Friday, November 19, 2010

Several Species of Small Furry Thoughts – The Wild Man and The Boss

In the new world of fewer physical sales and diminishing marketing clout going to music sales, it is surprising to see two large and extremely important box sets hit the market on the same day, but this Tuesday saw the release of some very important pieces in the jigsaw puzzles that represent Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen. One of the more interesting Rock and Roll parlor games has been to speculate on the direction Hendrix’s art would have taken had he not died such an early and tragic death. It is pointless at some level because Hendrix’s art and style have become so closely associated with the late 60’s that it is almost impossible to imagine him unstuck in time as an older, less interesting man. He is perfection in his completeness. Unlike his peers his legacy is preserved in a way. He didn’t become less like the Beatles, whose solo work is a clear indication that the parts were indeed less than the sum. He didn’t become a sad drug casualty like Sly Stone, but he also didn’t get to become an institution, touring the world to staggering acclaim and revenue like The Rolling Stones. He has remained a roman candle of color and sound, splashed across the rock firmament in preserved history. There has been a lot of product released since his death, and remarkably most of the major label stuff has been pretty high quality. There might be two explanations for that; one is that since the Hendrix estate has taken over the administration of his music they have been careful and smart with the legacy. The other is that Hendrix didn’t produce much crap. He recorded everything - studio, concert stage, jam sessions, parties - he was always recording himself, and what he recorded was uniformly high quality. He was truly one of the great searching artists of the 60’s. He was always seeking new sounds, new influences new peaks. The box set, entitled West Coast Seattle Boy - The Jimi Hendrix Anthology comprises 4 CDs and 1 DVD and is an incredible smorgasbord of every Hendrix era and style. The first disc compiles 15 songs by different artists who used Hendrix as a hired gun before he was famous. It is fascinating to hear him inserting his proto licks into these more conventional settings. It is especially interesting to hear a song like Don Covay’s chart hit “Mercy Mercy” and realize that this familiar guitar break is actually a young Jimi. The disc ranges from pop to soul to funk to the manic rock performances of Little Richard who turns in the worst recorded performance of the set. Throughout this first disc it is instructive to hear Hendrix figuring out his sound. 
The real fireworks begin on disc 2. There are far too many highlights on each disc - in fact there is almost no filler, so I will just point out a couple of outstanding moments on each disc. “Little One” is a real psychedelic treasure - Dave Mason playing sitar with multiple tracks of Hendrix playing acoustic, lead, slide and bass and Mitch Mitchell playing drums. It’s great, trippy fun with some bracing soloing by Jimi. The real find of this disc however is an incredibly intimate 6-song session of Hendrix and friend Paul Caruso in Jimi’s hotel room in March of 1968. Playing solo electric and singing in a relaxed voice Hendrix plays a stunning cover of Dylan’s as yet unreleased “Tears Of Rage,” a funky “Hear My Train A-Comin’” before ending with a hauntingly simple version of “Angel.”
Disc 3 opens with a big, fat, funky jam session with The Experience, Buddy Miles and some exceptional Hammond organ playing by what is believed to be Lee Michaels. It has a great freewheeling feel - very 1960’s. “Messenger” is a weird, driving, complex song that never made it past the instrumental run-through stage but provides an interesting glimpse into the Hendrix creative process. “Untitled Basic Track” is another pretty developed track with no vocal, but it shows Hendrix as a proto-metal guitar monster. Disc 3 finds its center with “Young/Hendrix,” which is the full 20 minute jam session with Jimi and jazz organ great Larry Young. Recorded in April of 1969 the jam goes through countless changes as Hendrix and Young play off each other with playful telepathy.
Disc 4 bows with a previously unreleased track from The Band Of Gypsys’ triumphant New Year’s Eve shows at the Fillmore East in 1969. These shows yielded the Band Of Gypsys album and several reissues, so it is sort of amazing that this track has never seen the light of day. Especially because it is an incendiary 14 minute performance where Hendrix improvises wildly, taking on “The March Of The Wooden Soldiers,” and “Sunshine Of Your Love” among others before coming back to “Stone Free” where he started. It is really an exciting find. “Lonely Avenue” is a slow, bluesy reading of the Doc Pomus classic that is shockingly credited as a Hendrix original in the liner notes. “Peter Gunn/Catastrophe” finds Jimi screwing around between takes with funny results. The box set closes with a gorgeous unreleased recording from the spring of 1970 called “Suddenly November Morning” that is another tantalizing peek at what might have lay ahead for Hendrix had he not checked out. It is beautiful and fragile and points to many possible new directions. 
This box set is so full of great stuff it is kind of hard to believe. There is never the feeling that this is anything but a fresh and exciting collection of material from a vital and vibrant artist, not something from a man close to half a century gone.
Speaking of vital and vibrant, Bruce Springsteen has remained on an upward trajectory for so long that it hard to fathom. Like Dylan, he has had career peak after career peak (along with a few lows). The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story puts a microscope on what I consider to be his ultimate peak, both as a songwriter, and as a performing artist. The mammoth box set includes a remastered version of the album proper, two discs of unreleased songs that came out of the remarkable period between Born To Run and Darkness and three videos containing over 6 hours of illuminating and thrilling material. 
I don’t know about you, but for me there is the phenomenon of albums that I never fully understand. Some albums are 80% above the surface. I got Never Mind The Bollocks by The Sex Pistols immediately. I got Nevermind by Nirvana immediately, and even London Calling by The Clash. Darkness On The Edge Of Town was always a deep, strange mystery to me. It was, for me, the last Springsteen album I really loved until The Rising (with the possible exception of Nebraska). It wasn’t that I thought he was bad, it just seemed like he never topped the creative high-water mark this album represented. The fact that it was so mysterious; such a beguiling blend of muscle-car rock and highbrow poetry is what made it such an enigma to me. The River and Born In The USA are many things, but enigmas they are not. Part of the equation was THAT show. Red Rocks, June 20th 1978, the summer of my freshman year of college. It was everything I have ever wanted from a rock concert. I was familiar with all of his albums, but had only heard of his live reputation. I had a hard time believing the hype. By the late 70’s many of the dreams of the last decades had evaporated like so much powder up the nose of disco dancers at Studio 54. Springsteen kind of represented the four corners of Rock and Roll. He stood straddled between four decades. He embraces Doo-wop and the great revue type rock shows of the 50’s; he embodied the singer/songwriter/social conscience of the 1960’s; he helped define the giant rock show of the 70’s, while providing the most meaningful anthems of the decade; and in 1978, he looked forward to the future and years of confusion and bitterness as music changed irrevocably from art to business. That Red Rocks show was like seeing an artist at THE moment of his career. It was palpable in the air. This was one of those moments when an artist transcends fashion and just delivers the goods. He did that night. It was three hours of balls to the wall rock. His material was epic, and his band was, on any given night, the greatest show on earth. Did you miss that tour? Wish you could see it? You can now. 
The Promise contains the best video proof of Springsteen’s greatness. One video is an entire show from Houston in 1978 that finds the E-Street Band winning over an arena-sized crowd of yahoos who probably don’t know his material as well as the coastal audiences he is used to. They perform valiantly. The show encompasses the best of his early material, and all the big numbers from Born To Run and Darkness as well as some rarities like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” and the “Detroit Medley” which actually lives up to the term “barn-burner.” It is pretty exhilarating, but the next video (compiling various clips from ’76-’78) really showcases what an explosive band they were. In particular, the five songs from Phoenix are unbeatable. The chemistry between Bruce, Clarence Clemons and the audience is something to behold. The version of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is what that show at Red Rocks was like. In the future, if young people want to know why we found Rock so exciting, this would be a good piece of footage to show them.
But there is so much more. There is The E-Street Band in 2009 performing the album in its entirety in an empty theatre in New Jersey. One is struck by the fact that these guys are definitely older, but maintain a gritty intensity that still puts the material over. There is a great documentary about the making of the album, and this period of extraordinary achievement for Springsteen. Few artists could stand up to the challenge of following up Born To Run and yet Springsteen gave an album that meets and possibly surpasses. The two discs of material left off the album are a revelation as well. His castoffs are better than many great albums. There are at least 10 bona fide Springsteen classics in this bunch of songs, and in total it fills in a lot of blank spaces between Born and Darkness. The path this artist took between albums is much more clearly illustrated with this addition to his canon. I love those first two albums like a first kiss, and Born To Run is just incomprehensible, but with history at its back Darkness On The Edge Of Town might just be the best Springsteen for me. This is an artist reaching for the stars and actually getting hold of them.

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