We Need More Ireland

Canada is home. I have enjoyed time in a number of countries but for years was comfortable in my conviction that there is no other in which I would be happy. That no longer holds. Having just returned from twenty days in Ireland, I now have a second country where, if for some reason I was deported, I could quite happily resettle. My wife and I travelled with two other couples, met another friend there, rented cars, and stayed at tremendous Airbnb houses.

We avoided much time in cities and tourist spots, shopped markets for food, wandered small towns and villages, drove the countryside often somewhat lost and exploring, and enjoyed local pubs. I fell in love with the place. It has to do with the intersection of the physical and historical.

The physical begins with the roads – they’re nuts. Getting used to driving on the left and shifting with the left hand comes quickly enough but once outside of Dublin the roads become narrow and curvy goat paths. Every tiny, shoulder-less road is flanked by stone walls making it impossible to give way when a car is approaching. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle brings heart-to-throat with the screaming imminence of a side-scraping incident or head-on collision. I felt myself involuntarily inhaling to shrink thinner as each vehicle whizzed past with my left mirror skimming the wall and the other narrowly missing his. Every passing was an adventure with many of the insanely blind and tight turns bringing audible gasps.

But then I got it. I relaxed. The speed limit signs are wry jokes. The roads are meant to slow you down. They are a reminder of a gentler then and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the frantic now. The roads remind you that the journey is as important as the destination.

The valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. There is tranquillity in a horizon so distant and shades of green so endless. There is perspective in the walls, stone buildings, churches, and castles constructed hundreds, or in many cases, thousands of years ago. Enormous cliffs and sweeping empty beaches welcome the Atlantic’s cascading waves with a rhythmic reminder that they were there long before us and will be there long after we’re gone; sparing nary a thought for our piddling worries and trifling foibles.

Irish Eyes...

Like the physical, the historical is everywhere. The Irish do not hide and deny their history like Canadians or bleach and commercialize it like Americans – they live it. We visited three memorials to the 19th-century famine that killed thousands and sent millions abroad in a diaspora that changed Ireland and the face and culture of many nations. The blunt and honest memorials spoke of tragedy and loss and hinted, some rather directly, of the damn English landlords who swept the suffering from the land and the damn English government that offered scant help for the starving who remained.

Irish Eyes

We visited Michael Collin’s grave. Collins was the West-Cork rabble-rouser who was jailed for his role in the 1916 Rising and then became a guerrilla fighter, leading the fight for Irish independence. After negotiating a treaty that allowed the Protestant north to become a separate country and the Catholic south to declare itself the Irish Free State, he was assassinated in the subsequent civil war.

Irish Eyes.

The visits added a great deal to books that I had read in advance and the biography of Collins that I read when there. Together, they revealed the major themes of Irish history that I came to know better as I watched, listened, and eavesdropped: tragedy, resilience, strength, pride, humour, community, and the long-held, deep-seated desire to be left alone.

Like every nation’s history, it is lived not just in what they choose to memorialize, buildings they chose to preserve or tear down, and the roads they refuse to straighten. It is more subtly revealed in how people treat each other, relate to each other and strangers, and in song. History is alive in the pubs. The made-for-tourist pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar district are okay but the tiny pubs in tiny towns are magical. In Sneem, for instance, population 850, the young barmaid told me there were six pubs and believed I was having her on when I said that my village of 2,400 has only two.

Irish pubs are small, low-ceilinged, wooden, with tilting floors and doors that no longer hang quite right. They smell of the decades when smoking was fine, of generations of patrons packed shoulder to shoulder, and of oceans of poured pints. Did you know it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect Guinness? Signs indicate that the local was established in 1812 or 1759. There are no drunks. Locals gather to tip a pint, yes, but is more about coming together. The pub is their communal living room. A few folks bring a fiddle, concertina, accordion, flute, or bodhran. They sit in a circle, not on a stage but around a table and somehow without discussing the tune or key, play one lively song after another. From time to time it’s everyone else’s turn. The players stop and the pub falls silent when a person stands to sing. A funny, bawdy song or, more often, a long and forlorn ballad about heartbreak and loss fills the pub and hearts. And there, in sad and happy songs, the playing not by professionals but fun-loving neighbours, and in the laughter and stories and tippling together is betrayed the history that defines the culture that fills the spirit.

Irish Eyes....

I love Ireland. I love the stunning views. I love the heartfelt music. I love that when ordering a pint, the barman or barmaid stays to chat. We were not customers but new folks to meet. I love the smiles that come quickly and often, the gentle sarcasm, hilarious slang, and ribbing that simply disallows arrogance or pretention. I even grew to love the crazy roads.

