Category Archives: Lost & Found

Jim Ford: Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer

Sly Stone called him the funkiest white man he knew. He had enough soul to pen hits for Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, and The Temptations. He romanced Bobby Gentry and eventually took up with Marlon Brando’s ex, raising 2 of Brando’s children for a decade. Legend even has it he once boarded an airplane with over a million dollars worth of cocaine strapped to his body. But for all the wild tales surrounding the man, there remains a mystery around Jim Ford.

We know that he was a Kentucky boy who ran away to the streets of New Orleans and eventually ventured west for a taste of something bigger. The layers of his tone point to each place on the map which shaped his unique sound. I can hear the blue twang of a heavy heart-string, the rough and deep soul of a bluesman, and the wild twinkle in the eye of a man hungry for a taste of rock and roll fame.

From his melodies to the stories in his songs, it’s clear that he was the ideal troubadour to lead the great sonic union between country and blue-eyed funk. He fell between Gram Parsons and Van Morrison and the world was his for the taking. He was in the right place at the right time, namely Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s, befriending all the right people. And yet, though he was larger than life, he never found the elusive level of stardom he was after.

In 1969, Ford recorded his only solo record, Harlan County, an album perfectly capturing the country funk scene and his youth in the Bluegrass State. That sound, a marriage between grassroots Americana and southern soul, rolled out perfectly from a man who truly knew both worlds. Harlan County wasn’t considered a “success” but it was still a masterpiece of earnest songwriting, a bold batch of swagger dotted with moments of reflection. Ford’s lyrical ease and talent for storytelling couldn’t be denied. But, as tracks like “Dr. Handy’s Dandy Candy” and “Spoonful” suggest, his penchant for drugs couldn’t be denied either.

imgres

After Harlan County, he continued recording, entering deals with multiple labels only to sabotage them with his difficult demeanor and outrageous demands. He spent several years battling addictions, trying to get back on track, and losing. In the end, he was paid off, his contracts broken, and his success untapped. In 1980, he disappeared with his addiction and his unreleased songs. He holed up for a couple decades in Mendocino County, California, bags of masters littering the floor of the trailer he called home.

It’s a recycled story. A young man with talent and promise leaves home, tastes the dream, and loses a boxing match with his demons. His rise was bright and glimmering and his spiral was long and dark. But just before obscurity swallowed his story whole, someone came knocking on Jim Ford’s trailer door in 2006, someone to whom we owe a great deal. LP Anderson, a Swedish music publisher from Sonic Magazine, located the man and talked him out of hiding. Ford eventually revealed the goldmine of tracks he had just lying around and, after being approached by Bear Family Records to issue a compilation, agreed to release them. A buzz of excitement quickly grew around the rediscovery of the man, now 2 years sober and prepared to discuss additional releases. With a reunion gig in the works, one might even say there was a comeback on the table.

Unfortunately, (and once again) the rug was pulled out from under his efforts. Ford missed out on the second wave of success his music would find in a new audience. He was tragically found dead in his trailer in 2007, at the age of 66. But thanks to the unrelenting search of a few musical archivists, we have a collection of treasures from the Harlan County kid, who worked his way to LA. Like resilient creatures with a life of their own, the soulful and brilliant songs of Jim Ford finally emerged to see a day in the sun, even if the man himself never did.

Advertisements

Now That Everything’s Been Said

She felt the earth move under her feet, she wanted you to love her tomorrow – you know her as your mama’s Carole King. But before she sat barefoot on the cover of Tapestry, she was part of a very brief rock and roll moment with a band called The City.

Rewind several years before  familiar hits like “You’ve Got a Friend” and you’ll find a hard-working resident in the great hit-making compound known as New York’s Brill Building. Here, Carole plunged into the world of music, writing for quick cash and getting noticed by acts like The Monkees, The Shirelles and even The Beatles. Carole King describes the atmosphere at the “Brill Building” publishing houses of the period:

Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific—because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: “We need a new smash hit”—and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.*

in 1967, after paying her dues in the city, King ditched the grind and left for sunny California. She set up in Laurel Canyon, which would become home to the California country sound, molded by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Mamas & Papas. She began collaborating with garage musicians Danny Kortchmar (of The Fugs) and Charles Larkey (of The Myddle Class). With Jim Gordon on drums, this group became The City. Heavily influenced by her peers in Laurel Canyon  they created the one-off album, 
Now That Everything’s Been Said, which serves as a beautiful experiment into the mellow, psych-influenced canyon rock of the day.



On Now That Everything’s Been Said, we find King holding the microphone, singing her own songs for the very first time. And yet, she isn’t timidly emerging or finding her voice. She approaches the microphone with the comfort and ease of a veteran because, by this time, she’s already been all over the radio. Her voice emerges warm and confident and is backed by an ensemble who knows how to support it, letting her shine while lending their own creative direction.

While the album itself is seen as a “missing link” of sorts – an overlooked and forgotten blip on the radar of King’s monstrous career – it produced two notable covers. Blood, Sweat and Tears had great success covering The City’s “Hi-Di-Ho” and The Byrds recorded “Wasn’t Born to Follow” which was featured in the film Easy Rider.

This album was produced by Monterey Pop Festival coordinator Lou Adler, who also produced The Mamas and Papas, Sam Cooke and every Mary Clayton album. Adler released Now That Everything’s Been Said on his label, Ode, the same label which put out the Brothers And Sisters’ Dylan’s Gospel release. At the time, King was not ready to be a live performer and she turned down the opportunity to tour the album – a hesitation she quickly outgrew once she saw disappointing album sales. After Now That Everything’s Been Said, The City faded into history for decades. But now, with its re-release on Light in the Attic, we can revisit The City and this forgotten but special moment in the life of an extraordinarily talented songwriter, before she became our mama’s Carole King. 

 

*Quoted in The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith[4]

Leon Russell: A Poem is a Naked Person

In a scene from 1974’s A Poem is a Naked Person, a young Leon Russell (both the subject of and collaborator behind this very film) and songwriter Eric Andersen sit, cameras rolling, and try to work things out after an argument. Andersen’s studio session had just been interrupted by Russell’s camera crew, causing a heated outburst between them and now the inflamed egos are dancing around each other, trying to make peace without total surrender.

“How old are you anyway, 42? 38?” Andersen jabs at a graying Russell.
“I’m quite sensitive about that so you can’t talk to me about that anymore.” Leon Russell responds, sounding less abrasive and more genuinely wounded. “I’m barely 30 years old, man.”

It’s a brief but telling moment, one of several in this documentary, which shows the sensitivity behind the swagger of piano playing legend Leon Russell. This same sensitivity kept the 1974 documentary in a cardboard box for 40 years.

If you haven’t heard the tale yet, I’ll summarize; fresh off the Mad Dogs and Englishman tour with Joe Cocker, Russell enlisted director Les Blank to direct a film about the making of his country rock album “Hank Wilson’s Back.” They set up in Oklahoma and started rolling film on the live shows, sessions, parties and transparent moments of conversation which followed. When Les Blank finally presented the finished product to the subject of his film, Russell hated it. It was shelved.

Blank was still very proud of APIANP and was known to show it in spite of Russell’s disapproval but for decades the only way you could see the film was with the director in person. Eventually, after Blank passed away, his son took up the cause to give this beautiful film an appropriate release. Four decades later, a bit softer with the passing of time and vanity, Russell finally approved the release of A Poem is a Naked Person.

Now 40 years later, when asked directly about the specific reason for the delayed release, Leon hesitates. He’s reluctant to delve too deep, but each version of his answer scratches the same self-conscious surface. He told one source that the film wasn’t what he wanted it to be, that it was more the director’s vision and not his. “More style than substance, in my opinion,” he says, eluding to some personality conflicts between Blank and himself. He told another that he didn’t want his midwest methodist family seeing him smoking and cursing on screen. Once he even left it at, “I don’t know why. I just didn’t like it.” But at a special screening last night, on the stage of the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, he told us, a full room of fans who had just watched the film with him, that “sometimes, when you really see yourself, you just want to cry and go to bed for a week.”

A Poem is a Naked Person is about so much more than Leon Russell. Unlike the typical rock documentary, this film turns the camera lens away from the star at every opportunity in order to better understand what was going on around him at the time. While Russell’s performances are moving, ranging from wild and energetic to somber and spellbinding, it’s the wide focus – the one that lets in all the chatter of Russell’s surroundings – which really tells his story.

Sure, the shots of baby-faced Willie Nelson and George Jones are captivating. But it’s about rural Oklahoma, a wedding, an empty swimming pool, a building torn down, a church service – they show us not just one facet of one man, but a complete picture. Perhaps the whole story wasn’t interesting to Russell, at least not in 1974. It makes sense that a man with a rock and roll music career on the rise wouldn’t be excited to show extended footage of catfish in the middle of a film which was supposed to be about him. It can be hard to see value in the details of your own story.

The miracle of Leon Russell is that he possesses within himself both the personality and charisma to carry his own stage and the ability to seamlessly fuse his talent with the biggest names in music history. He could sit at a piano and melt perfectly into the background of more songs on the radio than you could imagine. The Crystals, The Beach Boys, George Harrison, Doris Day, Gram Parsons, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Sinatra, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones – every one of these names (and more) owe something to the talent of Leon Russell.  A master collaborator, he played, wrote, and arranged the very foundation of what we know as 60s and 70s rock and roll. He could be energetic, commanding, even abrasive, but at the end of the day, he just wanted to get in a room and play good music.

A Poem is a Naked Person – the title alone points to the vulnerability required to make art. Here the film is the poem and Leon Russell, the naked and exposed person. The man and his art are one and the same, equally honest, unassuming, and vulnerable to the critic’s eye. Maybe it was the profanity or the Oklahoma tractors or just his gray hair on a big screen which made him hesitate to undress for so long. Those reasons are in the past. As he said to those of us in the theater last night, still basking in the afterglow of what we had just seen and experienced, “That’s me, I did those things.”

Unearthing the Legacy of Brian Jones

“History is written by the victors.” It’s an old saying, but its truth is shown in a plethora of evidence throughout rock n roll history. Led Zeppelin stole their whole first album from poor blues musicians and then got their record label’s lawyers to intimidate them from speaking up. The Beatles ousted original drummer Pete Best because Paul McCartney was bummed that Best was getting more chicks than he was. And yet, the cruelest story of them all would have to be from the original bastards of rock n roll: The Rolling Stones and the Evisceration of Brian Jones.

If asked about the band’s history, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards treat Brian Jones like a footnote. He was in the band and then he wasn’t. The story and the man have been played down to almost nothing and, for many, so lies his legacy. To the unenlightened, Brian Jones was a stereotype. He was a troubled musician from the 60’s who played guitar, took too many drugs, squandered away his opportunities, and died at the age of 27. He’s just another casualty of a rock n roll lifestyle and sadly, like a casualty of actual war, he’s become just a number. But Brian Jones was the original Rolling Stone. Even if this is the only fact you know about him, you have to admit that being the founder of one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time definitely makes him more than just a number. Yet, if you dig deeper, you’ll find a creative force worthy of respect.

It’s true that Brian was a pioneer for the Stones in many areas. He was the first to have four kids out of wedlock (before the age of 19). He was the first to take drugs recreationally. He was the first to debut the dangerous but cool vibe (which made him easier to cut down during his decline) and the first to catch the eye of Anita Pallenberg. But before creating the Stones, he was the first and only member that had played a show. To be more specific, he had played over 100 shows. Before Jagger ever started strutting and pouting on the stage or Keef had begun…..well, being Keef, Brian Jones had already had more than 100 shows under his belt with a handful of other blues musicians. It was this experience that helped Brian not only start and manage the band, but also hone their original blues sound.

It could be argued that Jones, who technically never wrote a song for the band himself, was only marginally influential. While it’s technically true that Brian Jones never wrote a full song for the Stones, he has contributed various iconic melodies and riffs to numerous Stones songs which not only improved, but defined them.

The Last Time (Out of Our Heads)

Keef plays the solo on this track and it’s a killer solo, but the show stealing aspect of this song has always been the main guitar riff. And who contributed that part? Why, Brian Jones of course.

2000 Light Years From Home (Their Satanic Majesties Request)

Their Satanic Majesties Request is an album that usually divides fans. Some say it’s too muddied while others say it is a cult classic. The feelings extend to some critics who say that, in the realm of psychedelia, Sgt Pepper’s wins out over it (though these critics are wrong too, as the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow smokes both albums, in my unhumble opinion). While this album is far from perfect, it has several standout moments. From “Citadel” to “The Lantern,” there are a couple of really strong tracks in this haze. But the song that takes the cake is “2000 Light Years from Home.”

Jagger’s lyrics and singing style give the song an otherworldly feeling, but it’s Jones’ Mellotron hook that makes the song truly sound like it’s in fucking outer space. Not only did he write that incredible hook (which was surely meant to induce an acid flashback) but consider how hard of an instrument the Mellotron is to play. As George Chkiantz, a key engineer in the sessions says, “[playing the Mellotron] took a special kind of genius.” That genius was Brian Jones. Forget the fact that he did not write a song on his own – Jones’ seasoned dexterity with musical instruments made him, and every song he contributed to,  all the more powerful and captivating.

Under My Thumb (Aftermath)

When this song was being cut in the studio, nobody had much hope for it. This was around the time that Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” was released and, because of the similar chord progressions between the two songs, most of the Stones were skeptical about putting this song out. Can you imagine that? One of the Stones’ most famous songs almost didn’t make it past the cutting room because they were sure it didn’t have enough potential.

But Brian Jones not only saw potential, but elevated it. Before Andrew Loog Oldham discarded the song, Jones grabbed some mallets and pounded…er..tapped the song’s most prominent and recognizable riff. As soon as he laid that down, the song became something else entirely. Jones saved this track from being a throwaway through his sheer innovation.

