Pop Music

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Two)

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The Beatles in uniform on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

The Flip Side

When I finished writing and posting Part One of this piece, I realized to my dismay that I might have misled readers into thinking the Beatles’ revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was anything but one of their best.

Au contraire, mes frères!  I was simply addressing the conventional wisdom that the record was the be-all and end-all of pop music in the mid- to late 1960s. While claims of its long-term influence have been exaggerated beyond all comprehension, there’s no refuting the fundamental effect Sgt. Pepper has had on the popular culture of its day.

From the reduced time intervals that separate each number from the other; from the innovative manner in which the songs were recorded, to the printing of the lyrics on the gatefold sleeve’s backside; and, most curious of all, the cardboard cutouts and cover art figures ranging from Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, W.C. Fields, Johnny Weissmuller, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Tony Curtis, Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and Karl Marx, as well as wax models of Sonny Liston, Diana Dors (the British version of Marilyn), and the mop-topped Beatles themselves. This was Andy Warhol territory writ large and in bold musical lettering — more proof that the album was a noteworthy by-product of 1967.

However, one of the downsides of its release sealed the group’s eventual doom, i.e. the impossibility of reproducing Sgt. Pepper’s contents in concert and on tour, making it a virtual one-off. This became true of the bulk of the Beatles’ output at this stage in their development, one of several reasons the band stopped touring at the end of August 1966.

Today, of course, that argument would never hold up. The irony of using that strategy as a pretext for their breakup (or one of the explanations offered for same) is apocryphal at best. If the Beatles had only waited a few more years — say, around the time Pink Floyd ventured onto the scene with Dark Side of the Moon — they could have easily replicated their album in its entirety without noticeable loss of authenticity.

The Beatles in 1967, around the time they recorded Sgt. Pepper

Hogwash and balderdash! Wishful thinking you might say? Hmm, perhaps! But as we know from pop-music history, there were forces beyond their control (and already at play) in the year 1967 that would continue to drive the Beatles apart as a coherent working unit. For the sake of this post, let it be said that Sgt. Pepper remains a masterpiece of pop-music confection, one that expanded their artistic horizons to unheard-of heights.

The “theme” or motif for the album was set from the start by the front-cover photograph of the Beatles in brightly-colored, marching-band uniforms complete with string decorations, shoulder epaulettes, three-corner hat, and instruments of varying degree (to be exact, a French horn, a trumpet, a cor anglais and a flute). The words “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” were splashed across the backside of the album, about as reliable a guarantee of quality as any in the field of pop.

The first number on the record is the title tune, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It begins with an orchestra tuning up for a concert in the midst of an expectant audience. As our boys enter one by one, we hear several audience members break into laughter (possibly, at the sight of Ringo stumbling clumsily onto the stage).

The setup was a positively striking one: moving away from their earlier clean-cut image, the Beatles announced to the pop-music world that they had transformed from the drab, cutesy-pie teen idols of the early 60s into the hip, alternative Mod-style artists of the “Summer of Love.” And in spite of the portentous opening lines, the Beatles have never gone “in and out of style,” but have stayed on the cusp of the avant-garde:

 

It was twenty years ago today

Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

They’ve been going in and out of style

But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

 

So may I introduce to you

The act you’ve known for all these years

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band

 

We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

We hope you will enjoy the show

We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sit back and let the evening go

 

The tune, in slightly truncated form, is reprised on side two (of the LP that is) as the penultimate cut, which gave a false close to the “concert” program that came before. “Paul [McCartney] explained that [the concept] was like a band you might see in the park,” remembered Peter Blake, the man responsible for staging the album cover. “[T]hey were a town band finishing a concert in a park, playing on a bandstand with a municipal flowerbed next to it, with a crowd of people around them” — the kind who “stood and stared,” I would bet (see the album’s last track, “A Day in the Life”).

Inside album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Paul confirmed the idea. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place. So I thought, a typical stupid-sounding name for a Dr. Hook’s Medicine Show and Traveling Circus kind of thing [no relation to Monty Python’s Flying Circus] would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just a word game, really.”

There were more “word games” to come. But the “concert” and “fake group” aspects, as Paul liked to refer to them, didn’t exactly bear out for the entire length of the album. Never mind, it was the thought that counted. John Lennon was opposed to the concert idea from the start (it “left him cold,” according to most sources). Nevertheless, he went along with the notion, as did the production crew.

The title track segues directly into Ringo’s signature tune (in his guise as “Billy Shears”), “With a Little Help from My Friends,” with its reference to Marc Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar, the snappy call-and-response banter of the main chorus, and hints of marijuana use (denied by John, by the way):

 

What would you do if I sang out of tune

Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song

And I’ll try not to sing out of key

 

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends

Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends

Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

 

Do you need anybody?

I need somebody to love

Could it be anybody?

I want somebody to love

 

Next, we are treated to a faux harpsichord intro to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (done on the Hammond organ and suggestive of Beethoven’s piano piece, “Für Elise”), a Lennon song just as often mistaken for endorsing LSD use as Ringo’s “get high” phrase above (well, not entirely mistaken: John was dropping considerable amounts of “acid” at this point). The title was based on a picture that Lennon’s son Julian painted at school of a classmate named Lucy. Comprised of a hodgepodge of surrealistic nonsense words, the lyrics mixed psychedelia with a Lewis Carroll aesthetic.

“The images were from Alice in Wonderland,” John told Playboy in 1980. “It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowboat somewhere, and I was visualizing that. There was also the image of the female who would someday come to save me — a ‘girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ — who would come out of the sky.”

 

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

 

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she’s gone

 

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Ah, ah    

The Fab Four in the late 60s

The following two entries, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole,” are basically throwaways — that is, if you skip over the lyrics and go on to the succeeding number, “She’s Leaving Home.” But if you were to do that, you would be doing yourself a disservice. Simply put, these two back-to-back numbers are nothing if not an instructive look into the mind of their authors, Lennon and McCartney.

John and Paul worked together on these songs, but Paul is credited chiefly for both. “Fixing a Hole” came a month before “Getting Better” (though placed in reverse order on the album) and written after McCartney had repaired a physical hole in his Scottish farmhouse roof. Stated Paul, “This song is just about the hole in the road where the rain gets in; a good old analogy — the hole in your makeup which lets the rain in and stops your mind from going where it will. It’s you interfering with things.”

 

And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right

Where I belong I’m right

Where I belong

 

See the people standing there who disagree and never win

And wonder why they don’t get in my door

I’m painting my room in a colorful way

And when my mind is wandering

There I will go …

 

Silly people run around they worry me

And never ask why they don’t get past my door

I’m taking the time for a number of things

That weren’t important yesterday

And I still go

 

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in

And stops my mind from wandering

Where it will go

 

On “Getting Better,” George Harrison played the tampura, an Indian instrument that resembles an extra-large sitar. It produces a sort of droning sound and is mostly used for background resonance. The song itself was composed at Paul’s home in St. John’s Wood. Lennon was present and contributed “that lovely little sardonic line” about “It couldn’t get much worse.” Paul was decidedly more optimistic about the world in general, etched with a streak of regret (remember “Yesterday”?); whereas John had anger management issues, as he confessed in those revealing (pun intended) Playboy interviews:

“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself,” John added, “and I hit.” Ouch!

