Category Archives: Music

Neil Diamond and The Last Waltz…WTF? (or An Appeal for Neil)

Recently, Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which prompted the requisite confusion that accompanies any sentence with the words “Neil Diamond” and “Rock and Roll” in it. A few years ago, I would have joined in on the Neil-bashing, since I, too, have had contempt for him for most of my life. Luckily, I have a few cronies who’ve set me straight.

Honestly, my fandom is limited mostly to his first singles, the mid-60s period when he was on Bang records and rose to stardom on such hits as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “Kentucky Woman.” Jesus, they’re great songs. And anytime I’m a late-comer to an artist, film or LP, I rack my brain to figure out why, why, why? Why have I lost decades I could have spent listening to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which I now have to make up for, replaying it morning, noon and night (much to my wife’s frustration).

Why did I forsake you, Neil?

The answer is simple: Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz.

I got the film on an RCA CED videodisc in 1983. My brother got it, actually, convinced by some elders that any self-respecting rock and roll fan should love that film. (Sound advice.) I was unfamiliar with most of the performers in the film, and I inched my way through it a song at a time. I’d hear an Eric Clapton song on the radio, then I’d queue up “Further on Up the Road” in The Last Waltz. I’d notice “Mannish Boy” in Risky Business, so I’d revisit Muddy Waters’s version in the documentary. I’d see Dr. John on SCTV and –boom–I’d have a fresh take on his performance from the Scorsese film. And so on. Before long, I was wearing a scarf around high school, à la Robbie Robertson (see below) and named my first car “Ophelia,” after the Band song.

But one ongoing sticking point was that damned “Dry Your Eyes” number smack dab in the middle of the film. In 1983, at age 13, I already had a dim view on Neil Diamond. He was beloved by people’s parents, but not for me and my expanding rock and roll palate. He was too busy being that jazz singer who stopped bringing flowers to Barbra. I was alienated by his presence in Scorsese’s film, thought he was a stiff snooze, and that this was the last nail in Neil’s coffin: I wrote him off and closed my ears and heart to All Things Neil. He was dead to me.

If you need a reminder of Neil’s contribution to the 1976 concert/1978 film, here it is…

And if you’re still reading, you probably fall under one of three categories: 1. Neil Diamond fans who will follow him anywhere; 2. Last Waltz fans who are strongly opinionated about his appearance in the film, pro or con; or 3. someone who just saw the film and wonder why that sunglasses-wearing sore thumb was on the stage. If you’re in that last category, than this post is for you. This is what I wish I could have read when I was 13 years old.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain why Diamond was there that night; why his performance misfired; and how it might have gone down if it were handled differently.

Fashion hero Robbie Robertson

Intellectually, Neil’s participation in The Last Waltz makes some sense: Band member Robbie Robertson had spearheaded the event and wanted representation from all the aspects of the Band’s sound, their “musical wheel,” as he called it: Southern blues, Canadian folk, New Orleans funk, and so on. Neil Diamond represented the NYC-based “Brill Building Sound,” named after the building on Broadway where several talented songwriters wrote hit after hit in the 60s, writers that included Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, and Greenwich & Berry. Although the Band sound didn’t exactly scream “New York City,” Robbie had an affinity for that era of popular song writing. In fact, he had just produced Neil Diamond’s latest LP, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling Beautiful Noise. (You can raise a cynical eyebrow now, if you like.)

So there is a heady logic to Neil taking the stage after Joni Mitchell and before Van Morrison. After that, logic falls apart at every turn, blame falling entirely on the choice of song. Whether or not “Dry Your Eyes” is a good song is irrelevant; it’s a woefully inappropriate song for that concert.

Neil Diamond was one of the only two performers that night to perform exclusively new material. Every artist that performed more than one song shrewdly included one tried-and-true house burner: Neil Young wowed them “Helpless,” Van Morrison slayed with “Caravan,” Muddy Waters destroyed with “Mannish Boy,” and so on. And the artists who did perform only one song, each chose a surefire classic: Dr. John brought the house down with “Such a Night,” Ronnie Hawkins’s “Who Do You Love?” turned the Winterland into the world’s largest backwoods bar, Paul Butterfield (dueting with Levon Helm) took everyone on the “Mystery Train.” Besides Neil Diamond, only Joni Mitchell did all new material, but I don’t think anyone was expecting her to come out singing “Help Me.”

You could argue that Neil’s peers played it safe—or you could say they gave the fans what they wanted. Irregardless, Neil Diamond comes out, sporting stand-offish sunglasses and “looking more like a movie producer than a musician” (to quote music journalist Barney Hoskyns) and does a song that no one could sing along with, a song that just doesn’t swing, y’know?

And there’s the rub: Robbie wanted representation from the 60s NYC pop scene—but chose a song written in the 70s, on the West Coast—coincidentally, a song that just happened to be co-written by Robbie Robertson. (Being a huge Robbie supporter, that detail has always pained me. It’s just reeks of opportunism.)

If Neil had “played it safe” and performed something he’d literally written in the Brill Building, there would have been plenty to choose from, all familiar to the audience. At the very least, the Winterland’s universal voice would have said, “Aw, man, I know this tune,” as opposed to, “Huh…? Dry your what…?”

And how would have that sounded if Neil had played something surefire? What if, for example, he went all the way back, to his first single, “Solitary Man” from 1966? It might have sounded like this, which is his performance in Australia six months before The Last Waltz.

OK, it’s definitely not as good looking as The Last Waltz—and Neil’s swapped his lapels and shades for rhinestones and leather pants. But that aside, I could imagine the Band backing him on this, with Garth Hudson providing sweeping organ fills and Robbie punctuating the lyrics with his fractured-note style. (That night, the Band did an excellent job of making sure their guests did not sound like oldies acts.)

And then maybe in 1983, the 13-year-old version of me—a Neil Diamond skeptic—would have sought out the original version of the tune, and embraced it, and become one of those gung-ho NeilHeads you meet every now and then.

So my parting advice to anyone who’s written off Neil Diamond because of his 3 (long) minutes in that great, great film, The Last Waltz: Don’t give up on the Man. Check out the recently released The Bang Years 1966-68 collection and you’ll hear some timeless music.

And for those Neil Loyalists out there who defend him to the grave and insist on putting that 1976 performance on a pedestal, just remember this: that was the only time Neil ever performed “Dry Your Eyes” live, so perhaps Neil himself isn’t a fan of his performance that night.

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Vincent Price Can “Dig It!”

The charming and always-cool Vincent Price turns 99 today (well, not on our Earthly plane, but somewhere he’s turning 99).

Besides the endless entertainment he gave me as a kid and teenager—in horror films such as The Tingler; as host of PBS’s Mystery!; as Egghead on TV’s Batman (above); and, of course, as the ghoulish promoter of the Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture kit—he capped everything off with his song-stealing cameo on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

So here’s a curio that’s included on the 2001 edition of that LP. It’s Vincent Price’s VO session for the song, including a verse cut from the final version! What better way to celebrate the man’s special day!


COOL BONUS IMAGE!
This print ad for the Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture kit was drawn by Mad magazine’s Mort Drucker!

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David Byrne Explores Your Mind


David Byrne’s been a hero of mine for going on twenty-five years now. His music, art and approach to life have had an incalculable impact on me. I’ve seen him around town a couple of times (he’s a street-friendly New Yorker), but only met him once, oh so long ago.

Friday, January 26, 1996. I was getting ready for yet another night shift as an assistant sound editor. The graveyard shift. I packed some CDs in my backpack, tossing in my latest acquisition: 1974’s Al Green Explores Your Mind. A great, great soul record, which inexplicably came with two copies of the CD cover.

Before I left for work, I saw in the Village Voice that there was a 6:30 screening of Youth of the Beast, a 1963 film by Seijun Suzuki, at the Japanese Society, on the East Side of Manhattan. I decided to see that and go into work later, which would make it an especially late night, but at least I’d see a cool film.

As I was sitting in the half-filled theater, waiting for the film to begin, I noticed David Byrne sitting a few rows ahead of me. No way! I thought. Awesome. I love this town!

But then he began turning around and staring at me. A lot. I was kinda unnerved because, well, he can look a little creepy. Finally I realized he was just checking out the Japanese lady sitting behind me. (Whew.)

After the film, I paced myself to leave when he did and got his attention on the stairwell leaving the building. He was cordial, and I spent most of my time thanking him and apologizing for taking up his time. I reached into my bag and gave him a VHS copy of my short film In Person (which I carried around NYC waiting for a moment exactly like this one) and asked for an autograph. He said, “Sure,” and while he looked for a pen in his bag, I looked for something for him to write on.