The most heartbreaking aspect of this story: Jones never got rightful credit for this work and the song is still billed exclusively under the Jagger/Richards moniker. Though Jones was cool with this because he just wanted to make music with his “friends,” it does make his buried legacy all the more tragic.

Paint it Black (Aftermath)

Brian Jones’ contribution to this particular song is probably more widely known than any of these others. Around the time this song was being cut, Jones was exploring ethnic music; he would make regular trips to the far east and devour their musical abilities voraciously. It was only a matter of time before what he was hearing became what he was playing.

His sitar riff on this track is significant for that very reason. It is, without a doubt, the track during which Brian has the most control. Using an Eastern pentatonic scale, Jones practically blends cultures together with one captivating riff.
The rest of the band hesitated to flirt with influences outside of the blues, but Jones was brave (or stubborn) enough to ignore this and step further into the dark. For that, he was both rewarded and condemned.

No Expectations (Beggars Banquet)

The story behind this one is particularly heart-breaking. The Stones always had a contemptuous attitude towards Jones when it came to recording in the studio.  Even before his mental and physical decline due to drugs and pressures of the outside world, they used to unplug his microphones whenever he played a part and act like they caught it on tape.  It was yet another example of the cruelty that the Stones possessed in regards to their old friend.

But during the summer of 1968, as the Stones were recording Beggars Banquet, some of their practices became reasonable.  Jones would come to the studio, high and practically drooping over in his seat in the studio. He had a little more than a year on this earth and he was enduring some truly soul-crushing moments: his charade of a trial, the estrangement of his band mates and the feeling that he was losing his band. During this difficult time, Jones did something that his band mates could not ignore. While the band was recording the second track off the album, “No Expectations,” Jones sat down in a circle with his soon-to-be former band mates. He picked up an acoustic guitar and his slide and contributed undoubtedly the song’s most defining moment. It’s a beautiful solo with a tragic melody which becomes even more tragic with the story of how it was recorded.

Yes, Mick’s lyrics are great on this track, but without Jones’s slide guitar the song wouldn’t carry the emotional weight we can still feel today. It’s such a powerful melody that even his former band mates now cop to it being the last time “he was involved.” While the song may have once again been credited to Jagger and Richards, the truth of the matter is this: “No Expectations” is Jones’ swan song to the band and his life and to the music that he loved so dearly.


There’s one final aspect that makes Jones significant – his charisma. Before Keef became the dangerous one, Jones was already dabbling in his own sort of black magic. Inspired by the legend of Pan, Jones fashioned himself as the band’s leader. He was arresting both on and offstage. From his fashion, to his stage moves, to the fact that he was always the best in early Stones interviews, Brian Jones knew how to be Brian Jones. And as you can see in this interview, Mick and the others were not content to be in the backseat for long:

Let me be clear on one thing – the point of this piece is not to make people dislike the Rolling Stones, post-Brian Jones. Mick and Keith wrote some of the best Stones music ever made after Jones passed (“Monkey Man” makes that point). If I truly despised those two, I would not have shelled out a stupid amount of money to catch them on their Sticky Fingers tour (in the nosebleeds, getting drunk with the rest of my fellow peasants). But the idea that Brian Jones is nothing more than a footnote in the history of one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time is something that I can’t abide. Pioneers get shot down with arrows, but we should at least give them a proper memorial. Brian Jones deserves to be acknowledged as an intricate and critical part of his band, the Rolling Stones.

It’s as simple as this: without Jones, there would be no Stones.

Art by Daniel Zender

Resources include:

  • Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trykna (2014)
  • “Jagger Remembers” by Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone Magazine, 1995)
  • Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock ’n’ Roll Band by Bill Wyman (1997)

    Edited by The West Ghost

Iranian Psych

Late one night, highly caffeinated and tumbling down a rabbit hole of Stones covers on YouTube, I came across a recording of “Play With Fire” by a group called Takkhalha from a Persian Underground compilation. The quality of their cover is raw and the execution is imperfect, but their rendition perfectly captures the song as a dirge.

This discovery introduced me to the genre of Iranian Psych, where the vibrant and exciting tones and tempos of Middle Eastern world music touch the rhythm and fuzz of western rock at the perfect intersection: psychedelia.

Now that I had gone from a Stones cover into the fascinating land of Iranian Psych, I was led to the emotional yet restrained, beautifully haunting “Khaar” (by translation, “Thorn) by Kourosh Yaghmaei. This is the one I fell in love with. And, while there’s a better quality audio version out there (and this video is slightly cut short), the visuals of this music video are too good to pass up. Enjoy.

Also, for those also inclined toward the rabbit hole: