the Telecaster was the aural weapon of choice. Bob also used the guitar in Nashville for his recording of Blonde on Blonde, where its gritty attitude can be discerned when listening to the opening of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.” The Telecaster’s journey had just begun.

Following the 1966 tour and Dylan’s motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966 both Dylan and the Hawks retreated from the road to work on music in the green hills of Woodstock, NY. In what would famously become the Basement Tapes, Robbie Robertson became the caretaker of the road tested Telecaster lending air and clarity to Dylan’s tramp through his folk past and his rock and roll present. In Robertson’s hands the guitar colored both Dylan’s songs and the traditional readings in cutting and twangy recitations. Robertson coaxed soft swells and hard honky tonk riffs with his finger picked approach. It was during these times where a degree of alchemy was soaked up by the instrument. 
From the basement of Big Pink and into the near future, the Telecaster became Robertson’s gift. Transferred from Dylan’s hands to Robbie’s, the instrument’s voice would be heard on the Hawks (soon to be Band) debut, Music From Big Pink and would become Robertson’s instrument of choice through the next 6-7 important years.

Robertson used the guitar for the Band’s debut concerts in April of 1969 (where it was still black), the group’s performance with Dylan at the Isle of Wight, as well as the recording of the Band’s Stage Fright album.

The Tele sung the licks for most if not all of the Band’s period pieces like, “Up On Cripple Creek,"  “Stage Fright” and others. The Telecaster can be heard warbling through a Leslie speaker on “Tears of Rage”, or striking like a “viper in shock” on “Chest Fever." It can be heard slicing through the Band’s double keyboard set up on stage, and being strangled on rock and roll classics like, “Slippin and Sliding” or “Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever”. The guitar is resonant, a combination of Robbie's touch and the instrument’s internal fortitude.
By the time the Band played on the Festival Express tour in 1970 Robertson had stripped the guitar of its black finish back to bare wood. Many guitarists (Clapton, Harrison, Lennon) during this time did this to their instruments to let them breathe and to get a more natural feel out of their instruments. 

Robbie also modded the guitar to his own specifications by adding a Gibson PAF humbucking pick up in the neck position. Robbie said in interviews that he was always looking for a better guitar but he just “couldn’t beat it (the Tele)”. He also stated, “Each incarnation of my hot-rodding this instrument seemed to give it a new life, along with a different creative surge."

Robbie continued to use the guitar in studio and on stage through 1971. The next major event for the Telecaster came on New Year’s Eve of 1971 when Dylan joined the Band onstage for their encore. Dylan showed up with a Gibson SG to join the group for a few numbers. Robertson remembers that Dylan had tuning issues with said Gibson so Robbie reunited Dylan with his old warhorse guitar and just like the old days Dylan tore his way through a New Year’s set with his close pals.

Over the next couple of years the guitar remained Robertson’s main instrument including but not limited to the Band’s appearance at Watkins Glen in 1973. Eventually the guitar took a back seat to Robbie's on stage Stratocaster which used when the Band returned to the stage with Dylan in 1974 for reasons unknown.  That does not mean the Tele did not travel with Robertson nor was part of his arsenal. When Eric Clapton decided to join the guys on stage in Buffalo in 1974, the Telecaster was the guitar he was handed off of the rack.
As the Band’s career began to wind down so did the appearances of the 1965 Telecaster. Robertson never let it go though, as it always remained an integral part of his collection and his inspiration. As late as 2000 Robbie fitted the guitar with a Bigsby B16 vibrato tailpiece, so his search for the sound continued up and into the new millennium. As previously mentioned ,it was 2018 when Robertson decided to part ways with the Telecaster with only one wish, “Whoever ends up with this guitar, you have to treat her with love”. The ‘rock room’ believes instruments need to be played or they cease being instruments and become museum artifacts. The hope is that the 1965 Telecaster continues to provide aural gifts to whomever plucks its strings in the future.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Now Playing: Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell - Busy Being Free - BBC 1970

Flickering on the ‘rock room’s’ flat screen today is a wonderful and intimate performance by Joni Mitchell on the BBC in 1970 called Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell. It's slightly puzzling to say the least that this ‘holy grail’ recording has never seen an official release. Thankfully for Mitchell’s fans it has become 'available' online to stream and/or download for those into that sort of thing. In the ‘rock room’s” humble opinion this footage spotlights some of the most stunning and personal artistic musical expression in the pantheon of popular music.

Recorded on September 3, 1970 and later broadcast on October 9th this cozy performance in front of a respectful audience features many of Joni’s finest early works. Recorded in between Mitchell’s 1970 LP Ladies of the Canyon and 1971’s famed Blue, Mitchell is captured during her musical and artistic ascent. Mitchell plays seven tracks pulled from her first four recordings including a stunning rendition of “California” played on a zither from the yet to be released Blue. Here Joni is fresh faced, relaxed and in ravishing voice. The performance in total contrast to Joni’s appearance at the Isle of Wight festival the week prior. While Joni still played well, she was faced with issues from the colossal crowd, spaced our revolutionaries slithering around the stage, and a general disconnect from spectators much interested in their surroundings than Mitchell’s lacy and delicate musical brush strokes.

Mitchell’s televised set runs just over a half hour and is mesmerizing from the very first number. There were four additional songs Mitchell played that were not included in the show which I will note in the appropriate places during this review. In addition to the magical music Joni’s wonderfully organic and shy being and beauty permeates the screen. Every nuance and breath is counted, the silence as important and the melodies.

Beginning the In Concert film is Joni is on acoustic guitar, angelically stoic at a microphone stand. The opening song flowing from her is “Chelsea Morning”. The song predates Joni’s debut album and had already been recorded by Judy Collins and Fairport Convention, (then appeared on Joni’s 1969 Clouds) but here it is played by its composer, solo acoustic and as nature intended. Joni begins confidently, her voice a sunrise bird call, her verbal imagery as vibrant as her rich painted canvases. The strident strumming a slumbering feline stretching for the sunlighted windows of her Chelsea apartment. Joni finishes the song with an embarrassed giggle the result of appropriate applause.

Following “Chelsea Morning” but cut from the broadcast is the unreleased song, “Hunter (The Good Samaritan)” which was originally intended for Blue, but never made it onto an official release. A socially relevant song about a mysterious stranger never intended for public consumption.
Next comes another song cut unfortunately from broadcast (yet circulating) which Joni dedicates to any Scientologists in the crowd. “The Gallery” hails from Mitchell’s 1969 LP Clouds and expressed here in a riveting rendition. The song, which Mitchell also states is about a male artist who “connoisseur’s the ladies” is a noteworthy statement about a man who thinks he knows what the ladies like. Speculation is that the song is a reference to Joni’s relationship with Leonard Cohen.
Moving back into the official broadcast footage, Mitchell still on her acoustic guitar plays, “Cactus Tree” from her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull. The song’s narrator tells the tale of men and woman. Woman is courted in various ways and reciprocates in kind to those who want to share her presence, through her attempts and longing for being “free” conflict with the ideal of being wanted. The song’s abstract emotions are deeply more complex than my layman’s description, but its foundation has been explained.  Musically, Joni plays a gently prickling finger picked guitar line. The melody dynamically rocks between grounded and soaring, with Joni rising in glorious falsetto. The only descriptive fitting for this rendition is breathless.

An additional yet unreleased track is premiered next with “My Old Man” which would appear on the upcoming Blue LP. At this point in the proceedings Joni moves to piano. She introduces the song as still unfinished and needing a verse, but reveals that currently it is one of her favorite songs to sing. The subject of “My Old Man” is Joni’s current love interest Graham Nash who reciprocated compositionally at the time with his famous song, “Our House”. “My Old Man” shares that the love between Joni and Graham does not require proof or papers and exists just fine on its own accord. Mitchell plays a patient stained glass piano introduction and as she sings the introductory verse a shimmering smile settles across her lips. Stunning.

Before I can recover from this previous and amazing rendition Mitchell follows with “For Free”. The song sits on Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies from the Canyon and spotlights one of Joni’s most endearing melodies. David Crosby was obviously a fan as he covered the song on the 1973 Byrds reunion album. Lyrically the cut deals with Mitchell’s rise to fame and procures an alternative glimpse of how artists are viewed and valued while providing a view of Joni’s conflicted views on her ascending popularity. A highlight of the performance and a highlight of singer/songwriter music in general. Superlatives fail to conjure enough expression for this astronomical song and reading.

The next two songs played were not in the original broadcast. The first, “Woodstock” finds Joni still seated at the piano bench where she plays her version of the song made famous by 1970 cover versions from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and British band Matthew’s Southern Comfort. Joni introduces the song with the now famous tale of how she could not make the Woodstock festival which inspired her to compose the song in her hotel room. Mitchell’s performance here is beautifully conflicted, featuring a misty night time piano line and hopeful lyricism. Similarly to the rest of the show, Joni is sweet smiles and singing with eyes closed ecstasy and finishes the song with an angelic wordless recitation of the melody.
Joni then leaves the piano and moves to her dulcimer for early renditions of additional unreleased versions of songs from her upcoming Blue LP. Joni explains to the assembled crowd about her dulcimer referring to it as her “stretched our fiddle”. The first song is “California” which Joni explains was written while she was adventuring in various places around the world and feeling homesick. Joyous, buoyant and warm, Mitchell’s anticipation and relief for home pour from her syncopated and metered verses. Shimmering falsetto and delicate strums decorate her movements both on stage and in the fictional world of song.

“All I Want” follows on dulcimer and is also unfinished but is played here with a playful looseness that is missing from the studio version. Joni’s rhythmically scrubs the song’s contagious strumming pattern which she drapes over her longing vocal lines. In this early state we are offered an early sample of her clandestine songwriting process.

Returning to acoustic guitar Mitchell concludes the evening with two of her most critically acclaimed songs. Joni tells the crowd, “I’m really in the mood to sing, unfortunately my pipes are kind of going now”.  “I’d stay here for another hour”. Starting with “Big Yellow Taxi”, Joni breezes through the songs changes while flashing a resplendent smile. With nary a pause Mitchell then segues into “Both Sides Now”, composed by Joni, made famous by Judy Collins and then appearing on Joni’s 1970 LP Clouds.  Additionally, Mitchell also recorded the song with orchestration for her 2000 album Both Sides Now illustrating her affinity for the song. Her voice softy rocks between fragile vibrato and conversational while her strums keep time like a transparent metronome.

As the performance concludes Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell flashes across the screen as the assembled studio crowd shares their enthusiasm and the broadcast fades to black.  In hindsight this thankfully immortalized concert is quite possibly the finest Joni Mitchell document from her early and prolific era. The show finds Mitchell’s work caught between dazzling green canyons and indigo blue while illustrating Mitchell’s songwriting and artistic intentions blossoming on both instrument and easel. This BBC performance introduces the listener to both Mitchell’s well known numbers and a few rarer cuts stuck between the pages. No matter the song performed; her beauty, honesty and immense artistic aesthetic is captured on celluloid for the duration of time.

Joni Mitchell BBC 1970