Tag Archives: Ted Kennedy

Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello

Miracle Man.

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Declan MacManus, better known to the world as Elvis Costello, among other aliases over the years. Bursting onto the scene with what is arguably the best ever 1-2-3 punch of albums (My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces), Elvis quickly grabbed your attention with short catchy songs, a rapier wit and his secret weapon, The Attractions.

For as good as this sneering, scrawny Buddy Holly caricature was – and he was great – Steve Nieve on keys, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas (no relation) on drums were as formidable a rock band as you could hope for. They weren’t as spacial as The Police would become, nor were they thunderous like the then-still powerful Who, but they were so tight you couldn’t slip an ant’s ass hair through them.

But before Elvis Costello and The Attractions became one, it all started with an iconic debut; tracks laid down with session musicians who weren’t initially credited, total recording time adding up to less than one day.

People listen to records differently these days, especially if they are digital downloads. No tactile sensation of an album cover, liner notes, lyric sheets. Earbuds instead of walls of speakers. Sigh.

I remember the day my friend Phil showed up at my house with My Aim Is True; import version, of course. My roommate Larry and another friend were already hanging in the living room, music on as always. We had heard about the album coming out that day and planned to go grab it in a couple of hours. Phil was no procrastinator; he snagged it and came over where he knew there would be other willing participants to share the magic with. (Yet another earbud problem – isolation instead of the communal experience).

It was astonishing.

Two of the songs didn’t even hit the two-minute mark. The opening rocker “Welcome To The Working Week” somehow jammed a boatload of hooks, wry lyrics and choruses into a minute in a half; “Mystery Dance” sputtered and tumbled much like the clumsy lover the narrative depicted. There was fury and sarcasm, and there was great wit and wordplay, and the band (preAttractions musicians from Clover and The Rumour, among others) snapped everything to attention.

And maybe it was because it stood out with its winsome melody and broken heart, but “Alison” was an instant classic. The chink in the armor was there for all to see; this snarling wise-ass had feelings after all. When not long after I heard him nail this live it sent chills up my spine.

We were gobsmacked; I can’t tell you how many times we played this album over and over and over that day. It was all we would talk about with friends for days after, and whenever someone came over that album would come out and they would get indoctrinated. Not long afterwards some friends in a band worked up three of his songs so that I could duck out from tending bar and play lead singer for ten minutes. (We were the first Syracuse band to play Elvis Costello songs, and yes, I’m proud of that!)

Of course, Costello continued to floor us with one great album after another, and thanks to him and Rockpile and Graham Parker and Joe Jackson there was a new, fresh volley of literate songwriters serving up an alchemic stew of influences and flushing the distaste of disco and flaccid pop out of our ears. 

The trend wouldn’t last of course – none do – but the music proved timeless. On Friday I’ll celebrate Costello’s career with an Elvis-themed TGIF.

And yes, I know that today is also the birthday of Gene Simmons, Ruby Keeler, Tim Burton, Rob Halford, Wayne Shorter, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Regis Philbin and several others…as well as the tenth anniversary of Jack Nitzsche‘s death and the first for Ted Kennedy. But today, I must honor the Elvis who has been a part of my musical life for over three decades.

No offense, Mr. Presley.

Elvis Costello  wiki page

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Today also marks the 35th anniversary of Born To Run, when a talented performer, a crack band, a savvy manager and an all-too-eager mainstream press joined hands to crown the new King of rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen has since earned every jewel in that crown and then some, but it’s yet another reminder of how fractured the entertainment industry has become. It’s no longer possible to make the stars align on that kind of scale, and with very few exceptions, those things never happened organically.

But that can’t and won’t tarnish the memory of a time when it seemed like a blue-collar bar room rocker grabbed the brass ring and pulled down the whole damned curtain with it. Rock concerts would never be the same.

Could that really have been thirty-five years ago?

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R.I.P. Ellie, Larry, Ted, Dominick…

I never intended R.I.P. to be a regular feature. Damned if life isn’t forcing my hand.