 

It’s getting better all the time

 

I used to get mad at my school

(No, I can’t complain)

The teachers who taught me weren’t cool   

(No, I can’t complain)

 

You’re holding me down

Turning me round

Filling me up with your rules

 

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)

It’s getting better all the time

(It can’t get much worse)

It’s getting better all the time

 

It’s getting better

Since you’ve been mine

 

The following verses were Paul and John’s shared thoughts, each expressing his particular fascination with or disappointment in their interpersonal relationships. Try to guess which one was which:

 

Me used to be an angry young man

Me hiding me head in the sand

You gave me the word, I finally heard

I’m doing the best that I can

 

I used to be cruel to my woman

I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved

Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene

And I’m doing the best that I can (ooh)

 

And now, an honest to goodness minor classic, the sorrowful ballad “She’s Leaving Home.” Its close affiliation with “Eleanor Rigby,” featured on the group’s Revolver, can be attributed to the presence of strings (arranged by Mike Leander instead of George Martin), with the harp providing additional impetus to “She’s Leaving Home.”

Comic book depiction of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”

A true Lennon-McCartney original (neither Beatle played any instruments on the track, nor were Ringo and George present during the recording sessions), the oft-told chronicle of how this song came about is worth repeating:

“It’s a much younger girl than Eleanor Rigby,” Paul remarked in Beatles in Their Own Words, “but the same sort of loneliness. That was a Daily Mirror story again [identified as the Daily Mail in The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record ]…. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who had left home and not been found. There were a lot of those at the time. That was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up and then… It was rather poignant. I like it as a song, and when I showed it to John, he added the Greek chorus, long sustained notes, and one of those nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly.”

Paul mentioned that one of the lines in the song may have come directly from the girl’s father, quoted in the newspaper article: “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here… even her fur coat.”

“But he didn’t give her that much,” McCartney insisted, “not what she wanted when she left home.”

The girl, identified as teenager Melanie Coe, disappeared from her family’s abode in February 1967. Melanie took only what she was wearing, leaving behind her “Austin 1100 automobile, two diamond rings, a mink coat,” and “a wardrobe full of clothes.”

Poster art for “She’s Leaving Home”

John was purported to have agreed with the song’s basic premise, adding: “Paul had the basic theme… but all those lines like ‘We sacrificed most of our life’ [and] ‘we gave her everything money could buy,’ those were things [my aunt] Mimi used to say to me. It was easy to write.” John was credited with the chorus, and the individual lines were Paul’s handiwork:

 

Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins

Silently closing her bedroom door

Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes down the stairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief

Quietly turning the backdoor key

Stepping outside she is free

 

She (We gave her most of our lives)

Is leaving (Sacrificed most of our lives)

Home (We gave her everything money could buy)

She’s leaving home after living alone

For so many years

 

This song, while a melancholy break from the liveliness of the previous tracks, prepares the listener for more serious excursions toward the album’s end. There were lots of goings-on in Great Britain at the time than mere granny glasses, Twiggy and Carnaby Street.

For the last item on this side, the Fab Four (or the one, in this instance) turned to the English dance hall, the equivalent of our turn-of-the-century vaudeville, for the bouncy “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” A one-hundred-percent John Lennon composition, this number, along with the preceding “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” led producer George Martin to label him “an oral Salvador Dalí.”

John Lennon pointing to the poster “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

The unusual non-rock arrangement included four harmonicas (played by George, Ringo, and session players Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall), Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, a single piano, recorded snippets of an old Victorian steam organ, and bass and lead guitars (essayed by multi-instrumentalist Paul). John was the lone vocalist. Inspiration for this number was taken from a poster, of all things:

“ ‘Mr. Kite’ was a straight lift,” Lennon observed in The Beatles. “I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song. It was from this old poster I’d bought at an antique shop. We’d been down in Surrey or somewhere filming a piece … There was a break, and I went into this shop and bought an old poster advertising a variety show which starred Mr. Kite. It said the Hendersons would also be there, late of Pablo Fanques Fair. There would be hoops and horses and someone going through a hogshead of real fire. Then there was Henry the Horse. The band would start at ten to six. All at Bishopsgate. Look, there’s the bill, with Mr. Kite topping it. I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really.”

Really! Nothing further need be added.

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, the Stones, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part One)

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Album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

A Year in the Life

If 1968 was considered a landmark year for our planet, then 1967 was its precursor. The pre-revolutionary tide that 1967 ushered into the U.S., Europe, Latin America and elsewhere was already hinted at in the popular and performing arts. The actual physical explosion came later, in 1968. For now, we can relish the times for what they were.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary, then, of the launch of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — an obvious outgrowth of the fomenting fervor of the period — our local Public Broadcasting Station (or PBS for short) presented a marathon run of money-raising efforts. But the most significant aspect of the network’s frequent stops for call-in contributions and on-air fund drives came with the showing of a British-made “making-of” documentary, Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, informing viewers that it was 50 years ago this summer that the Fab Four’s milestone recording was first issued.

Highly informative and thoroughly documented, the British host for the program, composer and musician Howard Goodall, took television audiences through a “magical mystery” tour of some of the Beatles’ most memorable tunes and pioneering work methods. The group labored for months on end, along with their producer, Sir George Martin (known widely as the “Fifth” Beatle), at the Abbey Road Studios in London, England.

Full of fun facts and priceless trivia, the program leaned a bit too heavily on what a so-called “masterpiece” the Sgt. Pepper album undoubtedly was (as if there were any doubt); and how “transformational” and “industry changing” the classic compilation of songs became in the hands of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But instead of turning viewers on to the boys’ superbly recorded output, it turned this steadfast fan off  to the excessively pedantic and doctrinaire style of presentation.

You can’t blame the Brits for trying, though. They will stiff-upper-lip through anything, if given half a chance. But this  Beatles buff was having none of it. I did manage to sit through at least two showings, which is saying a lot for my endurance.

Ultimately, I managed to catch the most pertinent aspects of how the affable team of Liverpudlians enjoyed experimenting with the innovative multi-track recording techniques being employed at the studio. From multiple overdubs and tape splicing, to layering and backward tape loops; from brass bands, Baroque fanfares and piano crescendos, from the use of a harmonium, tabla and tamboura, animal noises and sound effects, to a 41-piece orchestra (not to mention drug-induced atmospherics), the songs had a unity of purpose and concentration of thematic ideas that were unlike anything else on the market.

Though not as experimental as some would like for us to believe — the group had released two earlier efforts of more substantive material, to be found on Rubber Soul and RevolverSgt. Pepper went on to become the Beatles’ definitive statement on their keen observations of daily life, as well as the influence of everyday occurrences found in British newspapers of the time, along with fond (and not-so-fond) remembrances of childhood while growing up in postwar England.

The most arresting development for non-initiates was that the songs, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” were grounded in actual locations; that both numbers were planned as part of the original Sgt. Pepper concept. Instead, Capitol Records insisted on releasing the songs as the A- and B-sides of a single. Since the Beatles had stopped touring altogether in August 1966 — for a variety of reasons, including security issues, inability to progress artistically, and plain old exhaustion — they decided to record them for later use. Eventually, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” wound up on their December 1967 Magical Mystery Tour release.

Photo of the Fab Four during their “Penny Lane” period (1967)

Certainly, if “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” had been integrated at the time into Sgt. Pepper, perhaps reluctant critics might have been quicker to get on the celebratory bandwagon, so to speak. Such as it was, the album continued to attract new converts. Consequently, one must consider this undertaking as a major leap forward in the art of popular music.

Days of “Whine” and Roses

Even more striking — and a clear nod to the yet-to-be-born MTV generation — were the idiosyncratic video representations (in living color, no less) that accompanied the two songs. When I first watched these mini-movies on TV in the mid-sixties, I was clearly confounded by the content. So much so that I feared for the Beatles’ state of mind. The viewer is bombarded with a perplexing array of surreal images and head-scratching visuals that transcend the psychedelic LSD trips of the era into outright weirdness.

As bizarre and outlandish as these videos appeared to their fans, however, it was the altered looks of the Fab Four that drew the most attention. Without advance warning, our Liverpool lads had morphed from the clean-cut, tailor-made young gents they pretended to be (under the tutelage of their manager, Brian Epstein) into the bearded, long-haired British Mod-style pop artistes they had become.

Disclosures such as these, while they tend to be unnerving in the short run, helped to explain the Beatles’ overall songwriting logic. By shedding new light on the creative process, one could spot clues as to the various personality conflicts and clashes with authority figures the boys were unfortunately prone to. Some of the harshest behavior would come from Paul and John toward the members of their group — but reserved especially for themselves. These were evidenced in many of the songs from that period. In order to concentrate on the Beatles’ individual contributions, then, I’d like to focus on several of their biggest hits.

Scene from the Beatles’ first picture, A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The title of Lennon’s “A Hard Day’s Night” from 1964, for example, was taken from one of Ringo’s frequent malapropisms (“That was a hard day’s night, all right”). Yet the lyrics drove “home” the fact that a working-class stiff such as John would never have amounted to much of anything had he not worked his rear-end off first and foremost, or been forced to do so by others and their specific wants and needs:

 

It’s been a hard day’s night and I been workin’ like a dog

It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleepin’ like a log 

But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you

Will make me feel all right

 

You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things

And it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re gonna give me everything

So why on earth should I moan, ‘cause when I get you alone

You know I feel OK

 

When I’m home everything seems to be right

When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah!

 

Comfort from that certain someone is fine, as far as that goes. For the rich, it’s money in the coffer. For the poor and self-reliant, a loving wife or sweetheart is worth their weight in gold. Whatever gets you through the day, chaps — or the never-ending tour, in Lennon’s case. As long as he gets what he needs at night, at the end of a long and tiring day, “everything seems to be right,” for now.

Things went from bad to worse — or “verse” in this instance, with Lennon’s mammoth hit “Help!” emerging about a year later. Here was the songwriter’s cri du coeur, a “cry from the heart” for aid and comfort that John was forced to utter and that was openly advertised to the world at large:

The Beatles’ Help! album cover (1965)

 

Help! I need somebody

Help! Almost anybody

Help! You know I need someone

Help!

 

When I was younger, so much younger than today

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured

Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

 

Help me if you can, I’m feelin’ down

And I do appreciate you being ‘round

Help me get my feet back on the ground

Won’t you please, please help me?

 

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

My independence seems to vanish in the haze

But every now and then I feel so insecure

I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

 

Whatever happened to John’s youthful exuberance, his pride in his accomplishments and his joie de vivre?  Where was that spirit of adventure, of trying out new things, of boldly going where no pop-rock band had gone before? If his independence (and, ergo, his individualism) had vanished in the ensuing haze, what was there left for him to do?

“I really was crying out for help,” Lennon later confessed in that famous 1980 Playboy interview. “I meant it — it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was aware of myself then. I was just singing ‘help’ and I meant it.” He also preferred to have had the song recorded at a slower pace so as to reflect the seriousness of his situation, but so be it.

As much as Lennon’s life was changing in and around 1965 and beyond, it would change even further in years to come when the Beatles would eventually go their separate ways, and when John took up with Yoko and the avant-garde. The most interesting element going forward, though, was that Lennon returned full-blast to his rock-and-roll roots, which was clearly on his mind in the Beatles’ latter work — specifically, in their final recorded effort, Abbey Road from September 1969.

For me, and for people of my generation, the Abbey Road album is our personal Sgt. Pepper. There is something for everyone on this milestone Apple Records production: quirky word-play and tricky poetics in “Come Together,” all-out hard rock sounds in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” unfettered soul in “Oh! Darling,” a buoyant sing-along in “Octopus’s Garden,” a jaunty jukebox number in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” two classic forays (by the elusive George Harrison) in “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” lustrous harmonizing by all four of the Beatles in “Because,” and Paul’s extended pop opera (with a little help from former friend John) for pretty much the last 16 minutes.

Abbey Road by the Beatles (1969)

The songs were laid down amid much strife and squabble. John and Paul were going at each other’s throats full throttle; George felt rejected and under-utilized by both Paul AND John; while the happy-go-lucky Ringo gamely soldiered on, in spite of all the controversy. No two or three Beatles were in the studio at the same time: the backing vocals were recorded separately, for the most part and at varying intervals, to be combined later in the finished cut.

It’s a miracle that anything came out of those sessions, but they did. The recording techniques the Beatles had learned throughout the intervening years had finally “come together” in this, their crowning achievement.

What’s in a Song?

John Lennon wasn’t the only one to have felt the ill effects of fame and fortune, of over-sensitive egos and non-stop touring and concertizing. Those pent-up emotions bubbled over as well into some of his band-mate Paul McCartney’s most inspired output.

On the same album Help!, Paul composed a song that has been covered by more artists worldwide than any other Beatles tune to date. The song, of course, was “Yesterday,” released in September 1965, in which McCartney sang solo while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with backing by a string quartet (orchestrated by producer George Martin). By way of a self-confessional, Paul chides himself for letting the love of his life slip through his fingers. The essence of the tune basically comes down to “what a dope I was back then”:

 

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

Oh, I believe in yesterday

 

Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be

There’s a shadow hanging over me

Oh, yesterday came suddenly

 

Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say

I said something wrong now I long for yesterday

 

Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play

Now I need a pace to hid away

Oh, I believe in yesterday

 

“Yesterday” by the Beatles (1965)

Its brooding, melancholy nature, not at all indicative of the cheeriness and unabashed joy abounding in other Beatles hits, made “Yesterday” a singular creation among the group’s oeuvre. The song was so unusual and so un-Beatles-like (it was the first time that a lone member of the group was recorded without the other three) that it caught the ear (and the profit margins) of their British counterparts, the Rolling Stones.

On a side note, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not directly influenced by “Yesterday” and its popularity when they penned, together with their manager, Andrew Oldham, the lovely “As Tears Go By” for the 17-year-old Marianne Faithful in 1964.

Similarly, their version of the song, recorded and released as a single in December 1965, also utilized the scoring of string instruments. This suffused the number with a fragile air of poignancy not normally associated with the Stones’ otherwise bluesy arrangements.

The song’s strongest point is its simple and moving lyricism, beautifully phrased by Jagger in softly enunciated cadences:

 

It is the evening of the day

I sit and watch the children play

Smiling faces I can see

But not for me

I sit and watch

As tears go by

 

The next stanza is the more telling of the three, in that it expresses a rueful attitude about man’s accumulated wealth that is totally unanticipated, coming as it did from the likes of Jagger and Richards:

 

My riches can’t buy everything

I want to hear the children sing

All I hear is the sound

Of rain falling on the ground

I sit and watch

As tears go by

 

The last few verses speak of old age and its inherent wistfulness as we reach that final plateau — something that both these gentlemen, and all of us for that matter, will inevitably have to face:

 

It is the evening of the day

I sit and watch the children play

Doing things I used to do

They think are new

I sit and watch

As tears go by

 

The Rolling Stones “As Tears Go By” (1965)

Self-reflection is not the kind of methodology one would expect from British rock stars and stone heads of the 1960s. Nevertheless, here it was, in all its starkness.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here’ — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Two): From Folk-Rock to Pop

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For Pete’s Sake

American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds
American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds, circa the 1960s

Long before Bob Dylan made his mark; before Peter, Paul and Mary made the folk scene a regular happening; before the Limeliters came to light and the Kingston Trio thrilled us with their harmonies; before Trini Lopez, Harry Belafonte and Arlo Guthrie serenaded us with their hits, there were the likes of Huddy Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”) and Jimmie Rodgers, Arlo’s legendary papa Woody Guthrie, and that craggy rock of ages, Pete Seeger.

You can’t talk about Sixties rock and pop without mentioning that grand ole man of folk music and world beat — that is, before “world beat” had become a standard term of art. For all intents and purposes, Pete Seeger was to protest songs and political activism what Martin Luther King Jr. was to oratory and the spoken word: our country’s conscience and moral epicenter.

Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Pete started playing banjo while still a teenager. His father was the musicologist Charles Seeger, from whom his lifelong love and pursuit of Earth’s musical marvels would derive. A prolific recording and concert artist, the constantly touring Seeger, even in his 70s and 80s, had more energy and drive than most individuals half his age.

Although blacklisted in the 1950s for alleged Communist activities and for his failure to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Seeger boldly soldiered on as only he could, eventually winning an acquittal in 1962 of his contempt of Congress charge. Not that any of this prevented him from touring and recording, but Seeger must hold the record (or somewhere near it) for his many contributions to the expansion of America’s musical tastes.

 A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s
A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s

It is to him that we can attribute such popular fare as “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Little Boxes,” and “Guantanamera,” along with “Goodnight Irene” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” Just as Dylan eventually proved unwilling to take on the mantle of prophet of his generation, Seeger was just as willing to fill the gap — whether he realized it or not.

Like Dylan, Seeger’s sway on the flowering folk-music revival and ever-widening anti-Vietnam War movement was felt in the two most lyrical expressions from the era: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written in 1964 and recorded by Dylan in 1965; and Seeger’s own interpolation of phrases from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (attributed to King Solomon), “Turn, Turn, Turn,” both numbers recorded by Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and the Byrds.

Dylan’s use of trippy, dreamlike imagery gave “Mr. Tambourine Man” the flavor of a call to action, but not necessarily one to go out and protest. The words seem to refer to a Pied Piper figure, a charismatic personality (along the lines of Jesus Christ, a rock star, or Dylan himself perhaps) capable of sweeping you off your feet; of taking you on a voyage of discovery, of excessive contemplation of the self in what critics of the period would deem “navel gazing.”

As was his wont, Dylan’s acoustic original with guitar and harmonica boasted a rambling discourse in four verses, each one faster than the other, thus making it purposely difficult to follow his train of thought. This style of performing was atypical of the entire purpose of popular song: to absorb the lyrics and be able to convey a message that would fall effortlessly on receptive ears. Alas, we were witnessing the changeover from the easily discernible to the deliberately vague and indecipherable (vide Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones).

Sixties rock fans doted on the strewed nature of Dylan’s words. One can further detect the influence of LSD and other acid-induced trips, something the Beatles and other rock groups experienced as they tried to set their lyrics down on paper. Oh, and psychedelia was also blowing in the wind, but at this stage it was several years off from gathering a full head of steam.

Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties
Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties

Where did the folk-rock group the Byrds fit in? Before the British invasion of the early 1960s and the melodic Merseybeat took hold, American singer-guitarists McGuinn and David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman, vocalist Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke were already active as folkies in and around the Los Angeles area. The Byrds’ short-lived fame (the original members split off into various groups) came from their signature twelve-string guitar sound (a Rickenbacker 360, by all reports), a jangly bell-like texture that enveloped pristine vocal harmonies like a musical glove.

Most critics compared them to the British groups the Searchers and the Hollies, not to mention the dominant style of the “Fab Four” (to wit, McGuinn’s penchant for wearing bangs and fashionable granny sunglasses came about). As a matter of fact, Graham Nash, who co-founded the Hollies with Allan Clarke, joined, in 1968, with David Crosby and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield to form Crosby, Stills and Nash, a trio devoted to purity of the vocal line in their highly accessible work.

For “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the group’s debut single on Columbia, the Byrds performed only one of the four verses (the second), which held the song to just over the two-minute mark (two minutes and eighteen seconds, to be precise), quite the opposite of Dylan’s five-and-a-half minute homily. Besides McGuinn’s twangly guitar, only the group’s vocals were employed. The record label had decided to go with more experienced L.A. session players, known collectively as the Wrecking Crew, for the musical backdrop. On subsequent albums, the Byrds were allowed to accompany themselves on their own instruments — a wise choice.

The Byrds singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" on The Ed Sullivan Show
The Byrds singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on The Ed Sullivan Show

 

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), composed by Bob Dylan

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship

all my senses have been stripped

and my hands can’t feel to grip

and my toes too numb to step

wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

 

I’m ready to go anywhere,

I’m ready for to fade

Unto my own parade

Cast your dancing spell my way

I promise to go under it

 

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

You can sense the giddy, almost dizzying stream-of-consciousness verbiage in the lyric makeup above. The repetitive nature of the melody and its insistent, forward motion were deliberately designed to force listeners to pay closer attention. No wonder audiences were so keen on following the Piper along. Let’s get a move on, folks! On a side note, McGuinn’s opening guitar riff was based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in a version he adapted.

A very different air, albeit with a comparable rhythmic beat, surrounded the Byrds’ next musical number: the gorgeous, gospel-like sermon of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which the Limeliters first recorded back in 1962 under the title “To Everything There is a Season.” Seeger’s version came a few months later, while a year after that Judy Collins laid down the track (sensitively, I might add) on her Judy Collins 3. McGuinn, who arranged it for Collins’ album, expressed familiarity with the tune.

“It was a folk song by that time,” he explained in some 1996 CD liner notes, “but I played it and it came out Rock-n-Roll because that’s what I was programmed to do like a computer … We thought it would make a good single. It had everything: a good message, a good melody, and the heat was there.”

And what did the song’s composer, Pete Seeger, think of McGuinn’s interpretation? “I was a Pete Seeger fan and a Beatles fan,” he told musicologist John Einarson in 2005, “and mixing the two. Actually Pete liked what we did back when we recorded it and sent me a long letter saying that he really enjoyed the arrangement of it. He said, ‘Dear Byrds. I liked your rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” very much. I thought it retained artistic integrity. My only musical query was why you didn’t repeat the first verse again?’ and obviously the answer to that is because of time. We wanted it playable on the air. As the years have gone by he’s been sending me letters that he’s really gotten into it. It’s totally different from his arrangement, but he loved it.”

That is for certain. It’s our honest opinion, then, that the Byrds may have had Mr. Seeger in mind, and not Mr. Dylan, when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

With that said, Seeger’s rendering of “Turn, Turn, Turn” (sometimes written as “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) is taken at a faster clip, although it’s not at all rushed. The melody goes up and down the scale, with a goodly amount of syncopated rhythm. The stresses fall on the phrase “Turn, turn, turn,” with added emphasis on the prominent “r” sound. It’s far from a romantic accounting, which the Byrds’ variant is a fair representative of.

Too, Seeger’s banjo playing may feel, at times, like the jangly twelve-string, but its purpose is to lend support to the vocal line; whereas on McGuinn’s take, the soaring guitars provide the primary emotional outlet as the main bridge between the third and fourth verses. And, of course, the timing lasts a full three-minutes-and-forty-nine seconds (or thirty-four seconds for the single) — not exactly in Dylan’s lengthy league, but close enough.

The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," a 45-single on CBS
The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” originally a 45-single on Columbia Records

 

“Turn, Turn, Turn” (1966) by Pete Seeger

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones

A time to gather stones together

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time of love, a time of hate

A time of war, a time of peace

A time you may embrace

A time to refrain from embracing

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

 

If one could express the sentiment that rock was inherently beautiful, then the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the very embodiment of that description. Yes, it’s folk-rock magic at its best; yes, it came out of the California lifestyle; and, yes, it had a political as well as a religious undercurrent. But by any measure, this is classic radio-friendly stuff. The blending of all-male voices, the delicious harmonies, the authoritative guitar licks, the fullness of the bass, the tightly wound band sound — this is what listeners remember the most. And we should give credit where credit is due.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years -- the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music
Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years — the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music

Thank you, Byrds! And thank you, Pete Seeger!

(End of Part Two – To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Jazzman Supreme — Miles Davis, Dark Prince

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Miles Davis (1936-1991), playing in France 1967
Miles Davis (1926-1991), playing in France, ca. 1967

It was that voice. Harsh, gruff, low, and gravely, like crumbled shreds of sandpaper. And that sullen personality. Surly, brooding, moody, a chip strategically perched on his shoulder. That’s what got my attention.

The first time I heard the Miles Davis sound was almost 30 years ago. The same co-worker, Mike, who had introduced me to smooth jazz and the Brazilian artists who played it also sold me on Miles.

“Got a great album for you, Joe” Mike claimed. “You’re gonna like this.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Miles,” he answered.

“Miles? You mean Miles Davis? The jazz trumpeter?

“The same.”

“Didn’t he pass away the other day?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna record him for you. Give it to you tomorrow.”

And he did. Mike gave me a cassette version, which I still own, of Miles’ late 1980s album You’re Under Arrest. I heard it later that same evening. Smooth, rich, the musical equivalent of chocolate ice cream. Miles in mellow form, both haunting and elegiac at the same time, on trumpet and flugelhorn. I loved it, couldn’t stop listening to it. Especially his take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

The album started off with street sounds. Manhattan street sounds. Noise, crosstalk. The crosstalk turned into indecipherable chatter, rising in volume and pitch until it ended with shouting. Chaos, traffic. Police sirens, pedestrians, confrontation. The sounds of summer in New York, the city that never slumbers. Yeah…

That was Miles.

Miles and Beyond

I knew very little about the jazzman named Miles. Miles was just a name to me, like so many others. But the more I listened, the more I needed to know. His full name was Miles Dewey Davis III, christened after his father, a ranch owner and successful dentist. Miles came from East St. Louis, Illinois, of solid middle-class stock. Even then, pre-war, it was as tough a place as any for a shy kid like Miles to be raised in. I should know, having grown up in the South Bronx.

Back then, I knew next to nothing about Miles’ music. I knew he played jazz. Traditional jazz. Jazz with a capital “J.” He also played bop and cool jazz. From cool jazz came bossa nova, so claimed my friend Mike. And from bossa nova, back to jazz again — or smooth jazz, as it was now called. Terrific stuff.

His albums were classics. Bitches Brew served up innovative jazz fusion mixed with rock. It featured Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette — notables all, who went on to make names for themselves. And there were more names, all of them associated with Miles in one form or another. Jazz people, key figures in his life and art. Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, et al. Giants who once walked this Earth.

Bitches Brew (1969) album cover
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) album cover

There were other music styles as well. Funk, R&B, disco, pop. There were combos, big bands, quartets, octets, nonets, and such. And there were gigs, hundreds of them. Record dates, too, and club dates, and all-night jam sessions. All the things that jazzmen were known for. And, of course, the drugs. Lots of drugs. Drugs to stay awake, drugs to go to sleep. Drugs to keep on moving, drugs to slow the jazzman down.

Jam all night, jam all day, play hard, play rough, play again through the night. Get some sleep. Sleep? What’s that? Go get me a shot of whatever you’re having. And the women, there were lots and lots of women. Black, tan, white, brown. It didn’t matter. Frances Taylor, Betty Mabry (later Davis), Cicely Tyson, so many others. The names came, and they went.

When Miles traveled to Paris, he met and fell hard for Juliette Greco, a dark-haired beauty, a French singer-actress. Their affair was unlike any other in the City of Light, but they were on opposite ends of the jazz thermometer: she was hot, he was cool. Miles was treated with respect while he was in France. Almost like a king, but more like a prince. A dark prince. Not like in America, where he was beaten up and bloodied. He dreaded going back home.

He married and divorced often, as did his contemporary, the poet, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, in Rio. Miles put his women on a pedestal, or on his album covers which were the next best thing. The albums became noteworthy because of them: Some Day My Prince Will Come, E.S.P., Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and lastly Bitches Brew. The beauty of black women, for all to see, graceful and sleek, up front and personal — in your face and in your home, lovely to look at as well as to listen to. The music, that is.

He had a violent streak, what we call “anger management” issues, which he took out on the women. Battered and bruised, what he had taken from his own brutish treatment he doled out in like form.

Yeah, that was Miles.