Canada is great. But we could use more Ireland.

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The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

Place and Change: Memphis Changes the World

A shy, skinny, eighteen-year-old truck driver walked into a tiny recording studio and asked to make a record for his mother’s birthday. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked if he was a singer. He looked down and mumbled that he was. She asked who he sounded like and he glanced up, grinned, and said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” And he was right. The world was about to change.

The ramshackle recording studio was in Memphis, Tennessee and that mattered. It mattered because place matters. Place has always been a catalyst of change. Memphis had become the continent’s largest inland port a hundred years before because it lay at the intersection of the mighty Mississippi that flowed from Minnesota, past Memphis, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Illinois Central Railway that tied the city to Chicago and New Orleans. Its serving as a vortex for people chasing a buck and a dream was rendered even more significant with the building of Highway 61 from New Orleans through Memphis to Canada. The river, rail, and road both fed and consumed post-WWII prosperity with a vibrancy that could be felt and, even more, heard. A new, angry, joyful, scary music raged as if the place inhaled surrounding sound then exhaled a hurricane.

place-and-change

The cotton fields that had ringed Memphis ensured that generations knew of the music African-American slaves sang to pass their sunup to sundown work days. Their songs were mournful melodies, chants, or call and response rousers that bled spirituality while expressing justifiable despair and inexplicable hope. From slave songs, field hollers, negro spirituals, and country-gospel, came the blues. In 1912, Memphis songwriter W. C. Handy was commissioned to pen a tune for a corrupt Memphis mayor and he called it Memphis Blues. He wrote a number of similar songs and, despite others claiming the title, became the father of the blues.

African American Memphis businessman, Robert Church, Sr., purchased land and supported the building of clubs, bars, and the Church Park and Auditorium along what became Beale Street. It offered every known vice and a few it made up. Beale Street became home to a number of African-American owned businesses and where bands and singers played the blues. It attracted performers from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans and every time they came they taught, learned, and went home to spread the news.

The music industry was as segregated as the city. White record shops would not stock “race” music and white radio stations wouldn’t play it. By 1949, Billboard magazine writer Jerry Wexler had developed an appreciation for the new African American music and decided that instead of “race’ music, he would call it rhythm and blues (R&B). It worked. The new name seemed to make it less offensive to white audiences and some white radio stations began to play it. In popularizing the new sounds, Memphis radio stations joined Beale Street clubs where laws were broken and highway 61 honky tonks and juke joints where it was ignored altogether.

White society could segregate everything but radio proved that the air didn’t care. White and black folks in Memphis could hear the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, with its lively bluegrass, Appalachian folk ballads, and proud and corny country and western based on three chords and the truth. On other stations, they could hear blaring big bands playing quick-tempo jump and swing along with smooth pop epitomized by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But at the same time, Memphis radio station WDIA was among America’s first to risk R&B records and it even hired African American disc jockeys to play them, including young blues singer Rufus Thomas and Riley King, an exceptional blues guitarist who everyone called B.B. Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was the city’s most popular disc jockey. While he was white, his nine to midnight Red, Hot, and Blue show played black and white music to a black and white audience. The air over Memphis was desegregating sensibilities below.

Among the R & B records played were 1948’s Good Rockin’ Tonight by Wynonie Harris and Rockin’ At Midnight by Roy Brown. Everyone understood that rock and rockin’ were thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Sex was absolutely taboo in a society where pregnant teenagers were exiled, sex education was unthinkable, and birth control could not even be purchased by married women. Pile atop that the racist terror of oversexed black men with designs on white women, then the sexed-up “race” music, no matter what it was called, and all the radio stations, clubs, and honky tonks popularizing it, meant that something was both degenerate and dangerous. But it was as unstoppable as the Mississippi.

Among those attracted to the growing Memphis music scene was Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips. Phillips moved to Memphis in June 1945. His Saturday afternoon WREC radio show became as daring as Dewey Phillips (no relation) in mixing black and white records. While working for the radio station at big band shows at the swanky Peabody Hotel, he spoke with white musicians who claimed to play differently when they came to Memphis and having to convert back when they left. He was told of black musicians who played Beale Street bars as well as Highway 61 juke joints and honky tonks who also played and sang differently when in or near Memphis.

Phillips saw that the supply of R&B records was unable to meet demand and recognized an opportunity. He rented an old radiator shop in downtown Memphis at 706 Union Street and had it renovated. In January 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. With primitive equipment, he recorded anyone with the money to rent time. Most left with nothing but their wax souvenir. Those with a unique song or style, though, found themselves signed to a deal that had Phillips license recordings to established companies that manufactured and distributed them. Through Phillips, independent companies along the rail, road and river lines in St. Louis, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Chicago’s Chess Records, began spreading the Memphis sound.

