Singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in an Aug. 4 live-streamed tribute to The Band’s “The Last Waltz” made Alabama-based singer-songwriter Early James a little uneasy. In this national moment when statues of Confederate war heroes are being removed amidst Black Lives Matter protests, he wanted to be clear he had no sympathy to the causes of the Old South. So he reworked some of the song’s lyrics. The title line, for example, became “Tonight, we drive old Dixie down.”
You can read more about his rewrite here. He certainly did a credible job, but did he still come up a little short of capturing the current sensibility? Early, what would you think about something more like this:
Today’s word from Kerry is an apology for being so late in posting my song about the coronavirus, “The Quarantine Scene.” I’m sorry. Self-isolation was a novel thing when I wrote it on March 19 and imagined it rocketing around the world as the viral hit of the pandemic. Now that the first wave of business reopenings have started, it’s a bit long in the tooth. My cultural antennae tell me no one is craving a nostalgic look back at the self-quarantine of March and April.
One qualification for my apology: I did manage a timely performance of the song when my band did three live streams in April. Our six band members each performed solo from our homes, including our drummer, Marty York, who played a memorable drum solo on his washing machine on that first night, April 13, when I debuted “The Quarantine Scene.”
But I knew I needed a more fully arranged version for this thing to go viral. And I wanted to produce it in true quarantine style, from the home studios of people who never played the song together in person, so it would not only be about the quarantine, but of the quarantine. And it felt right to restrict performers to family members, because you quarantine with your family. It didn’t hurt that several of my brothers and nephews could fill out the arrangement nicely.
We had challenges. Our best bass player (Forrest) wasn’t available because his brother (Kieran) had bailed out of Brooklyn to stay with him in his suddenly cramped Tipperary Hill (Syracuse) apartment. An even bigger issue: none of the three who signed on had experience running a home digital recording studio. But this would be a chance to learn! Wasn’t that what the quarantine was all about, learning Zoom and other digital technologies that provide virtual socialization? Besides, my brother Phil (drums) and I were already dabblers, and we had talked about trying remote recording projects before the pandemic. My nephew Zac (violin) hadn’t recorded digitally in years, but he enthusiastically bought the equipment he needed. And we were off.
Some things came easily. Others took time and patience—a lot of YouTube tutorials, a few redos and a consultation or two with outside experts—until we eventually had something we all felt good about.
Now as the self-quarantine is slowly lifting, I realize that this was my one project that ran through the entirety of our “pure” self-isolation period from mid-March to mid-May. It led me to learn at least some of the intricacies of Garageband software and how to turn a Zoom meeting into a YouTube live stream to broadcast our band’s performances and the song’s debut. It rallied me to open a SoundCloud account, where this recording is my first post. And it led me to engage with family members in other cities, and imagine a slew of projects we can do together during—and after—the pandemic.
Don’t get me wrong. I also took it easy during self-isolation. I had few deadlines. I went on long dog walks. I re-initiated long-ignored projects around the house. I phoned some people I hadn’t connected with in a while, with many more I should call. I watched movies with my wife almost every night. And Tiger King.
Those are some of the reasons it took me longer than I thought it would to get this song out. But no worries. Not being too hard on yourself is part of what the quarantine scene was all about.
Dusting off an impeccable ability to read the moment that has been mothballed for decades, Bob Dylan on March 26 released his first original song in eight years. Apparently he’d been sitting on his recording of “Murder Most Foul” for some time and decided to release it now for “my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” he wrote in a tweet.
And all 17 minutes of are is free to stream. No doubt, his generosity was in part a response to this strange time in which we now live, with huge swathes of our economy shut down as people isolate themselves to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Everyday people are hoarding toilet paper. The New York Times runs photos of empty Manhattan streets looking like a Twilight Zone revival. And the president asks the states’ governors to show their appreciation to him before he responds to their pandemic needs.
I’m among those who have been taking advantage of the bonus self-isolation time now on my hands to delve into long-shelved projects. This is a time to write that book, to organize those family photos, to devote time to the longer forms that are so easy to set aside in favor of tweets and TV. So if there was ever a time to release the longest song in a catalog that includes such marathon performances as “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Desolation Row,” this is it. (I’m a little disappointed that at 16:56, it is just short of the 17:05 album version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—couldn’t you have stretched for 10 more seconds Bob?)