Miles Mannered   

Miles was neat and trim, strong and hearty, cut from the finest cloth. His frame was angular and small; eyes large, white background and bulbous, black fire in his pupils. His skin was black as well, dark and glistening, it gleamed brilliantly in the light as sweat poured down over his finely sculpted features.

In the early days Miles kept his hair short, neatly cropped and trimmed and even all around. Later, he sported a Black Power “’fro,” de rigueur for African-Americans of the late 60s and 70s, and later still it came down in tresses to his shoulders, then not so broad as in his youth. He refused to wear a beard or a goatee. That was for sissies! Dizzy had a little fuzz between his lip and chin, and was fond of his beret. Miles preferred the lean and hungry look. No sense covering up that face. He was stylish to a fault, flaunting his taste for the finer things in life.

Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)
Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)

He was a snazzy dresser, too, with shirts that were always starched and neatly pressed, and immaculately tailored suits. Slacks long and trim, covering his spindly legs. Shoes polished to a high buff shine. When psychedelia became all the rage, Miles chose carefully coordinated, colorfully flowing garments, wide-sleeved vestments made of the purest silk. Radical chic, I would think.

That was Miles.

Then there was the music: spare, lean, no bullshit; all killer, no filler. Ballads and mid-tempo numbers were his specialty. Cut to the chase, that was his maxim. The arch romantic in sound. Unlike his contemporaries, Miles lacked a virtuoso’s command of his instrument. That’s all right. We loved him anyway. Many didn’t. More fools them!

Herbie Hancock told a story once about an early recording session with the great man himself. Fumbling for guidance, Herbie was told to sit down at an electric piano, a Fender-Rhodes, something he had never seen before.

Herbie turned to Miles and queried: “Miles, what do you want me to play?”

Miles, hoarse, pointed at the instrument and growled back a reply. “Play that, motherfucker.”

Just another one of his quirks. His language was salty, mean. It cut to the bone, as sharp as a serpent’s tooth, so said Shakespeare. Like his music, it went to the meat of the matter. It signaled to all comers, “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker.” It was all just a cover, though, Miles’ way of overcoming his ever-present shyness, add to it the loneliness, the hurt, the despair that all jazzmen carry with them.

He called people an infinite variety of the “F” bomb. On anyone else’s lips, it might have sounded gross or revolting. Coming from Miles, it felt like poetry. How many ways could he say “fuck,” “shit,” or “motherfucker,” and still make them sound fresh and true, joyous and endearing, sad and tragic? To him, they were more than just verbs or epithets, more than just adjectives or nouns; they were every permutation in between. Like bop, hard-bop and modal, they were as much a part of his repertoire and makeup as everything else.

If he liked you, he would call you a “motherfucker.” No offense intended, none taken. If he hated you, or you angered him, he’d say the same thing: “That guy was a motherfucker.” The words may have been similar, but the context was something else entirely. You’d have to be smart enough to discern the difference. He demanded it. No apologies necessary, none given.

That, too, was Miles.

I Can See for Miles

Then, there were the records. Tons and tons of them. Thank God for that! We have him preserved for us, and for all time: first on vinyl, then in CD format; an Egyptian treasure trove of solid gold. A bountiful harvest, one might add. The early hits: Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Quiet Nights.

Gil Evans, a Canadian by birth, arranged them. Miles Davis played his heart out for him on them. Black man, white man, making music together as musician and friend, close friends to be exact. Miles loved Gil, and Gil loved him back. “Gil and I hit it off right away,” Miles recalled in his autobiography. “I could relate to his musical ideas and he could relate to mine. With Gil, the question of race never entered; it was always about music … He was a beautiful person who just loved to be around musicians.”

Giles Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957
Gil Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957

Then came the later fusion stuff, the jazz-pop albums, and the Quincy Jones-produced pop-art pieces. And, of course, the final concert, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux — a latter-day classic. This was Miles reliving the past — the glory years, if you must — rediscovering a lost love for the dearly departed, his pal Gil Evans, and those groundbreaking arrangements. The artist came alive again, through his music and his artistry, taking center stage.

The last years were difficult ones. He looked weather beaten. Illness of body and mind had taken their toll; the formerly ironclad frame had turned thin and frail from too much of, well, pretty much everything. The face was spared but the rest ached and screamed in pain. Sex, drugs, hard living, hard knocks, the harshness of the jazzman’s life. Then death.

Finally, the accolades. Basie was Count, Ellington was Duke, but Miles … he was Prince. The Dark Prince — always was, always would be. The darkness never left him. First in line to the jazzman’s crown. Writer, jazz buff, entrepreneur and videographer Bret Primack dubbed him the Picasso of Jazz. Hmm, some truth in that. But that’s not quite it. Sure, Miles changed with the times, transforming himself, reinventing himself every few years. His clothes and hair changed along with him. But his manners stayed the same. Picasso lived longer, well into his 90s. Miles died relatively young. He was 65, a lot older than most jazzmen of his day. But a Picasso? Well, maybe….

Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)
Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)

He was more Paganini, the greatest concert violinist of his day. Paganini made a pact with the Devil, to play the Devil’s music as only the Devil could play it. Miles, too, must’ve bargained with Old Beelzebub, or some higher authority. I can hear him now: “Come on, man, gimme one more chance. One more shot at immortality. Lemme play my old stuff again. Huh? Sheeyut! Whatta ya say, Bub?”

Heh! That Devil never knew what hit him. If anything, Miles got the best of that deal. He got one more gig to play, and several thereafter. He lived and he loved, and he played and played and played, almost to his last breath. They couldn’t wait for him in Heaven.

As Miles Davis approached the Pearly Gates, he saw that St. Peter, the gatekeeper, wasn’t around. Carrying his trumpet under his arm, Miles walked up to the Gates in a leisurely stroll, to the fellow who was there and asked, “Hey, man, where’s St. Peter? And who the hell are you?”

The figure looked up and responded. “I’m the Archangel Gabriel. Peter sent me ahead to greet you.”

Miles answered. “He did, huh?” Fidgeting with his trumpet to hide his restlessness, Miles inquired, “So, Gabriel, what do you want me to play?”

Grabbing hold of Miles’ trumpet, Gabriel pointed to a harp nearby. He smiled wickedly at Miles and replied, “Play that, motherfucker!”

THAT’S Miles Davis.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘What is Bossa Nova?’ — Variations on a Theme by One of the Genre’s Cultural Icons

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Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)
Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)

It’s not often that one gets to communicate with a living legend.

Carlos Lyra — known also by the diminutive “Carlinhos” — is anything but diminutive in his talent and in his abilities. A marvelous singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist, as well as a raconteur par excellence, Lyra, whose name is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the “lyre” (or rather, our modern-day guitar), was present at the dawn of Bossa Nova. His collaborations with such giants of the genre as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Stan Getz, Marcos Valle, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Nara Leão and others is well known to fans of the period.

Now in his early 80’s, Carlos continues to explore the essence of the music he first heard and loved as a boy growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro.  

Fresh from a live show at the Vivo Rio nightclub with longtime friend and associate, Roberto Menescal, and singer-guitarist Toquinho, the ageless icon has kindly consented to the use of his original blog entry entitled (in Portuguese) “O Que é Bossa Nova?” (“What is Bossa Nova?”). In this highly cultivated piece, Carlos shares with readers the myriad factors that helped shape Brazil’s music and culture.

It’s a view shared strongly by this author as well.   

WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?

Recently I gave an interview about Bossa Nova for the BBC in London. Knowing that I faced a well-informed audience, I expanded upon my usual responses in a way that was almost cathartic. It became apparent to me that Bossa Nova is a most misunderstood phenomenon that deserves some additional considerations.

To begin with, Bossa Nova shares a strong affinity with the thirteenth century Provençal School, also known as Fin Amors [or “courtly love”]. It was there that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, became acknowledged as the poet who surrounded herself with troubadours and minstrels that, through the sound of the lute (the ancestor of the guitar) composed ballads that were whispered in ladies’ ears.

Similarly, Bossa Nova is also whispered and never yelled. Romantic and elegant, yet never vulgarized, it conforms to the description set forth by filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Indeed, for Bossa Nova is nothing more than a product of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class that addresses itself to the world’s middle class. A middle class in Rio that, besides our Cariocas, took in a Bahian by the name of João Gilberto, the capixabas [people from Espirito Santo] Roberto Menescal and Nara Leão, paraibanos [people from the Northeast] such as Geraldo Vandré, João Donato from the state of Acre, and from São Paulo, Sergio Ricardo and Wanda Sá, as well as future songwriter Toquinho.

Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira, Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)
Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira (above him), Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)

It should be noted that during my lifetime as a performer, I came across something curious: that artistic talent is completely independent of intelligence, culture, good character and mental or physical stability. I have met or heard about artists endowed with undeniable excellence, but who were devoid of one or another of the qualities or gifts mentioned above.

A composer of Bossa Nova who cherishes his art suffers a series of influences that begin with the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, along with [the music of] Bach, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Brahms and Schumann. He suffers the influence of bolero from Mexico by [the likes of] Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel and Maria Grever — the same bolero that in Brazil took the form of samba-canção; of the French songwriters Charles Trenet and Henri Salvador.

In quick succession, by the influence of the five major American composers: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers; and by the following artists, i.e., Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Barney Kessel, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet who, much as we ourselves were, are identified with West Coast Jazz.

Finally, Bossa Nova owes its existence to an effervescent cultural outbreak (not a movement, as many have wrongly stated) that took place in Brazil during the 1950s and which manifested itself on the stage with the Arena Theater of São Paulo, the Brazilian Comedy Theater [or “TBC”], Teatro dos Quatro and Teatro Oficina. In the visual arts with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Wesley Duke Lee, among others. In architecture with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa and Burle Marx.

In the automotive industry and in the sports world with Pelé and Garrincha at the Soccer World Cup; with Éder Jofre in boxing, Maria Esther Bueno in tennis, Ademar Ferreira da Silva in the triple jump, and with the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant where Iêda Maria Vargas was crowned.

Bossa Nova was, nothing more, nothing less, than the musical background to it all.

Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016
Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016

As to the name “Bossa Nova,” that came about during a presentation we gave, in 1958, at the University Hebrew Group in Flamengo: myself, Silvinha Telles, Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli and Nara. There was a sign on the club’s door with our names on it, followed by the words “… and the Bossa Nova.” I asked the producer and director of the social club what that meant. His response was: “That’s the name I invented for you.” So we adopted it. We learned later that this creative little Jew had moved to Israel.

After that, we never heard from him again.

CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016

(English translation by Josmar Lopes, and printed with the gracious permission of Carlos Lyra and Magda Botafogo)

Link to the original entry on Carlos Lyra’s blog, ALÉM DA BOSSA NOVA: http://carlos-lyra.blogspot.com/2016/01/o-que-e-bossa-nova.html

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New, and What’s New Gets Old Fast

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Of Concerts and Symposiums

The Felix E. Grant "Wall of Fame" at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014
The Felix E. Grant “Wall of Fame” at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014

What’s old is new. And what’s new gets old fast.

This was the takeaway from my visit in June 2014 to the Strathmore Music and Arts Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. As part of their week-long celebration, “Bringing Bossa Nova to the United States,” and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album Jazz Samba recorded by Stan Getz and the Charlie Byrd Trio, I was invited to take part in the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Among the featured events that week was the world premiere rough-cut screening of the documentary Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Charmed the World, directed and produced by videographer Bret Primack and co-produced by music journalist, educator, guitarist, and bandleader Ken Avis, along with a Q & A session with Buddy Deppenschmidt, who played on the classic Jazz Samba. I had the immense pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famed jazz drummer, performer, and teacher on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at the Strathmore Music Center’s Education Room 309, which I have previously written about and posted (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/)

Prior to our interview, my wife Regina and I took an extensive tour of the Jazz Samba Project Exhibit, co-curated by Georgina Javor, the Strathmore’s former Director of Programming, and the aforementioned Mr. Avis. The exhibit showed only a small fraction of the extensive Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, at the University of the District of Columbia, which was itself curated by Dr. Judith A. Korey, Professor of Music, whom I also met and spoke to.

Felix E. Grant was a local Washington, D.C. radio broadcaster who took a personal interest in bringing jazz and Brazil’s music and culture to American shores. It was a fabulous exhibit! We were extremely pleased with its breadth and scope, in particular the “walls of sound” (my term) wherein album covers of well known and obscure recordings from the late 1950s up through the mid-60s were displayed up-and-down and across the room’s walls. We had some truly memorable moments re-visiting and re-connecting with bossa nova greats (and not-so-greats) from years past. The entire display reflected a high degree of professionalism and respect for Brazilian music — a most satisfying experience for us.

One of the highlights was a prominently showcased, generously proportioned coffee-table tome (a copy of which I subsequently ordered online) entitled Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, and from which the above exhibition was drawn.

My wife Regina marveling at singer Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova - June 2014
My wife Regina marveling at Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova – June 2014

Published in 2010 by Soul Jazz Books, a division of Soul Jazz Records, this hardcover volume is a collection of bossa nova record album cover art work from the Odeon, Elenco, Philips, and other labels from the period in question. It was compiled by Gilles Peterson, a British-based DJ, record collector, and record label owner, and Stuart Baker, the founder and proprietor of the Soul Jazz label.

Between its covers were featured breathtakingly beautiful modernist and revolutionary designs (some hinting at the coming “psychedelic” era) that reflected “the radical and exciting idealism of Brazil at the start of the 1960s,” an idealism that was quickly squashed with the advent of the military dictatorship post-1964 and the subsequent crackdown of 1968.

The fading memory of those bitter times and my fellow Brazilians’ nearly two-decade long struggle to free themselves from the generals’ iron grip have left some young people — and a growing number of old-timers with faulty recollections — with an alarming nostalgia for “the way things were.” This self-deluded yearning for the purported “good old days,” where Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) — curiously, the country’s motto stamped on the Brazilian flag — remains an unrealized promise, will serve as an excellent example of our penchant for hankering after a non-existent past.

My observation above of things that are old being new and those that are new getting old stems as well from a Friday evening concert of June 6, 2014, by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and the Grammy Award-winning Niteroi-born singer-musician Sérgio Mendes and his band. Both Sérgio and Eliane have long pedigrees in the pop-music business going back many decades.

Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes - Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014
Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes – Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014

In Eliane’s case, her piano playing craft on the night of the concert was anything but old. Quite the contrary, she displayed finger-snapping pep and vigor to burn on the old 88s. Her treatment of material by Jobim, Ary Barroso, and Ronaldo Bôscoli, in addition to some of her own compositions, was well-nigh perfect, with just the right amount of zing and pizzazz in all the right places. Eliane was helped by a crack band of first-rate players, consisting of husband Marc Johnson on upright bass and the carioca-born Rafael Barata on drums. Barata made a particularly spectacular impression with his lightning-fast solos and fancy stick-work — why, the man was a veritable human octopus!

The second half of the program, which starred Mendes on keyboards and vocals, and his wife Gracinha Leporace as soloist providing backup support, included toward the end a re-imagined “rap” version of Jorge Ben Jor’s signature “Mas Que Nada” tune — fine and dandy in execution, but hardly an audience favorite with the over-50 crowd that predominated — and a final encore of Mendes, John Powell, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Siedah Garrett’s “Real in Rio” from their 2011 animated collaboration Rio (produced by Blue Sky Studios) that fell flat and virtually sucked the air out of the good vibes left over from “Mas Que Nada.”

Mixing the old with the new, then, turned out to not only to be a mixed bag but one that left a big, fat hole in an otherwise excellent program shared by two established Brazilian artists.

The Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Before I get into the particulars of the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium, let me recount what led up to my participation in that weekend invitational. It was Buddy Deppenschmidt himself who informed me about this event in Bethesda. He sent me the link back in mid-March 2014, which I swiftly checked out. As I did so, my wife called me to say that somebody from the Jazz Samba Fest had phoned my home asking for additional information. Now that was quick! My wife tried to get the name of the lady who called, but was unable to understand the semi-garbled message.

My initial thought, if indeed I’d ever get the rare opportunity to be up there with the Giants of Jazz Samba and Bossa Nova, was to discuss Black Orpheus (that is, the original play and musical), how it all came about, how the Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim partnership came together, and all that jazz. Might as well put my knowledge to good use, at least that was my impression, since I had been involved in trying to bring the project to Broadway for the last, what, six or more years!

Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall -- Strathmore, June 2014
Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall at the Strathmore, June 2014

Finally, I received an e-mail from Ms. Georgina Javor, the young lady who had called my home. She would love to have me attend some of the festivities and asked if I had ever moderated any discussions before? I told her that yes, I had moderated a few as well as interviewed several personalities in the recent past, and that I would love to moderate the Q & A session with Buddy.

Georgina spelled out the terms of my participation, to which I accepted. In addition, she kindly provided tickets to the Elias-Mendes Friday night concert, which for us turned out to be the spicy topping on this all-Brazilian pastry.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part I’ (1972) — The Dark of Side of the American Dream

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Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto)
Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in The Godfather, Part I

“I believe in America,” an unseen voice exclaims. After which, a dull, amber-colored light illuminates the person speaking: a man with a comb-over in his mid-50s, dressed in a black tuxedo and winged collar. The camera now begins to pull back — slowly and deliberately — matching the cadences of the man’s speech. The speaker resumes his story. “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion.”

While he is speaking, the camera continues to spend an inordinate amount of time studying the man’s features: his dark eyes, his pursed lips, his foreign accent, his distressed tone, and his obvious discomfort at having to beg for a favor from the dreaded Don Vito Corleone. The man telling his tale of woe is the sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who informs Don Corleone of how his beloved daughter was attacked and nearly raped by two young men, one of whom was her boyfriend. “She resisted. She kept her honor,” he exclaims, his eyes glowing with pride, but, as Bonasera then reveals, “they beat her like an animal.” He starts to weep.

Seconds later, with the camera pulling back, the blurred, shadowy form of a figure is seen at left. The figure signals with his right hand for one of the listeners in the room to provide the undertaker with some refreshment. Continuing to pull back, the camera now shows Bonasera in his chair growing smaller and smaller before our eyes, while the figure at left starts to take shape behind a desk, looming larger and larger in comparison.

And so begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with the cautiously chosen words of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera making a desperate plea for justice in Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. This scene, so memorable in its outcome and so carefully constructed and paced by the actors and crew, sets the stage for what is to come. It broadcasts the undisputed fact of the godfather’s hold on men, only to see that hold slip away and deteriorate with the unraveling his realm by others.

Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever have imagined. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as great literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered).

Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)
Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)

Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in their hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are the syndicate’s life blood. The men who work for this syndicate are bound to each other by their adherence to a code of honor. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in illegal drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him and his family in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. And honor to a code, as we learn in the end, can both be adhered to or not.

Played by the legendary method-actor Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of his hand, a cock of the head, a mere whisper into someone’s ear, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed and carried out, especially by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Both are giants among mortals, or so they are meant to appear. But it’s all an illusion, wiped away by the necessities of their chosen profession.

Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however, sending in his place an actress posing as a Native American) for his subtle, tour de force performance as Don Corleone, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. For a film that concerns itself with such disreputable types as hoods and gangsters, Brando is still able to find the human element in many a situation. For instance, his playful handling of grandson Anthony in the garden scene late in the picture, where he places an orange peel into his mouth and musses his hair up like a scarecrow to frighten the little boy with a monstrous visage, only to comfort the crying child a split second later.

Equally deserving of mention is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes as he talks) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said that Francis Coppola’s film is about the dark side of the American dream, and there are many examples throughout where this dictum has been carried out with startling efficiency (e.g., the decapitated horse’s head, the bullet through Moe Green’s eye). While true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with a screenplay by Coppola and author Puzo) is the unquestioned loyalty and devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite Michael’s distaste for dad’s “work.” Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Virgil Sollozzo (a cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan, equally hot-tempered) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth.

Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)
Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)

So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those pictures that demands repeated viewings as well as our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen The Godfather, there are always fresh insights to be savored, over and over again: the opening trumpet solo — mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop, Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features at Bonasera’s funeral parlor; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael all-but wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing stoically as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more.

With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as the family consigliere Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Pete Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. The striking cinematography is by the late Gordon Willis, with incredibly detailed production designs by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film theme by Nino Rota.

Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)
Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)

Speaking of film scores, there are two romantic ballads featured in the picture: one, the pop song “I Have But One Heart,” sung by Al Martino at Connie’s wedding, was originally published in 1945 and recorded by Vic Damone, with music written by Johnny Farrow and lyrics by Marty Symes; the other number, the so-labeled “Love Theme from The Godfather” — more familiarly known as “Speak Softly Love” — was composed by Nino Rota, with lyrics by Larry Kusik. Given an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score of 1973, Rota was disqualified from competition when it was learned that “Speak Softly Love” was previously used by him for a 1958 movie called Fortunella.

Need we say more?

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes