Innovative Chicago Reading Program Features Springsteen Book

Innovative Chicago Reading Program Features Springsteen Book

In the wake of successful programs in New York (Books on the Subway) and London (Books on the Underground, Chicago has launched the Books on the L program. I’m pleased to report that my Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters has been chosen to be included. Here’s how it works, according to the press release: “Books will be left behind in CTA L trains for people to take home and read. When they’re done reading, they return the book on the L for someone else.” Leo Burnett advertising agency designed stickers with instructions for people to participate. Read more about the program at Time Out Chicago.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: CSNY 74

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Fleetwood Mac had nothing on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young when it came to internal discord. But like the Mac pack, CSNY managed to leave much of its friction at the stage door. And to the extent that it couldn’t, it often used its competitive squabbles to fuel first-rate music.

This fascinating and well-recorded new document of the group’s final tour leaves no doubt of its potential for greatness—or of the fact that it was destined to dissolve. There was little collaborative writing by the quartet and little sharing of the stage at these stadium shows. What we get is a David Crosby song, with backup by his three bandmates; then a Stephen Stills song with support from the other three; and so on. Neil Young’s numbers in particular seem more like the work of a soloist with backup than of a group of musicians content to stand together in the spotlight.

That’s not to say that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lacked rapport; on the contrary, their harmonies and guitar exchanges here are almost uniformly excellent. After hearing this 40-track, three-CD album, though, you won’t have any trouble understanding why the group broke up.

There are anachronistic elements to the package, which was recorded just after Nixon resigned the presidency and as the Vietnam War was winding down. David Crosby talks about the 18-minute gap on the Watergate tapes and the program incorporates such topical songs as “Goodbye Dick,” “Chicago” and “Ohio.” Meanwhile, Stills’s “Johnny’s Garden” proclaims, “I’ll do anything I got to do, cut my hair…” while Crosby sings about letting his “freak flag fly” in “Almost Cut My Hair.” On an accompanying DVD of eight previously unreleased performances from Landover, Maryland and London’s Wembley Arena, all four group members can be seen sporting enormous sideburns.

But while some of the lyrics and visuals here will transport you to another era, nearly all the music—culled not from a single show but from the best moments of multiple recorded gigs—still seems vital today. Organized like the concerts in the series, with a shimmering acoustic set sandwiched between rock outings, the album includes many of CSNY’s best-known tunes plus previously unavailable rarities like “Love Art Blues,” “Don’t Be Denied” and the aforementioned “Goodbye Dick.” Among the many high points: a sweet acoustic reading of Young’s affecting “Long May You Run,” a spirited, guitar-driven “Wooden Ships” and a bluesy “On the Beach.” “Guinevere,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” all show off the group’s exquisite harmonies.

There are a few missteps. “Love the One You’re With,” for example, features a throwaway Stills vocal, and his “Black Queen” sounds like the kind of thing the punk/new-wave movement arrived to counteract. But with more than three hours of music here, it’s not difficult to forgive the occasional lapse.

This collection, which includes a 188-page booklet of notes and period photos, is of course not the only document of CSNY’s concert work. There’s the chart-topping 4-Way Street, from 1971, which is worth hearing but arguably not quite on a par musically with the new recording. (It’s not as wide-ranging, either, and includes versions of fewer than a quarter of the tracks on CSNY 74.) There’s also the group’s charming but often tentative-sounding four-song Woodstock performance, during which Stephen Stills famously commented, “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man. We’re scared shitless.” Five years later, when the group recorded CSNY 74, they seemed not scared at all onstage—on the contrary, they sounded self-assured—but their story was almost over. Don’t miss this memorable last chapter.

*****

Note: You can buy CSNY 74 in several formats other than the three-CD-plus-DVD box described above. If you cut your hair years ago and have since become a hedge-fund manager, you might want to spring for the numbered, limited-edition “deluxe box set,” which includes 180-gram vinyl LPs in a laser-etched case, a Blu-ray audio disc, a DVD and a coffee-table-size book, all delivered in a custom-made wooden box. According to the CSNY official website, the exclusive purveyor of this edition, it will set you back $499, plus a hefty shipping charge. Wow. I still remember the days when record album prices like that had a decimal point after the 4.

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Chrissie Hynde: Stockholm

Chrissie Hynde: Stockholm

Chrissie Hynde spent 35 years leading the Pretenders and proclaiming that she’d never go solo. The ostensible big news here is that she has finally put out an album under her own name, but the reality is that nothing has changed. She’s still the lead singer of a rock group; she’s just not slapping the Pretenders label on it anymore. (It’s been 25 years, incidentally, since she released Packed, the first Pretenders album with no original Pretenders aside from her.)

On this latest outing, at any rate, Hynde’s brilliant phrasing and edgy attitude remain intact but the music and lyrics are uneven. “You or No One,” for example, deals in clichés; and musically, it seems more like a bid for radio airplay than anything else. The overproduced “You’re the One,” meanwhile, feels like filler.