On my first listen, it took me a while to adjust to the song’s sonic landscape: bowed bass and strings, piano, occasional drums and that gravelly old Bob Dylan voice, not exactly singing, but not exactly talking either. It comes off a bit like a moodier “If Dogs Run Free,” somewhat reminiscent of the hypnotic sonic washes created on non-coronavirus Wednesday nights in Rochester’s Little Theatre Café by the Margaret Explosion. Floating in that are the sometimes vivid, sometimes pedestrian images of Dylan’s lyrics, lulling you to sleep, then slapping you in the face, then tapping you on the shoulder. They mix clinical details of the Kennedy assassination with endless cultural references in ramblings too fresh to follow precise meter, but always confirmed with rhymes. And just when you think the song is going off into some kind of 1960s Aquarian romp, the Kennedy references return, echoing across the song as they did across the era, as if they shaped everything that came after, as if the counterculture and the movements it spawned were responses to that moment, to that Murder Most Foul.
And what of the title? I remember an entire college literature class period being devoted to the three-word opening line of Moby Dick. This title feels like it could elicit a similar discussion. Its use of an archaic form begs the question, is the observer out of touch or perhaps seeking to express the long view of history? It uses words not typically associated with the Kennedy assassination. “Murder” makes it less regal, more familiar and immediate. “Foul” is a gentlemanly way to say, “out of bounds,” or more accusingly, that “It’s grossly offensive” or more bluntly, that “It stinks!” And this one isn’t just foul. It’s the most foul. And so on.
When looking through old things, I sometimes reflect on how different the world might have been had some people lived: the Kennedy brothers and perhaps Martin Luther King and Sam Cooke, too. This song stirs all that up. It makes you think, this is how we got here. Via a murder most foul, engineered, I suspect, by someone whose request for a favor wasn’t honored.
For fans of The Band, the recently released movie, Once Were Brothers, is more than just a fun romp through the group’s catalog and mythology. It’s also first-person testimony in the long-running debate over whether or not The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson is an asshole.
That charge was made in round terms over the years by his late band mates Levon Helm and Rick Danko, most pointedly in Levon’s 1993 biography, This Wheel’s on Fire. Money was a central issue. As the writer of most of The Band’s original songs, Robbie gets most of the songwriting royalties from a catalog that includes cultural touchstones like “The Weight.” Levon claimed the songs were collaborations, so he should get royalties, too—a claim that became especially poignant when he went into bankruptcy after a tragic house fire.
How would this movie color my view of the feud? I admit I came in with my guard up. Brothers is a Robbie-driven narrative, and I wasn’t a fan of his contributions to The Band’s acclaimed 1978 movie, The Last Waltz. Too many woe-is-me stories about “The Road.” Too many glamour shots of the maestro passionately coaxing magic from his Fender. Still, I bought the DVD, thinking the musical segments would be worth it. But even the music sometimes comes up short, literally, as verses were edited out of several of their songs—not what I expect from a concert film.
At any rate, I’m relieved to report that in Brothers, Robbie was more likable. Rather than complain about the road, he spoke of his upbringing and the joy he found in the music he heard during visits to the Native American reservation where his mother was raised. And how he found inspiration for writing “The Weight” by reading the manufacturing sticker inside his Martin guitar, “made in Nazareth, Pa.,” hence the opening line, “I pulled into Nazareth.” Like how George Harrison’s “Handle Me With Care” was inspired by a packing carton. (Note to myself: Read more labels!)
A Lot To Like
Mixing such anecdotes with strong musical performances and vintage footage and photos, this film has a lot to like. And I gained new sympathy for Robbie. He was the most ambitious Band member, the one who kept pushing them, the one who was first to marry and have kids, the one who behaved most responsibly. When some members got lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, I empathized with Robbie’s frustration.
And yet, the movie still plays like Robbie’s attempt at controlling The Band’s narrative. His discussion of The Last Waltz seems revisionist, for example. Other Band members have claimed the film was Robbie’s project, and they went along with only partial awareness of its scope. But in this movie Robbie calls it a group effort and claims his intent was that The Band could still get back together. I checked though, and in the Last Waltz he was definitive that this was their last show, that he was done touring.
Robbie also makes the preposterous claim in Brothers that it would have been impossible for The Band to get back together. News flash: the other four did reform in 1983, continued after Richard Manual’s death in 1986 and stayed together until Rick Danko’s death in 1999. That’s a 16-year stretch—as long as the original group was together as The Band, The Hawks and the other names they concocted. Robbie was the only one who didn’t participate in this second life. Brothers makes no mention of the post-Robbie Band, nor that one of the brothers, Richard Manual, hung himself while touring with that outfit, a rather glaring omission.
Who Wrote the Songs?
The movie briefly addresses the songwriting controversy as part of its passing mention of Levon’s later-life contempt for Robbie—and it was pretty much dismissed as a “Get-off-my-lawn!” argument.
I’ve always sympathized with Levon and his big-hearted approach to the music, and I initially supported his songwriting claim. But as I looked more closely, I found myself on Robbie’s side. No one disputes that he brought the songs in. If others then contributed to the bones of the song—the lyrics, the melody, the hooks—then they are co-writers. But nothing I’ve heard from Levon rises up to that level. His descriptions are more about arranging, not co-writing.
Robbie has defended himself by pointing out that Levon rarely has songwriting credits even in his solo recordings. Of course, if Levon were here, he might point out that Robbie’s only hit songs are the ones Levon and his Band mates sing. Touché!
And that’s where this controversy has settled. The mechanisms for paying the group’s members didn’t match the influence each had. And rather than find an innovative way to achieve equitable pay, Robbie hid in his technical correctness, while Levon made songwriting-credit claims that don’t hold up under scrutiny.
‘One or the Other‘
Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a dysfunctional family mess, as Robbie did. Of course, you like to think that a real hero, a real brother, would find a way to help a brother in need. Robbie apparently never stepped up, nor did he appear to reconcile with Levon. In Brothers, Robbie says that when he got word of Levon’s impending death, he visited, but arrived too late. Levon was in a coma and didn’t reawaken. So Robbie prayed for him. Evidently that was as close as they came to reconciliation.
Ruminating on the movie after getting home, I stumbled upon an earlier brotherly reference from the Stage Fright album they were working on when the drug issues surfaced. Richard sings this Robbie-written lyric in “The Shape I’m In:” “Save your neck, or save your brother. Looks like it’s one or the other.”
That was my reaction when I first saw a sink that grouped the three hand washing enablers inches apart in proper deployment order: soap dispenser, faucet and hand drier. A one-stop washing experience made especially convenient by motion-activators. Soap dispensed with a swipe of the hand. Water ready when you are. Then the coup de grace: the hand drier. No more hands dripping walks to nearest paper towel dispenser—or worse, waiting in line for one. It’s like the automated car wash for hands. What more could you ask for?
Well, actually, the coronavirus gives us a glimpse of a new frontier.
Proper washing requires 20 seconds of scrubbing, healthcare professionals remind us as we attempt to stop the spread of the virus. So how do you time it? With a timepiece? Your watch is on your wrist, which is involved in hand washing, so it’s not ideal. Your phone probably has a stopwatch, but then you are pressing and swiping, which isn’t convenient, and you’re doing it in a watery environment, which may damage your phone. Timing it in your head isn’t reliable. Some suggest singing a 20-second song like “Happy Birthday,” but that gets old after say, your 10,654th washing.
Then there’s the boredom factor. Twenty seconds is a long time to invest in a repetitive act that offers no distractions from TV or social media.
What to do? In the future, I believe we’ll have sinks with voice-activated timers that play 20-second songs to signal the proper length of a hand-washing session, thereby addressing both the timing and the boredom factors. Sink users could select a song they know or ask “Siri de Bain” to select one for them.
Standard selections might remind washers why it’s important to give their hands the full 20-second treatment. See “20 Seconds” and “Let’s Talk About Your Hands.”
No doubt some will offer tongue-in-cheek observations, as in “I’m Washing My Hands.”
And some experimental artists will forgo hand washing altogether to provide more of a 20-second experience. Give a listen to “No Time For Fooling Around.”
With multiple sinks in the public restroom, this could result in cacophony, so the enabling technology will need to provide a methodology for precisely controlling sound waves to be audible within tightly prescribed areas. Something like the Get Smart TV series’ “Cone of Silence,” but invisible.
So there’s the vision. Technologists: make it a reality.
We were in the balcony of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester when Late Show With Stephen Colbert Music Director Jon Batiste said his band had one more song to play, and they’ll meet us in the lobby. It was Second Line Time!
Batiste had foreshadowed the band’s offstage mobility in their opening number. Four musicians were onstage—Batiste on piano accompanied by bass, drums and percussion—but wasn’t that a horn we were hearing? When a sax player finally emerged from behind the fold of curtains on stage right, the applause he received was surely for his playing, but also expressed relief that we weren’t crazy—we HAD heard a sax. It kicked off a good show of mostly instrumental jazz.
But now, the show was ending, and the band was filtering offstage while playing their final number. The players emerged in the audience, snaking around in the front rows, each with a mobile form of their instrument. Even the Cowboy-hatted drummer’s tambourine was still sounding in the house PA system.
Everyone in the balcony was on their feet, but few were moving, so we slipped behind the people standing in front of their chairs and joined the stream of folks headed to the lobby. Descending the second, final flight of stairs the faint acoustic sound of the band seeped into our awareness, and was suddenly louder than what came through the PA. The band was somewhere in the mass of people swirling about in the lobby. We pushed on until we could move no further, hearing, but not seeing them. I pulled out my phone, shooting video from up high, thinking the camera might capture things I was unable to see live.
Then the seas parted, and sure enough, Batiste emerged perfectly framed in my iPhone. Turns out he’s about my height—not as tall as I expected. They circled up in front of us for a solo or two. By then my wife had her iPhone rolling video as well. What a thrill, to have the band cozy up to us that way.
After a few solos, Batiste led the second line right out the door where they camped on the sidewalk under the Eastman Theatre marquis along Gibbs Street. We followed them. What else could you do? Maybe they would march us to an ice cream store and buy everyone a cone.
Well, that didn’t happen. But we weren’t complaining.
In the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 20, there was a new twist in the Trump whistleblower scandal. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent phone call the U.S. president pressured the Ukrainian head of state eight times to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s potential 2020 presidential opponent Joe Biden.
On our way that night to the Kodak Theatre on the Ridge to see Randy Rainbow, who has made a name for himself by posting parody songs about Donald Trump’s crazy ride in the White House, we speculated on whether this latest scandal would be part of the show. No parody song about it yet, we predicted, but probably a mention.
We were wrong. There was no mention. And frankly, I was disappointed. I’d come to the show straight from riding my exercise bike to the latest breaking news from Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room. Randy’s show felt like when I tuned into the Late Show after a day of wacky Trump revelations only to find that Colbert is on vacation and tonight’s show was filmed three months ago. It’s funny, but it’s not the fix I’m looking for.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a show based on whether or not it provides your personal fix. Randy Rainbow’s song parodies were, like his YouTube posts, spot on. “There is nothing like a wall,” sung to the tune of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” Someday we’ll find it, the Russian connection,” to the tune of “The Rainbow Connection.” “Super callous fragile ego extra braggadocios,” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Rudy and the Beast” to “Beauty and the Beast.” They go on and on.
Fittingly for our data-driven era, his show mixed his live performance with big-screen video, sometimes timing voiceovers to work with his live music, sometimes edited to make Randy appear to be interviewing the Orange One. In those, he’s an endearing character with a great sense of comic timing. Onstage he’s also a bit of a whirling dervish, changing his costume frequently from black tie to red sequins to ruby slippers.
But how do you keep your song parodies current with the never-ending onslaught of misbehaviors and scandals that spew from this real estate magnate turned president? It’s a difficult assignment, but Randy doesn’t back down. In a Q&A session with the audience he said he turns his videos around in 48 hours—all the writing, arranging, recording, editing and posting. Whew!
Of course, that level of timeliness is pretty much impossible when you’re on the road. Rainbow had a reasonable solution, arranging his parodies in somewhat chronological order to give a sort of history of the Trump presidency, building up to the most recent atrocities. His latest, posted Aug. 29, played on Trump’s Aug, 21 retweet of praise that Israeli Jews “love him like the second coming of God,” set to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar: “Cheeto Christ, Cheeto Christ. He’s like if Jesus was pumpkin spiced.”