I’m not one who obsesses over calendars; I don’t have a list of who was born when and who died on any day, but I do have a couple of websites that are easily checked on occasion. The idea about the feature – and in fact the focus of some of the first columns – was to reminisce about artists who impacted my life greatly, like Rory Gallagher, Ronnie Lane and Frank Zappa. Being of a certain age, I sometimes take for granted that everyone is as familiar with these artists as I am, or at least has had the opportunity presented to them to be. Apparently nothing could be further from the truth.

And I guess because I did grow up following these artists and collecting their work, I shouldn’t be surprised that some of them are now leaving this mortal coil. Sure, we still lose too many too soon, but no one can say that Les Paul didn’t have a blue ticket ride on this Earth. But from my vantage point, late 60s is far from old age, and that’s when Larry Knechtel and Ellie Greenwich got the call.

Words plus music equals magic

Words plus music equals magic

Ellie Greenwich – where does one even start? As part of the Brill Building sound she – along with husband Jeff Barry –  gave us some of the greatest rock’n’roll songs ever written. Frankly, some of the bands you revere might not have been in your windshield without her. Hell, Brian Wilson admits that his entire being is merely a byproduct of “Be My Baby” (arguably the greatest pop song ever…and certainly in the upper echelon of anyone’s list). It’s sad that she doesn’t have the public recognition that some of the artists she helped make famous have. From The Ronnettes to The Ramones, from “Chapel Of Love” to “It’s My Party” to “I Can Hear Music”…Ellie Greenwich was rock royalty.

Larry Knechtel might not be a household name, but I’ll bet his handiwork is in your house. Own any albums by Simon & GarfunkelThe Beach Boys, The Doors or The Mamas & Papas? How about Elvis Presley’s famous ’68 special? Fan of Duane Eddy? You’ve at least heard of Bread, yes? Well, that’s musician extraordinaire Larry Knechtel on bass and/or keyboards; an intregal part of Phil Spector sessions that we now know as the Wall Of Sound as a member of the famous Wrecking Crew. Like Ellie, almost 70.

Of course I was saddened to hear about the passing of Ted Kennedy, although this is a date I thought I saw coming many times before. I don’t politicize in the Prescription, and certainly there are a thousand in-depth articles that you will be able to read about the man, so I won’t expound on his faults or his gifts. But for someone who grew up in the Kennedy Era, who cringed and wept and feared for our country when Jack, and later Bobby, were assassinated, this is truly the end of a political dynasty, at least at Camelot levels. Yes, children and grandchildren remain, and we may yet see another Kennedy aspire to the upper ranks of politics, but that will be a sequel, not another chapter.

In a related passing, Dominick Dunne was also familiar with loss – his daughter’s murder resulted in a career pivot that saw this social observer become a watchdog for justice, albeit from a sideline seat. Perhaps his wealth and celebrity standing gave him a pulpit others would never have gotten, but in a society where Nancy Grace is taken seriously I prefer to think of his endeavors as an attempt to hold the famous accountable for their actions. At least his motivation was not as blatantly myopic as that of the former prosecutor.

I Can Hear Music...and thanks to these musicians, I want to.

I Can Hear Music...and thanks to these musicians, I want to.

I should mention that although I was aware of Knetchel’s passing the day it occured, I did not want to make it the headline of the day. I figured I’d drop a relevant post-script into another piece during the week as a way of paying my respects. However, when the number of famous names passing in but a few short days skyrocketed and I decided to air another obituary, I certainly did not want to omit him. Please know he is not an afterthought; I have great respect for his work.

But keeping up with the bad news has been daunting. We’re not quite two-thirds of the way through 2009 and already the losses have been staggering. Many of us have suffered our own personal losses as well.

If nothing else, this week is another reminder that life is short and unpredictable. No grudge is worth keeping. No warm feelings toward someone are worth hiding. No card or letter or email or call is worth putting off. Don’t procrastinate. Because you can’t take your love and warmth and appreciation with you…you must share it.

Peace.

Ellie Greenwich website.

Larry Knechtel website

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