Category Archives: Music

I don’t believe in heroes

David Bowie performing at the Hammersmith Apollo

It’s unfair to designate someone a hero. Heroes are brave, wise, honorable, honest, and noble exemplars. And if you poke deeply enough into a real person’s life, you’ll likely be disappointed at what you find, what with humans being inclined toward selfishness, spite, and bad decision making. How can we expect someone to live up to the impossible standard of “hero” for one day, much less forever?

Ok, so what is Bowie to me? Beyond all doubt, a musical genius. Most artists stick to the one thing they do well and typically embarrass themselves when they venture outside those cozy confines. Bowie jumped musical genres like a nimble 9-year-old playing hopscotch, effortlessly trying on rock, pop, electronica, techno, folk, glam, R&B, and just about any other kind of popular music style you can name.

Yet, I can’t call him a musical inspiration. His songwriting and lyrical prowess is so far beyond my own that I am unable to channel even a feeble likeness of it. Hunky Dory is the very first album I ever bought, and it’s still my favorite. Every song on it would be the best song most other musicians ever wrote.

Bowie was also avant garde in every aspect of his artistry, be it his clothes, his music, his stage show, or his ever-changing persona. He was a charismatic actor, a playwright, and maybe even an alien. But not my hero. He smoked heavily and became addicted to cocaine and no doubt acted like an arrogant prick at times in the early days of fame. He surely disappointed people throughout his life and may have been rude to a fan or two.

Well, I guess there are two heroic aspects to Bowie, because they inspire admiration in me, and admiration is the main ingredient when you set out to make a hero for yourself. One:  After the Let’s Dance album sold a bajillion copies, Bowie could have spent the next 30 years reaping countless riches doing greatest-hits stadium tours. Space Oddity. Changes. Life on Mars. Ziggy Stardust. Starman. Young Americans. Rebel Rebel. Suffragette City. Ashes to Ashes. Let’s Dance. Modern Love. China Girl. Cat People. Under Pressure. LatherRinseRepeat.

Instead, Bowie continued his experimentation with such commercially inaccessible releases as Earthling, an unmelodic album laden with hard techno grooves that were sure to alienate the “greatest hits” crowd.

Two: Whether releasing albums he knew wouldn’t sell many copies (because he wanted to do something new), or dressing as a woman in public, or performing on Soul Train, or doing whatever otherwise struck his artistic fancy, he didn’t care what you, I, or anyone thought about it. He believed in his vision and followed his muse, and he didn’t need beta listeners or approval from anyone calling himself an expert.

Ok. On that count, I’ll let Bowie be my hero. Just for one day.

 

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I’m finally one of the cool kids

If you want to be popular, you usually have to be good-looking, wealthy, charismatic, famous, athletic, or have some sort of talent in the arts. I arguably possess a bit of the last one, but widespread dissemination of said talent is often needed before you can go clubbing in New York with an entourage that may or may not include current NBA stars, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and at least two former Nickelodeon starlets who are now 25-going-on-50 and totally wacked-out on cocaine.

However, there is a secret side-door for us normies into the world of the cool kids: Resembling a newly famous celebrity. Remember all the girls getting their hair straightened to look like Jennifer Aniston back in the ’90s? Teenage girls are probably dressing and styling themselves after Rihanna and Taylor Swift these days, though I wouldn’t know because I haven’t worked in a shopping mall since VCRs.

I’ve never had the good fortune to resemble a trendy famous person. I look more like Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, than I do Justin Bieber, and I can’t believe this sentence now exists.

Then, two weeks ago, things changed. British actor Peter Capaldi took over the lead role in BBC’s global phenomenon Doctor Who. Whenever a new performer steps into that iconic role, he instantly becomes the most talked about actor in Great Britain.

And what are people discussing about Mr. Capaldi? His acting? No. His eyebrows. Dude’s brows are already legendary.

I was chatting about the latest episode with a friend the other day when she stopped in mid-sentence. “Holy crap, Eric,” she said. “You got Capaldi brows!”