It was funny, but my inner Situation Room needed more. Not that I’d given up on finding the Russian connection, it was just that, at this moment, I was hot on the Ukraine. Sorry Randy. You can write that off as my problem. You know, and the nation’s.
Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 must have been a difficult night for the Brian Wilson tour. Brian and his band the Zombies were performing at the Del Lago Casino, just off the Thruway in Tyre, N.Y., three days after their long-time guitarist, Nicky “Wonder” Walusko, had died in his sleep near Lewiston, N.Y. That was where the band had kicked off its new tour the very day after Walusko died, dedicating that show to him.
So the del Lago performance was their second without him, and I was there. The stage was still mostly dark as the band filtered on. The scattered applause picked up as Brian appeared, supported on either side by an aide, guiding him to his center stage seat at the piano. Once settled, he announced they were dedicating this night’s show to Nicky, then launched into their first number, “California Girls.”
“Love and Mercy” might have been a more appropriate tribute, and indeed, an hour and a half later, the band closed with that. But then again, maybe “California Girls” was right. Walusko’s enthusiasm for the Smile recordings is what piqued Brian’s interest in completing them and staging his recent tours. Maybe playing the Beach Boys sound that had captivated Walusko as a kid, the sound he helped recreate for the Smile album and the touring band, maybe that was the best tribute.
At any rate, when I came to the show, I knew Brian’s one-time guitarist had died, but I didn’t know he was supposed to be in this show. That dawned on me when I noticed the guitar and floral arrangement spotlighted in the group’s back line. A few songs in, the band’s horn player gave a longer tribute to Walusko, filling in some of the gaps of Brian’s abrupt dedication. But it took a search on the Web to fully understood what was going on.
And that was the show in a nutshell. The music was performed beautifully, the harmonies shimmering in fine pitch above the bedrock rhythms of the 10-piece band, which included original Beach Boy Al Jardine and jumped to 11 pieces when Blondie Chaplin joined in. Brian’s familiar timbre was recognizable when he sang lead, and the occasional missed pitch and shortened phrase was forgiven—I mean, good for him, he’s out there doing it.
But Brian didn’t appear to have full mental fitness—not really a news flash, I suppose—and that infused the show with an odd tentativeness. Brian is much loved and much admired for his catalog of infectious songs that populated his performance, and for the production techniques he pioneered in the 1960s that still inspire today. You could see that in the audience members who got up and danced despite the grip of age and gravity that would normally leave them seated. You could sense it in the band, whose members occasionally leaned down to Brian, perhaps checking on his welfare, perhaps reminding him that he was singing the next song.
And there was Brian, sitting behind a piano that blocked the view of his hands, rather than sitting sideways as most singing piano players do. On some songs, his arms didn’t move, and with as many as three keyboardists playing on any given number, he didn’t really need to play. His face was consistently expressionless. When Blondie Chaplin sang a few songs, Brian appeared to sit it out, gazing rather vacantly at random points in the audience. Occasionally he spoke before a song, once introducing the next singer, but failing to give the singer’s name! Another band member snuck it in just before the song kicked off. They know how to cover for their boss!
About 30 or 40 minutes in, an inner alarm went off telling me that I pretty much wanted the show to end. I’d now seen Brian Wilson (I’d never seen him before), heard a few of his hits done very credibly, recognized that he was sticking pretty close to the original arrangements, and realized there probably weren’t going to be any more surprises.
Turns out I was glad to hear the run of fun hits that ended the show. Still, I was left wondering, does Brian even want to do this? What does he get from it? The most excitement he showed all night was moving his slightly raised arms fore and back like an awkward sock puppet trying to find the rhythm to the rocked up solo in “Barbara Ann.”
Perhaps he’s making up for all the lost time when he didn’t tour. Maybe part of his desired legacy is to see that he sings before as many of his fans as possible.
Then again, maybe he’s one of those elderly folks who didn’t know how to say, “No” to the high-pressure salesman on the phone.
Brian didn’t spill his heart at del Lago. He and his band just performed his songs pretty darn well, if somewhat predictably. Yes, if Brian had been more present, the show might have become an outright rally for this rock legend. But that wasn’t the case, and when the two aides took Brian’s arms after the last song to walk him offstage past the Nicky Walusko memorial tribute, we knew there wasn’t going to be an encore.