Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Most Powerful Opening Salvo

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: She's a Runaway
SONGWRITERS: Sam Llanas / Kurt Neumann
ALBUM: Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams
YEAR/LABEL: 1986; Slash

When I first heard Sam sing I thought it was an old woman. A very soulful old woman.
(Robbie Robertson)

Amid all the hair bands, synthesizers, and dance music of the mid-1980s came a different kind of "punk" movement: the root rockers. They were far less angry than the Clash or the Sex Pistols had been in rebelling against the disco and pop of the 1970s; and, unlike most punk bands, could actually play their instruments and sing well. These people weren't interested in seeing just how P.O.'ed at the world they could sound or trying to turn everything into a political cause. They just wanted to make good music. And most of the acts that came from that movement (e.g., Marshall Crenshaw, Webb Wilder) did exactly that.

The BoDeans happened along at the right time. They were both roots rockers and from one of the hotbed music scenes in America -- Milwaukee. In the mid-80s bands such as the Violent Femmes (the only act in history to get a platinum album [for their eponymous debut] without ever making the Billboard "top 200" best-sellers chart) and the Spanic Boys (a father-son duo that is the answer to a trivia question: what act was a last-minute music substitute on Saturday Night Live in 1990 when Sinead O'Connor refused to appear because Andrew "Dice" Clay was the host) garnered a good deal of attention from record labels. Most of the acts, unfortunately, never went beyond the Wisconsin border in terms of fame, with the Femmes and the BoDeans being the two notable exceptions.

What set the BoDeans apart, and continues to do so, are the harmonies. Front men Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann, two high school friends, sing with harmonies that owe a great deal to the Everly Brothers or even the Louvin Brothers from country music. The band received a lot of attention initially because of these harmonies, and more so because of Llanas' voice, which, to say the very least, is unique. Critics began having a field day with descriptors of Llanas' voice. (His personal favorite: "a frog with laryngitis.") The attention, coupled with their stint as the opening act for U2 in the fall of 1987, established the band a solid cult following.

That is good and bad. It is good in the sense that they have a loyal audience, many of whom have been fans dating back to the 1986 debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams (a title taken from the opening line of the Rolling Stones' song "Shattered"); however, it is bad because this good, solid band has only made one venture into the top 40 ("Closer to Free," which was used as the theme song to Fox's TV series Party of Five)

Exhibit A as to why the latter is such a shame can be found in the first song from their first album, an incredible story song called "She's a Runaway." The story is not based on anyone from Llanas' life; however, the tale of the battered woman who "got beat up one too many times" rings sadly too true in society. Ditto the consequences: the victim of the story, Mary, decides the only way to solve the problem is by taking matters into her own hands. "Mary stole some money and she got herself a gun, then she shot her man down." The movie Thelma and Louise almost seems to be inspired by the plot of this song.

Trends in music have come and gone since 1986 but the BoDeans remain true to their original sound. Hopefully someday soon the trends will return to the roots rock sound so the BoDeans can enjoy the success they deserve.


The entire Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams album -- there's not a bad song on it anywhere. The reissued version includes the incredible "Try and Try," which had previously been relegated to a non-album B side (the flip of their first single, "Fadeaway").

"Forever Young (The Wild Ones)" (from Outside Looking In) -- the sophomore album that suffers from fellow Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison's too-heavy production (the Talking Heads guitarist/keyboardist did the same with the third Violent Femmes album, almost overproducing it into oblivion) still produced some gems. Harrison stepped back and let the BoDeans do what they do best on this song. If you can find any bootlegs from their 1988 tour where Neumann did this song as a ballad (with just a piano backing) it will be well worth the search.

"Small Town Ways" (from The Leftovers, a fan club-only release) -- originally recorded for the 1985 demo that got them the deal with Slash, this rocker traces how a job loss turns the protagonist to a life of crime.

"True Devotion" (from Black and White) -- this beautiful ballad was written after a long drought ("the night it finally rained") and features a wonderful, haunting backing vocal by Neumann.

"Far Far Away From My Heart"
(from Home) -- the loneliness of the road poured out in a superb Llanas solo.

"Locked Up in the State of Illinois" (from All the King's Men, various artists) -- using Elvis' backing musicians the BoDeans finally committed to CD one of their old and great live songs.

"Somewhere Down the Crazy River" (Robbie Robertson, from Robbie Robertson, backing vocals by Llanas) -- one of Robbie Robertson's best songs with Sam providing backing vocals that make a haunting song more haunting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jackie Paper Comes No More

Category: Obituary/News

There was something magical about the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" when Peter, Paul and Mary sang it. Some people claimed it was a drug reference (they must've been smoking what they accused the song of promoting) and called for it to be banned, but fortunately most people accepted the song for what it was: great.

Mary Travers, the Louisville, Kentucky native who went to Greenwich Village and hooked up with Peter (Yarrow) and Paul (Stookey) to form one of the greatest folk groups of all time, died Wednesday (9/16) after a long bout with leukemia. In the end, it was not the actual disease that took her life but the complications from the treatment.

The iconic folk group also gave a young songwriter named Henry John Deutschendorf a foot in the door when they recorded his song "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Deutschendorf changed his name professionally to John Denver and went on to great success in the pop, country, and folk fields.

Mary Travers was 72.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Category: Obituary

If you watch the movie M*A*S*H you can see it almost begged to be a television series. It wasn't a movie with a central plot, but rather "episodes" out of the lives of the surgeons at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

Larry Gelbart must have seen that as well, for he took the 1970 film and developed it into a TV series that debuted in 1972. A lot of people don't know that the show nearly died in its Sunday night 8:30 slot during its first year. But it survived. Boy, did it survive. M*A*S*H is like I Love Lucy or The Andy Griffith Show or Star Trek -- timeless with legions of fans who "remember when" as well as discover it for the first time because they were not even born when it aired originally.

Larry Gelbart died Friday, September 11 at home in Los Angeles of cancer.

Although he was quite successful in his writing for other things (winning a Tony Award for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Oscar nominations for Oh God! and Tootsie), he will probably always be remembered for his work on M*A*S*H. And that's certainly something to be proud of.

Larry Gelbart was 81.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

There Are Voices, And Then....

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Painted Bells
ARTIST: Boz Scaggs
ALBUM: Moments
YEAR/LABEL: 1971, Columbia

Boz Scaggs is like sex and rock and roll: when he's good, he's great; when he's bad, he's not all that bad.
(Opening line of Rolling Stone magazine review of Down Two Then Left, 1977)

While still a teenager William "Boz" Scaggs played guitar and sang in a band at his high school, St. Mark's, in Dallas. Named the Marksmen, the combo featured another guitarist by the name of Steve Miller. After graduation, Scaggs went to Scandinavia and Miller went to the University of Wisconsin.

The two reunited in San Francisco in 1967. Scaggs played and sang on the first two Steve Miller Band albums, Children of the Future and Sailor, before parting company again. Scaggs recorded an album for Atlantic in 1969 (which featured what many consider to be Duane Allman's best guitar work, "Loan Me a Dime") before snagging a deal with Columbia Records. His debut on Columbia, Moments, featured a true classic: "Painted Bells."

Scaggs' recording career is filled with songs that showcase his lovely, soulful voice. "Painted Bells" is the first and one of the best. The song's story puts Scaggs in a cafe during an evening shower. His lyrics are as beautifully descriptive as the vocals he delivers them with. "I fall with the evening rain," Scaggs sings in the opening verse. He is just getting warmed up. He describes a rainy night perfectly, referencing "steam rising off the road" and people stepping carefully "to see that they don't get wet" while his cafe seat is under a tree. He sits there, content to "let the drops fall all over me and watch the city lights flick on."

Amid this rainy scene where "the crowds collide just out of my reach," the narrator's thoughts are on an old love, in his memory so fresh that he believes she is sharing the "wet cafe" table with him.

The "string of tiny painted bells" that give the song its title jolt Scaggs back to reality as he realizes the dream is like the passing shower: "the rain will go, and you will too."

Scaggs shot from cult status to Grammy-winning stardom with the
1976 album Silk Degrees, featuring his two best-known hits, "Lowdown" and "Lido Suffle." His greatest song, however, lies buried on an album that has yet to be released on CD in the United States.


The entire Moments album -- no "sophomore jinx" here. This album blew the debut out of the water and set the tone for what was to come.

The entire Silk Degrees album
-- yes, it is the successful Boz Scaggs album, and there is a very good reason for it.

The entire Middle Man album -- Boz wanders through pimps ("Jojo"), hookers ("Simone") and everything in between on an exceptional album that showcases his range from ballads ("You Can Have Me Anytime") to full-tilt rockers ("You've Got Some Imagination").

"Pain of Love" (from Slow Dancer) -- Creem magazine once said they wanted to present Scaggs with a Hostess snowball for Christmas that was "white on the outside and black inside, for obvious reasons." This exceptional blue-eyed soul tune is probably what gave them the idea for that joke.

"Runnin' Blue" (from Boz Scaggs & Band) -- Boz delivered this exceptional blues tune on an album with a large band that hid the fact that Scaggs is actually a rather good guitar player.

"Full-Lock Power Slide" (from My Time) -- strap in and hold on as Scaggs burns down the house with a straight-ahead rock and roll song that proves he is far from just a blue-eyed soul singer.

Not That I Care
Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's Anymore
My Book of Memories
Lost to a Stranger
A Little Bitty Heart
Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs
Life is Too Short
I Want a Home in Dixie
I Lost Today
Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Out to Sea
One More Song
New Delhi Freight Train
Long Way Home
Heart of Rome
Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Entella Hotel
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine