Thursday, June 16, 2016

Great Guitar Solos, #10: Prince attacks "Whole Lotta Love"

For years, I didn't know that Prince was a bad-ass guitarist. I listened to him primarily during the height of his commercial popularity ("1999" and "Purple Rain"), before concert videos were readily available, and rarely heard stand alone solos that demanded attention; his leads on vinyl tended to be short lines that added color to the compositions. I was under the impression that he used the guitar mainly for songwriting, or as a prop to hide behind onstage, like Bruce Springsteen. 

Boy was I wrong.

The epiphany came when I first saw the video below, from the 2004 Rock Hall of Fame ceremony. Watch as Prince comes in at 3:38 with mad shred:



I viewed the clip several times, eyes (and ears) wide, and then filed it away in the mental recesses where treasured YouTube performance videos go to die. 

Flash forward to last April. I wasn't a huge Prince fan, but his passing hit me harder than the
deaths of other musical eminences this year. George Martin was 90; I was grateful he had lived as long as he did. David Bowie was 69 and had had drug problems early in his life, so I wasn't that surprised when he died. Paul Kantner had lived a full life and his best work was forty years in the rear view mirror. Ditto for Keith Emerson and Maurice White.

Prince, by contrast, was relatively young and appeared to be still vibrant. Every time I saw him in media appearances, he was dressed to the nines and looked healthy. I had never read
anything about him using drugs or alcohol; I suspected he was a straight edge like most Jehovah's Witnesses. Just six weeks before his death he played the Paramount Theater in Oakland. Walking past the theater on my way to work, I saw his name on the marquee and assumed he would kill it, as he always did. 

As the shock set in in the days after his death, I came across a concert video I had never seen, Prince's rendition of "Whole Lotta Love." I'm generally skeptical of Led Zeppelin coversbecause so few musical acts are capable of doing justice to the original songsbut this performance is an exception. 



The above video captures much of what made Prince unique. The wicked falsetto vocal. The dandy threads. The beautiful, slinky women in Prince's backing band. The throwback psychedelic light show. And the sick lead guitar. Launching with the words "no format tonight," at 1:01, Prince puts on a guitar clinic of Hendrixian proportions, bringing a big, bold sound with soaring bends, tight vibratos, tasteful hammer-on pull-offs, and electrifying stagecraft. 

Considering the decline of the original batch of '60s six-string gods, and the dearth of new ones, Prince's passing may have robbed us of one of the last true guitar heroes. 

Other Truth and Beauty guitar essays:

         Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan," 
a first-hand account of Vaughan's final concert

here for "The heaviest New Year's Eve guitar jam ever: Hendrix
does 'Machine Gun'"

here for "The underappreciated ingenuity of Robbie Krieger"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #8: Freddie King's 'San-Ho-Zay'"
                       
  here for "Link Wray's 'Rumble'"
                  
here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock" 

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee"

 here for "Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My'"

and here for "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar - The Six-String Wizardry of Frank Zappa, Part II"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stephen Colbert delivers the best political roast of all time

April of 2006 was a dire time for the state of American democracy. In just five-and-a half years, George W. Bush had stolen the 2000 election, ignored intelligence warnings and presided over one of the biggest national security failures in U.S. history, rammed the Patriot Act through Congress, manipulated public fear to lie us into the invasion of Iraq, eroded the wall between church and state, squandered the Clinton budget surpluses on tax cuts for millionaires and lavish subsidies to defense contractors, littered the courts with right-wing judges, established the worst environmental record in decades, and allowed a major American city to drown through sheer incompetence.

Worse yet, there was no end in sight. Though some pundits thought the Democrats might re-take Congress that fall—and the White House two years hence—it was far from guaranteed. The Republicans had controlled Congress with ironclad discipline for 11 years and had made gains in the prior two elections despite having no significant accomplishments to campaign on, and to that point in his life, George W. Bush was unfamiliar with the notion of accountability, having glided from one failure to another while increasing his job stature, like the Peter Principle poster boy he was.

The White House Correspondents Association Dinner, held April 29, 2006, should have been a sleepy affair. Though there had been left-leaning comics before, they had tended

to follow the event’s unspoken protocol of playing nice. Scattered partisan jabs were acceptable, but the jokes were generally harmless fun, and the event on one level was intended to be a salute to the watchdog role of the American media. 

Enter Stephen Colbert, keynote speaker and satiric stealth missile. At the time, “The Colbert Report” was new. People didn’t know what to expect, which offered Colbert a wide berth. What followed was an all-out assault on the presidency of George W. Bush. As the president looked on just to his right, Colbert targeted Bush’s colossal policy failures, Nixonesque ethics, and faith-based imperviousness to inconvenient facts. As an added bonus, Colbert knocked Bush’s enablers: the supine mainstream media who had served Bush’s interests by failing the U.S. public on one big story after another and the one-third of Americans who implausibly continued to support the president (“There’s still some liquid in that glass, but I wouldn’t drink it…the last third is usually backwash”).

Though the scathing roast below quieted the audience of entitled D.C. insiders and received little major media coverage after, video of the performance went viral and raised the profile of Stephen Colbert, who would go on to snare the coveted Late Show post many years later, a delayed karmic payout for this brave act of public service.            
 


More political writing by Dan Benbow:  

                          Justice Delayed: "Kill the Messenger" vindicates Gary Webb

                                              21st Century Republicans, Part IV

                                "Inequality for All" and the Elephant in the Room

                                     Memorial Day in the United States of Amnesia

                                              Romney-Ryan's Road to Perdition

                      The Master of Low Expectations: 666 Reasons Sentient Citizens are 
                                Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rain as portrayed by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors

Rain has been on my mind a lot this winter. 

As of last fall, California had experienced a four-year drought which left us in a very precarious position, so the relatively heavy rainfall these past few months has been welcome. 

Sometimes, as I stand in my living room gazing out the window while the rain patters against glass, or plod through Oakland with an umbrella in hand, my thoughts veer from the here and now to certain rain-related songs. 

Rain has been explored by everyone from the Eurythmics to Buddy Guy to Milli Vanilli, but four cuts by rock royalty stand out for me.

First up is the Beatles gem "Rain," from 1966. Lyrically, the song isn't much, but musically, "Rain" is a perfect encapsulation of the mid-years Beatles pop formula. Clocking in at a lean 3:04, the song features many Fab Four specialties, including ringing guitars, a bouncy bass line, liquid harmonies, and psychedelic-era backward vocals.


Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song" from 1973 is a more muted track that shows Zeppelin's soft side. The band best known for heavy guitar riffs and bone-crushing drums here melds acoustic guitar, brush-stick percussion, and Mellotrona synthesizer which produces the string soundsto compliment Robert Plant's lyrics about the vicissitudes of a challenging (and ultimately rewarding) long-term romantic relationship.


Seattle native Jimi Hendrix was no stranger to rain, and it comes out in brilliant color below, in a video which fuses two separate tracks from 1968's "Electric Ladyland": "Rainy Day, Dream Away" and "Still Raining, Still Dreaming." In these songs, rain encourages the listener to lay back and groove as the music follows suit, starting out with saxophone flutters, meandering guitar lines, and organ voicings that variously intertwine, play point-counterpoint, or lurch off in their own directions, over a lazy four-four drumbeat. 

"Still Raining, Still Dreaming" comes in at 3:10 with a talking wah-wah guitar that speaks a language only Hendrix could evoke. By 3:57, the song is in deep jam mode, gutbucket drums driving the beat as unison guitars pan back and forth across left and right speakers and the organ comps in the background, eventually building to a heavenly crescendo. Not long before the two songs bridge, Hendrix says he is "leaning on my windowsill, digging everything," and we are right there with him.  
       


When the Doors first presented "Riders on the Storm" to long-time producer Paul Rothchild, in 1970, he dismissed the song as cocktail jazz. Fortunately for us, the Doors ignored Rothchild's poor judgment. Highlights include a jazzy opening which features heavy rainfall with an ominous bass line, a boss organ solo at 2:46, and the ethereal, cascading kisses of the Fender Rhodes keyboard throughout. This masterpiece of mood and space was the last track recorded by Jim Morrison, a fitting swan song that projects the otherworldly aura of rain like few tunes before or since.
         
                                                     

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The breathtaking stupidity of #BernieOrBust

I love Bernie Sanders. Through three decades of political junkiedom, he is my favorite public official other than former Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone. Few politicians exhibit the authenticity and empathy that oozes out of Bernie’s every pore. No elected official speaks as passionately about the economic struggles of everyday Americans and the corrosive impact of corporate money on our ailing democracy. Bernie has my vote in the Democratic primary and I will enthusiastically volunteer for him if he becomes the Democratic candidate this fall.

Yet I find the #BernieOrBust crusade to be one of the most breathtakingly stupid political movements ever conceived.

Though many BernieOrBusters are not old enough to realize it, we have been here before. During the 2000 presidential race, Ralph Nader and his most ardent supporters repeatedly claimed that Al Gore and George W. Bush were so similar that it wouldn't make much of a difference who won. This assertion was accompanied by talking points that reduced an election with enormous human stakes down to bumper sticker slogans which were childlike in their simplicity. Gore and Bush were "two heads of the same beast" or "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Rather than vote for "the lesser of two evils," Naderistas counselled that one should "vote your hopes, not your fears," though there was never a remote chance that Nader would become president and the fears of a Bush Administration were more than justified.

Based on Bush's record as governor of Texas, astute observers knew that the Nader talking points were nonsense and that a Bush presidency would be a nightmare for progressive
values. They were also acutely aware, through the application of basic math, that Nader's candidacy could siphon enough votes from Al Gore to put George W. Bush in office, which is exactly what happened thanks to Nader's vote totals in Florida and New Hampshire.

The results? The appointment of ultra-right officials who were determined to undermine their agencies' historic missions. A systematic reversal of liberal-learning Clinton-Gore policies. The worst environmental record in ages. Clinton's hard-earned surplus pissed away
on tax cuts for the rich that increased inequality and failed to grow the economy. The erosion of the wall between church and state. A slew of right-wing judges who genuflected before the corporate interests that Nader routinely flogged during his presidential run. The abandonment of international treaties, a unilateral invasion based on lies, and alienation from the international community. And staggering incompetence, from the lack of action taken before 9/11 (despite numerous warnings of potential attacks) to the failure to adequately plan for the occupation of Iraq to the gutting and privatization of FEMA, which failed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to Bush's failure to pre-empt the economic crash of September, 2008 despite clear warnings in 2007 that the housing bubble could burst. By any objective measure, Bush's presidency was a colossal disaster not only for America but for the progressive movement Nader claimed to champion.

Anyone who lives in a contested state who refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton in November of 2016 threatens to make the same stupid and reckless mistake that Nader's Florida supporters made in 2000.

No, Hillary hasn't won the Democratic nomination yet, and she was heavily favored in 2008 too, but the Bernie Sanders of 2016 is not the Barack Obama of 2008. His quest to become the Democratic standard bearer is a long shot, whether you look at polls, endorsements, betting markets, or the prognostications of data god Nate Silver, who gives Bernie a 5-10% chance of winning.

To justify not voting for the likely Democratic candidate this fall, BernieOrBusters peddle the notion that there is a major policy chasm between Bernie and Hillary, that Hillary is essentially "Republican light," but it just isn't so. During their time in the Senate, Hillary and Bernie voted together 93% of the time; far from being "Republican light," Hillary was the 11th most liberal senator, placing her to the left of 75-80% of the Democratic caucus and all of the Republicans. Over the past several months Clinton has released a long list of progressive proposals that offer a stark contrast to her Republican rivals, including policies dealing with the reform of Wall Street and drug laws, childcare, assistance to caregivers for the elderly and disabled, voting rights, prescription drug imports from Canada, LGBT rights, universal Pre-K and college debt, progressive taxation, autism, drug and alcohol addiction, Alzheimer's disease, gun control, and healthcare for veterans

Hillary would also appoint radically different judges to the Supreme Court than any of the GOP candidates, which is an especially crucial issue now that four SCOTUS justices are 80 and older, including cancer survivor Ruth Ginsburg. Among many other toxic decisions, the current 5-4 Republican majority has given us Citizens United, unraveled the Voting Rights Act, kept millions of poor Americans from receiving healthcare coverage, and now threatens to deliver a death blow to unions. If the replacement for any of the four liberal judges is chosen by a Republican president, expect more of the same and worse, including the end of Roe v. Wade and a return to the glory days of back alley abortions.    

In addition, while a Republican administration would do everything in its power to dismantle the progress of the last seven years, President Clinton would protect and expand upon the Affordable Care Act and the rest of the Obama legacy.  

For these reasons, and many, many others—including Clinton's unique qualifications for the office due to her intelligence, work ethic, experience, and public policy knowledge—Bernie recently said that she "will be an infinitely better candidate and president on her worst day than the Republican candidate on his best day." Swing state lefties who plan to stay home this November if Bernie doesn't win the primary, or waste their vote on a write-in candidate, need to remember that social progress is made by coalitions, not noble gestures.

More political writing by Dan Benbow:  

                          Justice Delayed: "Kill the Messenger" vindicates Gary Webb

                                              21st Century Republicans, Part IV

                                "Inequality for All" and the Elephant in the Room

                                     Memorial Day in the United States of Amnesia

                                              Romney-Ryan's Road to Perdition

                      The Master of Low Expectations: 666 Reasons Sentient Citizens are 
                                Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The underappreciated ingenuity of Robby Krieger

Seventy years ago today, the universe yielded up Robby Krieger, later to become the lone introvert in the Doors. Sharing space and time with outsized personalities such as the Lizard King, one of the most captivating lead singers ever, the hyper-talented and ever-voluble Ray Manzarek (who spent the second half of his life proselytizing about the Doors’ sizable legacy in a non-stop hepcat patter), and John Densmorethe activist and stubborn conscience of the band who unilaterally blocked the sale of "Light My Fire" to Cadillac for a $15,000,000 payday—the soft-spoken guitarist tended to be overshadowed and undersung. But Krieger's contributions were essential to the Doors’ unique sound, what Manzarek referred to as a "four-sided diamond." 

When the Doors were gathering tracks for their debut album, they were short of original material, so the band members parted for a few days to write songs. Upon his return, Robbie offered up the arrangement that would become “Light My Fire,” the mega-hit which launched the band.

Teenyboppers heard the three-minute single, but album track listeners were treated to a seven-minute version with a heady instrumental jam which features two extended solos. Following Ray Manzarek’s mesmerizing solo was a tall order, but Krieger keeps things interesting when he comes in at 3:18. Unlike most of the rock players of his day, he didn’t follow the blues power template of Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and forebears such as B.B. King; his solo is all clean channel finesse—colorful flamenco flutters and hammer-on pull-offs perfectly fitted to the huge pocket created by Densmore and Manzarek.


The last song on The Doors’ second album, “Strange Days,” is the epic “When the Music’s Over.” In one of the most powerful introductions committed to acetate, Ray Manzarek opens by vamping on the main theme, and is soon joined by Densmore, the two of them building tension that is released with Jim Morrison's blood-curdling shriek and Krieger’s big mystical wash of feedback. As Manzarek’s hypnotic organ and Morrison’s apocalyptic lyrics take center stage, Krieger stays in the background, doubling Manzarek or darting out quick little blues fills, until he plays what he later called his favorite solo, at 2:54.


Once, when asked what he was thinking about while he took solos in concert (with no expression on his face), Krieger said “my goldfish,” and it shows here. Unlike the muscular, virtuosic leads of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, Krieger’s solo is not a demonstration of chops or a climbing route to a crescendo but a mood reflecting his interest in the modal approach of Indian music. It is a perfect acid rock solo: oblique and multi-layered, a miasma of shapes and colors swimming around freely in your ears simultaneously in both the left and right channels.

One of the gems on the Doors’ third album, "Waiting for the Sun," is “Spanish Caravan.” Borrowing from the classical piece "Asturias," this song showcases yet another side of Robbie’s guitar voicings—fleet, nylon-stringed, flamenco finger picking.


The Doors’ final album, “L.A. Woman,” had several blues tracks. Manzarek, a Chicago native, had always had a foot in the blues. Years of cigarettes and heavy drinking had deepened Morrison’s voice, transforming his persona from that of a slinky and mystical shaman to a full-throated, whiskey-besotted bluesman. And the simplicity of blues arrangements appealed to the group after the departure of their long-time producer, Paul Rothchild, early in the sessions.

“Been Down So Long,” based on a '60s cult novel, is simple and stark. Driven by a pulsing bass line and bone-dry four-four drums, Manzarek's absence gives added emphasis to Krieger's tasty blues fills. While he didn’t possess the lightning-quick slide skills of Johnny Winter or the prowess of Duane Allman, Robbie was handy with the bottleneck, as evidenced by the eye-popping, Delta-influenced solos at 1:34 and 3:08. 


“Crawling King Snake” was an ancient standard previously recorded by blues giants John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. The Doors’ version is appropriately gritty, stripped-down, and true to the original spirit of the song. Robbie’s solo at 1:48, a model in dirty blues, is filled with jagged flurries of notes that cut like shards of glass.


Just three months after “L.A. Woman” hit record store shelves, Jim Morrison was found dead in a Paris bathtub. The surviving Doors recorded two more albums with Ray Manzarek on vocals, but the magic was gone. In the decades since, Krieger has made guest appearances, collaborated with John Densmore and Ray Manzarek, and released solo albums, but ultimately, the recordings that shine brightest are his rich and versatile stylings for the original lineup of the Doors, the four-sided diamond.

***
                                                    
Other Truth and Beauty guitar hero essays:

         Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan," 
a first-hand account of Vaughan's final concert

here for "The heaviest New Year's Eve guitar jam ever: Hendrix
does 'Machine Gun'"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #8: Freddie King's 'San-Ho-Zay'"
                       
  here for "Link Wray's 'Rumble'"
                  
here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock" 

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee"

 here for "Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My'"

and here for "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar - The Six-String Wizardry of Frank Zappa, Part II"

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Trumbo"

Toward the beginning of the biopic “Trumbo,” National Book Award winner Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) signs a contract with MGM for $75,000 per script, making him the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. As Trumbo inks the contract, one of the studio executives in the room praises the happy endings in his profitable screenplays and asks that he tone down his leftist politics, which are providing fodder for vicious right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a wonderfully poisonous Helen Mirren). Establishing the tone for the conflicts to follow, Trumbo drily suggests that the man stop reading Hopper. 

The setting is America, 1947. After spending 14 years in the political wilderness during an extended thrashing at the hands of Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, the Republican Party has re-taken control of Congress following the 1946 off-year elections. Capitalizing on their newfound political power, they have begun highly publicized show trials. The scapegoat of the moment is Hollywood Communists, people who in no way threaten U.S. national security that are nonetheless convenient, high profile targets of the GOP campaign of fear. Propagandistic anti-Communist newsreels from the time are embedded in the dramatic narrative to show the (manufactured) mass hysteria of the era.

Despite the congressional witch hunt swirling around him, Trumbo continues to act on the presumption that he lives in a free country. He exercises his freedom of speech by speaking out on behalf of picketing set workers. He crashes a u-rah-rah event of the Motion Picture
Helen Mirren as the red-baiting Hedda Hopper
Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, where he hands out First Amendment literature and confronts the keynote speaker, John Wayne—who had just finished a bombastic speech about protecting “the American way of life”—for being a macho posturer who had never served in uniform.


While his politics are radical, Trumbo lives a relatively traditional home life with his wife and three children on the Lazy T Ranch (a secluded little patch of heaven 70 miles northwest of L.A.) until a subpoena arrives from the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Appearing before Congress, Trumbo doesn’t flinch. Unlike many self-serving cowards, he doesn’t name names to protect his career. Neither does he cite the Fifth Amendment, as he has committed no crime. Rather than giving a direct response to the question of whether or not he was or has ever been a member of the Communist Party, Trumbo says, “I shall answer in my own words” and expounds on his First Amendment right to believe what he wants to believe. As he speaks, the black and white visual plane colorizes, as if to symbolize the way Trumbo is suffusing the grim and primitive with-us-or-against-us world of his foes with truth and light.

Trumbo is punished harshly for exercising free speech; his MGM contract is dissolved and he is sent to jail for contempt of Congress. When he gets out, a year later, he is unemployable,
blacklisted by all of the major studios. He has to sell the ranch and move into a middle-American neighborhood, where he is harassed with love it or leave it hate mail and dead animals in his pool.

Desperate to support his family, Trumbo takes the only work he can find, as a low-paid, grunt screenwriter for a B movie studio headed by Frank King (John Goodman, who fills the screen with full bluster). One condition of his indentured servitude is that his name isn’t attached to the scripts; his work is published under a dozen-odd different pseudonyms.

As Trumbo grinds away on stories about a man in a gorilla suit and an unlikely romance between a farmer’s daughter and an alien, the movie effectively conveys both the beauty and the drudgery of professional writing. While Trumbo is perched at his typewriter, jazz comes on like so many crackling synapses, ideas churning, and yet the work is exhausting: Trumbo smokes, slurps whiskey, and swallows bennies just to keep up, and his fixation on scripts—to the exclusion of all else—causes rifts within his family.

Despite his workload, Trumbo makes time to write a serious screenplay on the side. To conceal his identity, the script is submitted by a front, Trumbo’s friend Ian McLellan Hunter. Paramount buys the “Roman Holiday” screenplay for a sizable sum, and in 1954, Trumbo wins the Academy Award for Best Original Story—though the world doesn’t know it. The statuette is publicly accepted by McLellan as Trumbo and his family watch the event on television.

Trumbo continues to write and fix B movie scripts as rumors circulate through Hollywood about the true author of the “Roman Holiday” screenplay. Toward the late ’50s, though he is still publicly blacklisted, Trumbo gets private requests from two film industry heavy hitters
Dalton Trumbo in 1971
(director Otto Preminger and big name actor Kirk Douglas) to work up scripts for significant film projects in development, “Exodus” and “Spartacus.”


After many years of toil and persecution, Trumbo is on his way to beating the blacklist. When we later see his name in the credits on a movie screen, we feel relief, and a sense of social justice, but Trumbo is the exception to the rule. Most of the other victims of the blacklist—43 of whom were veterans—suffered creative ruin and in many cases, premature deaths.

Props are due to Bryan Cranston for putting his bankable name behind this project, and to director Jay Roach, who has brought together an A-list cast and a sharp script to make a film that, sadly, is all too relevant in 2015. All these years later, Republican attacks on The Other continue apace as GOP presidential candidates aggressively scapegoat the LGBT communityLatinos, and Muslims, showing that the home of the brave continues to be a cauldron of ignorance and fear a half century after the blacklist petered out.


Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:


"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")