Archive for April, 2018

Blind Melon. I was one of those nerds who wore out their 1992 debut record…digging songs like I Wonder, Paper Scratcher, and Deserted. I of course liked them more than the monster radio hit No Rain, but then again, I’m weird.

Some years later, I searched Youtube, trying to figure out how to play I Wonder and stumbled upon an interview where Blind Melon guitarist Rogers Stevens talked about the late singer, Shannon Hoon. I looked closer and noticed the Philadelphia skyline behind him. “That’s weird,” I thought. “Aren’t these guys from Mississippi?” Turns out Rogers, who grew up near Mississippi State University, is an attorney in Philadelphia. Following Shannon’s 1995 death, Rogers decided to ditch the music industry (not entirely as it turns out) and went to college. He attended Delaware County Community College (aka Delco to us locals), then Temple University (where he graduated summa cum laude), and then on to the University of Pennsylvania law school.

So I emailed him and asked if he would talk to my rock n roll history class and he graciously accepted.

I asked Rogers to give us a bit of his background. In brief, and I won’t be doing this justice, he grew up in a farming community near Mississippi State. After seeing Van Halen in 1984 (my first concert ever was Van Halen in 1980!), he decided to become a musician. So a few of his friends decided to head off to Los Angeles with no plan, not knowing anyone…not even having a place to stay. Initially, no one would rent to them because of their rather unkempt appearance and they spent more than a few nights sleeping in the car.

Eventually, though, Rogers and his crew came across Shannon, who was a good friend of Guns N Roses’ front man Axl Rose. Shannon’s voice and charisma soon became apparent and the band began to form. One student asked Rogers about the where the name Blind Melon came from. Rogers said they pulled it from a Cheech & Chong film. Perfect.

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Shannon’s connections with Axl helped a great deal, and Blind Melon soon had offers from multiple labels. The band’s eponymous debut album initially didn’t do much…it kind of languished for about a year before the release of No Rain, which turned the small time outfit into major rock stars.

A student asked Rogers what it was like to attain such massive fame so abruptly. He said they weren’t prepared for it. They were playing a series of small clubs when No Rain came out with that video, starring drummer Glen Graham’s sister as the bumblebee. One day, while staying in a hotel across from a venue Blind Melon was playing that night (forget the city), Rogers looked out the window and saw a line the wrapped around the venue several times. “What, is Bill Clinton in town?” he wondered. Turns out they were all there to see his band.

Students began asking Rogers questions and he sprung forth with some great stories, particularly about Shannon. He talked about the singer and Axl regularly getting into fist fights. Shannon was a an athlete and martial artist, so he could kick some major ass.

One time, while the band was in a bar in New Orleans, Shannon, for no particular reason, hurled a beer bottle at a mirror behind the bar. After the mirror shattered, the band wisely decided to exit the establishment in a hurry, with the police hot on their tales. Rogers remembers they were in pretty good shape, basically home free, when Shannon inexplicably stopped and punched a cop. His arrest apparently wasn’t all that unusual.

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I played Rogers a snippet of a couple Blind Melon tracks…but in particular the closing riffs to I Wonder and Paper Scratcher. Those are the kind of riffs I wait an entire song for. He said he wrote the former song and played the lead on the Scratcher riff.

One student asked Rogers what wisdom he would impart to his younger self. He said he would tell himself to be open to playing in front of anyone. Apparently at one point, Blind Melon was offered a chance to open for Bon Jovi in Australia. They turned it down because they hated Bon Jovi (ok, that instantly makes me like the Melon boys better.) In retrospect, Rogers felt that sort of standing on principle move was short-sighted. He thinks the band should have relished the opportunity to win over any audience, even if they didn’t like the headliner.

I played him a snippet of Soul One, my favorite track off of Blind Melon’s third album, Nico, released after Shannon’s death. Turns out it’s an early demo that Rogers wrote and he doesn’t care for at all. That happens sometimes. Fans like stuff the artists despise and vice-versa. (At least Steve Howe and I both favor Close to the Edge as our favorite Yes record.)

