Vern's Verbal Vibe

Thoughts from Toronto musician and writer Vern Nicholson.

August 08, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Dictators: A Case Study

I've just finished John Fogerty's autobiography, Fortunate Son. Now, I'd say that Fogerty is one of my greatest musical heroes, but that's not quite accurate. It's his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, that I adored as a young boy. Green River was the first album I ever owned, and I have fond memories of unwrapping the rest of their albums as Christmas and birthday presents in the early '70s.

But hold on a minute, you might say. Fogerty was CCR, was he not? Judging from his book, he'd have no trouble agreeing. After all, he wrote, produced, arranged and sang 97% of their material (100% if you discount their 1972 swan song Mardi Gras, about which more shortly). Additionally, all the instrumentation save for the rhythm guitar, bass and drums was played by him. This includes backing vocals on all but four songs ("Susie Q," "Porterville," "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Sailor's Lament," according to the book). And if you believe Fogerty's claims, he wrote many of his bandmates' parts as well. All they did was execute them, to varying degrees of success in his estimation.

As I'm sure is obvious by now, Creedence Clearwater Revival is the textbook example of a rock 'n' roll dictatorship. The collective, such as it is, exists only to support the protagonist's vision. Assuming the dictator is as gifted as he thinks he is, all is copacetic until either (a) his vision falters or (b) the supporting cast mutinies. In the case of Creedence, both happened pretty much simultaneously.

Based strictly on the available evidence—CCR's music and the members' solo efforts—it's hard to argue with John Fogerty. Acquiescence to his bandmates' demands for equal time on Mardi Gras led Rolling Stone's Jon Landau to dub the album Fogerty's Revenge, and later in the same review, "the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band." By this time, rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty had left, leaving bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford the sole beneficiaries of the fledgling Creedence democracy.

So: was CCR really John Fogerty, supported by three fair-to-middling hacks under his employ only because he needed a live band? To answer that, let's examine their subsequent solo careers. As far as I can tell, Stu Cook's entire oeuvre consists of his three songs on Mardi Gras. "Door to Door" is, I think, a rockin' and rather clever CCR knockoff, while "Take It Like a Friend" bubbles along in a funky, early '70s R&B vein, marred only by his unfortunate falsetto at the end. "Sail Away" is the only clunker here, a paint-by-numbers slice of Tex-Mex that goes nowhere and further exposes Stu's vocal limitations.

In addition to his three songs of fame on Mardi Gras, Doug Clifford released a solo album that same year, Cosmo, which even he says is "a terrible record." After hearing it on YouTube I can't disagree, though "Take a Train" struck me as a catchy number. Going back to Mardi Gras, Doug's "Tearin' Up the Country" is a chicken-pickin' trifle I could live without, and "What Are You Gonna Do" is redeemed only by the gospel backing in the choruses. "Need Someone to Hold," on the other hand, is hands down the best non-Fogerty Creedence tune—well played, written and sung.

As for Cook and Clifford's songwriting legacy, I'll just note that their tribute band, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, performs only Fogerty's material. Nor (aside from a Clifford co-write on a 1981 Tom Fogerty album) has the duo written anything else in the ensuing, oh, 45 years.

For a guy who was the first to leave and ostensibly had the most to gain by doing so, Tom Fogerty's self-titled 1972 debut album is pedestrian and sloppily recorded to boot. This was the best he could do after five years in little brother's shadow? Were you to place its top three songs—"The Legend of Alcatraz," "Lady of Fatima" and the non-album single "Goodbye Media Man"—on Mardi Gras alongside those of his erstwhile compatriots, they'd be distinguished only for their resemblance to a junior-league Creedence. In fairness, by the time of his fourth LP Myopia (1974), his songwriting and production skills had improved. Check out "What Did I Know," an amiable country-rocker, the Badfinger-like "Sweet Things to Come," and the homespun "There Was a Time." That said, Tom's best material isn't up to the lofty standards set by his brother in CCR.

As for little brother, his career has lasted the longest and produced the best music of the lot, though he too has recorded his share of duds, Eye of the Zombie and the unreleased Hoodoo among them. In fact, I'd argue that occasional flashes of brilliance aside, none of John's solo output comes anywhere close to matching CCR's five-album hot streak that extends from Bayou Country straight through to Pendulum.

All told, then, the evidence points to John Fogerty as the primary force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, but not the only one. Despite his low opinion of the others' talents and ample data in support of same, the four of them possessed a certain chemistry entirely missing from their solo efforts, J.C. Fogerty's included. Simply put, the music these four made together is far superior to anything they've produced as individuals.

Now, back to Fortunate Son—not a review but a few observations. Beneath what an online reviewer aptly calls an "aw-shucks veneer" is one bitter man, despite his claims to the contrary. It's hard to say who he hates more: his ex-bandmates or Fantasy Records' head honcho Saul Zaentz. With the exception of brother Tom, who gets one compliment for every three barbs, John portrays the other two as selfish, whining ingrates with zero talent and even fewer creative ideas.

What's fascinating—and a strong, unspoken undercurrent throughout—is his utter bewilderment as to why the others demanded creative parity. What comes across is something like, "We were so successful, and we could have kept the band going for much longer if they'd just shut up and done what I said. I was the genius; they had nothing. Why did they go and ruin everything?" All true based on the evidence, but it completely ignores the psychological makeup of the average musician. As Fogerty ought to know, what drives most musicians is the pursuit of their artistic vision. "Musician" and "minion" aren't exactly overlapping temperaments. If you love following orders and taking direction, music is not the career path for you. What's most remarkable is that the others swallowed their pride for as long as they did, regardless of their creativity or lack of same.

Now that I've said my piece, let's revisit Mardi Gras one last time. It's not the worst album ever, though in John Fogerty's defence had the democratic CCR produced a follow-up, that one might have been. To put a pretty bow on a disheartening story, I've assembled a "complete" version of the album by inserting the three Tom Fogerty songs listed above. Call it The Other Fogerty's Revenge. And the verdict? They make the album neither better nor worse, just longer.

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July 16, 2016

Real Chords #1: The Kinks, "Do You Remember Walter"

After cursing and shaking my head one too many times at online chord charts, I bring you an occasional series called Real Chords. If I may say so, those of you who'd like to learn some classic songs on the guitar will spare yourselves much hardship and frustration by heeding the advice herein.

Before I start, I want to note that underpinning the whole enterprise is my version of Occam's razor as applied to songwriting: for 95% of rock songs, the most correct way to play it is the simplest. Many of the writers whose work I'll discuss here are songwriters first and foremost, not virtuoso instrumentalists. If part of a band, they're likely rhythm guitarists. A few might be bassists or keyboard players. Given that they want to make the song work, especially onstage, and they're the ones singing it, they are unlikely to favour finger-twisting, intricate arrangements.

With that out of the way, our first instalment features "Do You Remember Walter," a magnificent tune from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968). My initial search for chord charts turned up two: first, Cassette Theory's eloquent description of Ray Davies' use of key changes, which I confess sailed over my head; and second, several transcription attempts by fans on the Kinda Kinks website. Now, don't get me wrong: these yeoman efforts can be useful in pointing one in the right direction, and oftentimes they're spot-on as is. In both cases here, though, were you to follow these charts you'd be heading towards difficulty and away from simplicity, and you'd be playing several wrong chords to boot.

One clue that you're being led astray is the presence in a chart of chords like Ab, Eb and Bb. Especially on a steel-string acoustic guitar, only masochists or virtuosos would choose to play these chords open. There's also a clever turnaround in the chorus that, at least according to my ears, all these folks have missed. Why? Because unless you capo it—or you're Django Reinhardt—it's unplayable.

And therein lies our solution. No, not practising for a hundred years to become the next Django Reinhardt, though if you want to, be my guest; you've more patience and discipline than I ever will. Try playing the song at Capo 3 and presto: those gnarly Ab, Eb and Bb chords are now F, C and G. (In fairness, the last poster on the Kinda Kinks site arrived at the same conclusion, though I still think he got the turnaround wrong.)

Here are the real chords for "Do You Remember Walter," written by Ray Davies:

Capo 3
  • Intro: A
  • Verse: A C G D G
  • Chorus: C B E C/G Am7 Cmaj9/B* B E F C E D A
  • Outro: A A7 A A7 to fade
* Fingering, low to high: x20010

Notes: I've transcribed this song as I believe The Kinks actually play it. In my own version, I add a little colour by inserting an Amaj7 in the first line of the verse before changing to the C. I'll do a little Asus lick off the A so I'm not just blandly strumming one chord over several bars. Also in the verse, I like to stick an Am in after the D, then switch back to D before going to G. In the second half of the chorus, I sometimes play a straight G instead of the C/G. I encourage you to fiddle around and add your stamp to it as well. In addition, if singing this proves to be an uncomfortable stretch (the range is either too low or, in my case, too high), just move the capo up or down till you find a key that fits your natural singing voice. Simple, right?

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June 24, 2016

Summer Potpourri

This month's post is a bit of a mish-mash, as none of what's on my mind merits a full-blown screed. So, in no particular order:

New Covers. "God's Children" (The Kinks), "Late Night" (Syd Barrett), "Lightning Rose" (Jefferson Starship—ongoing Paul Kantner tribute). Coming soon to an open stage. I'm also working up "Moments of the Soft Persuasion" (Peter, Paul and Mary), but not for live performance. Oh, I can get through it okay but this tune, which has an absolute killer chorus, falls flat without harmonies. If I could find a Paul and Mary to sing it with me, I'd sing the Peter bit. In the meantime, I aim to record a version by overdubbing all three vocals. In trying to work through the changes I kept getting stuck on this one chord. Had no idea what it was. I finally isolated what the singers were doing and figured at the very least, those three notes must be constituent parts of the mystery chord. Those were A, C# and F#, all on the second fret. I then randomly wrapped my thumb around the bottom strings on the same fret and as soon as I strummed, I knew I had hit on it. But what was it called? Since my last "secret chord" post I've discovered a handy chord namer. But if you punch in this chord—a shape that frets everything at the second fret but leaves the D-string open—check out the unwieldy names it generates! That's why I call my chords "Am funny," "Fmould" and so on. That said, "Bm9/F#" was both pithy and accurate, so Bm9/F# it shall be. The magic chord occurs between F#m and G at the start of the killer chorus. Try it, you'll love it.

Brexit. David Cameron will go down in infamy as the British PM who irreparably fractured not one but two long-standing geopolitical alliances—the European Union and the UK itself—all for the sake of quelling internal party squabbles. A bit drastic, no? It's also cost him his job, which may not be a bad thing.

Populism. I've had a couple of people tell me that Donald Trump is eminently qualified for the US presidency because "he's not a politician." You've heard these arguments too, I'm sure. Here's what I find odd: if you wanted someone to train your prize race horse and ride it to victory, would you hire an accountant? Is a jockey your go-to guy when preparing your year-end financials? I'm guessing not. So why does prevailing wisdom tell us that politicians are corrupt, incompetent and unfit to govern simply because they're politicians? And were we to elect a plumber, beautician or snake-oil salesman, would he/she not be tarred with the same brush after a term or two in office anyway? I don't get it.

BMO Field. My tailgating concerns aside, the Argos' new home is a winner even if the team isn't yet. I missed last night's opener but took in the preseason game a couple of weeks back, and I loved it. The seating is cozy, intimate and, for those of us old enough to remember CNE Stadium pre-baseball, a throwback to a golden era of Argonaut football. (Pedantic aside: we football fans never, ever called it "Exhibition Stadium." The Blue Jays brought that moniker in 1977. It was and shall forever remain CNE Stadium. More pedantry: the new place is pronounced BEE-mo, not B-M-O.) I've lately been looking at aerial maps, present and historical, to determine where the CNE's north grandstand was in relation to the new digs. We had season tickets for a few years in the '70s and I recall them being in said grandstand, Section D, Row 33. Seats might have been 3 and 4. As far as I can tell, the old grandstand would cut across the south end of BMO Field on an angle of, oh, 60 degrees or so, meaning my CNE seat would be floating in space somewhere around what's now the 20-yard line, near the west sideline. You see, BMO faces directly north/south; CNE Stadium had a broadly NW/SE orientation. That alone made my first visit to BMO a bit jarring, because there I was, in essentially the same place watching the same team, and the views, the atmosphere, everything is almost-but-not-quite like I remember it. We are, after all, talking 40 years later. It's kind of like looking at an old family portrait on a funny angle with 3D glasses, and there's a blank space where Uncle Ted and Aunt Bertha used to be.

CNE Stadium is now a parking lot, with a cracked marker in the middle of it that says "Exhibition Stadium - Home Plate." Useless if you're trying to locate the grandstand, which was so far from the plate that it may as well have been in the next county. Anyway, I dream that someday the city will create a proper memorial for CNE Stadium, even as revisionist historians decry it as the Mistake by the Lake. (Pedantry, final instalment: whatever its flaws, not a soul called it that during its lifetime. The revisionists have borrowed/appropriated the nickname of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.) In the meantime I'll learn to love BMO, tilted angle, missing persons and all. Whether or not you're all misty-eyed over CNE Stadium, BMO Field is a marked improvement over the Argos' former home, the cavernous and sterile Rogers Centre. Which, by the way, I think is an okay venue for baseball. Not stellar, but serviceable.

By the way, here's a fabulous photo of CNE Stadium in its pre-baseball configuration. This was taken on November 25, 1973 at the Grey Cup, two weeks after my first game there, the Eastern Semi-Final between the Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes. And here's the football field in 1976, during the facility's conversion for baseball. I guarantee I would have been at this game, but am not in the photo. Section D was about 15 yards deep in the near end zone and is cropped out of the shot.

Grammar. In the space of 24 hours I've heard two football commentators say something like "The training staff is going to be very precautious." The adjective is "cautious," guys. Sufficient in and of itself; no need for a prefix. You can be very cautious and take precautions, though.

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May 03, 2016

Writing Song Lyrics

In a previous post on songwriting, I walked you through my typical process, from chord sequence to melody to finished song. This time we'll take a closer look at the final stage, writing the lyrics, using the example of my just-completed "Luminous Morn." I should point out that my process for this one was quite unusual, as you'll soon see. When it comes to lyrics, the way I write varies widely and I have no standard method. This is how it went down this time.

As usual, I started with a complete chord sequence and hummed melody. As occasionally happens, a plausible first line popped into my head straight away, so I went with it, figuring I could change it later if need be (I didn't). That first line:

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love

Sometimes the music itself will suggest a lyrical tone. This tune was a slow, minor-key progression that was clearly in the vein of traditional British folk. So I knew from the off that I wouldn't be writing lyrics like "me and my bros chillin', yo." This song wanted formal, almost archaic language—something a 15th-century troubadour would use to beckon his love hither while strumming his lute.

Earlier today I was reading Psalm 98, a great place to hunt for archaic if that's what you're after, and came across this:

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

I liked "lyre" and "horn" both, so I plopped them into my first verse like so: 

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love
Come let me sing you the song I dream of
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn

Great! But I needed one more line, and it had to rhyme with "horn." I thought of "morn," which seemed to fit, and that mutated into "[Something] the [something] miraculous morn." Pretty nice, sang well, needed the blanks filled in, but still, "miraculous morn" wasn't quite what I meant. So, I went to thesaurus.com, typed in "miraculous" and checked the alternatives. "Numinous" came up, a word for which I liked the sound and meaning ... once I looked it up. And that right there posed a problem. I have a songwriting rule that says you shouldn't use any word in a song you'd never ordinarily speak, and that goes double if you have to look it up. So "numinous," lyrical though it may be, was out. The next step was immediately obvious: what rhymes with "numinous"? Well, luminous, right? Sings well, sounds good, sounds a bit archaic, makes sense and passes the familiarity test. So, the first verse became:

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love
Come let me sing you the song I dream of
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Herald the dawn of this luminous morn

I sing as I write, because as mentioned in my earlier post if a line doesn't sing well, I don't care if it's better than Will Shakespeare; it's gone. And "herald" didn't sing well. I began searching for related words and came up with "summon." This required a change in the preposition, but that's fine. The changed line:

Summon the dawn on this luminous morn

Good, but still needed work—that second line wasn't up to snuff. I tinkered and tinkered till I found something I liked better. The final first verse:

Come to the water's edge, come now, my love
Come hear the serenade sung from above
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Summon the dawn on this luminous morn

Because this tune has a fairly simple structure—three verses, two choruses—it occurred to me that "Luminous Morn" was at the very least a strong contender for song title. What I'll usually do at this point is google my would-be title to see if anyone else has used it. Google returned 1,290 results, which I took as a good sign. I was, however, drawn to an entry labelled Current Literature, Volume 5 from Google Books, so I clicked on that. Evidently the phrase appeared there. It turns out that Current Literature, Volume 5 is from August 1890, and as far as I can tell was some kind of Reader's Digest for Victorians. My title was found in a section entitled "Choice Verse from Books and Magazines." It's in a poem called "The Song of the Sea" by one Harriet Whitney which originally appeared in Belford's, whatever that was. Here's Harriet's line:

Their world was a world of enchantment;
And they laughed with the laughter of scorn,
When I turned me away from its beauty
In the light of the luminous morn.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. Quite by accident I'd stumbled on a sample of Victorian poetry. No idea if these folks were esteemed poets of their day or amateurs writing for local newspapers. I suspect the latter (no offence intended, dear Harriet). Anyway, I moved on to my next task: hunting for additional material to, well, steal. Not all from Harriet's poem; I also picked through the choice verse in the surrounding vicinity. Here are the phrases I wrote down:

take cheer
song of the sea
sun-beaten land
vine-tangled valley
steal away
tranquil, I brood
mend broken strands
grassy slope
dwell in the stillness

Meanwhile, a few pages back, I found a reference to a Mrs. E.J. Nicholson (I rarely see my surname in print, so it caught my eye) who wrote under the pen name of Pearl Rivers. That struck me as mighty evocative, something I could use for sure. Swipe!

To give you a flavour of this publication, here's an excerpt from that section: "She was born on Pearl River, Mississippi, and thus she constantly associates the scenes of her childhood with all her literary productions." Yes, "born on." How quaint. Also noted were the frequent use of "to-day," "to-morrow," "good-by" and so on. (This is what "me and my bros chillin', yo" will sound like in 125 years, friends.)

During my dinner break I was listening to a podcast called "The Soul-Directed Life," and kept my ears primed for words I could pilfer from there. Here's what came up:

nourish
garden
beloved
leading me on
sustain
sacrament

I wrote these down on a separate sheet, then set both lists aside to start work on the chorus. For that, I had an elongated "ooh-ooh" in the earlier demo I'd recorded, and I liked the sound of it so much that I decided whatever word went over that bit, it had to rhyme with "ooh." I started with soo-oon, we can go but didn't like the rhyme scheme it suggested or the meaning, so I chewed on it a little more. The line morphed into soon, we are near. Wrong tense. Soon, we'll be near—better tense-wise but kind of blah. I finally settled on soon, we'll draw near. "Draw near" struck me as a more Victorian turn of phrase, so I went with that.

I finished the rest of the song using the lists, my rhyming dictionary, and yes, several words I came up with all on my own. Compare the finished version to the lists above and you'll see how the element of chance enters the songwriting process and how, in the end, my stealing isn't stealing at all. "Luminous Morn" reads nothing like Harriet Whitney's poem, Psalm 98 or The Soul-Directed Life, but I thank them all for their help.

Luminous Morn (Vern Nicholson, © 2016 SOCAN)

Come to the water’s edge, come now, my love
Come hear the serenade sung from above
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Summon the dawn on this luminous morn

Sun-beaten gardens will show what’s in store
Rivers of pearl lead us on through the door
Steal into gladness, bid farewell forlorn
High on the stillness of luminous morn

Broken hearts mended in times of good cheer
Soon, we’ll draw near
Love is the sacrament by which we’re born
Here on the cusp of our luminous morn

Come to the water’s edge, come now, my love
Come hear the serenade sung from above
Strum of the lyre and breath of the horn
Oh, summon the dawn on this luminous morn
Hasten the dawn of this luminous morn


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April 18, 2016

Back to the Garden

And I'm not talking springtime planting, folks. The Fonz don't do gardening. As you might guess, I'm speaking of the legendary 1969 Woodstock Festival. Even if you're not into all that hippie music or the attendant counterculture, most observers agree with Wikipedia's assertion that "it is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history."

Me, I quite enjoy that hippie music; indeed, some of my favourites played Woodstock. There were also a few artists on the bill I could do without (hello Melanie, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter and Sha Na Na). But all told, I've been a fan of the mystique ever since I bought the original triple album back in 1980 or so.

Anyway, I recently dragged out my 4-CD box (released in 1994 for the 25th anniversary), enjoyed the highlights and wondered if there's more where that came from. Turns out there is. Much more. First, the fine people at Rhino Records issued a 6-CD box to coincide with the 40th anniversary in 2009, boasting 38 previously unreleased tracks. That same year came The Woodstock Experience, a reissue series featuring complete sets from Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone and Johnny Winter. If I'd had the cash back then I'd have bought three of the five, but as it stood I splurged for the Airplane and no more. Just last week, I scored a great deal on the Rhino box: $40 on amazon.ca.

Armed with all that, I decided to make the ultimate mix tape ... sorry, playlist. Off the top, I realized that the 6-CD box, comprehensive as it was, didn't include everything on the 4-CD set. That had 11 songs missing from the Rhino compilation (mostly due to rights issues or personal choice of the producers). And with that, I thought I was done until I checked YouTube, where I found a treasure trove of material that's not on either box set or the previous LPs. From there, I was able to fill out those sets I wanted more from: 22 additional tunes in all—more if you count some Woodstock Experience material I was able to slot in for Janis, Sly and Santana. And still more was available, but I weeded out iffy performances, material of dodgy quality and stuff I simply didn't want (more Canned Heat, etc.).

Assembling this mass of music into something listenable took a little finagling. For starters, the multiplicity of sources meant wide variation in volume levels. I used MP3Gain to make crude volume adjustments; beyond that, if things still weren't right I imported the mp3s into Audacity and tweaked them there. Audacity also proved useful for creating fade-ins and fade-outs as needed, and most crucially, pasting the stage patter where it belongs chronologically. See, the producers of both the big compilations (as they should) placed emcee intros before the first song and outros after the last song. That's fine, but the first/last songs on that particular compilation may not be true to how the set was actually played. This became an issue when I downloaded something off YouTube that came before or after the "first" and "last" song illusions created by the compilations' producers. How would I know? Well, Rhino's box includes each band's complete set, all in the correct order. And these guys got it from the source: their original intent was to put out a 30-CD box of every note played at Woodstock, so they've gone through the original recordings top to bottom.

I also used Audacity on occasion to EQ the material and spiff it up. I couldn't hope to match the quality of the official compilations, but a judicious touch of high- or low-end (sometimes both) helped the iffier tracks pale a touch less compared to the professional productions. In one instance (Keef Hartley Band), the only known source was an audience recording, so as you can imagine that required some serious sonic work.

Finally, I employed my sound-editing skills to help out a band I really didn't like: Quill. They'd never before appeared on a Woodstock compilation and it's easy to see why, as their two songs on the Rhino box are godawful. But, as I wanted to represent every act that played, I went on a quest to find something bearable. YouTube provided a middling track called "Waiting for You" which sounded like a poor man's T. Rex filtered through third-rate Frank Zappa. (Yes, that's Quill at their best, folks.) As is often the case with bands endowed with a bloated sense of their importance, they meander on and on. The original track was over 11 minutes and featured a clumsy and pointless percussion interlude. I found a good spot, counted off eight bars and chop: gone. At 8:30, the truncated version remains somewhat tedious but at least I've purged the song of its worst excesses.

While we're on that topic, the Rhino overlords saw fit to include a full-length version of Canned Heat's "Woodstock Boogie," a 29-minute snooze-fest to these ears. (I'm not a fan of da blooze, in case you've not gleaned that from my previous posts.) What gems could have gone on there in its place! Alas. Anyway, I trimmed that sucker to its rightful length of 0:00 by keeping it off my playlist.

Speaking of which, in its ten-hour glory, I proudly present ...

V E R N ' S   U L T I M A T E   W O O D S T O C K   P L A Y L I S T
(* = unreleased anywhere but YouTube as far as know ... though see addendum at bottom)

Day 1
  • Richie Havens: High Flyin' Bird*, I Can't Make It Anymore*, Handsome Johnny, Strawberry Fields Forever*, Freedom
  • Sweetwater: Look Out, Two Worlds
  • Bert Sommer: Jennifer, And When It's Over, Smile
  • Tim Hardin: Hang on to a Dream, If I Were a Carpenter, Simple Song of Freedom
  • Ravi Shankar: Raga Puriya-Dhanashri/Gat in Sawarital
  • Melanie: Momma Momma, Beautiful People
  • Arlo Guthrie: Coming into Los Angeles, Wheel of Fortune, Walkin' Down the Line, Every Hand in the Land
  • Joan Baez: Joe Hill, Sweet Sir Galahad, Hickory Wind, Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man, One Day at a Time*
Day 2
  • Quill: Waiting for You*
  • Country Joe McDonald: Donovan's Reef, Flying High*, The "Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag
  • Santana: Waiting, Evil Ways, You Just Don't Care, Jingo, Persuasion, Soul Sacrifice
  • John Sebastian: How Have You Been, Rainbows All Over Your Blues, I Had a Dream, Darlin' Be Home Soon*
  • Keef Hartley Band: Spanish Fly*
  • The Incredible String Band: The Letter, Gather 'Round*, When You Find Out Who You Are
  • Canned Heat: Going up the Country, On the Road Again*
  • Mountain: Blood of the Sun, Theme for an Imaginary Western, For Yasgur's Farm
  • Grateful Dead: Mama Tried, Dark Star
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival: Born on the Bayou*, Green River, Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do), Commotion, Bad Moon Rising, I Put a Spell on You, Keep on Chooglin'*
  • Janis Joplin: Raise Your Hand, Try (Just a Little Bit Harder), Kozmic Blues, Work Me Lord, Ball and Chain
  • Sly & The Family Stone: Sing a Simple Song, You Can Make It If You Try, Medley: Dance to the Music/Music Lover/I Want to Take You Higher, Stand!
  • The Who: Amazing Journey, Pinball Wizard, We're Not Gonna Take It, My Generation*, Naked Eye*
Day 3
  • Jefferson Airplane: The Other Side of This Life, Somebody to Love, 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds, Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon, Eskimo Blue Day, Volunteers
  • Joe Cocker: Feelin' Alright, Let's Go Get Stoned, I Shall Be Released*, With a Little Help from My Friends
  • Country Joe & The Fish: Rock & Soul Music, Love, Silver and Gold
  • Ten Years After: I'm Going Home
  • The Band: Tears of Rage*, Long Black Veil, The Weight, Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever
  • Johnny Winter: Mean Town Blues, Johnny B. Goode
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears: More and More*, Somethin' Comin' On*, I Love You More than You'll Ever Know*, Spinning Wheel*, You've Made Me So Very Happy
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young): Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Marrakesh Express, Sea of Madness, Wooden Ships, Find the Cost of Freedom
  • The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Morning Sunrise*, Love March, Everything's Gonna Be Alright
  • Sha Na Na: Wipe Out*, At the Hop, Get a Job (Reprise)
  • Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)/Stepping Stone, The Star Spangled Banner, Purple Haze, Woodstock Improvisation
The highlights you recall from the original triple LP are, of course, all present and accounted for: Richie Havens' wild strumming on "Freedom," Santana's incendiary "Soul Sacrifice," Sly's high-octane funk medley, Joe Cocker's soulful take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," Ten Years After's romp through "I'm Going Home," Hendrix deconstructing and reconstructing the US National Anthem. But the glut of unreleased material produced new revelations as well. The unknown Bert Sommer wrote some killer songs, and that shimmering organ accompaniment really made them shine. Santana's entire set smoked, top to bottom. The Dead, whose overall performance was sub-par and plagued by technical problems, rose to the occasion with a spacey "Dark Star." CCR cranked out their swamp-rock like a walking jukebox, and BS&T strutted their way through a tight, jazzy set. All in all, I can't help but wonder what else lies in the vaults. Five turkeys for every pearl, probably, but I pine for that 30-CD set. There is a 50th anniversary coming up in a few years; maybe then?

Addendum, May 2, 2016: If you want to seriously disappear down the Woodstock wormhole, try James Stafford's  The (Kind Of) Complete Woodstock series, an exhaustive compendium of bands, set lists and sources. It turns out that most of what I assumed was YouTube-only material has been pilfered from stray semi-official and official releases, mostly on DVD and VHS. See Stafford's posts for specifics if you're interested. A smattering of material unique to YouTube still remains.

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March 25, 2016

Songwriting from the Ground Up

I'm working on three new songs at the moment. I've just finished one called "Shadow Play Clan," and I thought I'd give you a tour of the process. What I'm about to describe is fairly typical for me, with the caveat that not every song I write happens in this way, and certainly not every songwriter composes music the way I generally do.

In my experience, listeners often assume that a musician sits down and says, "I think I'll write a song today," decides what to write about and methodically proceeds in writing said song. Now, I've heard of people who really do work like this, as if it's a job for which they set aside blocks of time and literally punch in and out. My process isn't quite like that.

For me, the germ of a song comes at an unexpected time; I may not even have access to an instrument when the first flush of inspiration strikes. In this case, I did. I was warming up to rehearse for a show when I found myself playing this chord sequence and thought, "Hmm, that's nice. I should develop that." But first things first—I need to get it down before I forget it, so I'll whip out my mp3 recorder and do just that. If the chords are unusual, plenteous or non-standard, I may speak the fingerings onto the tape before I play, write them down, or both. ("Tape" = Vern showing his age.)

Sometimes multiple sections of the song arrive at once as I play through the changes and try to figure out what might come next. Other times I'll get only the one part and will later string it together with previously recorded (compatible) bits. If I have no such things, that's when I might actually reserve a chunk of time to write the next part(s). With "Shadow Play Clan," I think two parts came at once and I had to figure out the rest later, then stitch everything together. Anyway, eventually I'll end up with a skeleton of a song, an extended chord sequence that makes sense to me as a possible intro, outro, verse, chorus and bridge.

A quick digression: I usually write on guitar, but have (so far) also composed music on bass, piano, dulcimer and on occasion just voice. (Sometimes a strong melody comes first, in which case I'll sing it into my recorder and figure out keys and chords later. "Linden Tree near the Water," the title track of my forthcoming album, started with me warbling a melodic snippet in a parking lot on a windy day with trucks roaring by. And I have the work "tape" to prove it!) As a musician, I'm fascinated by the way one's choice of instrument in a very real sense determines the song's form and composition. I've heard colleagues say that if you're stuck in a songwriting rut, try composing on a different instrument, maybe even one with which you have limited facility.

Back to our embryonic song, I've now got my skeleton, which in this case is a sequence of guitar chords. What's next? Some composers will immediately write the words, if they've not done so already. In fact, those whom I'd call lyrics-first people usually start with the words, then hang the chords and the melody around them. I'm a lyrics-last kind of guy. Generally I need the melody before I can write any lyrics. So, armed with my skeletal chord sequence, I pick up my instrument of choice, run through the tune and start humming: la-la-la, doo-doo-doo, ooh-ooh-ooh, bah-bah-bah, whatever. If the odd word wants to assert itself, I'll sing it, too. Some aspect of the melody, even a fragment, may work especially well and if so, I make sure I record it before it vanishes. This may include variations on the melodic theme that'll happen in strategic places: for example, singing in a higher register on the last chorus. I often work on isolated bits of the song, stitching the melody together much like I did the chords. Taking the same excerpt used above, I ended up with this melody line.

Once I've got the whole song, top to bottom, with chords and melody, it's finally time for the words. I may have a few lines I've scribbled down somewhere that I can start with, but it depends. Often the cadence and accents of the melody itself suggest certain sounds, rhymes, maybe even specific words. At this point, if I've not done so already I'll give the song a working title—in this case it was "3-Minute Pop."

Another short digression: sometimes I'm asked, "How do you decide what to write about?" Well, it chooses me. I don't "decide" anything other than whether to follow the muse or not. Something I've read or heard or seen or experienced or felt will light a fire under me and I'm artistically constipated, as it were. I need to get it out. Again, some songwriters may sit down and decide, "Today, I'm going to write a song about butterflies" or whatever, but I don't operate that way. For better or for worse, my particular process results in a lot of first-person writing. I'm reminded of John Lennon's quote: "I write about me because I know me." In fact The Beatles, those master tunesmiths, are a case study in contrasts, Lennon's predominantly "I" viewpoint counterbalanced by McCartney's "he/she/you." Think of the difference between, say, "Help!" and "Eleanor Rigby," "I'm So Tired" and "Hey Jude." Of course, both could (and did) swap roles when it suited them, like John's "Dr. Robert" and Paul's "I've Just Seen a Face." That's why they're masters, folks.

Anyway, for this particular song I thought I'd try something new. Second- or third-person lyrics still seem a bit distant to me, both in terms of their emotional gravitas and my ability to pull them off, but I thought I'd try an experiment while sticking with first-person. So, "Shadow Play Clan" is written first-person from the viewpoint of someone who isn't me. She's someone quite dear to me, someone I want to understand better, someone with whom I aim to empathize but have at times had difficulty doing so. Once that light bulb clicked on, bingo: fire lit, motivation in place to write words. Here's the result, over the same bit as before, taken from the demo recording of the song.

You'll note that the with-words version doesn't exactly match the cadence of the raw melody. It's close, but there's some variation. Adding words and making them rhyme will do that, and that's fine, but here's where you can really tell the difference between lyrics-first and lyrics-last writers. To a fault, a lyrics-first writer shapes the melody around the words, even if the result is hard to sing and it seems like there are 37 extra syllables in a particular couplet. Example: Bruce Cockburn's "Silver Wheels." Now, don't get me wrong: I love this song and part of me wishes I could write like this, but I just can't wrap my tongue around that many syllables. Besides, I lack the literary chops. (Check out especially the "radio speakers gargle Top 40 trash" verse at 3:06. He almost makes it rhyme, too!) In contrast, I will delete otherwise lovely words that weigh down the melody with too many syllables, hard consonants, awkward rhymes or anything that doesn't sing well. And on occasion, I'll insert a word that may not make literal sense or express precisely what I want but sounds so bloody good.

While we're on the topic, a word about rhymes and songwriting crimes. (Just checking to see if you're still with me. Okay, good.) I've not yet learned how to write without them, though I'm pretty sure my rhyming schemes vary from song to song, more through blind luck than a deep awareness of what I'm doing. The trick is to avoid rhymes that are dead obvious, bordering on cliché (think moon/spoon, love/dove or fire/desire; my own pet peeve is change/rearrange) while at the same time resisting the temptation to go all clever-clever, pseudo-literary (like, say, bluesy/Jacuzzi or lamb/cardiogram). When you're stuck, a rhyming dictionary can be helpful if used sparingly. My personal rule: if the rhyme jumps out and says, "Aha! The only way you'd ever have found me is by using a rhyming dictionary," don't use it. In the chorus for this song I originally had "shadow play man," which I was reluctant to ditch because it sung very well. Ah, the perils of being a lyrics-last guy. I went through alternates off the top of my head, all of them nice, one-syllable non sequiturs—"ran," "pan," "fan," "tan"—before consulting the dictionary, where I found "clan." Jackpot. It's not quite as lyrical as "man" but I could make it work, and the meaning was much closer to what I'd originally intended, so I stuck it in and there you are.

And the title? For us lyrics-last folk the title comes even more last, if that's remotely grammatical. That said, I have done the reverse: my song "That '70s Lifetime" started life as just that title, everything else proceeding from there. Now, hit-maker gurus will tell you that your title must be in the chorus, must be short, must be catchy and must be repeated 736 times before fadeout. As you might expect I don't subscribe to that theory, though neither am I fundamentally opposed. If things fall that way, all well and good, but I like to pick an evocative phrase in the song that also (ideally) encapsulates the overarching thrust of the tune. Sometimes that's in the verse or even the bridge. As it turns out, this time my title is lifted from the chorus. As for its catchiness, "Shadow Play Clan" is, I admit, more Robert Pollard obscure than Garth Brooks straightforward; fine by me. Actually, one of my favourite titlers is the legendary Arthur Lee, whose song titles usually appeared nowhere in his lyrics and could well cast the entire song in an ironic light, such as "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This." Take a listen, and you tell me he should have called it "Pigtails in the Morning" instead.

So, there you have the anatomy of a song from the ground up. The next step, of course, involves turning the demo into a finished recording. Having just written it I'm not at the production and arrangement stage with this one yet, but when the time comes I'll be asking questions like: stripped-down or full-band treatment? If it's the latter, what will the rhythm section (bass and drums) do? Additional percussion, tambourine maybe? Do I want any keyboards? How about backing vocals or a second guitar? Other instrumental colour? How's the tempo of the original recording? Do I want to make any last-minute changes to the lyrics or phrasing? All these and more considerations come into play, but that's another post for another time.

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February 08, 2016

Your Mind Has Left Your Body

I can now empathize with the shock and grief of all the Bowiephiles out there, as my greatest musical hero passed away a couple of weeks back. I'm speaking of singer/guitarist/visionary Paul Kantner, the guiding light behind Jefferson Airplane and later, Jefferson Starship.

Most people haven't even heard of him, and here's why: for all his stubbornness and obstinacy, Paul was in some ways the ultimate team player. In the Airplane, he was flanked by two expressive, talented vocalists (Grace Slick and Marty Balin) and three staggeringly gifted instrumentalists (guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden). Paul's guitar—always subtle, never flashy, sometimes buried in the mix—was, in Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's words, "the glue that held all that together." As for his singing, Weir continues, "his voice was the foundation of the choral vocals." Without exception, his songs were vehicles for the ensemble, sonic flights of fancy in which the collective could shine. As Jorma noted in his touching tribute, "Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen."

Another reason you don't know Paul Kantner: though he was the only constant over a 19-year whirlwind of personnel changes, he never wrote or sang lead on a hit single. It wasn't his way or his interest, really, as his esoteric compositions didn't lend themselves to hit-making. His biography on the Airplane's website puts it succinctly: "If Marty Balin was the soul of the band and Grace Slick its public persona, then Paul Kantner could be considered its brain."

The first member Marty recruited for his new band in March 1965, Paul may be the only person in rock history who passed the audition by not auditioning. Marty: "I was at a hootenanny at this folk club in Frisco called The Drinking Gourd. I was just looking at people; they were filling up the list for the hootenanny and this guy comes in with two [guitar] cases, a 6 and a 12, in his hand. I was looking for a guy who could play a 12-string; I'd come out of folk and liked 12-string a lot. I said, 'Hey, give him my spot. Let's see what he does.' And it was the funniest thing. He started to play, and then just stopped. He said, 'I can't do this.' And for some reason I said, 'That's the guy. That's the guy, right there.'"

From such humble beginnings Paul became, hands down, my favourite guitarist of all time. Were I to make this claim to a roomful of guitar devotees, predominant reactions would be two: first, "Who?" And second, for those with passing familiarity with his music, "You're kidding, right?" Indeed, this is a man who, during the darkest days of '80s-era Jefferson Starship, was told by one of his bandmates that he couldn't play, much less write a decent song.

A brilliant technician he's not, but Paul was a true original in a realm where everyone sounds like each other. Alternately chiming and slashing through the maelstrom with his Rickenbacker 12-string, his sound, voicing and arrangement skills were unique. Doubters and naysayers should check out, among others, "Wild Tyme" from the Airplane's epic After Bathing at Baxter's album. (If you can figure out what Paul's playing, let me know. I've no idea how he's hitting those odd chords, most of which lack major or minor thirds. Paul's guitar is on the left.) To hear him in a vastly different context, try "Love Too Good," the lead track off Jefferson Starship's Earth. He's on the right here, a bit lower in the mix, and his part kicks in around 0:27 with some gorgeous harmonics.

Also recommended is "The Other Side of This Life" from the Airplane's live Bless Its Pointed Little Head. While Grace, Marty, Jack, Jorma and Spencer chase each other like a pack of wild hounds, there's Paul on your left, bell-like, chiming away, his guitar almost having the timbre of a piano, holding the whole thing together. Again I emphasize: no other rhythm guitarist sounds like this. If you can figure out what the heck he's doing, I'd love to know.

In tribute, I'm working up several of Paul's songs to, in his words, "carry the fire." It's not been an easy task because as mentioned earlier, this was an artist who wrote not for himself but the band. Much of his stuff requires the vocal and instrumental acrobatics of others to truly flower. I have, however, managed to cherry-pick five or six tunes (so far) that translate well to solo performance. I only hope to do them justice.

I got to meet Paul once, when a late iteration of Jefferson Starship played a club date in Toronto some 15 years back. He and Marty signed my Volunteers album, and I chatted briefly with Marty but couldn't bring myself to approach Paul. You know how it is: when you meet your heroes you either get completely tongue-tied or gush at them for hours. I sure didn't want to do that, and a simple "I love your music" seemed hollow and trite, though certainly true. So, I shook his hand, thanked him for the autograph and left.

More accolades from those who knew Paul best—here's Jorma Kaukonen again: "He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious … he could be loving and kind … his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable."

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart: "[Paul] was kind of the backbone of that band. It was always about Grace and Jack and Jorma [but] I don't think he got the credit he deserved."

Bob Weir: "Paul lived at the heart of the song. He was there for the Muse—when she needed a human voice or instrument, she channelled it through him."

Jack Casady: "[Paul] was the pilot who flew Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship to unparallelled heights, beyond our wildest dreams, but not his. He had a vision. And he pursued that vision with relentless abandon."

Marty Balin: "He would write these songs sometimes, and they would be so long and ponderous, these giant epics about living in space. It was like a postmodernist, putting this and that and this together. It was very difficult to make his songs fly. Some of his songs were, God, gigantic pieces of music, but he developed his own thing. He was one of the greats, one of the most interesting people I ever associated with. He left a good body of work. If people just listen to his music, they'll see how great he was."

You can do just that by starting with this (Airplane-heavy) top ten list of Paul's songs. If you hear in them what I do, you're in for a wonderful journey. I could of course recommend dozens more, but that's for you to discover.

I'll leave the last word to Jack Casady, as I think he put it best: "It was always Paul's vision that steered the ship. I would like to offer my condolences to Paul's family, especially his children China, Gareth and Alexander. He will be greatly missed. But he will also be remembered and cherished by the legions of fans that he made at every port he stopped at. Fare thee well, fair aviator."

You have left your body
Return when you may
Save it for another day ... beyond you

- Paul Kantner, 1973

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January 11, 2016

There's a Starman Waiting in the Sky

Like many of you, I heard news of the passing of David Bowie this morning. Now, you surely don't need me to convince you of the Thin White Duke's genius. In an industry where so many mark time with rehashed versions of their youthful selves, Bowie's maverick spirit and restless innovation stood apart. Even his missteps were noteworthy and at times, wildly popular (hello, "Let's Dance").

Given the sincere admiration expressed above, you might find it odd that I've never seriously connected with Bowie's music. Perhaps I've not ventured deep enough. My familiarity is that of a casual fan who quite likes some of his most famous songs ("Space Oddity," "Young Americans" and "Golden Years" among them). On reflection, I can see what's held me back. A cursory scan of his early '70s material reveals two major touchstones: glam rock and show tunes, neither of which have ever spoken to me in any way. In his subsequent career he ventured far beyond both, of course, but first impressions count, especially in the psyche of a music-obsessed preteen. As such, I never got into Bowie. I do, however, have musician friends whose tastes I respect immensely for whom Bowie was their Bob Dylan.

When an icon dies I like to pay tribute in some small way, so your friendly neighbourhood folk 'n' roller is working up a version of "Starman" for acoustic guitar and harmonica. And ironically, it's only in doing so that I've come to appreciate the complexity and sheer artistry of Bowie's work. "Starman" is an impeccably crafted, deceptively catchy number that's in fact rather difficult to play. (I settled on "Starman," by the way, after trying half a verse of "Life on Mars" and giving up. Even "Space Oddity" was too tricky.)

Last word: for those of us who scoffed at show tunes, androgyny and glam, my 11-year-old self included, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane will no doubt be esteemed and appreciated a hundred years from now. The same can't be said for much of the pile-driving pop/rock of the day, including some of my childhood favourites.

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December 15, 2015

Taking Forever, Just Like Brian Wilson Did

So, I got a Christmas card from my best friend telling me, "Santa knows what you did, and he's pissed." To which he added, "Actually, he's pissed because of what you didn't do: release the album! C'mon, Brian Wilson, let it go." Here's Brian's reply.
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~ From the desk of BRIAN WILSON ~

Yo D.,

Thanks for alerting me that Santa's pissed and I should expect a lump of coal in the sandbox this year. Gotta admit that I do feel a bit like The Pink Floyd (as we called them in the '60s ... I still don't know where the "The" went ... must ask Dr. Landy about that sometime as it's been bugging me for years ... anyway, I digress). What I mean is taking 3 years to record my new LP, Smiley Smile Simile Similar Simpleton, then another 6 months to mix the blasted thing.

So yeah, it's been mixed but we got a wee problem ... my engineer transferred the tapes—or whatever they are; he tells me they don't use tape anymore ... weird—to this little doohickey of mine called a "portable hard drive" ... and when I listened back there were these random spikes of white noise plastered over every damn one of my songs. True story. Dr. Landy said he heard it too ... wasn't just my personal hallucination. Maybe we hallucinated it together. Trippy, huh? So, long story short, my engineer is workin' on some other way to get the songs to me without the white noise. I say if he'd used Scotch 3M quarter-inch in the first place we wouldn't be in this predicament. If magnetic tape was good enough in '63, how come it's passé in '73?

What's that? It's two-thousand-and-what? Get outta town. Really? Hmm. Guess time doesn't fly when you're stuck in a sandbox with an ornery dulcimer and co-dependent shrink.

Anyhoo, it's super-peachy to know that fans are salivating for new product from yrs. truly, bummer that they're all worked up over not having same. It's coming, I swear. Mastering is up next after we sort out the white noise debacle. 'Course, I could just put it out avec the white noise ... it'd be kinda avant-garage, is that the word? Could be the "in" sound of 2058 or whatever the hell year this is. Anyway, gotta go—the dulcimer is acting up again. Probably all that sand in the sound holes.

Love, Bri

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