Archive | December, 2012

Grateful Dead: Box of Rain

21 Dec
Grateful Dead: American Beauty

The back side of the Grateful Dead’s 1970 release American Beauty. Jason Ankeny of “American Beauty remains the Dead’s studio masterpiece — never again would they be so musically focused or so emotionally direct.”

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear to another day
Maybe been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home –
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It’s all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

The first time I ever heard the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain it was wafting from the speakers in my brother’s room. He was home from prep school; when I heard it, I wondered what the place had done to him.

I liked the song from the first note, the way the smell tells you what’s cooking will taste good. It was new, almost mystical (hey, I was 15) — I had no idea there was a world of music beyond AM radio (WFIL and WIBG in my case) — and I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to my older brother. He already had all the advantages of seniority. I sure wasn’t conceding a note to musical taste or knowledge (my first 45 was Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston’s It Takes Two; his was Georgy Girl. Nothing against the Seekers, but they can take their dowdy feathers and fly).

I’m thinking of Box of Rain today as I often do when I think of my brother, because he celebrates another birthday, if not like he used to. I don’t want to reveal how old he is, but we can say Keith Richards isn’t feeling threatened. Yet.

I listened to American Beauty with him that day long ago — and in my adolescent mind, he was the coolest guy I knew (in my adult mind, he’s not, except if you’re playing cards against him. When he starts twirling his hair between his fingers as if it were the guitar strings between Garcia’s, you might as well put your cards on the table, because he can see them in his mind as clearly as you can with your eyes).

Years went by. I got my own copy of American Beauty and his speakers. We went to two Dead concerts together, where I learned why many of the most devoted fans were called Deadheads — they really were dead in the head, if chemically induced. Many of them walked as if they had vertigo; I once couldn’t avoid a collision with an oncoming Deadhead, which wouldn’t have been unusual except I was seated. “Sorry, dude,” he said, and wobbled away. I think he meant it.

Like many fans, my brother started collecting Dead concert tapes. San Francisco ’72. Copenhagen ’74. BFE ’75. BF deal I thought — they all sounded the same to me (and a pox on any tape where Friend of the Devil is played at the pace the aforementioned Deadhead was walking). It was about then that I retracted the idea of his hipness. I liked The Dead without becoming a Deadhead. Some groups, like AARP, you don’t want to join, even if you’re eligible.

Not much has changed in my brother’s musical taste since. If you asked him today to name his 10 favorite bands, more than half would be The Dead and/or Dead spinoffs. If you asked him about new bands, he’d probably mention Dire Straits. If you walked into his room today, Box of Rain might still be playing. And it would sound just as good.

As any Deadhead could tell you, Phil Lesh wrote the music to Box of Rain for his father, who was dying. Any Deadhead could tell you Robert Hunter wrote the words, and that Hunter used Box of Rain because Ball of Rain didn’t sound right. “The lyrics that (Hunter) produced were so apt,” said Lesh, “so perfect, it was very moving. Very moving to me to experience that during the period of my dad’s passing.”

And any Deadhead can tell you it was the last song The Dead ever played in concert, 25 years after it was released, the final encore of a 1995 show in Chicago, a month before the death of Jerry Garcia.

It’s a reminder of the truth in the last lines of the song: “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.”

Which brings me to the point of this post. Happy birthday, bro. Sometimes you’re still the coolest guy I know.


Randy Newman and the Hall of Fame

13 Dec
Ramdy Newman: harps and angels

Randy Newman’s 2008 album harps and angels

Randy Newman was named last week as one of the 2013 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a class with Heart, Donna Summer and Rush. Which begets the question: What did he ever do to deserve such musical company?

It’s not enough that one generation knows Newman as the sappy old guy who wrote Toy Story, and another generation of basketball fans knows him through Lakers’ playoff games as the guy who wrote the annoying, endlessly playing paean to perfect Los Angeles, I Love L.A.

Now, yet another will know him through his Hall of Fame class (the induction ceremony in Cleveland should be a perfect time for Newman to perform Burn On: ‘Cause the Cuyahoga River goes smoking through my dreams). I don’t want to say I’m not impressed, but I’m thinking of a word to describe Newman’s aforementioned classmates that rhymes with fame but isn’t; if lame is too strong, try tame (I’m excusing Public Enemy, which made the first and perhaps only rap album I’ve owned, and Albert King, whose music I like but name I don’t only because it’s the same as a Nets forward who helped eliminate a good 76ers team from the 1984 NBA playoffs).

“I’m glad I didn’t have to die to get in,” Newman said. “. . . The (Rock and Roll) Hall of Fame has other resonance, like the Baseball Hall of Fame has a tremendous kind of historical reverence to it.”

Funny he should mention the Baseball Hall of Fame. If Heart was a baseball player, it would be Brady Anderson: Heart had a good song or two — Crazy on You was Anderson’s 50-homer season — but an ordinary career in all; the late Donna Summer would be Rabbit Maranville, a star from another era; Rush would be Kiki Cuyler, who did a little of everything although nothing much better than his contemporaries and was put in by the Veterans Committee.

There’s an irony in there Newman can appreciate more than most. Here’s another: the artist who wore glasses almost as big as goggles for much of his career could see deeper into topics often lightly examined: race, sex and Americana.

Newman’s songs are filled with odd characters — often lustful, insecure or obese — and doused with satire; they often don’t say what listeners think they do.

All those Lakers fans who think I Love L.A. completely celebrates the city? Then why the mention of “that bum over there, man He’s down on his knees?” All the smug Yankees who think Rednecks is an indictment of Southern racists? Listen to the last verse and the litany of Northern ghettos. All the tall people looking down, literally and figuratively, at short people? “Short people are just the same as you and I.”

Often, the objects of Newman’s derision are the last to know. If they ever do. His 2008 album harps and angels included a song Laugh and Be Happy; you’re correct if you assume Newman never morphed into Bobby McFerrin.

The bigger the target, the sharper the verse. Newman slays organized religion more than once (“You all must be crazy to put your faith in me, That’s why I love mankind”), and American exceptionalism (“America, America, God shed his grace on thee, you have whipped the Filipino, now you rule the Western sea”) again and again.

Newman assuredly isn’t for the easily offended. He’s an acquired taste, but he should be a required one.

“A lot of my stuff makes me a little nervous because I don’t like controversy,” Newman said in a 1995 interview at, “but I can’t help the way I write.”

Amen for that. “His songs can be frightening or funny, absurd or heartfelt,” wrote Lydia Hutchinson on “But his characters always present some flash of surprising, lucid insight.”

Ten of my favorite Newman insights, in no particular order:

  • “They say that money
    can’t buy love in this world
    But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine
    And a sixteen-year-old girl
    And a great big long limousine
    On a hot September night
    Now that may not be love
    But it is all right”
    It’s Money That I Love

  • “He said, ‘You Can’t Fool The Fat Man
    No, you can’t fool me
    You’re just a two-bit grifter
    And that’s all you’ll ever be.’ ”
    You Can’t Fool The Fat Man

  • “In America you’ll get food to eat
    Won’t have to run through the jungle
    And scuff up your feet
    You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
    It’s great to be an American”
    Sail Away

  • “She will laugh at my Mighty Sword
    Why must everybody laugh at my Mighty Sword.”
    A Wedding in Cherokee County

  • “I burn down your cities — how blind you must be
    I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
    You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
    That’s why I love mankind”
    God’s Song

  • “And college men from LSU
    Went in dumb. Come out dumb too.”

  • “Americans dream of gypsy knives and gypsy thighs
    That pound and pound and pound and pound
    And African appendages that almost reach the ground
    And little boys playing baseball in the rain.”
    Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America

  • “Birmingham, Birmingham
    The greatest city in Alabam’
    You can travel ‘cross this entire land
    But there ain’t no place like Birmingham.”

  • “I never drink in the afternoon
    I never drink alone
    But I sure do like a drink or two
    When I get home.”

  • “King Leopold of Belgium, that’s right
    Everyone thinks he’s so quiet
    Well he owned the Congo and he tore it up too
    He took the diamonds
    He took the silver
    He took the gold
    You know what he left them with?
    A Few Words in Defense of Our Country


  • Dave Brubeck: It’s a Raggy Waltz

    8 Dec
    Dave Brubeck

    Dave Brubeck’s Gone With the Wind

    Seventeen years ago I came home from Europe to learn, over brunch via the New York Times at the News Cafe on South Beach, that Don Pullen had died. When I told my then-girlfriend, now my wife, she misunderstood me and thought I had said someone was pulling her leg.

    When I explained that Pullen was a jazz pianist, she looked at me as if she had bitten into her grapefruit thinking it was an orange.

    She wasn’t unsympathetic, only uninterested. Over the years, whenever I would mention a notable jazz performer had died — Mal Waldron, Johnny Griffin, Lionel Hampton, Don Cherry, Ray Bryant, Hank Jones — I would get the grapefruit look. And think of Don Pullen.

    So last week, mere hours after Dave Brubeck’s death a day before his 92nd birthday, she called to ask why I hadn’t shared the news. Naturally, I thought of Don Pullen. And saw the grapefruit look on the other end of the phone.

    Even she wanted to know about Brubeck, and nothing, of course, could illustrate the difference between the pianist and any living jazz musician: Brubeck was so famous non-jazz fans knew him, and so popular they liked him.

    We saw Brubeck a few years back in our small Southern beach town, where a colleague says folks like both kinds of music: country and western. Maybe that’s one reason why Brubeck was so popular: he brought his music into places others thought arid for jazz.

    Brubeck was frail of walk that night, but when he sat at the piano, no one in the building was more devilish.

    He could be inspiring — how many 86-year-olds are still working, let alone touring? — but he also could still be inspired. He talked about an upcoming visit to Poland and another he had made nearly 50 years previous, when he said the Poles let him know the jazz he played symbolized the freedom they lacked.

    He had gone on a goodwill tour during the Eisenhower years, which was fitting — every Brubeck show was a goodwill tour. Being the most popular kid in class and the edgiest is normally mutually exclusive, but not for Brubeck. He sold records — Take Five, written by the quartet’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond, took off — without selling out.

    “Dave Brubeck told me one of the greatest, funniest stories I ever heard,” the bassist Christian McBride said on his Facebook page after Brubeck’s death. “Upon meeting Miles Davis, Miles said to him, ‘Dave you sound great. You swing your a** off. I don’t know about them other m***f**** you got with you, but YOU sound great.’ ”

    McBride wrote that Brubeck “always got a big laugh from that story.” He didn’t say if Brubeck filled in the blanks. Maybe that was left for Brubeck’s fellow pianist, Eric Reed. From

    “When I was 4, my Aunt Barbara gave me an inch high stack of used vinyl records that she purchased for about 25 cents from a flea market. Included in that stack was Dave Brubeck’s “Time Further Out”, recorded May/June 1961. When I put on the first track, ‘It’s a Raggy Waltz’, it struck a chord with the funny, adventurous side of my ‘old soul.’ That’s all I knew; here’s what I DIDN’T know then:

    “I didn’t know that this record was over 10 years old.
    “I didn’t know that Mr. Brubeck was a leading force in the ‘Cool Jazz’ era.
    “I didn’t know that he, along with Max Roach, was a master of odd time signatures.
    “I didn’t know that Dave Brubeck was White and Modoc.

    “I didn’t know any of that, and I didn’t care.”

    Like Potter Stewart’s obscenity, even a young Reed knew swing when he heard it, even if he couldn’t define it. And maybe that’s not a bad legacy, if a simple one. Dave Brubeck swung. And didn’t miss.

    Below is a link to It’s a Raggy Waltz, which made an impression on a young Eric Reed. From “. . . this piece isn’t exactly a waltz or a rag but a choppy piece with constantly shifting accents that don’t predictably fall where the listener expects. It had immediate appeal on concert dates . . .”



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