Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The world could not support that many ballerinas: Fleetwood Mac & its footnotes - acid, infidelity, & a little bit of suicide

Just before everything blew up
You've probably heard about Bob Welch's passing. For those who don't know, he was the singer-guitarist-songwriter from Fleetwood Mac's middling middle period of 1971-74. His greatest contribution to the band may've been in leaving it: His departure would unleash the band's destiny of mega-platinumtude and fertile tumult under the Buckingham-Nicks juggernaut. (A grouping that clearly kicked up Christine McVie's mettle as well.) Despite all that followed in his wake, Welch would play a significant role in the band's adolescence. Interest from American audiences spiked during the Welch period, a time when American radio was awash in Jackson Brown, Carly Simon, The Eagles and singer-songwriters peddling squishy introspectives and world consciousness. Perhaps it was the waft of ocean breezes and Ozium shrouded weed Americans responded to in the Southern California-born Welch's voice. (The band's first U.S. gold record Future Games would also be Welch's—and Christine McVie's—first with the band.) Or, maybe jaded Americans had just had enough of the blooz and Welch's folkier version of melodic pop was the sound they were looking for.

Peter Green (née Peter Allen Greenbaum) formed Fleetwood Mac in 1967 after short stints in several bands including replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. (The Bluesbreakers were another band best remembered for the those who left it.) From Mayall, Green recruited Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. Despite Fleetwood Mac's considerable critical and financial success, Green's restlessness would continue; he departed after only two years and eight months. (It's been suggested that Green gave the band its name so McVie and Fleetwood could more easily continue without him.) One might even argue (I would) that those two years and eight months may've been among the most prodigious of any band of that '67 - '69 period. To wit: Mac's sales in the U.K. under Green would exceed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined (according to the Man of the World doc). Before Green departed (a story now the stuff of legend—think Syd Barrett's acid bingeing only with cult abduction), he'd record three albums. The records were inspired if not extraordinary blues and if that's all they were we probably wouldn't be mentioning them now. Even when considering the period in the honeyed glow of retrospection, only one of those three albums gets much critical respect today. Mysteriously, much of their best recorded work, certainly their best singles, were left off of the albums; Green Manalishi, Albatross (a rejiggered version of this became Lennon's Sun King from Abbey Road), Oh Well, Black Magic Woman (a flop for Mac but enjoying the half life of uranium for Santana thanks to Classic Rock radio).  Further proof of the historical myopia we've come to expect from record execs.

I happen to be of the mind that Green Manalishi and Oh Well are among the best songs to come out of the sixties. To back that up, you should note that Green's roster of A-list fans—Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, B.B. King (who famously said Green was the only guitarist to make him "break into a cold sweat"), Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Steve Hackett (of Genesis), and on and on—are only too eager to issue frothy superlatives for the man. 

Green Manalishi:

Oh Well

Green going it alone:

In his autobiography Mick Fleetwood admitted that the band probably owed its early seventies existence to Welch. A period featuring a cocktail of strife and drama that would shadow the band with all the usual rock-life trappings—egos, drugs, alcohol, and infidelity—but with the added thrust of short-lived guitarist Bob Weston's hook up with Fleetwood's wife. Weston would be sacked and a distraught Fleetwood would force an immediate cancellation of their tour. Coincidentally, Mac footnote Weston died only days after Welch. According to Weston's obit in the Telegraph, the seventies for Mac would've been the stuff of quintessential reality TV: Christine McVie would hook up with one of the band's crew (the apparent subject of her You Make Loving Fun) and legendary Beach Boy philanderer Dennis Wilson. Stevie Nicks would have her own rock star hook ups and John McVie, less interestingly but thoroughly rock and roll, nearly drank himself to death. Maybe it was all of this darkness the surviving members were trying to forget when they shunned Welch at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. (Green was there.) Or maybe it was Welch's lawsuit against the band for unpaid royalties.

The dispute would find closure as Welch took his own life on June 7th. As the obituary in People magazine notes, Welch's note indicated that suicide was his response to a certain future as an invalid, the result of a debilitating spinal injury. You have to respect Welch for the gallantry of not wanting to be a burden to his wife. He knew what he was in for: He'd just buried his own invalid father only years before. You'd hope an event like this might inspire discussions in our culture about choice in our end of life decisions in particular, otherwise known as euthanasia, and healthcare options in general, but that'd probably be asking too much.

Once, Dr. Jack Kervorkian had the compassion and courage to seize the frontier in this debate. He was rewarded with prison. Since then, it seems the subject has been closed.

But I digress: Hypnotized was one of Welch's best known Mac compositions. The song addresses Welch's acute interest in UFOs. He would also write a song about the "very true" supernatural power of the Bermuda Triangle and the Air Force's conspiracy to keep it secret.

After Fleetwood Mac, Welch formed the trio Paris with ex-Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick. Though Paris may've represented some of Welch's best work, the band recorded two albums to little acclaim and sales. Welch followed with a hot flash of platinum success with his solo album French Kiss, "a mix of hard rock guitar, dico-ish rhythms, and sweeping strings" (according to Wiki). But, the success would be brief: Welch squeezed out one more gold album before dropping off the charts completely.

Hear one of Welch's best songs from the Paris days, Big Towne 2061, below. (A live rendering from 1979 can be found here.) I noticed the CD of the album was going for $80 on Amazon.

Download: Paris - Blue Robin

As you may've guessed, the title of this post was taken from the season finale of Mad Men.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

No country for an old broad

We could quibble with her website's claim of "The First Female Rock and Roll Singer," but as "The Queen of Rockabilly," that domain is her's alone. Not even an heir or pretender because few women, now or then, would have the courage to stand with her. (Fewer still were as dishy as her: Dig that waist! It'd probably fit in a napkin ring.) In 2011 at the age of 73, and under the able wing of Jack White, Wanda Jackson returned to reclaim the throne that still sat empty.

The story goes that she planned on a career in country music until her friend Elvis told her she should do otherwise. (Previously, the Oklahoma born singer was a regular on the local Missouri TV show Ozark Jubilee. Sound country enough?) She had a few hits in her time including Fujiyama Mama (which makes sport of Japan's atomic holocausts: "I've been to Nagasaki/ Hiroshima too/ the same I did to them, baby/ I can do to you"—apparently, the Japanese could look past uncouth metaphors; it was a big hit there in 1957), Funnel of Love (dig that crazy deep-fried country cum Middle Eastern sound!), and her one entrée into the Top 40, Let's Have a Party

Even on the country stage she was feisty little broad. Check her early TV performances and compare her to the women around her, those in the cowboy boots and fringey over-the-knee skirts. Wanda's dresses are a little tighter, her necklines much lower, her fringe more strategic, and her lips way more red. But all of that was secondary to her voice, a suggestive down-tuned piccolo rasp, half animal growl, half choir girl, and all spunk. Historically, the critics have ladled on the praise thick as Southern gravy for her accomplishments. As a pioneer and survivor she has no peers. But as for her music, survey some of her You Tube output and note that for all her alleged greatness, you might find yourself disappointed in the way of classic material. She covered a lot of songs already made popular by other artists; It appears the men got first pick on all the best tunes. While her treatments are endearing and contain a trice enough edge and fire to be slightly left of the mainstream, even then she was no Brenda Lee.

Below is a performance from David Letterman with "special guest" Jack White: White's enthusiastic spill-over is more than enough to compensate for whatever time has taken from Wanda's rocking chair vintage voice. Jack might've done with a few less Marshalls. His volume obliterates the horns and nearly Wanda's voice too but, granted, the energy he supplies lifts everyone. Wanda is the grandma we all wished we had, even if her helmet of blackened hair looks like it could stop a bullet (applied with a few ozone holes worth of hairspray, no doubt) and that early spunk has all but (understandably) gone matronly. Still, her smile radiates an undimished 14K brilliance and her characteristic rasp is mostly intact.
The hair may be bigger than life, but then, it's not unlike the woman herself.

Download: Wanda Jackson - Funnel of Love

It appears "the nice lady with the nasty voice" will be getting some of her due afterall.