Among those Phillips recorded was B. B. King. King played a version of the blues that wrenched emotion from lyrics and, while still developing his style, defined songs with crisp guitar runs and riffs. Following King into the Memphis studio were bluesmen who honed their talents on Beale Street and whose music bled the amalgam of styles for which the city was becoming known: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Walter Horton, and the man who would become as legendary as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf.

A Clarksdale, Tennessee disc jockey heard that Phillips was recording black singers. Ike Turner gathered his band and headed north. At first hearing, Phillips knew he had something special. Saxophonist Jackie Brenston sang the lead on a Turner composition called Rocket 88. The lyrics reveled in double entendre in equating a fast car to faster sex. The drums were relentless and the sax inventive. An amp had fallen off the car’s roof on the trip to Memphis and the resulting damage distorted the guitar, making it growl menacingly.

The 8-bar blues with the driving back beat sat perfectly at the core of the Venn diagram linking the pop, R&B, country, and the blues that Memphis musicians inhabited and traveling bands imitated. Phillips licensed the record to Chess Records and within weeks it was number one on the nation’s R&B charts with many pop stations and even country stations daring to play it. Rocket 88 was the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.

The success of Rocket 88 and other licensed recordings encouraged Phillips to launch his own record company. He called it Sun Records. Starting in February 1952, Sun enjoyed moderate success but Phillips grew increasingly frustrated by the persistent, racist resistance to R&B and blues records. He said to Marion Keisker, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” A little while later, on Saturday, June 26, 1954, the shy, skinny Memphis truck driver walked through his door to make his mama’s record. His name was Elvis Presley.

Phillips did not hear Elvis that day or a few months later when he returned to pay another four dollars to record again. When Phillips was again complaining about not being able to find the right singer to blend black and white, Keisker suggested the kid with the sideburns. Elvis was called and he ran to the studio, arriving panting for breath while Keisker was still on the line. Phillips had a couple of talented session players, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, work with the kid. But that rehearsal and then a recording session revealed nothing particularly impressive. They were on a break when Presley spontaneously launched into an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup R&B song called That’s Alright Mama. Black and Moore jumped in, all three laughing at the loose-limbed, ragged sound they were making. But Phillips heard what he’d been searching for.

That’s Alright Mama was quickly pressed and a copy taken to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. A couple of spins brought phones calls to hear it again and again. The record was played on Memphis radio stations and its local then regional success put Presley on the road. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers, a black shop on Beale Street. His on-stage gyrations were variations of the black performers he had seen in Beale Street clubs. He sang, and then soon would record, more black, R&B songs. But with equal conviction, he wore his hair and sideburns in a defiant, white-trash truck driver style and also sang white ballads, gospel, pop, and the country numbers he loved. He was, in short, the embodiment of Memphis, the meeting place, with its new music absorbing influences from the lines that connected it to the world, synthesizing them, and sending them back with the challenge to question the barriers of class, race, age, and gender, and concepts of right and wrong, and fun and indecent.

Presley’s growing success afforded even more allure to Memphis. Carl Perkins grew up in grinding, rural Tennessee poverty. He took his guitar and dream to Memphis where he consummated the marriage of country and rock ‘n’ roll in a new variant called rockabilly. His second Sun Records release, Blue Suede Shoes, became a national hit for him and then Elvis. Hoping to become a gospel singer, Johnny Cash, moved from Arkansas to Memphis where Sam Phillips encouraged him to sing his own compositions including his second Sun release, Folsom Prison Blues. It contains music’s nastiest line: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Roy Orbison was enjoying little success in his native Texas but knew of the musical mecca that Memphis had become. He impressed Sam Philips with his three-octave range, was signed to Sun, and soon Ooby Dooby was a national hit. Jerry Lee Lewis attacked more than played a piano. He was drawn to Memphis from Louisiana and after a stint as a Sun Records session player, recorded Crazy Arms and then the blatantly sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Presley, Sun Records, December 1956. (Photo: The Commercial Appeal)

By 1956-’57, the new music that Memphis had been central to creating was topping national charts, being heard on TV, and filling juke boxes, theatres, and arenas. Parents were yelling upstairs to turn that noise down. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a central element in the transformation of first America and then the western world from old to new. It provided an impetus and soundtrack for the move from the white, patriarchal, sexually repressed world of segregated people and ideas to what would become the more liberal, modern era. Rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of the baby boom, the gigantic demographic whose power was its numbers and a determination to be heard its creed. Rock ‘n’ roll was the notification that the generation that had survived the Depression and war and now yearned for things to be calm, controlled, and predictable, was losing its existential battle for cultural supremacy. It was the bridge from the composed assurance of Eisenhower to the audacious vibrancy of Kennedy.

