Eulogizing the Hag, Merle Haggard, a True Original

merle haggardMerle Haggard died on April 7, on what would have been his 79th birthday.

Merle Haggard was a national treasure and a huge character in the world of American country music. He produced a body of music rich with stories, tales, and social observations and is in good company alongside other country music luminaries Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams.

Merle started his musical career in the early 1960s and went on release over 50 records and was touring and recording until recently. He had a lengthy career writing thousands of songs many of which have become classics and have taken on a life of their own. The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, Hungry Eyes, Okie from Muskogee, and Mama Tried are all examples of songs that have become imbedded in our cultural consciousness.

Merle could also be the mysterious writer with curious motivations. In the late 1960s, with the Viet Nam war falling in public opinion, Merle jumped into the fray with a number of patriotic songs praising more traditional lifestyles against the new more liberal trends. Fightin’ Side of Me, Workin’ Man Blues stoked the fires of the anti-hippie sentiment and were all hugely popular. Although he never clarified his rationale for these songs, there was some intimation that irony was involved.

Merle also played a large role in the continuity of the country music tradition. Merle was enormously respectful of the past and recorded tribute albums to his heroes Bob Willis, Hank Williams and others. He was a direct link to early country greats Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and covered their material often in concert.

When Lefty passed away, Merle hired on a number of his touring band. So that Merle could play more Bob Wills songs, he taught himself to play the fiddle over a period of six months on his tour bus. He later joked of the process it was a great way to lose band members.

In country music there is no shortage of outlaw tales but what made Merle shine was he didn’t just sing about riding the rails, or being in jail or on death row, he was actually there. His father, James Francis Haggard, passed away when he was nine and from then on things changed for Merle. He didn’t take to being told what to do and became involved with a number of burglaries and heists. He was caught but managed a number of escapes, later as documented in The Fugitive, and spent a large part of his teens and early twenties in and out of reform schools and then later jails.

Mama Tried tells a fairly accurate version of his childhood leaving home and the struggles his mother had with keeping him out of trouble. Instead of going to school when not serving time, Merle rode the rails and lived on the run. Merle finally ended up in San Quentin and it was here thatU he saw Johnny Cash in concert in 1959. It was also here where he made the decision to finally turn his life around and pursue music and stay out of trouble. And this is where the music begins.

 

 

 

 

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Going Off The Rails: 10 Facts About the Birth of Ozzy’s Crazy Train

imgresOzzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” is arguably one of the most popular and evocative heavy metal songs of the early 1980s, if not all time. And one that inspired millions of teenagers across the globe to shake their fists in the air and scream about going off the rails.

The intro guitar riff immediately evokes images of master shredder Randy Rhoads with his custom black & white polka dot flying V guitar, being hoisted in the air by Ozzy in some crazed fit of metal rage.

The song was released in 1980 on Ozzy’s first solo album, Blizzard of Oz, and had co-writing nods going to then bass player Bob Daisley and Randy Rhoads. The single was hugely successful on both Europe and North America and resurrected the waning career of Ozzy Osbourne, who had recently been ousted from Black Sabbath, and also instantly turned Randy Rhoads into a guitar legend.

Besides the overwhelming success of the song, what is fascinating is the circuitous route it took from its initial sprout into becoming one of the biggest tracks in metal history. And how almost didn’t make it, except for Ozzy’s last minute decision to try something new that he remembered hearing in LA.