As luck would have it, I remembered my spare CD cover on the Al Green CD. Y’see, it wasn’t just any Al Green CD; no, it was the one with “Take Me to the River” on it, a tune Talking Heads covered in 1978! He smiled when I asked him to sign it and he too saw the irony. A beat later, he pulled a Sharpie out of his bag and said in that David Byrne kind of way—somewhere between naïve and scared, with a smile—“Look! It’s green!”

Check it out…

All in all, a great meeting. Was it my best one with a rock and roll star? Well, there was the time Iggy Pop told me I was “so cool!” but that will have to wait for another post.
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Naturally, this would be incomplete if I didn’t include both versions of “Take Me to the River.”

Take Me to the River – Al Green (3:42, right-click to download)


Take Me to the River – Talking Heads (5:03, right-click to download)

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It’s Sharon…’Miss Jones’ If You’re Nasty

Soul singer Sharon Jones (left in the photo above) is all the rage nowadays and I couldn’t be happier about it. Her new CD I Learned The Hard Way is getting heaps of praise; she and her backup band the Dap-Kings are selling out bigger and bigger venues; and if you saw Up in the Air, you heard her funk up “This Land is Your Land” over the opening credits.

All of this brings me back to the first time I heard Miss Jones, in 2003. I was listening to Downtown Soulville on WFMU.org which is DJ’ed by Mr. Fine Wine. He plays 60s and 70s soul and funk almost exclusively on vinyl. Yes, he occasionally spices things up with contemporary soul bands, those that play with the ol’ skool soul flavor, but I was unaware of that then. One night, among such obscure classics as “Baby, Your Hair Looks Bad” by Mr. Bo & His Blues Boys and “The Witch Doctor” by Over Night Low, he played this (feel free to listen and guess what it is):

When if finally registered what song it was, I had a frantic moment thinking Janet Jackson had actually been doing a cover in 1986!

The truth is that not only does Sharon Jones perfectly capture the spirit of soul music from 30 years ago, the Dap-Kings arrange and produce in the same way. Likewise, they use recording equipment and techniques from the era, too. All of which would make anyone believe they’ve gone back in time.

Not that that is their point, thank goodness. The point is to get down and get funky.

And I strongly recommend beggin’, borrowin’ and/or stealin’ the see them perform live. You’ll have a blast!

Here’s some links to bring you up to speed on the Hardest Working Woman in Show Business:

Her website.

The video for the title track of her new CD. It’s so cinematic I expected there to be closing credits.

Here’s a download of Sharon’s version “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” This is the rare full-length version. (Right-click to download)

And just for nostalgia, here’s the original version of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” by Janet, um, I mean Miss Jackson. (Right-click to download)

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Fred Astaire, Easter Parade and Experimental Cinema

About a dozen years ago, at work, in the lunchroom, I got into a heated argument over the nature of movie musicals. It wasn’t really an argument, per se, but it was a severe disagreement, and neither of us would concede. He said they were unrealistic and therefore dumb, and I countered that they were unrealistic and therefore liberating.

I wasn’t well-versed in the history of movie musicals and I’m still not. I’m a fair-weather fan: I like the hits (West Side Story, Swing Time, etc) and some others, but I do think some of the most interesting and unusual uses of a camera in a Hollywood film prior to the 70s happens in musicals. With so much “unreality” happening within the framework of the film (people bursting into song at any given moment; locations being transformed in dance floors; fantasy sequences), musicals encouraged creative solutions. (Off the top of my head, I suggest checking out my post about Dorothy’s entrance to Oz.) And many of these solutions involved using the camera, lighting and sound recording devices in new and unusual ways.

My first example (I hope to present others in subsequent posts) is from Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, directed by Charles Walters and Robert Alton in 1948. It’s pretty legendary and stars Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. Even though I’ve heard it mentioned over the years, it’s mostly that “Couple of Swells” number that gets talked about (that’s the one where Judy and Fred are dressed like hoboes). So when watching the film ten years ago and I saw the Astaire number “Stepping Out with My Baby,” I was totally surprised. It’s six minutes long and takes place live on stage, before an audience.



It begins with a lot of dancers.






Soon Fred comes out, singing and dancing.






Next he’s dancing with the ladies.



Finally he’s alone center stage and something happens in the final two minutes that blew my freakin’ mind:

Naturally, since it’s a movie musical, no on questions its believability or logic (how can he be dancing in slow-motion during a live performance?!). The only logic is what looks beautiful. And to accomplish that, the filmmakers (including Fred Astaire, who was closely involved in the filming of the choreography) cooked up something that is visually stunning, cinematic and unconventional.

But is it “experimental filmmaking”? My feeling is that if the filmmakers, regardless of the size of the budget or the expected audience, are telling their story in an unusual manner and using the camera in ways that haven’t been beaten into the ground, then, yes, I’d call that experimental. Oh, hell, it’s not the work of avant-garde pioneers Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage, but it’s not exactly run-of-the-mill either. I mean, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of slow motion footage happening in American cinema, not for another couple of decades.

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Led Zeppelin, by Way of Maxwell Smart

Is it my imagination or did Led Zeppelin crib part of “The Immigrant Song” from the Get Smart theme song?

The Immigrant Song: Maxwell Smart Style (0:29, right-click to download)

By the way, I couldn’t come up with a shticky name for this (some kind of pun combining Led Zeppelin and Get Smart, I suppose?). I’ll give bonus points to anyone who comes up with a clever name for this “mashup.”

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Just in case this gives you the urge to hear the real thing (either of ’em):

Led Zeppelin – The Immigrant Song (2:19, right-click to download)


Irving Szathmary – The Theme from ‘Get Smart’ (0:54, right-click to download)

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Finally, The T.A.M.I. Show Arrives!

Yesterday Shout! Factory released The T.A.M.I. Show on DVD, and believe me this is a cause for rejoicing. This concert film was shot in October, 1964, when the music industry was at a crossroads of black and white performers, and US and UK bands. And in one film, they all take the stage—James Brown, The Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, Marvin Gaye, and The Rolling Stones, among others—with a shitload of young dancers gyrating in the background, and 3,000 screaming teenagers in front of them.

As exciting as this film is—and it’s also brilliantly staged and shot—it has never been released on VHS or DVD. Over the last 46 years, its lived in only four forms: as legend (I’ve read for decades about James Brown’s feet in this film); as the original 16 mm prints shown at very infrequent screenings; as crummy, nth-generation VHS bootlegs; and in that one damn line in that Police song that confused so many teenagers.

As for me, I saw it in 1993, on 16mm in the worst of all possible places: an acoustically awful classroom at college. However, my buddy Brian and I loved it. The energy, the joy and the raw-yet-naïve sexuality of the performances transcended the less than desirable circumstances.

The Bootleg: Lesley Gore is in here somewhere.

Next, in the late 90s, I broke down and got a bootleg tape. This time, the joy of the film could NOT transcend the limitations of the presentation.

But all of that is irrelevant now. The DVD looks and sounds gorgeous; with great packaging; an essay; an audio commentary by director Steve Binder; and even a trailer with an commentary by director John Landis (I’m not sure why yet, but he’s there nevertheless). And all for only $12 on Amazon (hint, hint).

Here’s a little context, a side-by-side of my VHS bootleg ($25) and what I just got for half the price:

And Shout! Factory’s generously posted clips on YouTube, including a trailer and performances by Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I watched it in its entirety for the first time in seventeen years, and I can’t believe how my favorite moments from ‘93 still resonate. These include:

Sexy white women dancing behind Chuck Berry, while he sang “Sweet Little Sixteen” (and, undoubtedly, thought about eating his breakfast).1



Lesley Gore hypnotizing me through a Vaseline-soaked lens.




Keith Richards being sillier than I thought possible.



And my favorite: James Brown has an explosive 17-minute set, where he makes it absolutely clear why he was called the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. And at the end, after he’s collapsed, screamed, crooned, danced, cried, died and been re-born (several times), he walks to the end of the stage and takes a seat on a riser:

He cracks a proud smile and looks at his band, his Famous Flames and his orchestra, and he is clearly the master of all he sees. It lasts only a few seconds, but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen JB give himself a breather.

By the way, T.A.M.I. is an acronym for Teenage Awards Music International, and you’ll have to read the DVD’s essay to really understand what the Hell it means.


BACK TO POST 1If you don’t get this reference, I extend my apologies. And if you do get it, well, I extend a different kind of apology.

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