RIP, Jesse Winchester (1944–2014)

We’ve lost too many great artists in the past year and none greater than Jesse Winchester, who died yesterday after a second battle with cancer. He’s been a friend I never met for more than 40 years—from “Yankee Lady” and “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” to “Bless Your Foolish Heart” and “Baby Blue.” Albums ranging from A Touch on the Rainy Side to the relatively recent Love Filling Station suggest there was no one quite like him, as does this 2009 performance of “Sham–a-Ling-Dong-Ding” on Elvis Costello’s TV show. Among the artists looking on is Neko Case, who as you’ll see is moved to tears by the end. RIP, Jesse. The world—mine, anyway—just won’t be the same without you.

14 Facts About Leonard Cohen

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Fats Domino recorded Leonard Cohen’s favorite song (see #12)

All gleaned from my new book, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters:

  1. After college, he considered becoming a lawyer.
  2. His brilliant album, Various Positions, which includes the classic “Hallelujah,” was deemed not good enough for U.S. release by Columbia Records.
  3. He named his daughter Lorca for Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
  4. He spent almost two years living in a cabin in Tennessee that had been the home of Boudleaux Bryant, author of “Bye Bye Love.” For a long time, he lived on the Greek island of Hydra on less than a thousand dollars a year. Later he lived in a little trailer in the south of France.
  5. He went to Cuba just before the Bay of Pigs invasion—as a “foot solider,” he says.
  6. Phil Spector once showed up at his door at 4 a.m. with a bottle of wine and a .45, which he cocked and shoved into Cohen’s neck.
  7. He regrets having revealed that “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” concerned his sexual encounter with Janis Joplin.
  8. He considers caviar his sole extravagance.
  9. His grandfather “helped found many of the institutions that defined Jewish life in Canada.”
  10. The first time he went to his Zen monastery near L.A, he dropped out of line at breakfast, sneaked down to the parking lot, got in his car and drove to Mexico.
  11. He invented a cocktail called Red Needle.
  12. His favorite song is “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino
  13. He considers Jennifer Warnes the most underrated pop singer.
  14. He once tried to type underwater in the bathtub, then flung his typewriter across the room and broke it.

Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration

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I videotaped this concert when it aired on PBS decades ago and have been watching it periodically ever since. Every time I see it, I ask myself the same question: Why on earth has this incredible show—which has long been available on CD—never been issued on DVD?

As I discovered a while back, I wasn’t alone in my bewilderment: just look at the show’s page on Amazon, which originally touted the now-long-discontinued VHS version.

(A Laserdisc was also available during prehistoric times.) There, you’ll find dozens of people asking essentially the same question. A sampling of comments:

  • “It’s hard to believe this one is still in the can.”
  • “I came ready to buy the DVD at any price and was shocked to find out it has never been issued.”
  • “Are we ever gonna get a DVD of this concert? Hope it’s before I die.”
  • “Where is the DVD??????”
  • “Add my voice to those who will buy the DVD…Hello Sony! Are you listening?”

Well, finally, after more than 20 years, Sony is indeed listening, though it turns out the label wasn’t the main holdup: it apparently took all this time to cut through red tape with Japan’s public-television network, NHK, which owned the only high-definition video recording of the event. The October 16, 1992 concert—held in New York at a sold-out Madison Square Garden to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album—is being released March 4 on DVD and Blu-ray.

Both editions feature remastered sound (albeit just stereo, no 5.1 mix) and excellent widescreen video, and both showcase spirited readings of 29 songs from a wide assortment of musical luminaries. Also here are several fine bonus performances, two of which weren’t on the original VHS/Laserdisc version, and about 40 minutes of previously unseen backstage video, including snippets from rehearsals and brief but noteworthy interviews with such artists as Lou Reed, Rosanne Cash and Eddie Vedder. (None of these extras are in widescreen format, unfortunately.) Those who witnessed the original concert are about to be rewarded for their long wait for a DVD or Blu-ray. Those who haven’t seen it are about to find out what all the fuss was about.

This is simply one of the best multi-artist rock concerts ever presented. One reason is the classics-packed program, which consists entirely of Dylan compositions (with one exception, which I’ll get to presently). Another is the well-chosen lineup of artists, all of whom had worked with Dylan, jumpstarted their careers with versions of his songs or simply been influenced heavily by him. Clearly, these musicians felt a debt to the man; and virtually all seem determined to say thanks by delivering knockout performances. It probably helps that the songs they offer tend to be their personal favorites.

Highlights abound. Johnny Winter’s astonishing guitar work on “Highway 61 Revisited” will make you wonder why he has never become a bigger star. George Harrison captures the spirit of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” in what turned out to be his last major concert appearance. John Mellencamp delivers a high-octane “Like a Rolling Stone” that profits from a pair of terrific backup vocalists, not to mention a guest spot by Morton Report columnist Al Kooper, who reprises his organ work on the original hit. Roger McGuinn adds the Byrds touch to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Tom Petty nails the party ambiance of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Neil Young’s guitar gives a fresh kick to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Richie Havens finds the essence of  “Just Like a Woman.” Lou Reed turns the unjustly obscure “Foot of Pride” into a punk/metal anthem. Eddie Vedder conveys the outrage of “Masters of War.” And the Band (sans Robbie Robertson) delivers a wonderful accordion-spiced “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

After these and many other fine performances, Dylan himself comes onstage to sing “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” After that, he joins McGuinn, Petty, Young, Harrison and Eric Clapton for “My Back Pages” and virtually everyone on the bill for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Then he ends the show by underscoring his folk roots with a solo “Girl from the North Country.”

As I mentioned, the program includes one non-Dylan track. Sinead O’Connor had intended to perform “I Believe in You,” an often-overlooked gem from Slow Train Coming; but the audience booed her when she came onstage, an apparent response to a Saturday Night Live appearance a few days earlier, during which she’d torn up a picture of the Pope as a protest. At the Dylan show, a visibly shaken O’Connor paused for a long time while the audience ranted; then she responded with a spontaneous and defiant a cappella reading of Bob Marley’s “War,” walked offstage and burst into tears in the arms of Kris Kristofferson.

Every time I watch this sad incident, I am astonished that an audience savvy enough to appreciate Dylan could have been clueless enough to attack O’Connor for expressing her heartfelt personal opinions. These people clearly didn’t understand much of what the artist they’d come to celebrate had been singing about for the previous three decades. Moreover, they missed a sublime and revelatory performance, as you can hear on the newly updated CD edition of this release, which includes O’Connor’s rehearsal version of “I Believe in You” among its two bonus tracks. (The other is Clapton’s rehearsal of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a song he also performs in the concert video.)

The DVD/Blu-ray runs about three hours, but the show lasted a third longer. Missing here are more than half a dozen tunes, some of which were featured in the original 1992 pay-per-view live broadcast and subsequent PBS special. That’s unfortunate, because the omitted material includes some noteworthy performances—Sophie B. Hawkins’s take on “I Want You,” George Harrison’s reading of “If Not for You” and Dylan’s performance of “Song to Woody,” to name a few.

Even the full concert program, of course, barely scratches the surface of Dylan’s incredible songbook. The show includes no “Desolation Row,” no “Dear Landlord,” no “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” no “Positively 4th Street.”  Hell, there’s nothing at all from Blood on the Tracks. A few key performers are missing too. Where, for example, are Scarlett Rivera and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, not to mention Bruce Springsteen? And where, oh where, is Joan Baez? I’ve read unconfirmed reports that she performed, but she’s not on this or any other available versions of the show.

No matter. Even if you’re not quite the Dylan fan I am, the best of what this video does include will likely knock your socks off. Buy it now. Better yet, buy two copies and put one in a safe-deposit box. You won’t want to be caught empty-handed if something should happen to copy No. 1.

Neil Finn: Dizzy Heights

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When Crowded House disbanded after a string of wonderful albums, I figured we’d at least have a steady stream of solo discs from group leader Neil Finn to turn to. It hasn’t worked out that way, though. Crowded House performed its farewell concert in November 1996; and while Finn has been busy with assorted musical projects in the 17 years since then, the new Dizzy Heights is only his third solo album and his first since 2001’s One Nil (released as One All in the U.S. in 2002).

He has said he didn’t want to make the latest album “in a stripped-back singer-songwriter sort of way,” and he certainly hasn’t done that. He has long had an affection for psychedelic touches and sonic landscapes (listen, for example, to the beginning of 1998’s “Try Whistling This”); but thanks perhaps to indie-rock producer Dave Fridmann, the focus here is sometimes more on lush, experimental soundscape than on song. In places, such as “Pony Ride” and the ethereal “Divebomber,” Finn’s vocals actually take a backseat to the music.

When his singing does come to the fore, it evidences changes. Finn uses a lot falsetto here; believe it or not, the latter part of the excellent “Recluse” sounds like something that could have issued from the disco-era Bee Gees. As for the lyrics, many of them seem redolent of what issued from late 60s bands like Procol Harum and Jefferson Airplane. A sample, from the title cut: “Smoke drifting up to the dizzy heights, where the elevator won’t come down and the ceiling cracks like a treasure map.”

Bottom line?

On the one hand, I’m disappointed that vocals by this fine singer don’t figure more prominently in some tracks; a few numbers, such as “Flying in the Face of Love,” feel like mere filler; and nothing here seems quite as strong as such past triumphs as “The Climber,” “She Will Have Her Way” and Crowded House’s “Into Temptation” and “Four Seasons in One Day.”

On the other hand, there’s much more to applaud on Dizzy Heights than Finn’s willingness to experiment. He still delivers strong melodies and evidences a likably heavy Beatles influence, and the best of this CD is fine indeed. Among the tracks I keep coming back to are the dreamy album closer, “Lights of New York,” where Finn’s vocal is the key element, and the addictively hooked title cut, which sounds as if it would fit right in on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.

I can’t call this my favorite Neil Finn album, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be playing it often.

Leonard Cohen Book Now Available at Amazon.com

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Though the official publication date is April 1, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen is now available for purchase at Amazon.com. Depending on your shipping method, orders placed today could arrive as early as Wednesday, March 5. The hardcover book is currently selling for $21.74 (list is $29.95), though Amazon’s prices change frequently.

The book contains more than 50 features spanning nearly half a century—from 1966 to 2012—from the U.S., Canada, England, Spain, Greece, Australia, and Scandinavia. Some of the pieces come from small publications, others from large media such as the New York TimesRolling Stone, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Approximately 25 percent of the material has not previously been printed anywhere. A few of the print pieces have not previously been published in English and some of the material has not previously been available in any format, including the many reflections and reminiscences that contributors supplied specifically for this project. The 624-page book features eight pages of rarely seen photos and a foreword by singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega.

Here are just two of the book’s advance reviews:

“A treasure trove for Leonard Cohen fans—the dazzling, wide-ranging collection of interviews that Jeff Burger has unearthed not only offers the songwriter’s story in his own words, but reveals that Cohen’s language in conversation can be every bit as magnificent as his lyrics.”—Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unholy Ascent of “Hallelujah”

“That Cohen is brilliant is no revelation, but to witness that brilliance so lovingly expressed over the years is pure joy. That such a mind exists is hard to fathom, yet here’s the proof. He’s as funny as a great humorist, as wise as a scholar, and speaks in parables and poems almost as perfect as his songs. This is a great and rare window into the dedication it takes to be a true artist in modern times. Engrossing, entertaining, and endlessly inspirational.”—Paul Zollo, author of Songwriters on Songwriting