Friday, April 27, 2012

Farewell, Levon…

Farewell, Levon…

Concerts can become such a vivid part of who we are.  You can trace a time and state of mind to the real special ones.   You can trace friendships.  You may have become friends at a concert.  There are some people you may only see at annual concerts—for example at  music festivals, at WUMB member concerts, Grateful Dead shows…  Certain concerts are not just music shows.  They become life experiences.
So when a group that’s meant so much to you breaks up, it’s like you lose a friend.
For the most part, it’s inevitable that a group will eventually break up.  At some point, members decide they don’t want to go on the road anymore.  They lose the creative buzz. Those old Artistic Differences crop up.  Etc, etc.  But has any group ended it with the panache of The Band? 
Talk about doing it right.  When The Band decided the time had come to call it quits, they had a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco, where they invited an all-star lineup of musical friends.  And they had the show on Thanksgiving Day (how poetic)… with dinner for the concert-goers.  Thankfully the concert was recorded.  We know it as The Last Waltz.  If you’ve not heard it, get the 4-CD box set version from the library and spend a rainy afternoon with it.  The spirit and the mix of emotions is evident in the recordings.  The liner notes make you feel like you are part of the concert. 

Of course, the individual members of The Band went on to do notable projects of their own.   In 1986, Richard Manuel tragically ended his life.  In 1993—17 years after The Last Waltz—Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson reunited as The Band for three more albums (Jubilation in 1993, High On The Hog in 1996, and Jubilation in 1998).  Robbie Robertson maintained his solo status.   Rick Danko also did two albums in the 1990’s with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeldt, before he died of heart failure in 1999. 

 Levon Helm built a home studio in Woodstock, NY in 1975.  In 2004, it became the site of monthly concerts he’d do with his band and various musician friends.   Sometimes the music would start around 7:30 at night and wouldn’t end until long after midnight.  They came to be known as the Midnight Rambles.  Between those two events, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996.  But he beat it.  His voice was a little more ragged for wear, but he continued to record.  His albums from 2007, 2009, and 2011 all won Grammies.  His daughter Amy of the band Ollabelle often sang with him.  That’s a nice comeback from being diagnosed with cancer.

 But as you know, the cancer came back and claimed Levon on April 19th (he had been well enough to perform in March, so the onset must have been quick).  Levon and Robbie Robertson were apparently estranged since the days of The Band’s break-up.  But at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony on April 16th, Robertson made a speech sending “love and prayers” to Helm.  And he was able to see Levon in the hospital the next day.

 Saturday April 28th from 11am to Noon, WUMB will air a special on Levon Helm.  Tune in and re-experience your time with Levon’s music.  And by all means, feel free to reply and share your stories of Levon Helm--solo and with The Band.  Perhaps you attended a Midnight Ramble.  Or maybe you spent Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco…

--Perry Persoff.                              

Saturday, April 14, 2012

April Centenaries, 2012

“History” is often the least popular of the core academic subjects.  The irony is that the subject notorious for stunning students into boredom with a litany of mind-numbing dates and places to regurgitate…is fed by perhaps more human interest stories than the other academic subjects.

It’s not always what you tell, but how you tell it.

Two examples—one international, one local—have their 100th anniversaries this month.

Long before “Molly Brown,” the passenger ship Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable.  The ancient Greeks would have said that such a public boast could only tick the gods off (including Poseidon, God of the Sea).  The Titanic left on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.  She struck the fabled iceberg late on April 14th, and went down in the early morning hours of April 15th, 1912.  As if April 15th isn’t already a difficult enough day…

Those are the dates.  It is because of the stories within the dates that the Titanic continues to live on in our imaginations.  There have been at least two films about it: one in 1953 with Barbara Stanwyck, and the recent James Cameron movie (also called a disaster of, uhm, titanic proportions by its detractors).  The Titanic has become part of the vast legacy of nautical disaster songs.  There is Spider John Koerner’s Titanic (it was sad when the great ship went down).  Other ship disasters have spawned dramatic  songs from Stan Rogers (The Jeannie C, White Squall, et. al), Gordon Lightfoot (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald), and others. 
A few years ago there was a traveling exhibit about the Titanic that included replicas of passenger cabins, among various depictions of life on the great “unsinkable” luxury liner. 

There have been far too many tragedies at sea.  But the Titanic remains the Granddaddy of them all.  And not because of the dates and places.

Locally in Boston, Fenway Park turns 100.  This is a good time for a moment of silent contemplation [cue the stadium organ]:  “Dear Lord, thank you for not letting Frank McCourt buy the Red Sox back around 2000.  For had that happened, the occasion of this anniversary would not happen.”  McCourt was among the many who wanted to tear Fenway down.  For more reasons to be glad McCourt did not buy the Red Sox, spend two hours with any LA Dodgers fan.  [Cue “This Magic Moment”]

Fenway Park--what a cathedral of magic moments within that awkward band box.  Here are the dates:  April 9, 1912 was the first actual contest, an exhibition game against Harvard.  The first official game was on April 20th 1912 against the Noo Yokk Highlanders.  Of course, the dates alone do not tell the stories.I have been fascinated with Fenway Park since watching the fog roll in over the Green Monster on TV games as a kid in Los Angeles (where I worshipped Baseball at the cathedral of Dodger Stadium).  I’ve been very lucky to experience my share of spine-tingling moments at Fenway Park in my short time here:  John Valentin’s 7 RBI’s in Game 4 of the 1999 playoffs against Cleveland, which the Sox won 23-7.  Trot Nixon’s electrifying pinch-hit home run to win Game 3 of the 2003 playoffs against Oakland.  And Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees.  In the 10th inning of that game, my buddy and fellow Red Sox fan in LA Tony told me on the phone, “sleep is overrated--do not leave.”   In the 13th inning—three hours before I normally left for work—I nervously headed for the subway.  In the 14th inning, at the end of the State Street station, someone with a radio let out a WHOOP as David Ortiz singled in the winning run.  The rest is…History.

There are some terrific Various Artists collections of baseball songs out there.  And don’t be surprised to hear from Chuck Brodsky on WUMB.  His Baseball Ballads has many surprises from the sport’s history in song.  But for pure FenwayPark goosebumps, you’ve got to have The Impossible Dream, The Story of the 1967 Red Sox (narrated by Ken Coleman).  Thanks to my friend Troy who welcomed me to Boston with a vinyl copy of this! 

Thank you, Mrs. Wolf in 8th Grade, for being such a great storyteller before I realized you were actually giving History lectures.

And thank you for reading this.  Consider yourself invited to share your Fenway Park memories, as well as any songs that make History come alive for you (Dave Palmater talked about many WUMB artists with songs that bring history to life on a recent Blog post:

Until next time, make use of history to enjoy your present.

--Perry Persoff


Friday, April 13, 2012

A Tribute to Lowell George

Lowell George passed more than 30 years ago, but in his brief 34 year tenure on this mortal coil, he left behind a legacy that is as fresh as when he committed his particular vision to vinyl back in the 70’s.
What a life! He appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at the age of 6, and by the time he was in his teens, he had mastered the flute, harmonica, saxophone, sitar and most importantly, the guitar.
He then started a band called the Factory in the 60’s which included future Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward (who recently passed) as well as a fella named Fred Martin who co-wrote later Little Feat classics such as ‘Dixie Chicken’ & ‘Rock’n’Roll Doctor’. During this period, his band also appeared on such classic TV sitcoms as F-Troop (as the Bed Bugs) & Gomer Pyle, was a member of the Standells & the Mothers of Invention as well.
Little Feat came next, releasing 7 unique LPs of hardly conventional, but an always intriguing mix of southern-fried blues, r&b, country and rock’n’roll. In addition to fronting Little Feat, Mr. George also found time to play on other folks releases as disparate as John Cale, Harry Nilsson & the Meters, as well as produce not only for his own band, but the Grateful Dead & Valerie Carter too.
I was lucky enough to see Lowell & Little Feat (or Seat; see ticket stub) in their prime, once on a grossly under-promoted tour with label-mates Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band (again see stub) in 1972, the other time on a visit to Boston at an ill-advised ‘dance’ concert at the old Garden with Traffic & Lindisfarne on 9/13/1974, making the mistake of perusing said experience from the open-seated floor dodging beer bottles raining down from the loge and upper deck seats.
The remaining members of Little feat still tour to this day, and yes, they’re good, but without Lowell Goerge, let’s face it, it…just…isn’t…the same! Tune in throughout the day Friday for what would have been Lowell’s 67th here on WUMB for Little Feat music throughout the day, as well as H61 Saturday morning, 8A – 12P…on WUMB!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

It's baseball time!

We who are Baseball fans must seem like odd creatures to those who do not share the fever.  Growing up in Los Angeles, when that certain extra dab of warmth in the March air suddenly arrived--I did say March in Los Angeles--you could sense those who loved the game merely by the look in their eye.  Did I say “who loved the game?”  Pardon me, make that “those who felt the game.”  It was like creatures who react by instinct to certain environmental conditions.  I recall making that baseball fan eye-contact with my manager one March.  In two years working with him, that was the first real human connection we’d had beyond employee-supervisor. 

One of my first and best friends in Boston is a longtime baseball fan and lifetime Red Sox sufferer.  When he and I pass a baseball or softball diamond, we can’t help but look at it.  I don’t have to explain this to him.  He does not have to explain it to me.  We don’t need to say a word.  We understand.  More rational people are clueless about this behavior. 

As another Baseball season opens, the question is begged: What is it about this game?

My first September in Boston, I spent Labor Day Weekend in Newfound Lake near Plymouth, NH.  I met one of my contact person’s neighbors in the campground.  Let’s call him Tom.  Tom and I are standing by the lake in the dark trading baseball stories.  He tells me his experience from Bucky “Freakin’” Dent.  I tell him how I had to pull over on the freeway in LA after Jack Clark’s 9th inning home run for the Cardinals knocked my Dodgers out of the 1985 playoffs…and how I felt like slumping over the steering wheel.  Two hours casually dissipate, and it’s like this stranger and I are cousins. 

What is it about this game of Baseball?  Is it the combination of a park, the lure of summer, and the camaraderie of a team?  I got one of my best answers after doing a typically irrational baseball-fan thing.

When you get home from an airplane flight, you probably unpack, eat, and nap.  What did I do after returning from a west coast trip in April 2004?  Change clothes, hop the T to Kenmore Square, and get in line at Fenway Park for the Red Sox home opener--hoping against hope to buy a ticket.  Among the festive creatures and refuse in the street was a guy passing out postcards.  He turned out to be a playwrite named Brendon Bates.  Fenway Park’s future was still in doubt back then.  Brendon was bringing his play called “The Savior of Fenway” to Cambridge.

A month later I did a phone interview with Brendon.  At first, I felt a little silly asking him if there was a lot of “theatre” inherent in Baseball.  By the time the question came out of my mouth, it seemed an obvious point.  He agreed completely.  Brendon’s play won an award in New York and had a good run.  A play revolving around Red Sox fans in a bar in Quincy was embraced in New York.  ??  Funnier still, many people who loved the play said, “I’m not even a baseball fan.”  The main character in the play is pretty exhuberant in the first half of the play.  Throughout the second half, it’s clear his personal life is going through upheaval.  The tumult of the Red Sox-Yankees game in the play becomes a shadow to the emotional roller-coaster of this character’s reality.  Despite the trappings of the title, Baseball was just a vehicle.

Over the long haul of the season, Baseball is replete with the trappings of the travails of Life.  There are a number of Baseball-based books on that theme.  Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin grew up a baseball fan in New York.  As a girl, she was among those who dealt with the Dodgers taking their heart out of Brooklyn.  It connected to essential parts of her life.  It’s a part of her memoir, “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”  For thoughts of connecting to old friends who were like your second family, there is David Halberstam’s “The Teammates”  This covers the journey from Massachusetts to Florida of Dom Dimaggio and Johnny Pesky, to visit Ted Williams when Williams was dying.  Along with Bobby Doerr, who could not make the trip in person, the four were very close going back 60 years.  How about mixing Baseball with international intrigue?  Learn about former Red Sox catcher Mo Berg in “The Catcher Was A Spy” by Nicholas Dawidoff.

The promise of summer, the camaraderie of friendship, the connection to social history back to the 1800’s, and even simply—as WP Kinsella wrote—the thrill of the grass.  Wrap them up together and you’ve got a special brew that goes beyond the game itself. 

Throw out the first pitch on the regular season.  It’s BASEBALL TIME!!  

Friday, April 13th will be the 100th Home Opener at Fenway Park (come on, having the 100th on Friday the 13th doesn’t scare us after the 86 years we went through).  This morning I played songs about Moe Berg--the Red Sox catcher who was a CIA spy during World War II--shortstop Ozzie Smith, and all the generations of fathers and sons (and daughters) who have played catch with each other.  Share your Fenway Park stories with us and ideas for other baseball songs to mark the occasion.  Thanks for reading this…and thanks for supporting WUMB!   

-        Perry Persoff