I immediately took to Twitter with this boast and, as if to prove my point about side-door popularity before I even thought of it, BBC picked it up and retweeted it to thousands and thousands of people. Somehow I doubt uncool kids get retweeted like that.

Here’s the photographic evidence:

 

Capaldi vs Baker

Capaldi vs Baker

Note: If you’d like to be in my entourage, please submit an essay explaining why you are cool enough and how many drinks you are willing to buy me. Thank you.

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A bit of sad news this week: Lost amid the chatter about the Jennifer Lawrence photo-hacking scandal was the death of singer Jimi Jamison of the ’70s and ’80s pop-rock band Survivor, whose hits included  Eye of the Tiger (with a different singer), The Search is Over, I Can’t Hold Back, and High on You. Survivor never received critical recognition and, to be real, their music didn’t have much substance. However, they did know how to craft a good pop song. Regardless of their place in music history,  Jimi Jamison had a killer voice. You don’t have to like their music (which I do) to admit the guy owned serious pipes. He could have sung for Journey.

Jamison died this past Sunday at age 63. Rock on, Jimi!


Goodbye, Bobby Womack (1944-2014)

Bobby Womack

Bobby Womack is one of the greatest soul singers in music history.

Fact.

Known for his raspy voice and storyteller’s approach to songwriting and performing, Womack began recording music in the early 1960s and never stopped. Some of his best-known songs include Across 110th Street, Harry Hippie, Lookin’ for a Love, and That’s the Way I Feel About Cha. He released over 30 studio and live albums and as many singles during his career, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Womack died Friday at age 70.

***

A relatively recent live clip if Bobby singing “Harry Hippie”

An old clip of Womack performing “Lookin’ for a Love” on Soul Train (with a bonus bad-ass intro from the late Don Cornelius). Fortunately, Bobby was much better at songwriting than lip-syncing!

Sorry, the best looking and sounding clip I could find of “Across a 110th Street” is the title sequence from the film Jackie Brown.


Music vs. Writing

If my grandfather were alive, he would look at this and ask me, "So who took your picture?"

If my grandfather were alive, he would look at this and ask me, “So who took your picture?”

This post is going to degenerate into another “I hate writing rules” rant. I can feel it in me bones!

[Who knew old bones were sensitive to not just to changing weather but also to one’s own bad attitude? Old bones make excellent bludgeons by the way (especially femurs), though I believe I’m drifting off topic.]

I’ve been playing in bands or at least engaged in some kind of music project on and off for almost three decades. I’ve recorded in professional studios and performed on many stages before all kinds of audiences. The only “rules” I remember hearing are: 1.) Practice a lot, and 2.) Listen to different kinds of music, not just the style you play. Granted, I don’t read musician blogs (are there any?), but that seems like a stark contrast to the massive volume of writing advice and rules heaped upon us daily. It’s alarming how many ways I am failing as a writer.

I’m particularly negligent when it comes to “reading in my genre.” Partly because I don’t know what genre I’m in (is Twilight Zonish a genre?), and partly because, beyond my desire to be entertained and moved by good storytelling, I don’t care what other writers are writing. I’m a bad student, I know.

“Listen to all different kinds of music” is fantastic advice… much better than, “Listen to all the bands that play the same style of music you do.” Absorbing the tones, rhythms, and textures of jazz, metal, soul, reggae, classical, disco, punk, and blues music has made me so much better of a rock musician than if I’d been admonished to listen to the other rock bands to see what they‘re doing! Writing songs comes from the heart and soul, not from carefully tracking trends, as should writing prose.

Sure, no one said only read in your genre. But I’d go as far as to say, “Deliberately read outside your genre. Bring something unique when you come back.”

[Before you hurl some “apples and oranges” comment toward the stage (I’m specifically addressing Mr. Frutman in the aisle seat on the left, row 7), I don’t like apples or oranges and am therefore impervious to your cliché. Arguments about illogical thinking, on the other hand, might carry some weight.]

Look at that! I made my point in under 400 words. Who loves you?

hamster band

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I’ve been podcast again! To relive the excitement of my post on cringe-inducing books, this time with a professional voiceover specialist, click here.


Album Review: Chase Bell & White Licorish – Skywords

chaseI shall begin, in most appalling fashion, with a tangent: Please excuse and do not misinterpret my use of the word “jazzy” in this review. Many people fear words related to “jazz.” They know jazz is supposed to be cool and hip and that fandom is a sign of musical erudition, but they just don’t like it. It’s weird, what with all that lack of commercial appeal and the odd time signatures.

To clarify, Chase Bell & White Licorish’s U.S. debut album, Skywords, is not jazz. It is a pop/rock record. I simply believe that every musician in this band secretly plays jazz when not recording pop songs as Chase Bell & White Licorish. This music has that spontaneous, textured, lively feel of jazz, and, like great jazz recordings, it brilliantly captures the natural ambient quality of the instruments.

Damn, too many uses of the j-word so far. Pop pop pop. Rock rock rock. How’s that, Google search algorithms?

Lyrically introspective and musically adventurous, Skywords is pop music that defies easy classification in the same way that old Police albums did: They were pop, but even casual listeners could sense that a lot more than three-chord Monte was going on. Like Sting did after he left the Police, Chase Bell & White Licorish expand on the “sophisticated pop” concept by chase 2adding a horn section. That New Jersey-born singer/songwriter and bandleader Chase Bell recruited his musicians from Italy adds further dimension to the sonic landscape.

Bell’s voice resides in the higher-pitched Bruno Mars range, while the melodies and phrasing evoke John Mayer. As a listener drawn to belters with lots of power, I did not find the singing on the album immediately attractive, as Bell tends to use a lot of soft falsetto as he jabs and rolls his way through and around the arrangements. That said, the style suits the jazz-infused (yeah, I went there) musical arrangements perfectly, and the songs draw the listener without resorting to excessive production or digital effects. The best word I can use to describe Chase Bell & White Licorish’s music is “organic.” From an old-school guy like me, that’s a big compliment.

To learn more about this artist and hear sound samples, check out chasebell.com.


New Artist Spotlight: Hip-Hop Poet PoetryMisses

I spend way too much time bitching about technology problems without praising the tech gods when things work. Such as the confluence of do-it-yourself music recording and social media that allows artists to create their work and get it out there without being beholden to some executive in suit. That is awesome and powerful.

How else would the world be able to discover original artists like PoetryMisses, who performs her spoken-word poetry to a beat and then posts to YouTube? Don’t let the smile fool you.  She’s unapologetic, and she ain’t playing around.

PoetryMisses answers my questions below this clip, “Best for me,” a real slow burn of tension and angst. Listen as you read!

EJB: What made you decide to put your poetry to music?

PoetryMisses:  I’ve been writing poetry since before the age of 10, and I’ve always had a strong passion for all genres of music; I just never saw myself actually doing it!  Recently I started getting more serious about what I want to do with my life and decided my poetry needs to have more energy to it, because it just couldn’t be wasted. So, after I started playing around with the words and instrumentals, I knew I had found my niche.

EJB: How confident were you that you could make your poetry work with beats and rhythms?

PoetryMisses: You would be surprised how much I struggled in the beginning.  To me, poetry is freedom with no limits, no exact number of words because I’m all about free verse.  So, when you have only a certain number of bars and a certain beat to keep up with, it gets confusing.  Practice truly does make you better at anything in life, because before you knew it, I was writing complete songs with confidence that came from  nowhere.

EJB: Please tell us about your recording process.

PoetryMisses: My first step is to find a beat.  I usually have a “beat finding” day when I get online to browse for the perfect sound I need.  Depending on my mood of the day, the beat will be slower or fast paced.  I usually don’t write on the same day, just so I can let the tunes sit in my head for a while.  Then there is my writing process.  First verse, chorus, second verse, and whatever else comes behind that.  I usually have had the same mundane writing process since I’ve started rapping, but I love EVERY step.  I record myself most days.  It’s very stress relieving when I can do it alone, but my daughter always wants to “spit” right along with me.  Recording for me is pretty straightforward. I don’t like to waste time.

poetrymissesEJB: What inspires and influences your poetry?

PoetryMisses: It’s simple:  My life.  I can only write about and share what I know and have been through.  There used to be a ton of unhappiness, being lost as a teenager, and love.  Now I try to focus more on the happiness, freedom, and pure love for life.  My dreams are what inspire me to write.  I used to hate the way my mind would expand when I was younger.  Now, as an adult, it’s what fuels me.  To be able to share the countless wonders that float by in my head means everything to me.

EJB: What do you hope to do with your music?

PoetryMisses: Inspire!  That is truly my main mission.  To let everyone know that you can have the life you want and be who you want to be without caring what the next person thinks.  I want to spread happiness.  That’s the only way to live.

EJB: What do people need to know about you?

PoetryMisses: That’s a pretty tough question.  I’m still learning and creating myself each day.  I’m nowhere near perfect, but I love myself and I love the mission that God has planned for me.  Listening to my music will tell you everything you need to know!  I’m what you call a “privately open” person.  My past is what has made me and besides being a mother, inspiring people and letting you know it’s okay to love yourself and be happy even when life is taking more than giving, is what I’m here for.

Ok, here’s PoetryMisses’ self-introduction in the form of a poetic monologue that appears to be totally off the cuff, since she’s sitting in a car. The language gets pretty rough, so proceed only if you are ok with naked honesty . And F bombs.


Interview with author and Motown historian Peter Benjaminson

Greetings readers and fellow writers. I have an awesome treat for you today!

Mary WellsPeter Benjaminson, author of several books about the famed Motown record label and its artists, was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes this weekend to discuss his newest biography, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago Review Press).

For the uninitiated, Mary Wells was not the first Motown act to score a number one hit (that honor belongs to The Marvelettes and Please Mr. Postman), but she was the first solo artist to become a recognizable star for the label, thanks to a smash hit song that, nearly five decades later, is still beloved the world over: My Guy. She also toured with The Beatles (!) in 1964 and influenced a generation of singers.  But instead of joining the ranks of Motown legends such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, Mary’s life took a different turn. Several, in fact. And Peter Benjaminson’s book is by far the most in-depth chronicle of those events ever written.

                                                          ***

EJB: Thank you, Mr. Benjaminson, for taking the time to talk about your latest book with us. What inspired you to tell the story of Mary Wells, Motown’s first solo star?

Peter Benjaminson: I was working as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press when Woodward and Bernstein used what they called “investigative reporting” to topple President Nixon. A fellow reporter named David Anderson and I went to the library to look up a book on investigative reporting so that we could learn about that kind of reporting. When we found out that no book had ever been written on the subject a light bulb ignited over our heads because we were actually doing that kind of reporting and figured we could write the book ourselves.  So we wrote it – it was titled, believe it or not, Investigative Reporting — and was the first and best how-to in the field. It went through two publishers and two editions and stayed in print for 20 years. This convinced me that book writing was for me.

Since I was in Detroit, I thought of writing about the auto industry, but that had been done already by numerous other writers. Then one day when I was sitting in the City Room waiting for an assignment, an editor told me he had heard that Flo Ballard, formerly of the Supremes, was on welfare. I roared over to her house, interviewed her, and wrote a story about her being on welfare, which was the equivalent of writing in the Washington Post today that Joe Biden is on food stamps. Flo was pleased by the sympathetic reaction to her story and invited me back to visit her on evenings and weekends after work to record her life story as told by her. But when I tried to sell the book idea to Grove Press in New York, they pointed out (this was in 1977) that no book had ever been written in this country about Motown itself.  So a bright light went on over my head and I filled that gap by writing The Story of Motown, which Grove Press published in 1979.

I kept trying to sell the Flo Ballard book idea, but I was unable to do it until – gulp – 2006 – the year that the “Dreamgirls” movie came out and convinced movie makers and book publishers that there was money to be made in the Supremes story. I then sold the Ballard book idea to Chicago Review Press, which published it in 2008 as The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.

Then a guy named Randy Russi called me from Florida and told me he was a friend of Mary Wells (Mary had lived near him in Florida for a time). He suggested I write a book about Mary. I got peeved at him because I thought Mary’s story would be a replay of Flo’s story with the names changed, but he convinced me there were 100 or so reasons why Mary’s story was more interesting than Flo’s. Because The Lost Supreme had done so well, it was easy to convince Chicago Review Press to publish Mary’s story and they recently published the book we’re talking about, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.

Mary wells2

EJB: What do you think would surprise people the most about Mary Wells?

Peter Benjaminson: Some, but not all of her fans will be surprised to learn that, a), she married two brothers, one after the other (Cecil and then Curtis Womack, although her marriage to Curtis was common-law) and had children with both of them, and, b), that she had a fairly good musical career, including a No. 1 hit, Gigolo, after leaving Motown.

EJB: This is the second biography you have written about a Motown star who died young, the first being The Lost Supreme, about Diana Ross’s fellow Supreme Florence Ballard. Tragic figures make for fascinating subjects, of course, but what is it about the Motown era that intrigues you so?

Peter Benjaminson:  It’s not just me. I don’t believe there’s another record company anywhere about which more than two or three books have been written.  More than 180 books have been written about Motown, with mine being the most recent. That’s because Motown succeeded in closing the gap between white and black music in America, something that no other company was able to do and that will never happen again.

EJB: What’s next for Peter Benjaminson? Do you have any more Motown artist biographies in the works? How about one on Gladys Horton? Marvin Gaye? Tammi Terrell? I can guarantee you at least one reader!

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson:  Thanks for guaranteeing me at least one reader. I would hesitate to write a book on Marvin Gaye or Tammi Terrell because other authors have already done so. I admit I was the third author to write a book on Flo Ballard, but I had one thing that the previous authors did not: an eight-hour revelatory interview of Flo audio-taped the year before she died that had never been previously publicized or released. There’s no book on Gladys Horton I know of but she has fewer fans than Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Flo Ballard, or Mary Wells, which would make a proposed book a very difficult sell to publishers and readers.

What I am working on is books on two people who had millions and millions of fans: Rick James and Farrah Fawcett. James was Motown’s final superstar, sold literally millions of records and was a popular character on TV, sometimes playing himself, as late as 2004, which was also the year of his death. Farrah, a major TV, stage and movie star who died the same day that Michael Jackson died in 2009, changed the hairstyles of many American women, struggled to improve as an actress throughout her life, and was nominated for a posthumous Emmy for producing a movie about her own death. She also appeared on the cover of People Magazine some 14 times. Neither has been the subject of a serious biography. In book publishing terms, writing about either person wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me: James would be the third Motown star I’ve written about, as well as the fourth book I’ve written on Motown, and Fawcett would be the third female entertainer whose biography I’ve written.

EJB: Any quick tips for non-fiction writers looking to break into music journalism?

Peter Benjaminson:  They should take heed of the greatest advice ever offered to a music journalist: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The saying originates with Nietzsche but has been stated more recently by others.

More seriously, since I don’t actually believe the above, in my career “music journalism” implies writing articles for music magazines, websites, and blogs and “music book writing” implies just what it says. If you’re a staff writer or contract freelancer for a music journalism outlet, that’s great, but otherwise, at least in the world of journalism in which I grew up, you have to propose every single article to every single outlet you want to write it for, and writing the proposal and dickering with the editors about what it’s going to say usually takes much more time than actually writing the piece. In book world, you only have to write the proposal and dicker about it once or twice, and then spend years writing the book. I prefer the latter.  (Please note that this advice may be outdated in the world of on-line and self-publishing in which I did NOT grow up.)

EJB: Thanks so much, Peter, and good luck with your latest projects.

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at any bookstore with good taste. I also urge you to check out The Lost Supreme, Peter’s biography of Florence Ballard. It’s a vivid portrait of a talented singer who met a tragic end.

Here’s Mary Wells’s biggest hit: