Talk From The Rock Room: June 2020

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Take One: Bob Dylan – ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ – ‘Weave a Memory’

With very little fanfare and minimal publicity in May of 2014 Bob Dylan issued a lovingly crafted cover of Frank Sinatra’s 1945 song “Full Moon and Empty Arms” via his official website. The single was accompanied by what ended up being the official album cover image. The picture, a moody black-and-white shot of Dylan in the style of a classic jazz recording also included the title Shadows of the Night.

It was confirmed that the song was mined from a new Dylan record, to be released later in 2014. What was unknown at the time of the single release was this would be the first in a trilogy of ‘songbook’ records to be released by Dylan also including the later titles, Fallen Angels, and Triplicate from 2016 and 2017 respectively. This covers project would certainly place Dylan in good company among his contemporaries, following similar excursions by the likes of Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Neil Young.

What makes the release of ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ so important in hindsight is that the song and eventual full length followed a road tested album style that has been Dylan’s modus operandi since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Dylan had not strayed much from the nimble, sepia-toned, 78-record blues sound that he had spent the last 20 years developing. But Dylan's approach was altered in a big way with his deep dive into the classic tin pan alley songbook. Arrangements lightened, becoming sparse and airy. Dylan's vocals softened, the gravel edges sanded down by swirling instruments. His breath and vocals became a focus and silences became golden.

The key to this aforementioned aesthetic is that now with the release of Dylan’s 2020 record of originals Rough and Rowdy Ways a clandestine glimpse into Dylan’s working methods and song construction can be glimpsed. Looked at as a whole, Dylan’s career has always been a series of musical detonations followed by a period of rest, reloading, and retooling. An example of this can be seen with Dylan’s 1992 and 1993 records, As Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Following a blurry period of unfocused musical attempts, Dylan, per his wont, reached backward to move forward. Dylan recorded the aforementioned two LP’s featuring solo acoustic renditions of his influences and beloved traditional melodies from his formative days.

Dylan’s reassessment of his own directive after coming out of the 1980’s with the acoustic numbers initiated him to apply newly learned or revisited approaches to his own music. It inspired him to return to things once left behind, as this is the man who always lived by the creed, ‘Don’t Look Back’. Dylan has always been good at ‘repurposing’ and making the old new again. So while he peeks in the rear view, his is always looking forward into the sun with his foot on the gas. The result of this personal musical diversion being 1997’s Time Out of Mind, a record Dylan could not have attempted or made without Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. A record that collaborated elements, production values, melodies and memories that Dylan pulled from the restful stir pot of traditional song.

The release of ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ is the signpost that directed Dylan once again to unblazed approaches and faint herd paths of song. The resulting 5 LP’s (Triplicate is 3 LP’s) over the next three years, assisted Dylan in rediscovering his voice through others songs, inventing a new way to arrange his own music and most importantly looking at his own abilities from a distance enabling him to once again draw influence out like blood and inject his own ideas with those of rich history and timelessness. One cannot hear Dylan’s stunning new LP, Rough and Rowdy Ways without smelling the passing scent of Dylan’s ‘Sinatra’ records. The live sound of Dylan’s vocals, all the musicians in the same room and a stoic sense of melancholy and the impossible permeate both projects. The diversion into the classic songbook expanded Dylan's pallet and vocal musicality.

Back to the subject of the blog, the song, Dylan’s take builds on the Sinatra reading by exchanging a weeping pedal steel for the original strings, and laying down a world weary vocal that illustrates the depth of the Tin Pan Alley era Kaye/Mossman penned song. The results play out like whisked evening clouds, and the warm pulse of the stand up bass, a gentle initiator. Dylan is deeply invested in his vocals, crooning a transparent duet with a Sinatra’s ghost. Each nook and cranny of Dylan’s weather worn vocal distills the emotion of the song down to its essence. The obvious reason for these recordings was that Dylan was moved to sing; this song and others, his voice is invested in such a way it would eventually seep into his own studio work and live arrangements. The band’s musicianship is strong, cinematic and sympathetic to Dylan’s vocals. The silences as stunning as the instrumentation, Dylan’s rhythmic cadences as well oiled as the instruments.

Played back to back with the original for context and not comparison, Dylan obviously cannot compete with Frank’s moonbeam vocals. But taken for straight emotiveness and soul, Dylan and his band are able to show ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ its own reflection while also revealing underlying currents of emotion and melody reveled by Dylan’s approach. As previously stated, returning to these standards with a deep investment assisted Dylan in connecting with melodies of his past, but also made him reintroduce himself to his own songs. The result, just like in 1997, is a reconnecting and and stacking of bricks on top of his sturdy songwriters foundation. Dylan's approach should come as no surprise as he famously stated in 1965, ‘He not busy being born, is busy dying’.

