Artistic risk and Gene Sculatti’s Binary Theory of rock ‘n’ roll

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Usually I write something it’s pretty much over, unless I’m on the elliptical and my mind wanders, like the other day at the gym. For some reason I thought back to my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece from May. And then I was reflecting further on the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, and what “makes it so great.”

To recap, the RockHall, in responding to Steve Miller’s criticisms during his post-induction press conference, stated that what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great is that it can “ignite many opinions”–a characterization that I ignited as one big crock of shit.

I then took issue with Ice Cube, who said, also in his acceptance speech, that rock ‘n’ roll is neither instrument nor style of music, but “a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.” I didn’t care much for this definition, either, especially since he pointedly left out country, not to mention polka.

Like I said, not many country stars are in the RockHall, with Johnny Cash the only one coming quickly to mind outside of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers-both inducted as “Early Influences.” Seymour Stein always argued for Conway Twitty, whose career began in the 1950s with the rock ‘n’ roll chart success of hits like “It’s Only Make Believe.” I’ll always remember my late, great friend Dave Nives, who held various marketing and a&r indie label gigs and correctly ascertained, after I brought him a CD by polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk, “This is real rock ‘n’ roll.”

What is real rock ‘n’ roll, then, or what we have called since the l970s, “rock”? I have little idea from looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I thought, as I realized, with deep disappointment and mounting bitterness, that I’d only been on the machine for three minutes.

Then I drifted further into considering one of the main tenets of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, which these mostly old boys likely lifted from art criticism as a whole, that the rock ‘n’ roll artist must always take risks. As in crossing the street without looking? I wondered. As in throwing a pass from the one-yard-line on first-and-goal?

This is why I was never part of that old boys club. I never wanted my favorite artists to take risks. The Beatles could do it, for sure, but who else, besides, say Kenny Rogers?

Did I just say Kenny Rogers? Yes! By risk-taking criteria, Kenny Rogers is arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time! The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand. Dropping out of the U. of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group–out of which the First Edition formed.

With the First Edition, Rogers scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” hit in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,”
“Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored “Ruben James”–the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written and produced by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. He also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and mainstream pop producer David Foster. Besides Parton–who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”–Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Carnes and James Ingram, Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He’s been represented on the charts in one way or other the last six decades, while spinning off a successful acting career–most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”

Really, the guy’s done everything any critic could ask for and way, way more.

But otherwise, lets look at The Ramones, for example. Sure I like the Spector-produced End of the Century as much as the next guy–that is, if the next guy likes it–and I always loved Road to Ruin‘s country-flavored “Don’t Come Close.” And don’t forget, I wrote the fist book on The Ramones (Ramones-An American Band, if I remember correct)! But really, I and you really just want to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.”

Or Elvis Costello: Sure I love the country album Almost Blue produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, or The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, or any number of other artistic excursions beyond “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” But I always hope that when he performs with the band in concert, he goes back heavy on his second album, This Year’s Model, his first with The Attractions, and far and away his most intense rock record.

Which brings me, circuitously-and I’m off the elliptical and back home now-to Gene Sculatti and the Binary Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gene Sculatti, truly one of rock’s great theorists, is credited by U.K. author Jon Savage, in 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, as one of the writers for the seminal rock magaine Crawdaddy who actually began using the word ‘rock’ to describe the new mid-‘60s experimental rock forms manifest on albums like The Beatles’ Revolver and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. But what brings us to him here is his most brilliant Binary Theory.

Right up there with gravity, relativity and evolution, the Binary Theory—and I hereby admit that I’m pretty much a layman here, in terms of understanding such scholarly rock stuff—addresses the deceptively simple elemental principle that a rock artist initially does whatever he, she or it does (roots-rock, let’s say) and becomes successful doing so. They keep doing it the first few albums and tours, and then the success wanes. So they announce with great fanfare a new direction (dance music, let’s say), and enlist the top songwriters and producers in the field—but the ensuing record stiffs. So they announce a return to form (in our example, back to roots-rock) with even more fanfare (a.k.a. hooey), either admitting to the mistake of the failed new direction or more likely, blaming the record company and/or just-fired management.

“That’s the riff, yeah,” says Sculatti, taking a moment out of deep study in his ivory tower to talk down to a relative ignoramus.

