Tag Archives: Les Alyscamps: Falling Autumn Leaves

FALL WITH ME (PART II): AND WHEN YOU’RE TUMBLING DOWN, YOU JUST LOOK BETTER

“Les Alyscamps: Falling Autumn Leaves, 2” by Vincent van Gogh, November 1888

Today’s post comes as an addendum to the last, as I have not been able to get this song out of my head lately. This past weekend I was fortunate to travel upstate for an afternoon fishing trip, as the leaves had just begun to turn colors, dressing up the scenery quite nicely. While my wife and buddy cast their lines out into the rushing current and his wife fed their newborn baby girl, I sat on the smooth stone banks reading Peter Guralnick’s engaging article about Howlin’ Wolf from this past winter’s Oxford American, their “Thirteenth Annual Southern Music Issue.”

I’ve often thought that there may be one common denominator

for all great music, and that is its capacity to bring a smile to your

lips. It’s not the subject matter. And it doesn’t really have much to

do with mood. It’s the commitment to the moment. It’s what Sam

Phillips called throwing yourself into the music with abandon

(Guralnick, 2012).

            Just as I read these lines I paused to glance into the clear, blue sky and watch a Turkey Vulture glide in concentric circles on the thermal currents up above. My eyes then spied the only other object moving overhead: a solitary yellow leaf spinning in the distance and lilting on a gentle breeze. Certainly long enough to notice, it seemingly danced in place. I watched for a moment more only to witness this little, yellow leaf abruptly plummet directly down into my glass of beer.

—When you’re tumbling down, you just look better—

[Note: In order to focus upon just the one featured song, this is a condensed version of what will be a larger post concerned with this stage of Iggy Pop’s career.]

Today’s feature comes from Iggy Pop’s phenomenal album of 1977, Lust For Life. The second LP that he would release that year, this album also marked his second collaboration with David Bowie (excluding Bowie’s mixing work for The Stooges’ final album, 1973’s appropriately titled, Raw Power). Although these two artists entered into a working relationship when both had been reduced into fairly unhealthy neurotics from years of excessive substance abuse (and in Bowie’s case, I’m sure the manic rate at which he not only produced music but continually re-conceptualized his entire approach to his craft contributed greatly to this as well), their joint relocation to Berlin would prove to be the onset of one of the most fecund periods in either man’s career.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Copenhagen Railway Station, 1976

In April of ’77, nearly immediately after coming off a tour that promoted their first collaboration, The Idiot, Iggy and Bowie entered Hansa By The Wall Studios in Berlin to record a follow-up. For “The Idiot World Tour” Bowie had momentarily slowed the pace of his own career by relegating himself with little fanfare to a supporting role as the organ player for Iggy’s live band and occasionally singing backing vocals.

The sessions for Lust For Life would be completed in a mere eight days and the album itself finished in under three weeks—impressive, as they entered the studio with very few (if any) true arrangements for any of the compositions. Iggy must have enjoyed being the main attraction while on tour, as he made a concerted effort to take the more dominant role for these sessions, sleeping little and often tailoring or outright disregarding Bowie’s input to meet his own vision for the album. “See, Bowie’s a hell of a fast guy,” Iggy later commented, “I realized I had to be quicker than him, otherwise whose album was it gonna be? (Pegg, 2000), and “The band and David would leave the studio to go to sleep, but not me (Griffin, 2012). He must have sensed that his faculty for whirlwind creativity and spontaneous songwriting had been somewhat taken advantage of the first go-around; a lab-rat/mad-scientist dynamic being something to which Bowie admitted years later:

Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted

to do with sound. I didn’t have the material at the time, and I

didn’t feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back

and getting behind someone else’s work, so that album was

opportune, creatively (Loder, 1989).

However, ultimately this was a mutually beneficial relationship, as Pop’s shambled career had been revitalized and thrust into the mainstream, while Bowie had been significantly inspired enough to end the decade on a high-note with his ingenious “Berlin Trilogy.”

Yet, Lust For Life truly does come across as a wholly different animal than its predecessor. The Idiot is a sonically ambitious album, primarily concerned with atmosphere.

It is a projection of harsh neon upon the slate-grey façade of an industrial-park-nightclub, featuring twitch-&-glitch guitars and synths pulsing and scouring through viscous funk and robotic cabaret; all while Pop’s strung-out baritone—sounding like the ghoul of some forgotten ’50s crooner who refuses to quit the scene, despite being dead of TB near on a decade now—permeates each tune to its capacity. Whereas The Idiot is the inevitable conclusion for Glam Rock, music for those with bloody noses and barely enough strength left to climb the walls, Lust For Life (as its title suggests) is an album full of vigor, featuring last night’s survivor now willing-and-able to run down any street and dance on any floor. This flavor is perfectly captured by the child-like imp grinning mischievously on the cover photo taken by Andy Kent.

Although the creation of this album generally followed the same formula used when assembling The Idiot—with Bowie suggesting a riff or melody while Iggy would mold these through his (often spur-of-the-moment) lyrical composition as the band expanded upon these components—Lust For Life is much more rooted in the traditional R&B and Rock & Roll of the ’50s and early ’60s, particularly Bo Diddley’s pioneering use of rhythm as melody. However, the predominant distinction between this album and the one prior, despite any particular song’s subject matter or form, is its overwhelming sense of alacrity. With Lust For Life there’s room for Iggy Pop to laugh.

Towards the end of these sessions, someone suggested that the musicians swap instruments. Guitarist Ricky Gardiner manned the drums, while drummer Hunt Sales took the bass from his brother Tony Sales (both being the son of comedian Soupy Sales). Tony switched over to play guitar alongside Carlos Alomar, and soon they found themselves jamming along on a groove created by shuffling around a descending melody that Bowie hit upon on the organ. Presumably inspired by his then girlfriend (and daughter of an American diplomat) Esther Friedmann, Iggy Pop entered the vocal booth and began to spontaneously recite some of his finest imagist lyrics—his true poetic talent for this being typically and grossly overlooked by reviewers who tend to focus on the abrasive, yet admittedly, wholly captivating physicality of his performances. With succinct lines like “A bottle of white wine/ White wine and you,” “A table made of wood,” and “Standing in the snow/You’re younger than you look” Pop perfectly conveys both scene and mood to the listener. Edited down, this vamp would come to be sequenced as the album’s hip-swinging closing track, “Fall in Love with Me.” Although generally considered a minor song by Pop, I believe this track is a perfect example of how his vocals should be recorded: with a bit of vinyl grit, as if he were attempting to sweet-talk you through a megaphone.

I recall watching an interview with Pop shortly after this stage of his career where the interviewer asked what it was that he learned from working with David Bowie. Iggy answered something to the effect of “compromise.” Although he did not elaborate, I’ve always taken that statement to mean that through these collaborations Iggy learned that he did not need to remain an unappreciated, loony-bin proto-punk rocker who bludgeoned his audience with acts of self-mutilation and the relentless, frustrated stomp of his previous musical incarnation; Iggy Pop could retain his artistic integrity and yet still create music that the rest of us, not so maniacally inclined, could dance to too.

Iggy Pop & Esther Friedmann in Berlin, 1977.

———————(CLICK TO LISTEN

Like it? Buy it.

Fall in Love with Me.

You look so good to me

Here in this old saloon

Way back in west berlin

A bottle of white wine

White wine and you

A table made of wood

And how I wish you would

Fall in love with me

You look so good to me

Standing out in the street

With your cheap fur on

Or maybe your plastic raincoat

And your plastic shoes

They look good too

Standing in the snow

You’re younger than you look

Fall in love with me

Fall in love with me

How I wish you would

A table made of wood

And a bottle of white wine

And you-and a bottle of

White wine and you

And when you’re standing

In the street and it’s cold

And it snows on you

And you look younger

Than you really are

I wish you would

Fall in love with me

I wish you would

Fall in love with me

I wish you would

Fall in love with me

I wish you would

Fall in love with me

Yeah

The way your eyes are black

The way your hair is black

The way your heart is young

There’s just a few like you

Just the kind I need

To fall in love with me

Oh and you look so good

Yes you look so good

A bottle of white wine

A cigarette and you

Here in this saloon

White wine and you

I wish you’d fall in love with me

I wish you’d fall in love with me

’cause there’s

Just a few like you

So young and real

There’s just a few like you

So young and real

Fall in love with me

Fall in love with me

Fall in love with me

Fall in love with me

I wish you would

You look so good

When you’re young at heart

There’s just a few like you

You’re young at heart

Won’t you

Come to this old saloon

Come to my waiting arms

A table made of wood

And I will look at you

’cause you’re so young and pure

And you’re young at heart

You’re young at heart

A bottle of white wine

And when you’re tumbling down

You just look better

When you’re tumbling down

You just look finer

——————————————–Bobby Calero

Ref:

Griffin, R. (n.d.). Bowiegoldenyears: 1977. Retrieved October 5, 2012 from http://www.bowiegoldenyears.com/index.html

Guralnick, P. (2012). Howlin’ Wolf: The Soul of Man. Oxford American.

Loder, K. (1989). Sound and Vision. [CD liner notes].

Pegg, N. (2000). The Complete David Bowie. Reynolds & Hearn: California.

Pop, I., Bowie, D., Sales, T., & Sales, H. (1977). Fall In Love With Me [recorded by Iggy Pop] On Lust For Life. RCA (1977).

FALL WITH ME (PART I): LOVE COMES DOWN

“Les Alyscamps: Falling Autumn Leaves,” Vincent van Gogh, November 1888.

The Fall officially began a few days ago and so I have a two-for for you today; both tracks concerned with the theme of women letting their love come down.

Up first is an artist who inexplicably is not a household name. Working extensively with the top-notch writing and production team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter—who at the time served as the prolific house composers for Stax Records—and backed by such legendary musicians as guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. (all members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s), how an artist as talented as Ruby Johnson failed to hit it big is beyond me.

Isaac Hayes & David Porter in the studio.

Booker T and the MGs in 1970; from left to right: Al Jackson, Jr.; Booker T. Jones; Donald “Duck” Dunn; and Steve Cropper.

When it came time to lend her distinctive contralto vocal style to these compositions, Ruby was willing to explore the full emotional range of each song. At the prefect moment Ruby could thrust her immense and torn voice forward through the melody and let it hang there raw and ragged as a display of her sincere investment in the material, which too few singers have the ability to convey. She actually attributed her trademark sound to her enthusiasm and work ethic: “I think a lot of that came from actually being on the hoarse side at that particular time. I didn’t get to go to Stax often, and when I did get down there to record, we worked hard. We were in the studio all day and half the night” (Perrone, 1999).

Born April 19, 1936 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Ruby Johnson was raised in the Jewish faith and began singing alongside her eight brothers and sisters in the Temple Beth-El choir. Upon finishing high school, Ruby began performing with local rhythm and blues bands in Virginia Beach and Washington DC while supporting herself as a waitress. Her career came to be managed by local entrepreneur Never Duncan Junior who subsequently hired the talented Dicky Williams to serve as arranger/producer for her recordings. In 1960 they began to release a series of 45s, first on the Philadelphia-based V-Tone label, and eventually for her manager’s own NEBS Records (Sir Shambling, 2012).

Al Bell (Photo by Josh Anderson for The New York Times)

While working for Washington DC station WLOK, disc-jockey Al Bell had been an early proponent of Ruby Johnson’s music. When Stax hired him as its first in-house promotional manager in 1965, Bell helped Ruby secure a contract with the preeminent label for Southern Soul. Al Bell himself would go on to own Stax during the label’s ’70s heyday; unfortunately, it was under his leadership that the company was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975 (Sontag, 2009). Her 45s now being issued on the Stax subsidiary label, Volt, Ruby later recalled that she was “[…] very excited, very nervous, because that was my first attempt to record on that level. […] They would give me those songs on a piece of paper and say: ‘here’s the lyric.’ We would sort of run over them to let me get familiar with the words, and then we’d say: ‘let’s do a take.’ We were in there for hours sometimes” (Perrone, 1999).

Although several of her records sold fairly well, her recording career never seemed to reflect her great talent and a good deal of Johnson’s Stax sessions remained in the vaults until 1993, when the compilation I’ll Run Your Hurt Away was released. Ruby Johnson eventually quit the music business in 1974 and went on to be the director of Foster Grandparents, a federal program helping handicapped children relate to older generations. Although she continued to sing twice a week at Temple Beth-El near her home in Lanham, Maryland, Ruby admitted to missing the old days: “Every time I see some of those big shows, I long for it sometimes, I really do. I enjoyed what I was doing. […] I always aspired to be a professional singer, even as a child” (Perrone, 1999). Sadly, Ruby Johnson passed away at the age of 63 on July 4, 1999.

When My Love Comes Down” is as fine an example of Ruby Johnson’s talent as you can get, and certainly one of the best 45s ever issued by Stax. Released as the flip-side to the tender ballad “Come To Me My Darling” on October 19, 1966, “When My Love Comes Down” features a gentle melody played on the organ (either by Booker T. or Isaac Hayes) exquisitely contrasted with the punch and pierce of Steve Cropper’s chopped guitar and the The Memphis Horns‘ emotive blare; all-the-while Ruby’s intense vocals alternately smolder, swagger, or just plain tear at the seams.

Enjoy!

———————————(CLICK TO LISTEN

Like it? Buy it.

Evelyn “Champagne” King

Up next: Although this track could perhaps be considered lighter fare than the above, Evelyn “Champagne” King’s #1 R&B hit “Love Come Down,” off her certified double platinum album of 1982, Get Loose, is another fine example of superb arrangement and production value, albeit from a completely different approach.

There’s a certain simmer and bounce to the streamlined synth-funk of this song that makes it stand-out against the assembly-line beats that began to dominate the digitally recorded music of the 1980s. Unlike the majority of music in this category, here is a dance song that is still permitted to have character.

Written by the multi-talented Kashif—a pioneer of hypnotic synth grooves and guitar sheen—he shared production duties with Morrie Brown. When Get Loose was released Evelyn King was in the midst of a somewhat career comeback, as she was crossing over from Disco to R&B. Born in the Bronx on July 1, 1960 but raised in Philadelphia, her career has a bit of a storybook beginning. A 16-year-old Evelyn was working as an office cleaner at Philadelphia International Records when producer Theodore T. Life who had overheard her singing in a washroom discovered her (Hogan, 2012). She was eventually signed to RCA Records and had a string of hits with the label. With its slippery, yet coiled bass-line, up-beat vocals, and quirky chimes and blips it is not difficult to imagine this song as a precursor to Prince’s brilliant B-side of 1984, “Erotic City.” Enjoy a bit of bouncing around with this number, and hopefully this autumn will treat you all right.

————————(CLICK TO LISTEN

Like it? Buy it.

——————————————–Bobby Calero————————

Ref:

Hayes, I. & Porter, D. (1966). When My Love Comes Down [recorded by Ruby Johnson] On I’ll Run Your Hurt Away [CD] Volt (1966), Stax (1993).

Hogen, E. (2012). Evelyn “Champagne” King: Biography. Billboard. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.billboard.com/#/artist/evelyn-champagne-king/bio/76577

Kashif. (1982). Love Come Down [recorded by Evelyn King] On Get Loose [CD] RCA (1982), BBR (2010).

Perrone, P. (1999, September 10). Obituary: Ruby Johnson. The Independent. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-ruby-johnson-1117495.html.

Ridley, J. (2012). Ruby Johnson. Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.sirshambling.com/artists_2012/J/ruby_johnson/index.php

Sontag, D. (2009, August 14). Out of Exile, Back in Soulsville. The New York Times. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/arts/music/16sont.html.