Blind Melon still exists and Rogers is about to embark on an American tour. Someone asked him how he manages to do that while maintaining his career as a law associate. He said it’s not easy, he doesn’t sleep much, but he manages to make it work.

In any event, the students and I were thrilled Rogers took the time to talk with us. I’m looking forward to seeing his band next month in Philly.

Kevin Whitworth Meets the Class

Kevin plays guitar for Love Battery, one of my favorite Seattle bands. LB was another one of those famously incestuous Seattle entities, combining the talents of musicians from Room Nine, Crisis Party, the U-Men, and Skin Yard. Unlike some of their more sludgy Sub Pop brethren, however, Love Battery combined swirling melodic distortion with the “g” word. Kevin has joked that his band has been referred to as “grungedelic.”

So Kevin began to talk with us via Skype from Seattle at 12:20 pm our time. After a rather slow start, the students began peppering him with questions and Kevin happily answered them. First, though, I asked Kevin about his initial move to Seattle from New England. He arrived in the Northwest in 1984, and in Seattle, the initial punk rock scene was petering out and the grunge thing hadn’t really gotten its legs yet. So to the outside world it was pretty dead. But yet it wasn’t.

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(Kevin answers a question.)

In 1984, Green River and Soundgarden were just getting started, psychedelic Room Nine was rolling, the Young Fresh Fellows were beginning to entertain their audiences with their poppy/punky songs and cleverly subversive lyrics, and the Walkabouts were combining Fairport Convention with the Jam. Oh yeah, there was also this band called the U-Men that I’m quite fond of. The U-Men combined punk rock with jazz with “I’d better get out of here or I’m going to die.”

So Kevin entered into all of that when he first set foot in Seattle. He talked about how open the Seattle music scene was at the time, and how supportive it was. By contrast, in Boston, you had to have a record out to even get a gig, but then it was you and everyone else. And bands were pretty competitive.

One student asked about Crisis Party, a band Kevin was briefly in when he first arrived in town. The question surprised him. He said that band was more Guns N Roses than punk rock, but he was excited to be part of something that could put out a record. Back in 1980s Seattle, just making a record was a big deal.

One student asked Kevin about his favorite gig. He mentioned a show Love Battery did in Madison, Wisconsin in the early ’90s where no one showed up. The band still played its ass off, and after the show, the bartender and other workers at the club came up, shook the LB members’ hands, and asked for autographs. Even though he’s played much bigger gigs, that one really meant a lot to him.

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I asked him about “old” versus “new” Seattle. The city is, I believe, the third most expensive to live in, after New York and San Francisco. It didn’t used to be that way. Kevin talked about paying rent in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood of about $50 per month, and being able to spend most of his time jamming/writing with his fellow musicians. Now that same rent would be something like $2,500 per month. The result is that it has kind of killed the local organic art community. That being said, Kevin doesn’t bemoan the change in Seattle and cities just evolve over time. Seattle still has a ton of talented local musicians.

One student inquired about his current projects. At this point, Kevin has a career and a family, so he can’t have the same lifestyle he did 30 years ago. He does play guitar from time to time in Sky Cries Mary, a local psychedelic outfit, along with Skin Yard’s Jack Endino. (Note, former SCM singer Jon Davison sang for Yes…saw them a few years ago. Fantastic.) In addition, this August, Love Battery’s classic line-up will reform with Kevin and Ron Rudzitis on guitar, Jim Tillman on bass, and Jason Finn on drums to play the entirely of their 1992 classic album,  Dayglo.

Kevin was great as expected and the students enjoyed chatting with him.

Afterward, we talked about the song selections for the week, which comprised hardcore punk, Eighties Mainstream, and the Paisley Underground. As I suspected, most of the class could live without the hypersonic hardcore punk thing, except for Marshall (see some earlier posts) who dug it…of course. I did get some laughs when I played the students an excerpt of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

The Eighties Mainstream was a tough one for me, because I quite frankly hated it. So I selected artists that were at least sort of rock n roll and brought something to the party…the Police, Dire Straits, U2, and Prince among them. There seemed to be a U2 hate party going on, except for one student who defended them as a great live act. I don’t have a problem with them…at least they were political, which wasn’t the norm in the mainstream back then.

We were just about out of time when we talked about the Paisley Underground. I played them a little Dream Syndicate. One student talked about the Bangles and how he liked them and appreciated how difficult it must have been for a female act to break into a male-dominated industry.

That wrapped things up until Wednesday, when Rogers Stevens of Blind Melon will be stopping by. Until then…

Week 11: A Skype Session With Seattle Institution Rob Morgan

Forget the songs and what we’re covering this week for a moment, because I introduced Rob “Capt.” Morgan to my students today. Don’t know, Rob? Well, picture a human hurricane, only infinitely funnier and more entertaining.

Rob, along with a few other self-described weirdos, basically created the Seattle punk rock scene out of thin air in the 1970s. When we had Lenny Kaye visit us a couple weeks back, he talked about how underground the NYC punk scene was back then. In New York, the only place to play original music was at a dump known as CBGB’s.

That being said, at least there was a dump to play at. And because it was New York, most of those bands got signed to major labels, like the Patti Smith Group, Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and Blondie.

In contrast, there was nothing in Seattle and the major labels weren’t interested. The closest the Northwest punkers had to a club was the Bird, which existed for about six weeks in 1978 until the fire department shut it down. After that, the punk community rented halls wherever they could find to put on shows.

Rob has been in a bunch of bands, but his most memorable and long-running is the Squirrels, a band that does the most creative song mashups imaginable. In contrast to the Seattle stereotype of a bunch of cavemen playing grunge (and don’t get me wrong, I obviously love that stuff), Rob provides a broader picture of what really was happening in Seattle besides (and prior to) Sub Pop.

I don’t have enough space or time to get more into the Squirrels other than to tell you they combined Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” with the Hawaii Five-0 theme song and called it “Hawaii Take Five-0.” You’ll have to read my book to find out the rest. I did a special chapter addendum on Rob and the Squirrels.

So Rob appeared in front of us at 12:20 pm ET, and I braced myself, because I knew my students have never experienced anyone like him. I knew he would blow them out of their seats. Rob did not disappoint.

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(A student, foreground, waits for Rob to answer a question)

A student asked Rob about what punk rock meant to him beyond leather jackets. Rob laughed and said he never owned one. Punk to him meant doing what you want, both musically and otherwise, being yourself and not playing to what you think the world wants.

Another student asked Rob about his most memorable gigs. Rob mentioned a late 1980s Squirrels show at the Rainbow Tavern (Seattle, University District.) The tables at the Rainbow were basically large round wooden spools. One of the patrons kept heckling the band to get the hell off stage or whatever. So after he went to the bathroom, Rob & Co. proceeded to haul the table, including the customer’s bottle of wine, up on stage.

After he returned, Rob said the customer did a double take reminiscent of a cartoon when he saw the space where his table had been (I can’t do Rob’s imitation justice in writing…suffice it to say it got the students cracking up.) The customer was about to respond harshly when he noticed Rob on stage downing the bottle of wine, and then immediately changed his demeanor. He laughed and told the band they had balls.

At a Bumbershoot gig (annual outdoor Labor Day weekend music festival at the Seattle Center), the Squirrels had accumulated a bunch of Cabbage Patch dolls (again, further described in my book) and decided to hook up surgical tubing between two mics. While the two Squirrels guitar players wailed on the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme, Rob pulled the tubing back as far as possible and began launching Cabbage Patch projectiles into the audience. Rob said that was the last time the Squirrels were invited to Bumbershoot for some reason. He also said he’s killed about 300 Cabbage Patch dolls in his career.

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(That’s Marshall not asking the Marshall question.)

Rob was wearing a Darkness shirt, so I felt compelled to get him talking about one of his favorite bands. That was a mistake, because he was relentless…I mean, now apparently I am required by law to go see them. Assessing the situation, one student checked out the band’s latest tour dates on her phone. They’re coming to Philadelphia (Troc) on April 18, she said. Rob couldn’t say enough things about them. He likens them to rock n roll’s last best hope…a band that hasn’t forgotten that the music is ultimately about fun.

Needless to say, Rob was great. One student emailed me afterward and said this: “I really enjoyed Rob today. Definitely the funniest guest we’ve had so far.” There you go.

A big thanks to Rob for doing this.

Select Students Visit Richard Thompson for a Q&A

Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes good things just happen.

Earlier today, I crammed four of my rock n roll history students into my Mustang and made the trip to Princeton, NJ for a Q&A with Richard Thompson before his show there. Zac Ingraham, a member of Richard’s management team, set up this meeting and I can’t thank him enough.

We met Richard around 3:30 pm at the McCarter Theater at Princeton University. We sat in a conference room and the students prepared to fire off their questions.

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(The students outside the venue.)

I started things off by asking Richard about his childhood, just to give the students some perspective on post-World War II England. He contrasted the affluent American post-war experience with his formative years playing in London bomb sites left over from German bombing. He talked about food rationing that went on for nearly a decade after the war.

One student asked about his songwriting creative process. Richard talked about sort of extracting a song that’s already there…in other words almost acting as a conduit of sorts. Songwriting can be a pretty mystical thing sometimes.

Another student inquired about memorable performances. Richard mentioned sharing the bill with psychedelic-era Pink Floyd (I believe he was referring to the Roundhouse in London) and also a particular show in 1970 when Led Zeppelin joined Fairport Convention on stage. He said it was utter chaos and that someone taped it but alas, the tapes were lost.

I followed up by inquiring about the time he shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix at London’s Speakeasy. Fairport’s Judy Dyble told me about that story. Richard confirmed it, saying yes, Jimi joined Fairport on stage and they jammed away. There is nothing I can add to that.

One student asked what we now call the “Marshall question.” (Marshall, one of my students [who couldn’t attend], asks each musical guest if they have any advice for aspiring musicians.) Richard’s recommendation is to be original. He laments television shows that create stars by elevating people who sound like someone else. He felt that these shows reinforce the status quo rather than encourage artistic experimentation…something that has been a hallmark of his career.

Somebody asked Richard about his unique finger-picking technique. He said he sort of subconsciously developed a hybrid style when he was playing one day and wanted to finger pick a song, but didn’t feel like putting down the pick. So he would use the pick while finger-picking at the same time. He said that technique allows him to syncopate the beat, which is typically difficult to do on the guitar.

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(Richard answers a student’s question.)

Another student inquired if he has a wish list of musicians to work with. He said he’s pretty much worked with everyone he would like to, but would love to go back in time and rub elbows with people like jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt or even Mozart.

We said our goodbyes and thank yous to Richard and headed into Princeton proper to grab some dinner. We found a little Mexican place called “A Taste of Mexico.” Fantastic. We talked about our time with Richard over dinner. One student remarked that he thought only 20 minutes had gone by, but we were with him for an hour!

I was proud of my students for making the trip, but mostly for their passion for a great artist whom they can connect with despite generational differences. A big thank you to Richard for graciously giving his time and for Zac for setting this up.

Week 10: Seventies Mainstream Plus a Conversation With Marshall Amplification’s Terry Marshall

So we moved beyond prog, glam, and punk rock to give the class a little flavor of the eclectic nature of ’70s mainstream music.

The critics hated the ’70s, because…I guess because there was no Beatles/Stones/Hendrix/Dylan leading the way. Artists went in so many different directions that it was hard to sort of keep it together or write about it in a thematic way. Sorry, but critics sometimes get caught up in musical snobbery. There really was some intensely great music (and a lot of crap, too, of course) that came out of that decade.

I think of the ’60s as a fine multi-course meal. You get your appetizer, soup/salad, a delicious entree, wonderful dessert, some drinks and perhaps a fresh cup of coffee to end the evening. The ’70s was more like a buffet. Not as classy, and there is some stuff you don’t want to touch, but you can find something you like.

So I threw a lot at them…everything from Steely Dan to Eagles to Tom Petty to Springsteen to Journey to Van Halen to AC/DC (thanks, Marshall M.) to Nicks/Buckingham era Fleetwood Mac to Pink Floyd to whatever. Overall, the students had favorable reactions to this week. Two of my metal head students even sang the praises of Journey, so there you go.

Oh, I almost forgot…see that Marshall M. reference above? He’s one of my students. When he first looked at the artists we covered, he asked me why I skipped over AC/DC. So I threw it back on him. Tell me why I should cover them and whom I should leave out. He gave me a strong argument for AC/DC’s massive influence and suggested I take out Springsteen. While I wouldn’t have a personal problem with that, I figured that’s not a good idea, so I decided to play up AC/DC at Van Halen’s expense. That was a tough one for me, given Van Halen was my first real rock album and my first concert.

When we got to AC/DC, I turned the lecture over to Marshall, who did a great job illuminating AC/DC’s indebtedness to the blues and their “simple but not so simple” approach to songwriting. He even played the first few chords of “Highway to Hell.” He did a fantastic job.

On Wednesday, Terry Marshall Skyped with us from England, rescheduling from last week’s snow-out.

We’ve had some great sessions with musicians, but this one took things up a level. The students asked some great questions and Terry provided thoughtful answers. One student asked him about the “Marshall crunch” she read about, meaning that powerful crunching sound their amplifiers deliver. Terry responded by talking about how some musicians, he mentioned Hendrix specifically, who like to turn up their levels all the way up until the amplifiers are cooking…sometimes quite literally…and that provides that crunching sound she was referring to. Which leads us to the best question of the semester…

One of my students, who always wears Steelers stuff (hey, we can’t all be perfect) asked Terry if he had seen Spinal Tap and if the Marshall company actually designs amps that go to 11. Ok, I lost it with that one. I laughed so hard that the students started staring at me and began to laugh at my laughing. Terry cracked up, too. He said, yes, the company in fact has made amplifiers that reach 11 in volume. I mean, it’s true. Once you’ve hit 10, where do you go from there? You’re stuck. But if you need that extra umphhh, well, you can go to 11. (Correction/clarification from Terry: We did make a limited edition that referenced the Spinal Tap quote with a front panel where the volume control showed 11, but the amps themselves were unchanged.)

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(That’s Marshall asking Marshall a question.)

Terry, speaking in front of an imposing set of Marshall stacks, gave us an overview of the company and how things got started in his father Jim’s drum shop. Musicians began to ask if they could carry other instruments, which they did, including of course guitars. In particular, regular visitors to the shop like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Big Jim Sullivan, and Ritchie Blackmore asked if the Marshalls could also carry amplifiers that would provide an alternative to the not-so-powerful Voxes or the too expensive Fenders.

So Terry, Jim, the musicians, and a team of engineers got to work making their own amplifier. As a saxophone player, Terry used his ear to translate what the musicians wanted to the engineers. By tweaking the pre-amp, the Marshalls were eventually able to come up with the “Marshall sound.” Within a few years, the company became the dominant standard in rock n roll and went worldwide. Terry talked about the relationships the company made and still has with musicians.

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(Another student, another great question.)

Overall everyone had a great time chatting with Terry. He’s a great guy. I had the good fortune to meet him and his wife for dinner a couple of years ago in London. Love the European dining experience where you get a table for the entire night. You’re not rushed out like in America. We enjoyed our leisurely dinner, had some coffee, and finished things off with a shot of liqueur.

So next up is a Skype chat with my friend and Seattle music legend Rob Morgan on Monday. Then we will cover new wave and post-punk. We’ll see how the students react to that stuff.