Little Richard: the ecstasy of cognitive dissonance…

“Elvis may be the King of Rock and Roll, but I am the Queen.”
– Richard Penniman

Little Richard at his peak (image courtesy

Reading the “authorized” biography of Richard Penniman, i.e. Little Richard,  The Life and Times of Little Richard, is part joy, part chore. The author, Charles White, hasn’t so much written a biography as compiled and organized interviews with Little Richard, several of his siblings, his mother, his on again off again manager Bumps Blackwell, and others who moved into and out of his life. This has advantages and disadvantages. The greatest advantage is that Little Richard, whose interviews dominate the book as one might expect, gets to tell his own story as he recollects it. The greatest disadvantage is that – Little Richard gets to tell his own story as he recollects it. This makes for fascinating reading but its reliability is only as trustworthy as the memory of the interviewee. That said, let’s say simply that Little Richard is a great storyteller.

As one reads The Life and Times of Little Richard, what emerge poignantly are the conflicts in Richard Penniman’s psyche. Torn between his love of rock and roll and his love of religion, torn between his “homosexuality” (though more likely he is bi-sexual given his own descriptions of his relationships with men and women) and his desire to be “normal,” torn between his love of public adulation and his desire to be a good son and brother, torn between his status as a major star and the prejudice and mistreatment he encountered as a black man, Little Richard is the victim of enough cognitive dissonance for at least three people. Continue reading

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I’m Happy Just to Dance with You: one for George…

“This one anyway was a straight co-written song for George.” – Paul McCartney

“That was written for George to give him a piece of the action.” – John Lennon


George Harrison in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (image courtesy NY Daily News)

Like most old musicians, my friend and lead guitarist Steve and I spend a good deal of conversation on our favorite bands. The Beatles are a frequent topic of discussion, as they were on a recent occasion, and we talked about how the presence of three superb songwriters – Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison – gave the band a distinct edge over their main competitors such as The Rolling Stones (2), The Kinks (1), and the Who (1).  That led into a further discussion of John and Paul’s prolific songwriting and domination of their albums and the frustration that George felt as the years went on. The frustration would be relieved by the making of George’s magnum opus, the remarkable three disc set All Things Must Pass.

The conversation then drifted into a consideration of how well John and Paul wrote songs for both George (“Do You Want to Know a Secret” in addition to “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”) and Ringo (“Yellow Submarine,” “I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends,” and the lovely “Good Night” from the White Album). We talked a little about how well John and Paul intuitively understood George’s tessitura and wrote songs that suited his more limited vocal range.

“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” is a perfect example. Continue reading

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Money for nothing? concert tix ain’t what they used to be…you know, free….

“We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969…” – Don Henley, Glen Frey, Don Felder, “Hotel California”

“It’s is a free concert from now on…” – John Morris, announcer, Woodstock, 1969

Country Joe McDonald at a free concert in upstate New York, August 1969 (image courtesy Country Joe McDonald, Benno Friedman)

Let me begin by affirming what many already know – I’m an old codger, a Baby Boomer who saw lots of bands in my youth for prices that most now pay for their morning coffee. Example: a couple of friends and I saw the Rolling Stones in 1975 in the Greensboro (NC) Coliseum for, I believe, six bucks each. A few months later we saw the Beach Boys (with opening act Billy Joel) for five bucks.

Those days are never coming back, brothers and sisters.

I’m prompted to write about this subject by a Facebook conversation I watched with some interest, some amusement. I’m friends with many musicians on FB. I like being friends with musicians for two reasons: 1) I’m a musician myself, so I understand the head space pretty well; 2) musicians are people full of heart and spirit, so while I don’t always agree with them, I find their views authentic and admirable (with a few exceptions – kiss my ass, Ted Nugent).

This particular FB convo centered around their outrage that the “Eagles” (well, the current incarnation with Vince Gill filling in for Glen Frey) is charging $203 for the cheapest seat for their concert at that same Greensboro Coliseum where I saw the Stones for $6. The musicians in the conversation expressed outrage at the band’s greed. This, of course, expanded into a critique of loathsome “legacy” acts (classic rockers, generally) and their geriatric “dashes for cash” supported by foolish audiences composed primarily of – yep, Baby Boomers. Occasionally someone would offer a defense of a particular artist, but largely the criticism was – well, pretty harsh – and generational.

All this sparked a few thoughts which, to paraphrase Sheriff Andy Taylor, I’m bound to share and you’re bound to read. Continue reading

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I Feel Fine: John Lennon, rule breaker…

“That’s me completely. Including the electric guitar lick and the record with the first feedback anywhere. I defy anybody to find a record – unless it’s some old blues record in 1922 – that uses feedback that way. I mean, everybody played with feedback on stage, and the Jimi Hendrix stuff was going on long before. In fact, the punk stuff now is only what people were doing in the clubs. So I claim it for The Beatles. Before Hendrix, before The Who, before anybody. The first feedback on any record.” – John Lennon

John Lennon looking ready to break any number of rules (image courtesy

Parlophone, the EMI imprint that signed the Beatles (and which the Beatles saved from being a novelty record label), had a strict policy: NO feedback allowed on recordings. Having discovered what feedback could do for his song “I Feel Fine,” John, as he had done and would do all his life, said to hell with the rules and gave us one of the most singular and identifiable examples of feedback used as musical effect in rock history.

The iconic feedback based opening of the song took “I Feel Fine” from album cut to A side and gave the Beatles their seventh consecutive UK #1. Like the equally iconic opening chord for “A Hard Day’s Night,” it established the Beatles as sonic innovators, a role their later work certainly bore out. Continue reading

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Toward a geography of rock: part 3, the South – looking backward to go forward…

Joke told around Harvard Yard: “Q: How many Southerners does it take to change a light bulb? A: Five – one to change the bulb and four more to talk about how great the old bulb was.”

The Allman Brothers Band (image courtesy

Southerners are, if anything, preservers of tradition. This is, as any intelligent, educated person know, both curse and blessing. Much of the curse part we will ignore since it’s a topic for a very different sort of discussion than one about Southern rock. The blessing part will, one hopes, be explained as this essay unfolds.

The South has been a wellspring for and remains the home of a number of important American musical genres – blues, rhythm and blues, country, traditional (sometimes misidentified by the name of its sub-genre bluegrass), jazz – even early rock itself. It should not be surprising, then, that when rock exploded into the huge commercial and cultural phenomenon that it became that the later rock developed by Southern bands looked backward to earlier genres for inspiration.

A brief look at two of the South’s most successful bands will not explain the myriad variations and complexities of the Southern popular music scene (and the scene’s attendant history), but it will serve to show that this idea of looking backward to go forward is an overarching idea for Southern rock artists. In one case, The Allman Brothers Band, the looking backward to go forward is obvious; in the other case, R.E.M., the looking backward to go forward seems subtle at first glance, but closer examination demonstrates the looking backward to go forward of the later band to be as obvious as that of their predecessors.  Continue reading

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Honey Pie: Paul McCartney, music hall crooner

“Both John and I had a great love for music hall, what the Americans call vaudeville… I very much liked that old crooner style, the strange fruity voice that they used, so Honey Pie was me writing one of them to an imaginary woman, across the ocean, on the silver screen, who was called Honey Pie. It’s another of my fantasy songs.” – Paul McCartney


The Fabs in full on English music hall regalia (image courtesy Pinterest)

I recently wrote an essay about musicologist Wilfrid Mellers’ 1973 study of Beatles music, Twilight of the Gods.  One of the things Mellers notes about Paul McCartney is his love of songs that revel in nostalgia and which create lovely, faultless worlds of the past where the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, and love is happily ever after. Mellors quotes Mal Evans, long time Beatles road manager and close friend of all the Fabs, who describes Paul as “a champion of the softedge, a knight errant rescuing discarded sentiments, rehabilitating sensibilities that time has hardened into cliches….” Mellers goes on to describe McCartney songs as “Brief festivals of love set in the drab day-to-day world.”

“Honey Pie,” from The Beatles (the one everybody calls “The White Album”) is a typical example of the sort of nostalgic “period piece” song Paul has always loved to write (the beginning of this sort of tune from McCartney might be the quasi-French bistro charmer “Michelle”). “Honey Pie” hearkens back to the English music hall, an institution akin to American vaudeville (and one that existed even into the early Beatlemania period) Other examples are “When I’m Sixty-Four” from Sgt. Pepper and “Your Mother Should Know” from Magical Mystery Tour. Continue reading

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Twilight of the gods: a musicologist considers the work of the Beatles…

(citing George Harrison describing Beatle music): “‘It’s true, but it’s still a joke…. It’s serious and it’s not serious.’ This seems to me perhaps the truest and most touching quality of Beatle music….” – Wilfrid Mellers

Twilight of the Gods: the Music of the Beatles by Wilfrid Mellers (image courtesy Goodreads)

Wilfrid Mellers was a respected, even revered, musicologist, composer, and professor of music who taught for decades at the University of York. He wrote books analyzing the work of composers ranging from Bach to Percy Grainger as well as studies of jazz, folk music, and blues. His interest in music of all forms led him to write studies of both the Beatles and Bob Dylan. At the time they were published these studies were dismissed by both “serious” academics and rock musicians. In the view of the former group, Mellers was pandering to pop culture zeitgeist. In the view of the latter group, Mellers was an ivory tower dilettante giving arcane and flowery explanations for the inexplicable power of rock to move its audience.

Given that the Beatles and Dylan have now attained historical importance as arguably the most important composers of their time and that Dylan has even been awarded the Nobel Prize, Mellers looks rather less pandering and pompous than prescient these days. His classic study of Beatle music, Twilight of the Gods, is a work of considerable insight into what makes Beatle music significant both as music and as cultural phenomenon. Continue reading

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