Monday, December 27, 2010
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Welcome to this creative project funding platform, a part of the new normal in the music biz. The change in the business over the last couple years means exciting times for independent artists and music entrepreneurs. In this new era, the traditional gatekeepers are disappearing, and new distribution outlets, marketing techniques, and business models are popping up all the time.
Because of the internet, every artist is a world artist, with the ability to reach fans in other countries. And the business change affects musical content too—although this new record of mine will be a full length cd, in the coming year I would also like to release a 6 song cd after it, or a 3-song EP every three months or even a song every month. The new model is about you, and my musical relationship with you. Much is possible.
No excuse exists with today’s technology to wait for the star-making machinery to make it happen for you, but that’s always how I’ve conducted my career. In fact, so much of what’s happening now has been my reality for many years as an independent, DIY musician—funding production, using smaller distribution on a budget, talking personally to radio about airplay based on the quality of the songs, working in a niche creatively, doing regional press, investing in your own career, being a part of a music scene and playing shows in unusual venues.
Over the past several years we’ve worked hard to firm up quality business relationships, with publishing administration (Casablanca Media in the US & Canada, Open Times in the UK & Europe), distributors, licensing companies and all areas of the media. But the most important aspect to success as an independent artist is to keep it fresh. New songs and new shows and new ideas. This is where your funding is crucial right now; I’ll get new music out on a very consistent basis.
The marketing and promotional ideas we’ll be using once this record is released include reaching out through social networks, blog tours, traditional print and all forms of TV, satellite and terrestrial radio, online and physical retail, and continued communication through the website with all of you.
The new model hinges on the fact that recorded music, in downloads or physical cds, is now the loss leader of the entertainment industry. Downloads are free, by and large, to a lot of music lovers, especially younger ones. Whatever the many reasons, the old model has disintegrated, and the reality is that fewer and fewer people are paying for music.
It seems like arguing against file sharing or free downloads is kind of like getting pissed at water for being wet--it's something that simply is, and is here to stay. And from where I sit as an independent artist, if I'm candid about it, free music is both angel and devil--my primary interest as a musician is to communicate and connect with my audience the emotion and ideas in a song, to pass the buzz of creation along and have it become part of your life.
So songs passing freely from ear to ear is what I want to happen! But I also need to continue to do my job as a functioning, air breathing, bill paying, food eating artist who lives in the commodified real world. Mozart went to Emperor Josef, one sole patron. With this model, there are hundreds and eventually thousands of supporters, and it’s a healthy conversation -- the artist creating their music, the fans communicating directly with the artist, although I ain’t no Mozart.
With free music as the norm, the fear is that we'll eventually just have records from superstars on one end and hobbyists on the other, squeezing out the regional artists and bands, the older singers and songwriters, and the crucial contributions of the more eccentric and avant garde. But I'm surely not telling you to stop downloading free stuff or file sharing—on the contrary. I’m just saying a) make sure it’s not my stuff (smile) and b) I think it’s a mistake to think we’re making some grand statement against corporate fat cats and their out-of-control capitalist ways by downloading free music.
And I'm also saying to all of you how much I appreciate your support in this, how important it is in today's new world, and how you're making our world a sane, thinking and fair one by sanctioning this transaction and others like them. Thank you for having some faith in me, my work and my commitment to it.
Making a record--from the writing of melodies and lyrics, arranging, casting musicians, recording basic tracks, myriad overdubs of vocals, solos, strings and horns, rewriting, re-recording, hiring art design for a cover, then mixing and mastering and manufacturing--takes every bit of focus and vitality I have to give. If I do it with full emotional wattage, (and there ain't no other way), it allows precious else in its orbit. It's the most demanding of any possible mistress--imagine the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction on steroids, even crazier, screaming “do it again!” Devoting yourself fully to it makes your knees weak, makes your roof leak, makes your bones squeak--and there's nothing else I'd rather do.
Then, when the record's done and coming out, it calls for an entirely different skill set that involves: promotional persistence (which leaves you feeling spent and icky--imagine asking your father in law for money 200 times a day), marketing moxie, an understanding of brand and image (that feels contrary to the very real human connection you seek when actually writing and recording the music) and most importantly, functioning as a bandleader and employer of other musicians and taking the songs out in front of people--maybe the most thrilling and challenging part of this large process.
It’s very fashionable these days for small labels and bands to use analytics and other online marketing data to try and determine who their audience is and what they want. These tools eventually have their place somewhere in the post-release process, but I think it’s contrary to the pure artistic impulse. I make music that satisfies its own standards and traditions and tells my story, songs that will then hopefully reach you the same way I want to be reached. I want to be moved and move you, be excited and excite you--not market to you. I hope this update gives you some idea of how your money will be applied, and how we’ll make it work as efficiently as we can, in many different areas.
A VERY Brief History of the Record Business
1. Early 20th Century: Musicians play live music in symphonies, operas, chamber ensembles, pubs, houses, bars, fields and the workplace.
2. 1930s: The wide use of radio transformed time and space and made it possible for huge numbers of people to enjoy free music. Vinyl LPs allowed folks to take music home and play it.
3. Post WWII Expansion -- Record labels brought recorded music to market while publishing companies found ways to exploit the “song” through licensing.
4. 1960-2000 Motown, The Beatles, 45rpm vinyl singles, modern recording methods, Rock Star era, cassettes, cds, computers & mp3s.
5. File Sharing: Napster, itunes & the iPod -- The power shifts from the record companies to the tech companies, the music fans—and the artists themselves.
6. The End Of The Corporate Record Labels? -- When the labels realized people were trading MP3 files online--their own customers interested in music—they decided to aggressively sue them.
7. Where We Are Today—and why success for independent solo artist has never been more in focus. Large labels are becoming banks, and their problem is that the single income stream they have traditionally participated in (sales of recorded music) has drastically shrunk.
8. The New Artist Model --- The traditional record business has never really been good for MOST of us musicians. Technology has shifted the power base from the record labels to the artists and managers—but ultimately to you, the music fans. A middle class of musicians is forming where people can make a living or part of a living in music more predictably. They are pursuing a business model that puts them in the center of the equation and gives them more choice about their career path.
9. Creative Funding Platforms -- where performer and fan/patron are meeting with direct relationships enabled by interest & technology. Can't make a fortune anymore, but you can make a living. You are surrounded not by fad and infatuation, but by music Fans.
10. The Future -- Mobile music and images (content) on the UMD (Universal Mobile Device). Listen to music, watch your favorite artists rehearse, read lyrics, call home, call friends—limitless immediate involvement with music and artists. Artists can record today and get a new song to you tonight, with artwork & lyrics and video.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
1. Nowhere To Run To: facing your own reality honestly.
2. Hearing Your Own Heart: the gospel impulse says that it's not what happens to you, it's how you handle it. We will take this pain and suffering and turn it into something that endures or lives on through others should I die.
3. Surrendering Just Enough To Fight On: the paradox of survival and the possibility of grace in your case.
4. Hearing Your Own Music: move in step with yourself.
5. Friendship & Faith: taking others as they are and accepting help.
6. Heat and Passion: love of living despite the pain.
7. Peripheral Spiritual Vision: there’s more than meets the eye.
8. Anger and Impatience: Only The Pissed Survive.
9. Wearing Your Will Like Armor: determination & accepting the paradox that we are born to die. So we really live while we’re alive.
10. Surviving Survival: Learning To Laugh at Yourself.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
The day you were born was one of the three great days of my life, not just because I had a son, but because it was you. You had a distinctive and attractive personality from the moment you opened your eyes. You staked a claim in my heart and in this world from your first howling cry.
It’s hard to explain, but when you become a parent, you’re still just yourself, the guy you were in school and in bands and everywhere else, wondering how you can make your kid’s life a happy and productive one, and also wondering what kind of person you’re raising.
You’ve evolved recently from being a happy and humorous little boy to being a kid, now on to being a teenager, and it’s been interesting and exciting to watch. You’ve always had a great yearning for adventure, and I think you’re sometimes worried you’re not always where the action is. But you have that wondrous gift of making things happen wherever you are—you're where the action is, because you make things fun around you.