But Stockholm contains enough gems to put it on the buy list for any serious Hynde/Pretenders fan. “Dark Sunglasses” takes a potent shot at someone who has sold out—gone from living in a van to life in the ruling classes, apparently by sleeping with a woman who’s a member. Then there’s “Down the Wrong Way,” which features the unmistakable sound of Neil Young’s guitar, a terrific match for Hynde’s arresting vocals. They should work together more often.

The album saves its strongest punch for last. The deftly written “Adding the Blue,” a melancholy mid-tempo number about a lost love, feels like a peek into a private moment of devastation. It’s an emotionally delivered demonstration of why Hynde remains vital at age 62, and of why we started listening to her in the first place.

Led Zeppelin: I, II & III (2014 Remasters)

Led Zeppelin: I, II & III (2014 Remasters)

Has any music reviewer ever missed the mark more than John Mendelsohn in his 1969 Rolling Stone critique of Led Zeppelin’s scorching, finely honed debut? After calling the album self-indulgent, he labeled Jimmy Page “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs” and dismissed Robert Plant’s “strained and unconvincing shouting.” The album, Mendelsohn concluded, was “a waste.”

OK, everybody’s entitled to one mistake. But when the group returned just 10 months later with the equally potent Led Zeppelin II, Mendelsohn was back too, this time with a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek review that, for example, mocked Page as “the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4” and 5’8” in the world.”

Lester Bangs—who took over Rolling Stone’s Led Zeppelin beat to critique its third album—was only slightly more enthusiastic. After labeling various tracks “production-line Zep churners” and “lethally dull,” he allowed that “much of the rest” of the third LP was “not bad at all.”

The magazine did eventually wake up. In 2003 it called Led Zeppelin’s debut “astonishing” and placed it at No. 29 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Led Zeppelin II (which Rolling Stone now said “opens with one of the most exhilarating guitar riffs in rock & roll”) came in at No. 75. (Led Zeppelin III didn’t make the list, though some people have come to regard it as the best of the three albums.)

Happily, many music listeners instantly heard what Rolling Stone’s original reviewers missed: this was primal, blues-influenced rock and roll from a uniquely talented quartet. All three albums sold well from the start, and today they remain key elements in the catalog of a hugely important band that has sold more than 300 million LPs and CDs.

In fact, these albums are so well known that it’s hard to imagine there are many rock fans who aren’t now familiar with them. It’s also unlikely that there are many serious Led Zeppelin enthusiasts who don’t already own them.

This presented an obvious challenge to the group’s label—the same challenge that has recently faced other labels, all of which seem to think one key to saving the record business is finding new ways to sell old music to well-heeled baby boomers who already own it. The standard solution appears to be to combine remastered versions of original albums with a ton of bonus material.

That’s exactly what we have here, along with a mind-boggling array of consumer choices for each of the three albums. You can opt for a single remastered CD; a single remastered LP on 180-gram vinyl; a two-CD or two-LP set, with the remastered album augmented by bonus content; or digital downloads of the remastered album and/or the bonus content. There’s also a “super deluxe” boxed set that includes the CDs, the vinyl, access to the downloads, a print of the original album cover and a hardbound book.

So should you take the bait? As with most reissues of this sort—such as the recent deluxe editions of the Who’s Tommy, Van Morrison’s Moondance and the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat—it all comes down to the extent of your fandom. If you’re a casual admirer who already owns the original CD versions of these albums—or such earlier repackagings as Led Zeppelin Boxed Set, Led Zeppelin Remasters, The Complete Studio Recordings or Mothership—you may understandably see little need for this newest upgrade. But if you love the band, as I do, one listen should be enough to justify the price of at least the deluxe CD editions.

As the titles above suggest, this is hardly the first (or even second) remastering of the three albums, but Jimmy Page’s latest effort—which involved transfer of the original analog tapes to a higher-resolution digital format—does result in a notably fuller and warmer sound than on prior releases. Moreover, the bonus tracks on the group’s debut—a recording of a widely bootlegged October 1969 Paris concert—are terrific.

The companion discs with Led Zeppelin II and III are less crucial; as is often the case with bonus content on reissued albums, you can see why most of it didn’t make the original release. Most of these tracks are experiments—less than fully formed early versions. Still, they offer insight into the group’s creative process and it’s fascinating to hear some of the different paths the band might have taken with these songs. You’ll also find such surprises as “Jennings Farm Blues,” a fine instrumental progenitor of “Bron-Yr-Aur-Stomp” and a medley of blues classics, “Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind.”

Led Zeppelin’s label has announced that the reissue program will continue with remastered, expanded versions of the group’s six remaining studio albums. I can understand why some people might say “enough already!” But I, for one, can’t wait.

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Ellliott Murphy: Intime—Songs from the Kitchen, Vol. 1

Intime—Songs from the Kitchen, Vol. 1

Don’t ask me what number album this is for rock singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy—I lost count years ago. All I can tell you is that it’s the 36th one in my collection, and I know I’m missing a few. The guy is incredibly prolific, so much so that he must have decided it was time to rush out this five-song EP, lest his fans wonder what happened to him: after all, he hasn’t put out a full-length album since way back in 2013. (Murphy has also found time to write a lot of prose over the years; in 2012, he penned the foreword to my book Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.)

He is nearly as consistent—and consistently underrated—as he is productive, so it’s no surprise that this package is worth hearing. The music is engaging and beautifully played by Murphy and his longtime cohorts, including most notably guitarist Olivier Durant. That said, there’s nothing here that’s quite as lilting or catchy as, say, “Irish Eyes” or “Come On Louann” (both from 2001’s Soul Surfing) and nothing as hard-rocking as the bulk of 2009’s Alive in Paris. That is perhaps by design, though: this is clearly intended to be an introspective and intimate package, and the mood leans heavily toward melancholy.

The lyrics evidence Murphy’s penchant for inventive wordplay but also his tendency in recent years to be rather abstruse. He seems to be singing to himself throughout much of this album and doesn’t appear particularly focused on making sure his audience has much idea what he’s talking about. But he’s clever enough to get away with that much of the time; like Dylan’s lyrics, Murphy’s frequently prove memorable despite the fact that you don’t know exactly what they add up to. Other times, though, they sound as if he’s making them up as he goes along, resulting in stream-of-consciousness lines that are fun albeit less than profound. Consider: “Walking backwards into the abyss/A New York bagel, that’s what I miss.” Also: “The higher we go, the lower we fall/Pinky Lee and the Taj Mahal.”

So should you buy this album? That depends. If you’re new to Elliott Murphy, I can think of better places to start getting acquainted. (Try the aforementioned Alive in Paris or Lost Generation/Night Lights, a repackaging of a pair of mid 70s gems.) But if you’re already a fan, by all means add this to the CD pile. It may not be his best, but Murphy doesn’t have to peak out to outshine a lot of the competition.

A final note. When I first saw that the track list included a song called “Every Little Star,” I thought perhaps Murphy had covered Linda Scott’s 1961 pop hit “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” He hadn’t, but it’s not such a crazy idea. In the past, he has done wonderful versions not only of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” but of early rock hits like the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” and Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” (the latter on Every Day is a Holly Day, a multi-artist tribute album). Those recordings suggest that a whole CD of vintage rock covers from Murphy would be terrific, so I’m hoping he’ll find time for such a project one of these days.

Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series

Hill_Street_Blues_CastIf you’re enjoying today’s golden age of television drama, you owe a thanks to Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll for blazing a trail that arguably began more than three decades ago with Hill Street Blues. As the new DVD collection of this series demonstrates, the show was as groundbreaking as it is entertaining; and if it doesn’t seem that way to you, you’re probably too young to remember just how revolutionary it was in its time.

When Hill Street debuted on Jan. 15, 1981, nothing quite like it had ever been seen on television; certainly it bore little resemblance to any previous cop show. Instead of focusing on gun battles and car chases, it shined a light mostly on the personal lives of its many characters. Instead of telling one tale that wrapped up neatly at the end of each episode, it offered multiple overlapping and often ongoing stories. Instead of relying on a few stars, it featured a large ensemble of character actors who looked not like Hollywood luminaries but like people you might actually encounter in a city. The program injected more notes of realism by, for example, making extensive use of handheld cameras and including scenes where people talked over each other or where several conversations were conducted simultaneously.

For quite some time, the audience didn’t know what to make of all this. The program tested badly before it debuted and ratings throughout the first season were disastrous. But NBC president and CEO Fred Silverman “got” the show, defended it and renewed it, giving it the distinction of being the lowest-rated program ever to return for a second season. Then came a shelf full of Emmy Awards, which turned things around.

By the end of its seven-season run, Hill Street had become a huge ratings success and had been credited with helping to rescue NBC’s prime-time schedule. It wound up being nominated for 98 Emmys and winning 26, including four for Outstanding Drama Series. Bochco, of course, went on to create such other classic shows as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, the latter a direct descendant of Hill Street that starred one of its featured characters, Dennis Franz.

In many cases, great films and TV shows have happened only because creators and directors fought with the powers that be, who pushed for something much more traditional. That wasn’t the case here, though: Bochco asked up front for the freedom to develop Hill Street as he saw fit, and he got it. Moreover, he knew exactly what he wanted, right down to the fonts for the title screen at the opening and the theme song, which he has said he felt should be “counterintuitive”—melodic and sweet.

The results of such strong convictions and attention to detail are in this 34-DVD package, which was released on April 29. It comes with a 24-page booklet and includes all of the show’s 144 episodes (four with commentary tracks). There are also several documentaries, with fascinating interviews with Bochco and some of the series’s stars and writers. The only snooze is the “Gag Reel,” ostensibly a collection of humorous flubs: the joke’s on you there, because it’s not particularly funny and is extremely brief. Maybe that’s because the cast was clearly serious about its work and didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes.

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