  1. Randy Rhoads created the classic riff shortly after he left Quiet Riot in September 1979 and its origination came from the Steve Miller Band’s “Swingtown.”
  1. As the story goes, one evening, Roads was with his friend and then Quiet Riot replacement Greg Leon, who showed him what happens when you speed up the riff to the Steve Miller song. From there Randy was off and later perfected its structure.
  1. Having just parted ways with Sabbath, Ozzy was now a free agent and auditioning band members in LA with Sharon Arden in the attempt of creating a solo career. One night at the Starwood nightclub in LA, Ozzy hooked up with Dana Strum, later of Slaughter and Vince Neil band fame. Major Sabbath fan and bass player, Strum was desperately looking for a chance to audition for Ozzy’s new solo outfit.
  1. After landing the gig, Strum encouraged Ozzy to check out a young guitar player, Randy Rhoads, who was recently in Quiet Riot. At the time, also in the running was ex-Thin Lizzy guitar player Gary Moore.
  1. Ozzy relented to Rhoads coming down for an audition. However, at the time he had already consumed a number of beers and lost interest focusing more on returning to his hotel room. During the brief few seconds that Rhoads was playing Ozzy managed to decide that he was the man for the job and hired him on the way out of the studio.
  1. A few days later at a band meeting in Ozzy’s hotel, things didn’t go well for Rhoads.   Preferring a soft drink instead of alcohol and being dressed in 1970s glam apparel caused Ozzy to question Rhoads sexuality and overall commitment. However, despite any initial misgivings, the rehearsals went fine and the band line-up was settled with Strum on bass, Rhoads on guitar and from Quiet Riot, Frankie Banali on drums.
  1. The band may have thought they were close to finalizing arrangements, but they were sadly mistaken as shortly after Ozzy settled the band, he changed his mind and returned to the UK to resume the hunt for a solo band in England.
  1. In England, Bob Daisley, recently ex-Rainbow, was brought in as bass player by David Arden, then running Don Arden’s Jet Records. Hunting around for guitar players was harder than they thought but it was here that Ozzy remembered Randy Rhoads and suggested bringing him over to England for a rehearsal.
  1. Initially Rhoads was reluctant to go to the rehearsal in England. He wasn’t a Black Sabbath fan, openly proclaiming that he really didn’t like the band. Plus to have been previously hired and then dropped shortly after, and then asked to come back didn’t endear Randy with the idea that he would have to leave his teaching position, fly across the world for more abuse. Add to the issue that Randy was a homebody and was not used to being away from his family.
  1. After being prodded to join Ozzy by his mother, the musical partnership struck between the two along with Bob Daisley, and Sharon at the helm, Ozzy went on to become enormously successful and created some of his most memorable material of his career. Soon after the band was finalized they went on to record Suicide Solution, I Don’t Know, Mr Crowley, and the momentous Crazy Train, all of which have remained staples in Ozzy’s live shows to this day.

 

Mötley Crüe Bid Farewell – 9 Memories about the Bad Boys of Rock’n Roll

motleyMötley Crüe recently came through town on their Final Tour and now that my ears are back to normal after the non-stop staccato of pops, booms, bangs, the roar of dragon breathing fire, and Mick Mars’ sonic chainsaw, I want to reminisce about what could be the last time Mick, Nikki, Tommy, and Neil stroll though town as the mighty Mötley Crüe.

  1. I first remember seeing Mötley Crüe on Toronto’s City TV’s City Limits way back in 1982. It was metal night and only the hardest, ugliest, and hairiest selections were being played when the music video for Live Wire was aired. The video looked low budget and pretty cheesy, but the band had an undeniable raw sound and fuck you attitude to spare.
  2. Almost always teetering on the edge of drug and alcohol oblivion, Mötley Crüe updated the 1970s glam rock sensibility, famously popularized by the New York Dolls. Although a constant with heavier music, early on the Crüe took the tattoo fetish stylistically farther than anyone else and it could be argued that music aside, this is one of their largest social contributions.
  3. Spring 1983 the band opened the US Festival on Heavy Metal Day and it was here that the band was in full blossom. Of all the acts at the ‘fest that day, without a doubt, Mötley Crüe was the most notable on the bill, if not the entire show. Although KISS comparisons would be rampant with their crazy outfits, makeup, and mile high platform shoes, the band put on a hard rocking, raunchy, and intense show that still stands to this day.
  4. As this was the 1980s, and since radio wouldn’t (and still won’t) go near hard music, rock videos were the main distribution channel and the Crüe took full advantage. With their next album, Shout at the Devil, the band released Looks that Kill, Too Young to Fall in Love and a slew of other videos. Always looking for new and exciting content, these were given heavy rotation first on MTV, and then Canadian MuchMusic followed after its inception in late 1984.
  5. So important were the rock music videos, it was here that their audience was created. Due to the constant video airplay, over the next 5 years, the band enjoyed a number of high selling albums that sold in the millions. The tours were massive, new videos were constantly being made, and albums were being sold everywhere. To this day, second hand bins in record stores across North America all contain a healthy supply of Mötley Crüe vinyl.
  6. In 1989, the band released Dr. Feelgood, which became and has remained, their biggest selling work to date. Recorded in Vancouver at Little Mountain Sound and produced by ex-Payola guitarist Bob Rock, the album was a change in direction for the band. They hunkered down to perfect their sound, foregoing the more typical rock’n roll behavior, and produced a massive hit. The album made the number 1 USA record slot, selling more than 6 million copies, had five rock radio hits and four Top 40 singles. If you are going to pick up any Crüe album – Dr Feelgood is the one.
  7. Ironically, the second single from Dr Feelgood, Kickstart My Heart – written about Nikki Sixx’s 1987 drug overdose, while partying with Slash when the band was on tour with Gun’s N’Roses – has transcended the band and has become a massively popular sound bite. Kickstart My Heart is used in numerous TV shows, Disney movies, car ads, Super Bowl ads, US Navy Blue Angels performances, and has been covered by bands ranging from hard rock to bluegrass. One can only imagine the deneiro that this song reaps annually.
  8. Although they say they are retiring after being together for 34 years, you could argue that the real number is closer 20 years. From 1981 to 1991 they were a touring and music-making powerhouse, but from 1992 to 2005 there wasn’t much happening in the Crüe camp. Besides a few lesser albums, line-up changes and infighting, a smattering of lawsuits, and a few small tours, they were mostly on hiatus until 2005. After which they resumed operations and became a touring mainstay, showing up in your town almost every six months.
  9. Their biography, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, co-written by Neil Strauss and published in 2001, is a fascinating read that takes an honest look a the highs and lows of the band as they go through a sometimes perilous existence. It is an almost fairytale story about a band of brothers striving for success at all possible measures only to achieve their dreams and then suffer the consequences of an almost meteoric career. Although the band has been talking about the cinematic debut for years, sadly nothing has appeared to date.

Metal on a sunny afternoon – the Mayhem Fest in Toronto

Slayer at the Mayhem Fest, Toronto

Slayer at the Mayhem Fest, Toronto

Hell Yeah

Hell Yeah

The Mayhem Fest came through Toronto last Wednesday July, 15 and put on a loud, biosterous, and energy laden show at Echo Beach, or the mini-Molson Amphitheatre. The day was perfect with the sun drenching down on a sea of black t-shirt laden fans all vying to rock out, drink beer, and take in as much of the sludgefest as possible.

Enthusiasm aside, going into the show or reading anything online beforehand, it was hard to ignore a certain negativity due to the recent interview cofounder Kevin Lyman gave with the Detroit Free Press. (Read the article here: Mayhem fest cofounder says metal genre in trouble)

Feed Her To The Sharks

Feed Her To The Sharks

In the interview Lyman laments the economic realities of putting on large-scale multi-act shows and the pressure of trying to provide the kind of content that will bring a decent turnout.

Lyman, founder and organizer of the hugely successful Warped Tour, is a credible source and must know his stuff.

However, it is hard to ignore the implication that Lyman is pointing a finger at the headlining bands (Slayer and King Diamond) for charging too much and not taking a cut, as what happened in the past on the Warped Tours, so that more resources could be spread around to enable more, or higher quality acts on the bill.

Somewhat maliciously Lyman furthers that there is an undeniable “reality” that heavy music simply does not draw the kind of crowds that it used to in years past as it has gotten “too gray, bald and fat.” (I found this part incredulous because this is the Summer of Metal with Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, Van Halen & Slipknot all playing huge shows around town.)

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King Diamond

Whatever the case, we were superstoked to see a number of bands for a super low cost, and most importantly we were over the moon about seeing the mighty Slayer in concert.

Hell Yeah were one of the first mainstage bands that we saw that and they have gotten a lot tighter over the years. Seeing Vinnie Paul in action is always a treat and secretly, I am sure everyone in the crowd wants to know what it would take for him to acquiesce to some kind of Pantera reunion show or tour.

Next up on the Victory Records stage was Feed Her to the Sharks from Melbourne, Australia. Although they looked like they should be on the Dave Matthews Band tour, these guys are a refreshing new act with a super heavy sound merging pop music with trance and metal. If one band could be seen as being truly progressive with greats songs, artwork, and one crazy name, it would be these guys. Definitely have to keep these guys on the radar.

After Feed Her to the Sharks we got our place for King Diamond. Never one to shy away from the theatrical, King Diamond put on a outstanding performance with a full stage, band, backup singers and performers. Besides having a stellar setlist, King Diamond was one of the loudest shows I have seen in years. Not being a super fan of King Diamond, this show totally changed my opinion and I can only imagine how awesome one of their full shows must be.

SLAYER_TOM_ARAYA_4

Tom Araya

And then the moment that everyone was waiting for. At 9:45pm, the white curtain came down and Slayer hit the stage opening with their new track, Repentless, from the soon to be released album of the same name.

One thing that has changed with Slayer over the years is Tom just doesn’t look as menacing. With the flowing grey locks and massive beard, he definitely has a Jerry Garcia thing going and one could only wonder what would happened if he turned up at one of the recent Dead shows in Chicago.

Although only half of the original band, Slayer are still able to deliver their solid, furious, and uncompromising sound that they are famous for. New comer Gary Holt has seemlessly fit into departed Jeff Hanneman’s boots and is able to deliver some smoldering leads. But it’s still sad to not see Hanneman up there next Tom Araya

Seeing Kerry King play in the flesh is like seeing one of the true ambassadors of heavy music. Besides his blistering playing and writing on some of Slayer’s best material, King is one of the most original and uncompromising characters in heavy metal music today.

SLAYER_2

Kerry King

Besides Kerry King, one of the many ingredients of  Slayer’s continued success is Paul Bostaph. The secret sauce behind any successful band is the drummer and Bostaph is able to consistently deliver the solid ferocious, and meticulous playing that was created by original sticksman Dave Lombardo. If anyone could maintain the level of professionalism left by Lombardo, Bostaph is the man.

Slayer was able to deliver an incredible show with lots of energy, fire, and enthusiasm. After newer material, Hate Worldwide, Jihad, and the smoking Disciple, they did a cross-section of their older material such as War Ensemble, Chemical Warfare, Hell Awaits, South of Heaven before wrapping up the show with Reigning Blood and Angel of Death.

If there were any critique of the show, it would have to be the length. To see Slayer for a mere 75 minutes or King Diamond for 60mins seemed way too short. Or maybe it all happened too fast? Either way, despite the online criticisms and the press bickering about lack of attendance, the Mayhem Fest was a great day out and we can only hope that there is another one next summer.

Calexico, Feast of Delight at Opera House

calexico_1Calexico came through town in late May week as a part of their Edge of the Sun release and played the Opera House to a packed room of adoring fans. They put on a solid two-hour show constantly swapping guitars and adding in guest players to fatten up the sound and enhance the dynamics of their signature soundtrack material. The band played a smattering of new material interspersed with songs from the hugely popular 1997 release Feast of Wire.

While Calexico received a positive reception from the delighted and undeniably loose crowd, nothing moved them more than when a track from Feast of Wire was played. I am sure most blog posts, whether intentionally or not, include a subsection review of the Feast of Wire disc as it has played such a strong role in delivering Calexico music to audiences far and wide.

And whenever I see the band live, I am reminded what a masterpiece they created with Feast of Wire, specifically how it brings together such a broad range of American musical styles that fit together so perfectly in this collection.calexico_2

Another treat of seeing Calexico play live is the level musicianship and casualness they exude in creating their thick and spicy sound that draws equal parts from Joe Strummer in his lost years, Tom Waits in his Islands years, then crossed with a hearty sampling of the Buena Vista Social Club. But a rip-off band they are not, far from it.

A quick glance at their website is enough to show that they have a large and rapidly expanding catalogue and they regularly set out on grueling tours that last for months with few days off. And to move a band as large as Calexico from town to town by bus on lengthy tours is no small feat; they have struggled long and hard to be where they are now.

Seeing this caliber of style and musical attitude is a rarity but on this night at the Opera House the setlist seemed somewhat off center and the material didn’t gel as in previous shows. Just when everything was moving along, the band switched gears dropping in a track that seemed out of place. Everyone has off nights and while this wouldn’t count as an off night, as the bulk of their material was effectively delivered, this would rate more closely as a not quite a perfect night from an awesome band of players.

8 Facts About the Clash’s Train in Vain

  1. Train in Vain, the secret Clash song that was their first to chart in North America. It was an unintentional hit for the band after they sweated and grinded out the double album masterpiece London Calling in fall 1979 in cold and dreary London.
  1. Written as an afterthought when the idea of including a vinyl freebie in the English music rag, the NME, came about and guitar player Mick Jones had just one idea left. The deal with the NME fell through so now they had an extra song, and what a song it was.
  1. The album artwork had already been done but the records hadn’t been pressed, so there was still time to add it on to the album.
  1. Joe Strummer never liked love songs. And Train in Vain surely didn’t fit with the songs of the apocalypse, civil war and scourge of heroin they had just created. No doubt he took an instant dislike to the wet, “see all my dreams come tumbling down” and “I won’t be happy without you around” cornball.
  1. In the video, the live UK performance at Lewisham 1980, it almost looks like he mouths the words “THIS IS BAAAD” as he grinds out the D-D-A cords on his beaten up Telecaster.
  1. Joe’s video intro, “We’d like to take the soul train, from platform 1. Won’t be leaving for three minutes. If you don’t wanna come, there’s always the toilets” is a classic Joe head scratcher. But his meaning is clear.
  1. Joe wrote most of the lyrics in the band and Train In Vain no doubt, must have rubbed him the wrong way. He spent days and nights agonizing over Spanish Bombs in the Spliff-bunker. And he even went back and did a rewrite after the first draft of London Calling didn’t get the green light from Mick.
  1. And then Mick goes off and puts this together in the studio in less than a night or two and mainly on his own? And it’s a huge hit. What a band and what a story.

Bob Seger & Silver Bullet Band Ride Again

bOB_SEGER_1Bob Seger and an extended Silver Bullet Band put together a solid two-hour show Saturday, January 24 at the ACC in Toronto.

He kicked off the show with Roll Me Away, which for many no doubt, evoked memories of Cher and Eric Stoltz in the 80’s biker classic The Mask. Except that now everyone’s a whole lot older. And on that note Bob emphatically announced to the crowd late in the show that he is going to be 70 years old in May. Yes, 70 years old. (He also announced a few years back that there was no way he was going to be doing this when he was 70.)

But here we are. Despite his words, and a whole lot of interview space devoted to questions of how long he will keep on going and the real significance behind his recent offering “Ride Out,” the band looked and sounded great. Hell, you could even say that he looks amazing for a guy his age.

And this really does bare mention as he didn’t look this good nary a few years back. Since then, Seger has turned things around. He dropped a few belt sizes, put together another album, and regrouped the Silver Bullet Band for another 6 six-month jaunt around the continent.

The setlist was peppered with material from his formative years, some newer material and a truckload of old time rock’n roll. He dove deep into his catalogue pulling out Come To Poppa, Turn the Page, Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You, Travellin’ Man / Beautiful Loser, Mainstreet, Fire Down Below among many others from his feverish 1970s record run.

Unlike most classic rock acts flogging new material to older fans, Seger’s choices were pretty good. One of the new songs was Steve Earle’s Devils’ Right Hand. Seger did a fine job, capturing the of power of the Earle’s subject matter, but wasn’t able to give the song the same punch injected with the Pogues 27 years ago on Copperhead Road.

Speaking of cover songs, Bob did bring out that other famous one that has come to be his signature song. Yes, the one from Risky Business, the one that featured a 21-year old Tom Cruise dancing and lip-synching in his Y fronts and dark shades: Old Time Rock’n Roll.  Yes, Bob brought out this chestnut midway through the set and the crowd went wild.  An undeniable audible roar from the back.

Here’s a sidebar for you:  Old Time Rock’n Roll was massive success for Seger, but I am sure it must sting every time he plays it. The song was was one of the worst financial mistakes of his career. Although Seger rewrote the verses, leaving the choruses intact, he strangely declined to take a writing credit for the song thus eliminating millions of publishing dollars in the process. He didn’t think the song was any good.

But that’s rock’n roll.  Back to the ACC where Seger kept the show moving even with numerous the slower, mid tempo numbers like Main Street, Like A Rock and We’ve Got Tonight. He is very crafty with his set list as he inserts newer material every three or four songs so there is rarely a dull moment where crowds can be seen evacuating for a refill or a quick smoke outside.

Another high point of the evening was the second to last track, Night Moves. Before starting the song Seger told the story of how the song was written as a last minute effort after a long day of recording.  And most interesting was the song was recorded right here in Toronto.

But the moment’s emotion was lost when, after giving an in depth description of the recording process and who was involved, Seger gave no mention of anything about Toronto or anything local about those magic moments 40 years ago.

Oh well.  The show still rocked and besides we should be happy that he remembers anything of those hazy days. The band played a solid rock and roll set and granted everyone’s wishes of experiencing the magic of hearing their fav Seger songs live one more time.