Memphis was the place of change and the change could not be contained. Up Highway 61, in Hibbing Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman heard the news and would soon change his name to Dylan and immortalize the highway in song. Across the Atlantic, sailors smuggled American records into Liverpool and Manchester where kids named John, Paul, Mick, and Keith studied them and then helped England lead rock ‘n’ roll’s second wave and, with it, inaugurate a new phase in the generational revolution. Place would matter again in causing change. And the change began in Memphis.

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Most Important Rock Groups Ever

Rock is art. Rock songs toy with time. Decades after first hearing it, a song will find its way to your radio and instantly transport you to a place and people. They are three-minute symphonies. They are novels with plot, theme, and character. Because rock songs matter, the groups that create them matter and so let us ponder our most important groups.

Most Important Rock Groups EverPhoto: www.picsfair.com

  1. Crickets and the Beatles

Sex spawned Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even the name was an African-American slang for sex. The early songs were blatantly sexual. Consider Good Rockin’ Tonight, Great Balls of Fire, and anything by Little Richard including his transvestite tale in Long Tall Sally. The Crickets and then the Beatles turned rock from sex to fun. The Crickets sang Oh Boy at the thought of merely seeing a girl and the Beatles just wanted to hold her hand.

More important was that they killed the old music industry. For decades, songwriters punched the clock each morning in small offices on Nashville’s Music Row and New York’s Brill building. They wrote the songs that A & R men pitched. The Crickets and Beatles proclaimed that from that point on, groups would write their own material.

  1. The Byrds and the Band

The Byrds married the rhythms and harmonies of the Beatles with the lyrical maturity of Bob Dylan. Many of their early songs were Dylan covers. Kids were surprised to learn that with Turn! Turn! Turn! they were dancing to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. They certainly knew that Eight Miles High was about drugs.

Like the Byrds, the Band taught listeners that rock songs could move beyond girl-boy angst. They focussed on deeper matters. With The Weight, they wrote of the American Civil War’s pain and the century-long yearning for redemption. With Cripple Creek and many others, they sang of the joy in anti-establishment and anti-consumerist attitudes and behaviours.

  1. The Monkees and the Eagles

That’s right, the Monkees. Of course they were a made up band but they’re on this list because of Mike Nesmith. To quell his protests, he was allowed to produce two of his compositions for the first Monkees album. Papa Jean’s Blues and Sweet Young Thing were rock but also country. Unlike today’s country, which Tom Petty has said is bad pop with a fiddle, Nesmith’s songs were outlaw country before Waylon and Willie coined the phrase. Each Monkees album contained Nesmith country-rock songs and lots of kids were hearing the new genre because, in 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Before winning his casting call, Nesmith had been an MC at an L. A. club where he sang and introduced local talent. Among them was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Their first hit was a Nesmith country-rock song: Different Drum. After touring with Ronstadt, her band left and renamed itself the Eagles. They took country-rock to new levels. Marvel at their harmonies and stellar musicianship as you hear country and rock fusing seamlessly in Already Gone, Take It Easy, and Heartache Tonight. A string of hits and sold-out concerts taught folks that the line between rock and country is as illusory as that between the beer and wine of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

  1. The Beatles and the Beach Boys

After enjoying a string of hits, Beach Boys muse Brian Wilson surrendered the road for the studio. Although deaf in one ear from a beating his father inflicted in childhood, he meticulously coached LA’s Wrecking Crew through layers of overdubs until the music on the tape matched the vision in his head. The quirky arrangements and odd instruments, such as the theremin, were like no one had ever imagined. The result was God Only Knows, Good Vibrations, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the album Pet Sounds.

I know the Beatles are on this list twice. So what, they earned it. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds he drove to Lennon’s house and they accepted the challenge. The Beatles and their genius producer George Martin locked themselves in Abbey Road for months until their masterpiece was complete – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There wasn’t a single single. That was the point.

FM radio was invented to allow rock music to graduate from commercial AM formats where songs were almost incidental to ads and DJ patter, to a place where albums could be played in their entirety. The Beach Boys and Beatles and their two albums raised rock music from disposable to art.

  1. Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin

Rock ‘n’ Roll was born in the delta blues of the American south and electric blues of Chicago. A teenaged Keith Richard was at a train station when he noticed a skinny kid with an armful of American blues records. Intrigued, he introduced himself to Mick Jagger. The group they created was named after a blues song and dedicated to bringing American blues to British and then back to American kids. When in America, they insisted on meeting not movie stars but Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and their blues idols. Listen to Honky Tonk Woman or any number of others and try not to hear the blues.

Led Zepplin was more outrageous in their clothes, behaviour, attitude, and concerts than any group before and their music more ragged, innovative, and loud. All of that distracted from the fact that they were playing little more than operatic variations of the blues. Listen to Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man then consider the direct line to Whole Lot of Love. As Elvis had, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin reminded listeners of rock’s black roots.

  1. The Heartbreakers and the Clash

Rock survived the early ‘60s folk music scare but was nearly defeated by ‘70s disco. It was music untouched by human hands that appealed to neither head nor heart but rather the spinal chord. Some groups manned the cultural barricades and burned the white flag. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played music that reminded listeners of the best of the ‘60s but brought a power either not imagined or too long forgotten. Refugee, American Girl and many others pulsed with catchy hooks but just beneath the surface lurked desperate rage.

The Clash employed classic ‘60s models in musicians and song structures. Their songs bespoke the simple beauty wrought from three chords and the truth. They were based on the notion, as Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell once said: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Their lyrics decried the phoniness of celebrity culture and the pain of Thatcherism. The Heartbreakers and the Clash saved rock music from disco’s circling of the cultural sink and reminded people of rock’s potency and potential.

  1. Pearl Jam and Nirvana

Every decade asks rock music to save itself from the industry of which it’s a part. Grunge did the deed in the ‘90s. Pearl Jam’s music harkened back to classic rock writing structures but it was rougher and more adventurous. Their lyrics were decidedly dark in addressing suicide, sexual abuse, and depression. They sacrificed untold millions to fight Ticketmaster and its greedy, gouging fees. It played stadiums and forced advertising banners to be covered and even tape to be placed over the beer logos on concession workers’ shirts.

Due to the suicide of its leader and lead singer, Nirvana recorded only three albums but that was enough to contribute to the move toward songs that jumped from one rhythm to another, from quiet, gentle sections to screaming raves, and yet stuck to the verse-chorus-bridge structure. Their unplugged concert proved that while bad songs can make fun records, only quality songs stand with credibility when stripped to acoustic instrumentation. Talent always trumps show.

Picasso once took a child’s sparkler and dashed a swirl that instantly vanished. A photographer caught it. There, slashing the darkness, was art. Most rock music is equally fleeting. Some groups, though, are like Picasso. Their concerts are the artist’s sparklers creating moments immediately gone. Recordings, though, are canvasses. They speak to artistic intention, society’s gaps, and a listener’s yearnings. Songs by any of the groups on the list are exactly the same as the day they were recorded but our world has changed, we have changed, and so the songs have changed with our evolving perception of their meaning. That we can visit as old friends is the beauty of art, of all art, but perhaps especially music.

Please consider sharing this with others on Facebook or elsewhere and leaving a comment as to groups I missed and which should not have made this list. You might also be a brute for punishment and check my previous columns where, perhaps as foolishly as above, I tackled:

6 Singers Who Matter Most https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/04/popular-important-6-singers-that-matter-most/

Most Important Bands of All Time https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/18/most-important-bands-of-all-time/

Top Concerts of the Last 5 Decades https://johnboyko.com/tag/concert/

Most Important Bands of All Time

The Beatles are not the best band of all time. Neither is U2 or Led Zeppelin. You see, a teenage John Lennon once snapped, “We’re not a band, we’re a group.” He understood. Lennon’s Quarrymen and then the Beatles were groups. So was the Clash and so are the Rolling Stones and the Eagles. In musical parlance, a group is a self-contained unit providing music and vocals while a band is a collection of musicians creating music either without or to accompany vocals. Forget boy bands. Their name is only part of what’s wrong with them.

So let’s leave groups aside and consider, in rough chronological order, the five most important bands.

  1. Tommy Dorsey Band

The 1930s brought the Depression and the 1940s the Second World War. Year after year people lost homes, loved ones, and faith in the rules they had believed would secure their families and futures. As always happens in eras of tragedy and transition, music filled the emotional void with fun. Swing music was nothing but fun.

Dance halls were everywhere and everywhere were big bands playing jumped up tunes with driving beats, mournful ballads, and goofy novelty numbers. The most influential of the big bands was led by Tommy Dorsey.

Dorsey played trombone, of all things. He reinvented the instrument so that it carried the melody. He promoted band members who stood and, in a nod to jazz, leaned into solos that were different every night. It was art as lightening, existing for the moment. Dorsey also sought the best singers around and handed careers to many including his best find of all, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra toured and recorded 80 songs with the Dorsey band. He learned his vocal styling and discipline from Dorsey’s trombone breathing techniques.

