Archive for November, 2010

Bee Gees … timeless

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Being a Bee Gees fan has almost been as tough a road, respect-wise, as being an actual Bee Gee. But I’ve been a fan since the first time I heard my older sister’s copy of Idea back in 1968. The single was, “I Gotta Get a Message to You.” On the surface, it’s just another great Beatle-esque melody about a guy trying to get a message to his lover. Listen closer and you realize the ‘guy’ is about to die in the electric chair.

The first hit single the Bee Gees ever had in their adopted country of Australia (they were born on the Isle of Man in Great Britain), was “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” about a group of doomed miners sharing pictures of their loved ones before the final cave-in. “Odessa” finds a sailor stranded on an iceberg after the rest of his crew was lost at sea in 1899. “Sincere Relation” tells the story of George from Londontown who, ‘respected by all, he married and made a home to give his children more than he had known. But then he died, without an explanation. He never lied. A very sincere relation.”

Are you with me so far?

What the Bee Gees had in spades over the Beatles besides a nonstop supply of great melodies was … great melancholy. Sad songs say so much, Elton sang, and no one sang them more relentlessly. As a kid who also grew up loving Edgar Allan Poe, their story songs of melancholy in the 60s and early 70s spoke to all my lonely days and lonely nights.

Bee Gees … In Our Own Time is an outstanding documentary just out on Blu-ray that benefits enormously from a narrative told entirely by the brothers themselves. It’s not just the history of a band of brothers (two of them twins), but a chronicle of the evolution of pop music over the past 50 years as interpreted and exquisitely harmonized by these composer/singers.

Sure, the Beatles were revolutionary, but doesn’t their story gain legend and gravitas through its brevity? They burned bright for a very short time – less than six years on the national scene. The Bee Gees, on the other hand, were evolutionary. They actually had to endure and adapt growing in and out of favor over and over again by fault of surviving. They had more ups and downs, more deaths and rebirths, more lost and founds by sheer nature of living, playing, composing, and singing together, longer. Much longer.

On the five-week ship passage back to England in 1965, while their last single was finally and unexpectedly enjoying its number one status in Australia, they arrived to be told, “Groups are dead.”  Good thing they didn’t listen. Six Aston Martins and five Rolls Royces later (for Maurice alone), they went from extreme success at the top of the pops, to total obscurity by the early 70s. And that’s all before disco reinvented them.

Most people just know the Bee Gees from after older brother Barry discovered his falsetto voice trying to sound like the Stylistics, and married this to an R&B beat that helped launch the Disco revolution and made Saturday Night Fever the second greatest-selling album of all time (only Michael Jackson’s Thriller sold more). Their sound became so popular and so dominate across the airwaves that radio stations inevitably launched ‘Bee Gees free’ weekends in backlash.

A fourth, younger brother, Andy, caught the tail of their success and spun his own gold as a solo artist. He was poised to join the group for good before he flamed out and died at 30 from over indulgences in cocaine and alcohol. And, the ‘man in the middle,’ Maurice, died unexpectedly at 53 in 2003, leaving his twin Robin, and older brother Barry lost and adrift in his wake, just like the sailor stranded on the ‘iceberg running free’ in “Odessa.”

I could never resist a beautiful melody or a glorious harmony. The Bee Gees produced more than any other group alive or dead. Orchestras could cover them and sound like brilliant long lost classical works. R&B artists could cover them (Nina Simon, Al Green, Richie Havens, Percy Sledge) and sound like soul classics.

And through all the accolades and acrimony; the embrace and the rejection; the top tens and the nowhere to be found; they never became cynical. They never stopped being musicians having a blast in the studio loving making music and blending their voices as only psychically-connected siblings could do.

I am so proud to claim a lifetime of reveling in their sense of melody … and melancholy.

— A. Wayne Carter

(Update: 2013: Wow. We’ve lost Robin since I wrote this. Very melancholy indeed.)

Wild horse

Friday, November 12th, 2010

The single greatest testament to the resiliency of the human body no matter what you put in it or do to it is Keith Richards. This guitarist and riff master for the Rolling Stones for the past near 50 years spent more than 10 years as a heroin junkie, snorted more cocaine than Charlie Sheen in a decade of ‘bad nights,’ rolled over more expensive cars than James Bond, smoked more cigarettes than Humphrey Bogart on a film loop, and been exposed to more potential STDs then, well, Charlie Sheen.

But to read it from Keith himself in his new autography, “Life,” his saving grace was that he ‘always had the pure stuff.’ His cocaine and heroin were always pharmaceutical grade; he kept track of his tolerance levels, and the jet set groupies he rolled with and often supplied him were protective angels along the road. He boasts of being Number One for more than a decade on the list of celebrity rockers ‘most likely to die.’ And yet, here he is in 2010 somehow remembering more than 550 pages of growing up a single sensitive kid in Dartford, England, rattling off early blues record influences, forming a band with his mate Mick, starving for gigs, sharing a flat and some birds, striking it big, becoming a jet-setting millionaire bohemian, escaping Britain’s taxes, and somehow avoiding getting arrested or permanently imprisoned for drugs, contraband, speeding, tripping or any other number of civil violations more numerous than a file cabinet in a New York City police precinct headquarters. The man lived, for sure, and here’s his Life as he remembers it, and as we vicariously get the pleasure (or not) of experiencing.

How do you sum it all up? His philosophy, I mean; not the copious amounts of smack or speedball ingested, or five-string guitars open tuned. Well, perhaps the incident of Keith’s reaction to hearing about the death of one of his best ‘mates’ Gram Parsons in the U.S. while he was in Europe explains best. Was his first instinct to be sad, or to mope, write a song, mourn, or possibly hop on a plane to join Gram’s other mates smuggling his body out into the Joshua Tree desert to give it a proper Viking funeral? Nope. Keith is a firm believer in the saving power of distraction. Heroin is a great distraction from actually living your life or dealing with the bumps because there is a constant parallax between what is actually happening to you and where you are experiencing it from (somewhere a bit removed), except of course when you have to go cold turkey. If you tend to be an oversensitive artist type, it’s perhaps understandable to anesthetize yourself from the nonstop barrage of a life you never expected or anticipated – especially when you can afford the ‘pharmaceutical grade’ stuff (or the birds are just giving it to you).

So what does Keith do when he hears one of his best friends has suddenly died from an overdose (he didn’t monitor his own tolerances correctly, Keith explains)? He jumps on a plane to Germany with another mate and spends the next few days trying to track down the ‘most beautiful model in Europe.’ Not to shag her, mind you, though he accomplishes that later. No, he does it just to have a mission that will sufficiently distract him from the loss he was probably never emotionally prepared to feel. And I get that.

Reading these live action adventures of the Pirate of the Parrot Cay (and every other exotic locale you or I can mostly just read about), you just might get it, too. Scoring dope can get pretty boring and repetitive, especially when that seemed to be the main goal of his life for so many years, but in between, there’s some ‘pure’ good stuff.

— A. Wayne Carter

Everybody’s ranting

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Everybody’s talking at me

I don’t hear a word they’re saying

Only the echoes of my mind

Ain’t that the truth … for America these days? Everyone’s ranting, and no one listens anymore; it’s just all noise tuned out in favor of the broken tape loops echoing around and around again in our own minds.

No one listens anymore. Everyone has a loud opinion. And the balance of power in our times is who, by virtue of some glint of power or authority, you HAVE to listen to. Because otherwise you just wouldn’t. Sad.

But not as sad as the story of Harry Nilsson; best mate of forehead tampon hanger John Lennon and Ringo Starr, possessor of one of the most angelic male voices of the last few decades, and self-destructive burnout deceased at 53.

Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) is a documentary that ran the festival circuit and is finally available on DVD. It’s not great because of innovative editing or directing. It”s awesome by virtue of the subject.

The DVD has more than 15 additional scenes left off the documentary that are as good as anything ON the documentary. That’s how you know the subject exceeds the creative powers of the people trying to interpret it. Just lay it all out there and let everyone put their own cumulative story together from the pieces.

It’s a simple story: Kid born in Brooklyn, tragically loses dad early, leaves home at 15, heads West, finds fame and fortune, but can’t escape that missing pillar of early self-esteem, and collapses to oblivion. But, oh God, what a magical voice.

There’s a lot of talk, from famed producer Richard Perry, Monkee Mickey Dolenz, Yoko Ono, Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, the Smothers Brothers, and other music luminaries about what a great and melodic songwriter he was. But let’s face it, the two greatest songs he’s known for; “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the movie Midnight Cowboy, and that haunting anthem, “Without You,” were both written by other songwriters. No matter. Celebrate the intricate delicate precise crystal clear powerful gentle miracle that is his voice.

It’s a crying shame all the tower of Babel ranters who have overtaken our society, cyberspace and airwaves don’t have such a voice.

Otherwise we might be more inclined to listen.

A. Wayne Carter