For fans of Dylan's storied career, it should come as no surprise that  would reach back to earlier musical influences to encourage his own ‘Modern Times’. His recent studio releases have been a conglomerate of found items, ranging from hallmarks of literature to traditional song forms, pop culture icons, classical music and motion pictures. His career is littered with subterranean cover versions and live interpretations of dusty, forgotten melodies. Whether observed as part of a bigger picture or taken as a stand-alone item, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” is a tribute (perhaps an introduction) to the deep musical waters of song smiths and performers from the past, and a reintroduction of Dylan to his musical future.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Michael Nesmith’s First National Band – Magnetic South –‘Different Rhymes and Tunes'

Following his departure from the world famous 'prefab four' Michael Nesmith had collected a back catalog of stunning original compositions. While fans of the ‘Monkees’ were aware of Nesmith’s affection for country music and a down home aesthetic, his ability to express said music through the TV pop group had run its course.  In early 1970 Nesmith collected musicians John London (bass), John Ware (drums) and famed steel played Red Rhodes for the First National Band, a collective in which Nesmith could find a proper vehicle for his muse. 

While the subject will require an entirely different discussion, Nesmith and the First National Band became either subconsciously or not, one of the first bands to be branded ‘country rock’. In addition to the 'Buffalo Springfield', ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’, ‘Poco’, ‘Byrds’ and others, the First National Band was part of the late 1960's tumbling tumbleweed of a ‘country rock’ movement, and in hindsight one of its most important proponents.

Nesmith was quite prolific following his departure from the ‘Monkees’ as three First National Band LP’s were released in just a year in 1970-1971, each sharing similar cover art and ideal. The albums were colored red, white, and blue respectively, each with a large central image. Today, the ‘rock room’ will focus on the introductory blue volume, Magnetic South. While Nesmith’s first ‘true’ solo record came out in 1968, The Witicha Train Whistle Sings, the record was a ‘big band’ recitation of already ‘Monkee’ recorded Nesmith originals.

Now with the fully formed First National Band, Nesmith was the ‘band leader’ and in charge of steering his own ship. As Nesmith stated in a 2018 interview, ‘Pop music was foreign to him’ when he was writing songs in the ‘Monkees’, he was interested in what was ‘playing on his home stereo’.  As an aside, Nesmith really was aware of what a ‘pop’ song could be as his composition ‘Different Drum’ climbed up the pop charts at the end of 1967 when the ‘Stone Ponies’ featuring a young  Linda Ronstadt covered the song and took the track to #12. Oddly enough the ‘Monkees’ producers had dismissed the song when shown by Nesmith at the end of 1965. The Monkee mangers had often told Nesmith his originals were too ‘twangy’ or country and wouldn’t appeal to the Monkees audiences. Hence the reason Nesmith felt it was now his time to put together a ‘real’ band, a band in the sense of an organic thing where each member has a role and contributes to the whole. He knew he could do it, he knew he had to do it. The ‘Monkees’ were a job, the First National Band would be art, with a ‘spiritual understanding of the music’.

As previously stated, Nesmith had been writing for a number of years with the 'Monkees' and had actually recorded but not released a sheaf of  tracks that would later appear on First National Band records. Songs on Magnetic South that had opportunities with the ‘Monkees’ include, ‘The Crippled Lion, ‘Hollywood’, and ‘Nine Times Blue’ which was performed in 1969 on the Johnny Cash Show with Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz prior to the band’s dissolving.

Because of Nesmith’s history as a ‘Monkee’ he was constantly haunted by his past as critics and fellow musicians could not decide whether or not to take his new direction seriously. The 'rock room'asserts that if they just listened to the quality tunes being created instead of labeling and putting into a sterile box the group could have gathered more contemporary respect. Regardless, Magnetic South is a wonderful snapshot of an artist finding his feet and directive while also being an important signpost on the dirty rutted roads of ‘country rock’.
The album begins with the strident acoustic guitar intro of ‘Calico Girlfriend’ and once Red Rhodes pedal steel slides into the melody line proper the listener knows that this is something ‘alien’ to the pop charts, perhaps originating from south of the border. The group collaborates into a Tex-Mex groove where Rhodes scribbles out a multifarious melody to which Nesmith sings in a matter of fact country curl. Under this vocal serape Rhodes pours out a watery descending counter melody. The drums and percussion kick in after the first verse and prior to the middle eight and drive the clandestine meeting with a mysterious lady toward the top of the tower.

Fading in from a dropping Western sunset comes the shadow of a solitary guitar strummer as the beginning of ‘Nine Times Blue’ appears. Nesmith with a healthy dose of echo croons against the thump on Ware’s bass drum. Nez then harmonizes with himself on the chorus in a magical fashion. One of Nez’s most loved songs, while criminally short is sugar sweet. The second verse begins and finds Ware hitting a double time drum groove while Nesmith reminisces about the things he has learned with the female subject of the song. A quick key change comes and Rhodes deftly creates a slick musical segue into ‘Little Red Rider’.

A warm bass pulse ushers in the deliciously funky ‘Little Red Rider’ which sways like a crimson dress blowing off of the back of the departing train in the song. Tumbling drums and percussion work in conjunction with the chugging acoustic and well timed horn blasts from Nesmith’s electric guitar. This track was attempted by Nesmith during his time in the ‘Monkees’ (can be found on the CD Missing Links), here it digs into the earth with a groovy spade revealing a funk well suited for ‘The Band’. A ‘rock room’ favorite.

‘The Crippled Lion’ comes next and could lyrically act as the title track for Nesmith’s musical moves following his time in the ‘Monkees’. Reflection and hope saturate the lyrics. ‘Now my world opens up in different rhymes and tunes, with highways making up the verse’. The instrumentation is majestic with Red Rhodes again soaring across the gently undulating backing by the band. Nesmith’s vocals are in the ‘rock room’s opinion the finest of the record. Additionally, here the basic instrumentation is augmented by some honky tonk piano played by Earl P. Ball. I firmly believe that this song is the centerpiece of the record, the First National Band at its best.

What was destined to be the biggest hit of the LP and of Nesmith’s First National Band days follows with ‘Joanne’. Again, a Nesmith original the track would hit 21 on the Billboard charts upon release. The song would continue to be most popular for Nez right up through current times. A drumless ballad, Nesmith and Rhodes duet with Nesmith’s glistening falsetto underpinned by Rhodes weeping runs. A beautifully timeless and pastoral portrait of a love that was never to be. The emotions between the narrator and Joanne only increased by the sparse landscape instrumentation.

Side one closes with a blink and you will miss it instrumental piece credited to Red Rhodes called the ‘First National Rag’. Similarly to the conclusion of a cartoon, Nez lets us know that, ‘we will be right back as soon as you turn the record over” as the band cooks up a slippery stew in the back room.

Following a flip, side two begins with the high tempo ‘Mama Nantucket’, with a wonderful example of Nesmith’s yodeling abilities! Containing some vague lyrical references, this song cooks up some heat off on the not so distant range.

‘The Keys to the Car’ begins with a solitary acoustic and a gentle clip clop of rhythm. Again, Nesmith’s falsetto is spotlighted with a tune that seems like a gentle song of caution. Nez lets the subject know symbolically even if she gets the ‘keys’ be wary of what is expected of you. At the risk of sounding redundant, the magic is found in the meshing of Rhodes and Nesmith, a testament to a relationship that would last decades.

‘Hollywood’ begins with the soft tip tapping of a high hat before a drum roll ushers in the bedazzled lyrics. Separating the verses are soft interludes of Nesmith falsetto whispers.  Thematically the song is Nesmith running from ‘Hollywood’ trapping to open pastures. It seems to the ‘rock room’ that the quiet preludes are Nez contemplating his next move and his run from the border is initiated with the thumping piano and skidding steel. The tail end of the song contains a well-placed keyboard/Rhodes interlude that is delicately sprinkled across the acoustic guitar running through the track. A spacey break is reached with keys and steel winding around the acoustic guitar illuminated by a light polluted sky.

The album concludes with two cover versions, the firsts of the collection. ‘The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart) first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers is given an intimate and purist reading. Nesmith sounds perfectly laid back and vocally assured. The closing track of the LP is ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ a song that first appeared in 1930 in the film Monte Carlo. What is also the longest track on the album reaching almost 6 minutes is a proper and fitting conclusion.
The song begins with the anticipatory tic tock of a clock, while some tender piano runs dress the passage of time. A distant rooster crows as the clock dings its alarm bringing the listener into a room with lovingly caressed acoustic guitar. Nez whistles, the steel moans like a violin and a series of sound effects bring a feeling of leaving for the horizon and never looking back. At three minutes Nesmith sings the words as the drums enter through the same door. Dynamically, the song reaches for the sun as a shaded plant searches for light. The song reaches toward climax with swirling organ, theatrical vocals and increased tension by the instrumentalists before everything drops away. Left only with a steel disappearing into dusk and the drone of crickets the LP concludes.

The ‘First National Band’s debut album of their ‘trilogy’ set the table for an original musical feast. Their first record plays cinematically, the words and instruments working in perfect harmony to create a uniquely original album that is neither country nor rock and roll. Against the odds, Nesmith used his professional time spent in pop and his valuable moments spent composing to assimilate both into an organic and original band of his own device. While not the lurid rock tale of Gram Parsons or as famous and radio friendly as the ‘Eagles’, the ‘First National Band’ is perhaps the most unique ‘country rock’ story you have never heard of.

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.