When other bands faded with changing musical tastes, Dorsey continued to evolve his sound and bring more jazz and popular music into his repertoire. His innovative ideas influenced another generation. His band placed an incredible 286 songs on the Billboard charts and he enjoyed 17 number ones. His biggest hit was I’ll Never Smile Again, which, in 1940, was number one for twelve weeks.

In the 1950s he and his brother Jimmy co-hosted a popular show on the new medium of television. He demonstrated courage when he ignored critics and insisted that a new young singer be invited to perform. It was through Dorsey, therefore, that America first saw Elvis Presley.

Tommy Dorsey died in 1956 when only 51 years of age. In 1982, his I’m Getting Sentimental Over You was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and Marie was inducted in 1998. In 1996, the United States Postal Service issued a Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey stamp. His music lives on in singers and bands who believe they are inventing new ideas that Dorsey actually brought to audiences before their grandparents were born. 

  1. Wrecking Crew

Los Angeles session musicians used to arrive wearing suits and obediently read from charts to provide music for whatever commercial, movie, or singer rented their services. It was a nine to five job. That ended in the early 1960s when others began strolling in as the professionals were leaving. They dressed more casually. They played more casually. They could read charts but more often played what they felt. They made suggestions. They took chances. The grumpy old pros said the young bucks would wreck the music industry and so, according to drummer Hal Blaine, their name was coined.

You’ve heard their work if you’ve heard the Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Jan and Dean, the Partridge Family, Mamas & Papas, Association, 5th Dimension, Grass Roots, the Carpenters, the Byrds, the Turtles, Bread, Simon and Garfunkel, and on and on. Did you think the Monkees were the only group that didn’t play on their own records? You heard the Wrecking Crew if you’ve heard Dean Martin sing Everybody Loves Somebody or Frank Sinatra croon Strangers in the Night.

Sonny Bono once had a rather ordinary sounding song until the bass player, Carol Kaye, suggested a line that was simple in its complexity but riveting as a hook, and The Beat Goes On was born. She later suggested the descending bass notes in the Nancy Sinatra’s Boots. Brian Wilson employed the Wrecking Crew to create the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds.

When Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell struck out on his own, it continued as his studio band. Other members that enjoyed solo success were Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack, who called himself Dr. John. Wrecking crew drummer Jim Keltner played on nearly all the Beatles solo albums, the Concert for Bangladesh, and, under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury, with the Travelling Wilburys. In 2007, the Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame.

Turn on an oldies radio station and be guaranteed that within minutes, whether you know it or not, you will hear the Wrecking Crew.

  1. The Band

Born in Arkansas and making a name for himself as a rockabilly wild man, Ronnie Hawkins toured Canada in 1958 and never went home. His music and show was like nothing seen or heard before. It was all made possible by the driving beat and incomparable sound of his band. They were kids. Arkansas native Levon Helm joined Canadians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. They practiced all day and played all night. Their playing became as tight as their friendships.

Hawkins called them the Hawks. They quickly grew to be the premier band on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip that became the heart of the burgeoning Canadian music scene. Hawkins was crazy on stage. He yelled. He did back flips. He invented the moonwalk that Michael Jackson would later steal. Nearly any band can back someone who sticks to the songs but it took something all together special to hang on through the hurricane that was Rompin’ Ronnie. Through the antics, alcohol, and smoky haze was the band that never missed a beat, dropped a note, or missed a cue. Hudson’s keyboard work was majestic and rose beyond the limits of three-chord rock ‘n’ roll. Helms played masterful fills while Robertson took guitar leads to the edge of out of control.

In 1964, the band left Hawkins. They toured a little and recorded an unsuccessful album but a year later their ability to back quirky front men was recognized and rewarded when they received a call from Bob Dylan. At that point, Dylan was a tremendously successful folk singer. In July 1965, he had endured angry boos when he had plugged in a telecaster and, backed by Mike Butterfield’s band, sang an electric set at the New Port Folk Festival. Ready for more, and he hired Hawkins’ old band.

The American tour began a month later. It was like nothing anyone had heard before. Woody Guthrie had bedded the Beatles. The marriage of folk, pop, and rock is commonplace now but was then revolutionary. They toured the world and endured more negative reaction. There is film of a Manchester, England concert where someone yells that Dylan is Judas. Dylan snaps back, and then turns to the band, and shouts, “Play it fucking loud!” And they do. They play it loud and they play it well to those who were booing, those who understood, and for posterity.

The band accompanied Dylan back to Saugerties, New York, where, exhausted but exhilarated, they lived and made new music together. From Helms came southern country and from Hudson came classical. From Robertson came pop and his respect for southern history and native culture. From Manuel, and Danko came blues, gospel and traditional bluegrass. Their informal recordings became the Basement Tapes and a decades-long iconic, unheard mystery.

The eclectic talents and interests melded with their years with Hawkins and Dylan to inform their 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. They had been Hawkins band then Dylan’s band and now they needed a name. Helms suggested they be known as they were to many already, simply, The Band.

The group enjoyed hit songs and great success and well deserved places in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it is as a band that they were midwives at the birth of rock n roll in Canada and country-rock around the world. Michael Nesmith, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others who followed their lead owe a debt to the band called the Band.

  1. The Swampers

Speaking of Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, consider the fourth verse from their most popular song, Sweet Home Alabama:

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two/Lord they get me off so much/They pick me up when I’m feeling blue/Now how bout you?

The Swampers? You may have never heard of them but, like the Wrecking Crew, you’ve heard them. Entrepreneur Rick Hall built FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His very first song he recorded was by a shy, hospital orderly named Percy Sledge – the gospel-tinged power ballad When a Man Loves a Woman. The band is brilliant in its restraint. The organ creates a drone and the beat is pulled just slightly before each chorus, allowing tension to build to a climatic release. The notes are smooth, erotic, and let the singer and song do the work.

The record’s success brought attention to Muscle Shoals and more hit records to the world. People dancing to Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally were dancing to the Swampers. People swooning to Aretha Franklin’s Respect were loving the Swampers. Those moved by Etta James’ raucous Tell Mama were moved by the Swampers. Few knew the band. Fewer still knew that those motoring the new wave of Black R & B were all white.

None had musical training. But David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Pete Carr, Will McFarlane, Spooner Oldham, Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, and Albert S. Lowe all had soul, imagination, and a willingness to risk.

In 1969, Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Johnson formed their own studio called Pro Sound. The Swampers sound and feel, though, remained true to its roots. More singers came to capture its magic. They backed recordings by Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, John Prine, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs, and the Oak Ridge Boys. They helped the Rolling Stones record Wild Horses and Brown Sugar. Bob Dylan came to record Desire. It’s the Swampers you are enjoying when singing along with the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There, Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, and Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

God was having a particularly good day when he decided to place the intersection of Black and White music in the heart of segregated Alabama and allow its sweet sounds to offer lessons to us all.

  1. E Street Band

Most Important Bands of All Time(Photo: http://www.sfae.com)

New Jersey is tough and the Jersey shore is tougher. It’s Sinatra tough. It’s Sopranos tough. It was tough in the late 1960s when in and around the hardscrabble Ashbury Park a new, hard driving, working class music developed in seedy bars and seedier clubs. Like Liverpool in the early ‘60s, Ashbury Park in the early ‘70s saw bands form and fall apart. The journeymen went to factories and the best to other bands. Among the dwindling elite were Danny Federici, Vini Lopez, Garry Tellent, David Sancious and Clarence Clemons. They came to know each other and became friends with a skinny young Jersey singer named Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen signed a recording contract in 1972 and offered a job to the best musicians on the Jersey Shore. They rehearsed at Sancious’ mother’s house on the corner of 10th Avenue and E Street. The name was born – The E Street Band. Their first album was entitled Greetings From Ashbury Park. A life of touring began. Some members left and were replaced but the sound grew tighter and even more powerful, and even tougher. The band was strengthened when ace guitarist Steven Van Zandt joined in 1975.

Springsteen became known for his working class anthems and he and the band for their working class dedication to fair play for fair pay. Concerts lasted three hours or more. There were few breaks between songs as the band kept the music or rhythm pulsating with the crowd engaged, enthralled, and enraptured. Songs people knew from the records were reinvented, made longer, more complex, and given more energy and different textures every night. Like the stadium band they became, they played to the back row. Like the bar band they had been, they played requests.

For 15 years, Springsteen recorded and performed without the band but they were reunited in 1995 and have been together ever since. Springsteen was not the same without them. He is better with them at his side and watching his back. Springsteen always affectionately introduces each member and then yells over the cheers: “It’s the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E Street Band!”

Try to imagine Born to Run without Clarence’s sax solo. Try to imagine Glory Days without Little Stephens’ guitar and crazy harmonies. They take good songs and made them better. That’s the job of any band but not a job just any band can do. Now try to imagine Bruce Springsteen without the E Street band. I’m guessing he’d be a retired steel worker living in Ashbury Park, strumming his acoustic guitar and wondering about glory days that might have been.

Please share this column with others if you liked it and leave a comment on my choices. Suggestions for most important groups would be welcomed. If you have not seen it – johnboyko.com – has my thoughts on six most important singers.

Shut Up Boomers: Every ‘60s Decade Booms

Even Baby Boomers are weary of TV specials celebrating ’60s singers and bands, most of which, let’s face it, look and sound excruciatingly sexist and corny. And my first reaction to hearing that The Beatles One has been re-reissued was to question whether after owning vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and then downloading, that Paul McCartney really wants me to buy Hey Jude yet again. Poor Sir Paul must need the money.

Shut Up Boomers- The 60's Always Matter.

Sir Paul (http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

The greater point is that the ‘60s matter and, sorry Paul and boomers everywhere, not just the 1960s. No matter the millennium, the ’60s decade always offers remarkable up, down, sideways, and significant change. For some reason, the ‘60s is when old assumptions and rules are thrown asunder and Canada rockets ahead in a new direction.

1660s

France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, declared Canada a French province. Later in the decade, French explorers Radisson and Groseilliers followed Native guides all the way to Lake Superior and Hudson’s Bay. Because of a spat with officious French officials, they claimed it all for England. Their adventures led to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the world’s first multi-national corporation. The chess pieces were thus set for a bloody two hundred year French-English grudge match; a struggle that many Quebecois insist is still on.

1760s

In 1760, in the shadow of the Conquest, where a small British army defeated an even smaller French one outside Quebec City, Montreal fell. With the broader world war finally over, in 1763 French negotiators traded cold and troublesome Quebec for the warm and prosperous island of Guadeloupe. Canada became a British colony with a French people. Native nations who had allied themselves with one side or the other were promised that their land would remain theirs. It was a lie. Shortly afterwards, gifts were made of smallpox-infested blankets in a brutal act of biological warfare.

1860s

The United States was butchering itself in a Civil War that would see over 600,000 dead and 40,000 Canadians serve. Partly as a result of all that death, and fear of what would happen when the killing ended, Canada was born. John A. Macdonald and others from the broke and dysfunctional Canadian province loaded a ship with great food and better booze and crashed a Charlottetown conference to urge Maritime delegates to think bigger. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick signed on. Canada was more dream than fact but the dreamers emerged from their ’60s decade with a vision as grand as the land.

1960s

The decade saw the dream reimagined. A new Bill of Rights said citizenship was based not on blood but law. Native people were afforded the right to vote as a tentative step toward righting centuries of wrong. The establishment of official bilingualism expressed a desire to descend the Tower of Babel. A distinctive new flag and Montreal’s Expo ’67 World’s Fair unleashed a patriotic tsunami. In 1967, Canada’s 100th birthday, the Toronto Maple Leafs did what they have not managed since and won the Stanley Cup. Canadians decided that everyone’s health was everyone’s concern and created a national system whereby we each pay a little to help those who need a lot – it’s a family thing.

New programs sought to end the sorry fact that generations of children could graduate without ever having read a Canadian book, seen a Canadian movie, or heard a Canadian song – and oh the songs. We could duck into seedy bars and pretentious coffee houses to hear kids like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Randy Bachman, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot, and more and more. Canadian kids could hear a top ten song on the radio all week and then dance to that very band in their high school gym on Friday night. The songs, along with the words of Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Margret Laurence, and more invited us to more deeply consider eternal bonds.

Shut Up Boomers- The ‘60s Always Matter

Joni Mitchell (www.biography.com)

The 1960s west reverberated a hundred-year-old echo. It was in 1869 that Metis leader Louis Riel demanded respect and a recognition that the people of the west owned the west. Prime Minister Macdonald agreed to nearly all Riel’s demands and a new province was born. Sir John then set out to sweep Native nations from the plains and we still feel the pain and shame of that attempted cultural genocide.

By the end of the 1960s, thousands of Canadians were, as Gordon Lightfoot would sing, Alberta bound. Oil was gold and the rush was on. Cornerbrook accents filled Edmonton bars and cheques were mailed home to Halifax and St. John’s from wildcatting rigs and Wild West barracks. Politicians scrapped, fat cats plundered, and Canadians did as always – the best they could.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if we were in buckskins or bell bottoms, starched collars or tie dye shirts. It was another turbulent ‘60s – the decade that always seems to matter. Maybe before the next ‘60s arrives we’ll be like Canadian Alex Trebic and have all the answers or at least be like Montreal’s Leonard Cohen and know the right questions. By the next ‘60s we may have learned how to live more peacefully with each other and gently on the land.

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The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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