You’re an amazingly moral person, particularly for such a young guy, and you always have been—concerned with what was right and wrong, what was the best thing to do, and what the consequences were for other people should you or they do something. I’m very proud of you for many things, but that stands out. You deeply love your family, and that doesn’t stop with your parents and sister. You love your cousins and aunts and uncles, and you let them know you love them.
That maybe is your most remarkable characteristic—you’re a joyously affectionate boy, and you need affection in return. Try not to lose that as you get older and bigger. It’s not a sign of weakness—in Europe the toughest, most macho men are also the most affectionate with friends and family. You’re a loving person, and what better thing can be said about someone?
You’re an amazing athlete, with tremendous natural gifts. Plus you work hard to refine those gifts, and you put the time in to make yourself better. I’m very proud of you for that, and look forward to watching you make the most of your gifts.
Your life is something great to watch and witness—such a huge creation coming from that great April day when you were born. You love and are loved in return, you’re great at things you love and want to sink your teeth into, you’re very very funny, with a crazy sense of humor, and you have a large and diverse interest in all things in this world, from sports to nature to cars to music to different places.
Stay true, stay young, stay hungry, stay funny, stay interested, stay happy and loving. You’re a dream come true for me as your Dad, and I look forward to watching you grow into a young man. Love you with all my heart.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I think it was my friend Rob Dewar who dubbed my dad The Big Man. No offense to Clarence Clemons, that other big man, but the name came to life as part testimonial to his size, 6’4”, and his large presence, his encompassing capacity for love and concern, his benevolent and instructive role in everyone’s life, and the depth of his acumen and intelligence. It was a Big Name, but he lived up to it and walked tall with it, gracefully and powerfully. We used to laugh and say we were gonna get bracelets that said “WWBGD” because he was never flustered or without direction. He was the rudder.
The Big Man. He was a giant of a man, an enormous spirit among us, imbued with a pragmatic optimism that in his mind made all things in this country seem possible. It’s something my sisters & I constantly heard growing up—“You can do anything in this country. You can come from nowhere.”
He believed that dreams were merely ambitions, and could be realized with work, friendship, teamwork and vision, yet he was keenly and emotionally aware that the starting line in this country was not the same for all of us. He was an egalitarian in this sense, although he worked in the framework of capitalism, and trusted capitalism until he saw it fall apart at the end of his life. Ultimately he truly placed his faith in democracy as the way to live together.
He didn’t intellectualize his sense of what democracy meant, or ignore it, or just live with it and enjoy its benefits; he and his generation DID something about it. As Mayor of our hometown of Saginaw in the 1960s, he was an outspoken advocate for civil rights. He championed a uniform civil rights policy for state and local governments so that there would not be discrimination against minorities among different municipalities. While mayor, he was also president of the United Negro College Fund, bolstering his belief in realized dreams through a concrete connection to public education.
He and councilman Henry Marsh worked with then Michigan governor, George Romney, to pass legislation at a state level to benefit minorities and inner cities. In October of 1963, the Michigan Conference of Mayors adopted their resolutions for an aggressive stand on civil rights which, among other things, called for equal employment opportunities and equal housing rights for all. I’m very proud of my dad’s commitment to civil rights, his commitment to equality, and his friendship with and support for Mayor Henry Marsh, his successor and Saginaw’s first African-American mayor.
I’m named after him. Growing up with the same name as a self-assured man with his place already soundly carved out in the social fabric of our town and state wasn’t always easy. Add to that the fact that my dad & I were entirely different as people, as men, and it was a confusing, sometimes angry relationship when I was in my late teens and 20s.
He was, however, far more understanding than he was rigid and didactic, and had been a musician himself as a young man—a drummer, no less. He loved his music as much as I loved mine, and once we grew toward each other, working to come to terms with it all—big band, jazz, rock and roll, each other—we found that we were both floating in the same stream of the Great Song, that incredible continuum of music that runs from Louis Armstrong and Billy May to James Brown and The Beatles with only changes in tempo, volume, lyrical content and whether it was a coronet or a strat in the 8 bar solo section. Of the many gifts he gave me, I most appreciate the love of music—a working knowledge of all the American music. Once we started to listen to each other, and each other’s music, everything improved. He went from urging me to sing Sinatra standards on Cruise Ships to getting why rock and roll was such a life-changing thing.
He once saw the legendary saxophonist Sonny Stitt, a fellow Saginawian, in an airport, and was proud that Sonny introduced him to his guys as “a drummer.” And he surely hadn’t played in years.
I think most of us sons try to impress and please our fathers, and either succeed and live with it or give up for the sake of self revelation and survival. I had to give up there for awhile, and just do my own thing in my own way, because I couldn’t find the words to explain to him what I was trying to do, trying to be, how the artist’s life is undefined and chaotic if you’re looking in from the outside, but often highly disciplined and ascetic in actuality.
We couldn’t bridge our differences for awhile: He understood and succeeded in big business; I saw it as manipulative and cold. He hated long hair; I grew it to my ass and loved it. He loved music and knew many musicians, but never thought of a musician’s life as stable or enduring--living as an artist was no way to make your way in love or family or career. He loved order, discipline and predictability; I’d always lived a disciplined life privately but courted chaos and unpredictability until my own kids were born. To impress him and earn his respect and acceptance, I had to reject him and his lifestyle.
I had his name but none of his gifts, or so I thought at the time, and no one stood up to disagree. He was too overwhelming, too gracious, too confident, so gifted as a public person and only plagued with self doubt later in his life.
I remember when he & my mom came to my graduation day from college—I was young, angry and hubristic, and failed to recognize how important it was for them to have a kid graduate from college, a real regret now. In addition to that, the commencement speaker was Jim McDonald, then VP of GM, my dad’s employer at the time, so it was a momentous deal. In my disgust with all things bourgeois and straight, I thought it a good idea to wear nothing but socks underneath my gown, and hope the wind didn’t blow the gown to reveal my birthday suit. When I told my dad I was probably the only naked graduate, to my surprise he found it funny. He understood and loved my mom’s joyous eccentricity and recognized it in me I guess. But when he was 19, he was a Lieutenant in the Air Force, with a world of responsibility and war thrust upon him. There was no sowing of wild oats for him as a young man.
We tussled and struggled through my youth and early adulthood, always loving each other deeply but not understanding each other much. I was successful as an athlete in school, and he showed his pride and love and respect.
When I began playing music full time at 20, he didn’t get or really approve of what I was doing, when in fact, as it’s turned out, it’s almost identical to what he’d done: live in and love my own community, identify the strengths and weaknesses of my community, reach out to others through words and music, try and stay involved out front in a visible way with a message that says that each of us has a true connection to each other and profound singular value, even in our anonymity. The thought is then to help us all identify and change how we live together. He sought to change what he saw while accepting and building upon what was already good about people and place; I continue to try and do something similar. With music, sometimes the objective is just to make people happy or carefree, minus any political entanglements.
In my early 20s I recall playing one of the toughest joints in Michigan, out on Groesbeck Highway, a biker bar with a rough, drunk, mean, indifferent audience. It was smoky, loud, vulgar, violent, sexual, and if you rocked you went over. My kind of place at the time. My parents were always ridiculously loyal in coming to hear me sing or watch sports when I was a kid, and that night I looked out through the smoke and dust and humidity at a table in the middle of this joint to see my mom in her nicest evening dress and my dad in a suit after leaving some GM function. By the end of the night, they’d made friends with everyone around them, buying drinks and shots, listening to the band, having fun, never wasting a minute.
The men that came out of the Depression and WWII were stoic kind of guys. Their models were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, the austerity of Hemingway. My dad was gentle, sweet, patient and kind, but was not an exception to this rule of avoiding any mawkish display. Ever. Not a lot of random praise or expressions of love were spoken, so he showed his love through little actions or hand-made projects. When I was 11 he made me this large box adorned with Sports Illustrated photos of my favorite players in all sports—Walton, Unitas, Jabbar, Willie Horton, Namath. It took a ton of carpentry work, but was apparently easier than saying “I love you.” So be it.
Although retirement at 65 and the 20+ years that ensued were certainly no friend to him and his self esteem, it was a great gift of time for us. We grew to be closer than just father and son; we became best friends and confidantes. I called him or he called me 4-5 times a day for at least the last 15 years, and the same was probably true with my sisters.
When I was very sick with leukemia and going though a stem cell/bone marrow transplant, he would talk to me about sports, the great common subject, as if nothing was wrong, keeping me in the flow of daily life—a very important aspect of survival. And he would never flinch when the toughest questions came at him.
I remember one night, the two of us alone in my room, when I said that I was struggling so hard to survive and live, and it felt like I was losing. I said to him that maybe there’s a way to die as well as live and I should seek that, that acceptance and dignity. Can you imagine your only son talking to you about his own death? I cannot. But he just calmly agreed with me without dramatics, said that, yes, there is surely a way and time to die, but I should just keep giving it one more day and see how I went. It was such pragmatic encouragement…no histrionics, no exposed fear, just emotional consistency and the kind of faith that’s real, not pie-in-the-sky with religious nonsense and your worth tied to your right to live. He had emotional consistency by the truckload.
That night he waved off the orderly who usually took me by wheelchair down to x-ray, and just talked about the Lions and how lousy they were (it was a Sunday in November) and how they’d been lousy since Bobby Layne, and did I remember Pat Studstill and Karl Sweetan and all the Lions that I’d loved as a kid. It was the most kind and humane thing anyone’s ever done for me. I was slumped in the wheelchair with a heart infection and no blood counts and couldn’t talk, but his soliloquy got me through the night. He stayed with me that night at Karmanos, sleeping in a tiny chair for his large frame, and woke with the same kind encouragement he’d given me the night before. He’d seen me through perhaps the longest, worst night of my life. And we both love the Lions to the day he died, good, bad or worse. It was our team, and a real bond between us.
I think at some point in the middle of his life he made it his code to ask about your life and times, your school, your work and family; it was a transgression to discuss himself in conversation, a betrayal of his stoic code.
I also think it’s fitting that his town, Saginaw, a place he loved and served and had to return to almost magnetically over the years, is naming a bridge after him now. It’s a real honor to him and his vitality. He and my mom and their generation extended a hand--they built relationships like bridges. They got stuff done—built a Zoo, developed relationships with Japan, built parks and a Civic Center.
Since he died, much has been written about his public life and achievements. Great men often don’t make good fathers. He would’ve scoffed at the idea of him as anything but just a guy, and I can’t imagine a finer father. He was to me just my dad, always there, a robust sense of humor always humming, always fired up to see you when you walked in to his place, and see his grandchildren and sons and daughters-in-law. As I wrote and recorded more music, worked at my career, and played different and larger shows, he expressed his pride and love for me at every turn. I gotta tell ya, although I had long ago stopped seeking his acceptance or approval, it felt pretty good once it was earned and expressed.
On the last night he was conscious, July 29, I sat on the bed, held his hand and said to him, “Dad, there’s so much love being expressed about you and your health. You’re the most beloved man I know, the most beloved man on earth.” With his eyes closed and mouth open, looking as if he was between worlds, he held up both hands and pantomimed playing a violin. The humor was there to the end—that act said to me: “Big fuckin’ deal. Stop blowin smoke up my skirt. I’m busy dyin’ here.”
For every moment but those last few, he was always busy living—with enormous vitality, kindness, humor, love and sense of responsibility that will remain unmatched in its unique confluence of gifts. He and his generation lived all the slogans we need to remind us to live—“I’m gonna live ‘til I die;” “Money can’t buy happiness, but it’s easier crying in a Cadillac.” They didn’t need maxims; they were the Nike generation before there was one. They just did it.
On the morning of July 30, my sister & I held his hand and I put my hand on his chest, feeling his heart flutter then simply stop. That mighty and inclusive and loving heart just ceased working.
I have no idea what, if anything, happens to us after we die. But I do believe that, while life certainly ends, love endures in many forms, forever. If my dad were alive tonight I’d call him and read this to him to see if I got it anywhere close to right. He probably would’ve said, “Don’t let them think I went to Michigan.” Those Spartans, so touchy to the end.
I’ve been told it will get worse before it gets better, this ache in my chest, this desperate and sorrowful longing, this numbing distraction, the sheer physical part of missing someone no longer in this world. I’ve gone to call him several times, walked to his house many times since he’s been gone, as it was part of my daily ritual when he was alive and we were up north near his home. I don’t mind admitting I’m a grown man who is very much wayward, a grown man who has lost his footing and balance right now, because the gift my dad gave me when I was young and searching and angry and uncertain is this: he knew that all who wander are not lost.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Friday, May 14, 2010
Monday, April 26, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
Johnny Cash dreamed our dreams for us. His songs were huge, unfettered visions that cascaded down through the halls of American history. As they rumbled, these dreams gathered our shared symbolic debris like metal to magnet: fire and damnation, a solitary train whistle, soldiers limping by, prayers unfolding, marriages lasting, marriages imploding, working men hanging on, larger than life men on their knees, men and women of all kinds contending with a lingering psychic titter from too many drinks or too many pills or too many whores or too many wars.
Cash carried with him that necessary American schizophrenia—we don’t like our heroes all good or all bad. He was the quintessential man with two faces. There are evil songs from a God-fearing man ("Delia's Gone"), or impossibly good songs from a man aware of the dark shadow that stretches across his heart ("I Walk The Line"). And all those wonderful story songs ("The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Don't Take Your Guns To Town") where the narrator's morality was revealed when you least expected.It's ironic that before he died, Johnny was embraced by a young alternative audience after the 90s country boom ignored him. Here's a man who remained on the inside flap of American culture and politics for the better part of 30 years. He hosted a number one television variety show (1968-71), befriended presidents and preachers, even turned in the most menacing Columbo cameo ever. Even after his death in 2004, Cash continues to define cool for a generation that can't seem to come up with its own icons.
His voice was as dry as dust, a dolorous rumble that laid bare 50 years of stone hard desire. He
best made his case with just that voice and stark guitar playing, yet how he jostled a world awake with this simplicity. Cash made a song vivid via the inexplicable and mysterious qualities we can only call the "grain" of the voice. As they tumbled out of his mouth, lines like “I fell in to a burnin’ ring of fire” or “Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone” sound as if they'd grown out of the dirt beneath his feet.
His songs echoed a lifetime's worth of arcane fables and common folklore. Although the “Old, Weird America” is now ubiquitous, obnoxious and without meaning, Johnny Cash lived in it and told its stories, before they had a name for it. Yet out of Cash's voice something small and resolute often escaped, leaving us with an intuitive sense of that quicksilver beauty in life we can never define. All that--and he’s Rosanne's old man to boot.
The latest release in his series of Rick Rubin-recorded stark song cycles, called American VI: Ain't No Grave, is the sixth and final installment of Cash's acclaimed American Recordings album series. American VI is a metaphysical country-folk record, if such a thing exists. It's about
salvation, friendships, family, faith, Jesus and the inevitability of suffering and the price of survival. If you're young and new to Johnny Cash, seek out his older Columbia records before listening to the American series--they can be too cold, too private and almost Biblical in theirrendering of life. American VI is no different; it's the testimony of an old and ill man.
Once he called my house as I was assigned do a Q&A with him. And he said those
famous words---"Hi, this is Johnny Cash." I couldn't speak for 15 seconds.
We all knew Johnny Cash, in a way. I miss the resolute morality he brought to music, and just knowing he was in the world. Damn, life, unforgiving.
Monday, February 22, 2010
In my late 20s and early 30s I spent every Thursday night in a ritualized drinking effort with friends, where we'd start at the huge marble bar at the much missed Les Auteurs and end up at Gusoline Alley, which we'd close. It was often debauched, always fun, and never dull. I miss a lot about life in the pre-9/11 world, because the tone of living is now nearly fever pitched. Everything, all the time. And everything seems to get harder lately. Younger people seem angrier than we were, and more anxious.
We certainly drank to get drunk, but it was more than that. It was a weekly existential outing in the Midwestern winter, creating an opportunity where you literally did not know what would transpire, and how it would end. I've always been a bit of a kochleffel (Yiddish for pot-stirrer), so the combustible personalities and absinthe-like concoctions we drank suited the situation by my lights.
Like a lot of things I used to do, the drinking had to come to an end. Children, and family life in general, require an emotional consistency and a psychological equilibrium that binge drinking doesn't include, although that never stopped my parents much. However I did stop into Gus's the other night, maybe the first time I've been back there in 15 years. I don't drink anymore, but I loved it all over again--little about the place had changed.
Royal Oak is now a faux-Greenwich Village, six streets of restaurants, leather and bohemian suburbia. But Gus's remains a regular welcome spot, a drunkard's dream: the stools are still low, the drinks are still cheap, the waitress is still kind, the door man is still Pat and still friendly, the bathroom is still easy to find and the jukebox remains the conscience of the place.
I first wrote about Gus's 18 years ago, and unlike much else in today's world, it still applies to the neighborhood bar of my once and future dreams: On any given night, it seems that every song that punches its way through the thick air can be a quiet reminder of the formerly sober you, of a drunken emotion, of a love lost or found, of a better time, or a far worse time, or of just another loud song smothering you chatting up a girl. To many, it's the latter.
Though Gus`s was once a dumpy and secluded neighborhood bar for regulars who were musicians, writers, weirdos and artists--kind of a mutant Shriner's club--it now attracts the college/yuppie thing and what I can only call the hard core pierced and tattooed. It's a testing ground for not not judging a book by its cover.
Or maybe I'm not the first young songwriter who just drank way too much and romanticized a favorite watering hole. I'm no fan of the whole Bukowski Boho rap, so Gus's to me is no stand-in for the bar in Barfly or some "necessary" stop along some mythical historical trip because of who once hung out there. I was there when it was the Center Street Bar, and there the first night Gus bought it, and it was never necessary, just fun. And all of us musicians and writers and starlets (yes Detroit has starlets) who hung out there did so because it was then the only place to go, not a place to be seen.
I remember so many nights floating away with the music in there. Patsy Cline was in then out, now in; Roxy was a constant. Both Elvis's, The Femmes, and Glenn Miller ("I've Got A Girl In Kalamazoo") shared the same stage. The records of neighborhood musicians were heard here. That's the best part about it--the staff regularly rotated the selections, involving things previously thought impossible with spinning discs in a public place--spontaneity and immediacy. And they'd quickly change the song if something lame was selected--music criticism in action! The Clash always sounded good there, as did Johnny Cash.
If it sounds like I spend too much time looking back on the innovations of a jukebox at a local bar, I ask you this: Where else in this world could you hear Sinatra's "Summer Wind" followed by the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Tell Lies" right after The Fleshtone's "Ride Your Pony?" Or Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" after The Beatles' "There's a Place?" It was at least worth a drink and a listen.
Gusoline Alley remains an oasis in a tough town. From the speechless & nameless outta work sunlight drunks to the big haired rock chicks to the pastel wearing Birmingham Biff and Bloomfield Sally; from the wordless old men, the aging bikers and perky young artists, to the unloved and lost forever; from the mascaraed femme fatales and it-grrrls to the beer bellied softball jocks and well-past-it frat boys, to the oh so weary auto workers who now have all day to sit and drink...it’s a place to sit and drink and hear a good song.
There we all were, 20 years later. And they all drink and linger or drink and leave or drink alone or drink and talk or drink and laugh and listen, while they wait for work or rain or peace or snow or, simply, closin' time. Some things are built to last.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Standing In The Shadows is on the surface a documentary in the accepted sense, filled with nostalgic, emotional interviews, the dramatic re-creation of events, and concert footage that brings it all home. But like many a labor of love it's more a document of hope and evanescence—a wish for what once was.
The film ultimately functions as an atonement of sorts. It’s a codified chip on the shoulder, calling for the world to sit up and give props to this tremendous group of musicians that actually made the records we still love so much, The Funk Brothers.
Simply put, they were the guys in the band--the lucky and hard working musicians that found themselves riding a cyclone, or at least making hay inside that cyclone. It's mind boggling to consider their chart success--more Billboard hits than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis together!
I remembered that Standing In The Shadows was released on the same weekend as Eminem's 8 Mile. There's no small irony when a film about a group of predominantly black musicians who didn't get their due for 40 years arrives at the same time as a hugely popular Hollywood vehicle for a white musician working quite well in a black idiom. The beat goes on, a cynic would say. But a cynic would not stay cynical with the information that the passing of time has given us--revealing Eminem to be a genius and Standing In The Shadows to be a classic documentary. It worked out well for all concerned.
Director Paul Justman and writer/conceptualist Alan Slutsky keep it focused and don't attempt to reduce the Motown mythology down to size or place it in less romantic terms. But it's very real and workmanlike: Make no mistake that they were Detroit guys workin’ for a living, playing jazz in clubs ‘til the wee hours, taking road gigs with whomever, while at the same time musically informing the inchoate writing of the Beatles & Stones with their recorded performances (and everyone else as well).
But their story only screws you into your seat when they’re presented as soul musicians, playing soul music in Detroit, on the songs that have become as familiar as old shoes to us around here.
The film tries to get at this question...and it's a slippery thing. What is soul? And it even inspires an answer: As an attributed quality to a friend or someone we admire, it's a spirit that's the product of having lived. It's the result of having said the right and wrong thing at the wrong and right time, of having loved too hard, too long, too often. It's knowing the absurdity of love and still loving. It's faith when cynicism is easier. It's hangin’ in there and showing up and making sure your shoes match. Soul is, as Al Green says, "fearing no evil." Maybe that describes it best...soul is guts.
Soul is also a quality of heart, especially after you know all there is to fear. When set against our inevitable outcome and the scope of the universe, there's an inherent helplessness to mankind. Music either distracts us from this harsh reality or softens its lack of choices, or maybe both. Soul music actually says it's gonna be all right. Solomon Burke dreamed of writing a soul song that, if sung by every man and woman, would save the world. Well, Motown didn't save the world. But it changed it, forever, and for the better.
As a musical genre, soul is a little easier to get at. In fact it seems that if a producer were to take the concrete elements of a Motown record, he could easily reproduce it: It starts with a loose-but-tight groove, a tambourine, then a piano played like a rhythm guitar, a swirling Hammond organ, four on the floor kick-snare drum pattern, percolating guitar slides with quarter note "chinks", unbelievably playful bass lines, counterpoint horn arrangements that are never too much and never too little, sweeping strings and soaring voices. There ya have it. Thank God for those Bruce Willis records in the 80s and the recent splash of new "old school" soul records, which proved once and for all that it ain't that cookie cutter easy.
Soul music remains dependent on that mysterious quality of heart we discussed a paragraph ago, a quality consistently captured in the movie. But the point is that these guys were so far inside the dream that the dream was untrue, or unreal, for them. To tear the mythology down would be to simply say what's always been and is still true for musicians--they didn't get paid enough. Money or attention.
So, as always, we let the music do the talking. The concert footage still holds up well, particularly Joan Osborne's passionate take on of Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes Of A Broken Heart?." Ben Harper has never been my cup of tea, and he comes off in the film as too soft, somewhat uncommitted to the music, and not really a soul singer.
Standing In The Shadows lets Berry Gordy a bit off the hook if you're in the camp that says it's not fair that the Funk Brothers didn't get more props or bread, or that James Jamerson, the genius bassist that defined pop-soul bass playing, had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony at the Motown 25 party. But if you understand that this is a star-based business in a celebrity-driven world, you reluctantly accept that these musicians are getting far more recognition than most and never as much as they deserve. Such is life.
It's no secret that black (and white) musicians and innovators have been ripped off in more ways than one. What makes this issue complicated is that Motown was, of course, the paradigm of black owned business. The film can't quite reconcile all this; in fact Justman and Slutsky don't really try. They just try and make it right, right now, in the movie.
The film's slight faults are more glaring with time. Standing In The Shadows is a little light on Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield, the songwriters that wrote the bulk of this tremendously joyful music. It does try and include the arrangers in the Motown diaspora, but ultimately it's strictly about the guys that were shoulder to shoulder and ear to ear in the snake pit, the double edged moniker for the studio on West Grand Blvd.
Standing In The Shadows accomplished a lot. Now we all know their names--Jack Ashford, Bo White, Joe Messina, Joe Hunter, Benny Benjamin, Johnny Griffith, Uriel Jones, Eddie Willis, Bob Babbitt, Jamerson, Pete Allen, Johnny Trudell, among others. Those of us making music around here already knew their names, and we continually honor them every time we play, sing, or write a note. It's a debt that can't truly be repaid, but it sure looks like you die tryin'.