“It’s important to distinguish the binary move, though, from such things as organic progressions like The Who evolving from lean, mean mods to arena-ready pomp-rockers, or mere trend-hopping, like the Beach Boys doing a 10-minute disco version of ‘Here Comes the Night’ off of Wild Honey, or the Grateful Dead doing disco on Shakedown Street. And it’s different from polymaths like Prince or Bowie, who could slip into new and different musical togs monthly and always wear them well.

“Then there’s the Stones, who pulled the binary as a canny, if brief, career move: ‘Oh, you think you know us only as noisy young rowdies? We’ll show you!’ Hence ‘As Tears Go By,’ ‘Lady Jane,’ maybe even ‘Play with Fire.’ And Elton, who starts as an earnest Band follower, all Americana’d up–but eventually realizes what a cul-de-sac that is and lightens up into the pop guy he really always wa,s i.e. ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ ‘Island Girl.’”

But “the real blatant binary cats are Kiss,” contends Sculatti, “who snag their biggest hit ever by momentarily abandoning bludgeon-rock for the reflective ‘Beth,’ and Alice Cooper. He starts out as a good solid rocker, gains some rep emphasizing the horror-show bit, but then–I’m almost sure pointed in this direction by management, who knew that songs about nightmares and dead babies wouldn’t get him into the Top 40–suddenly makes a complete U-turn and starts doing, and succeeding with, housewife-friendly ballads like ‘Only Women Bleed’ and ‘I Never Cry.’ I’m pretty sure I remember an interview with him later when he’d semi-retired and was doing the golf bit with Groucho: He said he could never go back to doing the immature shock-rock he’d become known for. Then, lo and behold, a few years later–and continuing well into the present day–he’s out there with the guillotine and all, right back where he started from.”

Sculatti kindly recaps.

“The binary is most often done by the act that dead-ends with whatever it first came to prominence with, so someone decides an about-face is the only rational move. Maybe it’s like Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’: Stuck for inspiration in the studio? Leave, go outside and stand on your head for 10 minutes or play hopscotch with the neighborhood kids–just do something different and your muse will return!”

Meanwhile, Sculatti, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Creem, Billboard, Mojo and other publications while authoring books including The Catalog of Cool, San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, Too Cool and the Kindle book Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving and Making Up with the Music of the Grateful Dead, is issuing Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ’bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016, in both paperback and Kindle editions on Sept 21. The book collects more than 60 pieces from his prolific career. He’s also a featured participant in the just-released documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism.

Concert Highlights–Eric Burdon and the Wild New Band of Animals at City Winery, 8/8/2016

I haven’t forgotten the first time I saw Chubby Checker.

It was around 1980 or so, and I was reviewing for Variety when he opened for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. He had a young rock ‘n’ roll band that was full of energy, and he made Frankie look tired and boring in comparison. After his set I told him about my friends Dr. Bop & the Headliners who were playing at a campus club and sure enough, he went down there and sat in.

I thought of Chubby Monday night at City Winery, when Eric Burdon did the first of his two-night stand there. The last time I saw him he was with a band made up of guys in his age range, that is, middle and older, now that he’s 75. He was great, they were great, but I will note that he sat on a stool a lot of the time. Maybe he had to—but not now: His band now is made up of youngsters and there was no stool in sight. And when he sang “When I Was Young”—which smoothly segued into “Inside Looking Out”—well, he sounded none the worse for 50 years of wear as one of rock’s greatest vocalists.

He opened with his 1970 hit with War, “Spill the Wine,” his bass player Justin Andres laying out a funky bottom from which Burdon modified the lines “When I thought I’d lay myself down to rest/In a big field of tall grass” to a big field of “medical marijuana”—in Mexican accent. Ruben Salinas added a blazing sax answer to “I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back,” and on “See See Rider” trombonist Evan Mackey took a lead.

Other Animals classics performed included “Don’t Bring Me Down” (featuring another great sax part), the anthems “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which Eric dedicated to “the spirit” of its originator, “Miss Nina Simone”–then related how he was introduced to her, upon which she said, “You’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it!”

He sang Lead Belly’s folk standard “In the Pines,” his “Bo Diddley Special” tribute from his latest album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry (opening with a tuneful dirge during which guitarist Johnzo West reverently placed his hat over his heart and Eric and the rest did the same with their hands), and of course, his Animals signature “The House of the Rising Sun,” really hitting those high notes solid.

“Hitting all the notes in all the original keys,” marveled the great guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino in a post-show tweet. “No small feat. Just wonderful to hear that voice and songs again.”

He even threw in “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it, and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” But maybe the night’s big takeaway came in his self-penned 1967 hit “Monterey,” about the legendary California pop festival and in which he invoked the participants Ravi Shankar, The Who, The Dead, Hendrix, Hugh Masakela and Brian Jones. “You want to find the truth in life?” he asked/sang the lyric. “Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”

And then he shared the wonderful story about how a girl handed him a white rose while Otis Redding was performing, and in keeping with the overall vibe, he ate it.

Ren Grevatt

I hadn’t seen him in several years, and I knew he was way older than he looked, and sure enough Ren Grevatt was 94 when he died Saturday—though I didn’t find out until yesterday, and no one else seemed to know either. Ren was an ironically soft-spoken, quiet guy even when he was in his prime as a music publicist, but when word of his death finally did come out, he made a lot of noise among the many writers, clients and staffers whose lives he touched, personally and professionally, in his many years in the biz.

It was mainly because of the kind of guy he was, in addition to the job he did.

“The man behind the scenes sometimes made the scenes happen—and got the word out when they did,” wrote Nitty Gritty Dirt Bander John McEuen via email. “Cordially, smoothly, always the pro, Ren–or as Steve Martin called him, Reverend Grevell–brought the press to many acts that would have been ignored otherwise, and to many they might not have otherwise reached. You always felt like you were his most important client, and he was excited about things that got done. A fine skier, cordial host, friendly guy everyone liked and proud loving father, music lover Ren was always good to see, whether working for you or just coming to hang out.”

Ren handled the Dirt Band and many, many other acts and companies over the years, notably including the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Alice Cooper and Irving Plaza—and I’m forever grateful that he got me a VIP card that enabled me instant entrance there any time. I also felt a kinship with him in that we both worked for Billboard, though he was there long before me—whether or not he looked it.

Bob Merlis, himself a music business publicity legend, at Warner Bros. Records and independently, recalls: “He was one of the first indie publicists I got to know. Very kind, even-tempered guy who made me realize you don’t have to look or act ‘hip’ or be like the artists you rep to be effective. One’s credibility might, in fact, be proportional to how different your affect is from that of your client’s. He was on retainer from Warner Bros. Records before they established their own New York-based publicity department and, as such, handled the Grateful Dead and invited me to a reception for the band at Max’s Kansas City where I got to spend some quality time with Jerry Garcia. He was a dignified guy in an undignified business.”

Indeed, Ren was a good, decent person, qualities that were reflected in his staff, many of whom went on to great things in and out of the business. A role model, for sure.

Tales of Bessman: The first times I saw The Dead (and Siegel-Schwall)

Admittedly, it would have been more fitting to listen to Workingman’s Dead on Labor Day Weekend, but since I just acquired a copy of the recently released three-CD Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol. 18–Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI 2/3/78 Uni-Dome, University of N. Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 2/5/78, and it’s a long weekend, I figured I’d give the whole thing a spin and see if it was as good as I remembered.

Yes, I was at the Madcity show. We at The Madcity Music Sheet—my first music writing gig—were big Deadheads.

Not sure how many times I’d seen them before—or after, for that matter, though I did see them many more times, most memorably with Dylan at Giants Stadium and at least once with Bruce Hornsby.

The first time was April 26, 1970, some 25 miles north of Madison at York Farm in Poynette, Wis., the last day of the three-day, post-Woodstock/Altamont Sound Storm rock festival. I remember the show being great, but that’s about it. What I can tell you about it now comes from various attendees’ online recollections and an excellent Lost Live Dead blog account I just discovered (along with great photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society website): They topped a bill of regional acts including Tongue, Crow, Illinois Speed Press, Rotary Connection and Baby Huey & the Babysitters, and played three sets (nearly six hours), including a 20-30 minute “Dancing in the Street,” with Jerry having shaved his beard, perhaps, an attendee surmised, because of the drug bust earlier that year in New Orleans later immortalized in “Truckin’.”

After the second Dead song (it’s one of those relatively few Dead shows where the set list doesn’t exist) the band sought an I Ching, “the grey book,” Bob Weir said after a different one was passed forward (according to one Jerry Klein in The SetList Program website). The band then knelt down together in the center of the stage, tossed coins, read results, and then arose “laughing and hollering” and launched into “Other One,” with Wavy Gravy sitting ecstatically on top of a bank of speakers on the far left.

I digress. The second Wisconsin rock festival came exactly two months later, in Iola Township, some 140 miles North of Madison and 80 miles West of Green Bay, on June 26-28. I was there for the whole thing—whatever that means—and now must rely on an excellent two-part blog account The People’s Fair—which the festival was called–and The Battle of Iola, which is what it became.

According to a Saturday report in Madison’s Capital Times referenced in the blog, the festival, at the beginning, resembled “one of those medieval fairs that preceded the urbanization of Europe and its subsequent Renaissance [with] bubbles [that] were very much in style and they floated through the frisbee-laced air.” Despite the lack of toilets and telephones and “an abundance of mosquitoes,” thousands had gathered together “to reaffirm their own culture far from the boarded-up windows of State Street”—this an allusion to the era’s antiwar protests-turned-riots that frequently left many shops on Madison’s main campus street with shattered glass.

But the “carnival atmosphere,” one correspondent noted, substituted LSD for cotton candy. I distinctly remember gobbling down acid, psilocybin, mescaline and speed and wandering around complaining that I couldn’t get off.

Friday’s schedule, it says, included Melanie, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and Buddy Rich. Of these I vividly remember seeing Butterfield, though I can’t remember if they were right before or after Siegel-Schwall. I think it was before, and I’m pretty sure both acts were on sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning. Butterfield was great, but Siegel-Schwall was lifechanging: To this day, I’ve never seen a better band. Corky Siegel remains one of my biggest influences and closest friends. I was with Jim Schwall two months ago back in Madison. Everything else about Iola may be a purple haze, but I remember Siegel-Schwall, whom I would see countless times after, like it was last night.

Looking at the blog, I see the Amboy Dukes—Ted Nugent’s early band—played Saturday along with Brownsville Sation, Crow and Buffy Sainte-Marie, and no, I wasn’t one of the group of guys near the stage who affectionately yelled in unison, “Buffy. We want to fuck you!”—nor did I remind her of it years later at a press dinner in New York. Local bands who played included The Tayles, Oz, Tongue, Fuse (featuring future Cheap Tricksters Rick Nielsen and Tom Peterson), Soup (Appleton rock trio led by late guitar legend Doug Yankus) and Short Stuff—the wonderful Milwauke blues-rock band starring the great harp player Jim Liban and keyboardist Junior Brantley that I also became close to.

I’d forgotten about Iggy and the Stooges, who played just before sunrise Sunday morning. I remember them now, but I can’t remember if I heard the gunfire.

The blog recounts rumors of “shakedowns, beatings and rapes by bikers in attendance.” Just before 7 a.m., people began throwing bottles at the bikers at their campsite at the bottom of a hill to the left of the stage. A few bikers mounted up and charged, guns blazing. Three people were wounded, none seriously. People in the crowd estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 started leaveing, though I stayed to see Chuck Berry and Ravi Shankar. But after Iola, “the brief era of mass, multi-day festivals in Wisconsin was over.”

But back to Dick’s Picks Vol. 18, specifically February 3, 1978. Pigpen had died in 1973, and now the band had Keith Godchaux on keyboards and wife Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals. Before I even took out CD1, I studied the box to see if they did any of my faves, and sure enough, from the first Dead album came “Cold Rain and Snow,” though it was slowed down from the LP version, with a pretty guitar solo, but not as intense. Also from The Grateful Dead was a good job on “New Minglewood Blues,” from the Cedar Falls show.

The Madison gig also yielded a great “Good Lovin’,” and “Looks Like Rain,” which flowed from the first disc’s opening “Bertha.” This disc also had a couple tracks from the band’s in-between show Feb. 4 at the Milwaukee Auditorium, including an excellent take of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”

The second disc was all Madison, with a fabulous “Estimated Prophet” blending into “Eyes of the World” (the extended groove clearly showing the band’s avowed Coltrane influence), then merging into “Playing In the Band,” “The Wheel,” and back to “Playing In the Band.”

From the Iowa show came another favorite, “Deal,” also a terrific “Scarlet Begonias,” which fused into “Fire On the Mountain.”

So was it as good as I remembered? I can’t remember. But it’s really good. And when I finally looked at the booklet, I saw it had pictures from Keith Wessel, whom I worked with at The Madcity Music Sheet, and a review by the late Michael St. John, whom I also worked with at The Sheet as well as The Emerald City Chronicle.

So Dick’s Picks Vol. 18 essentially took me back to my beginnings as a writer. Onwards, now, to Siegel-Schwall ’70, which, by the way, is available thanks to my talking pal Tom Vickers into reissuing it and the entire Siegel-Schwall Vanguard catalog in a 2001 box set.

Here’s a fave track from Siegel-Schwall ’70: