Wild(wood) weekend – Poco in Steelville, MO

the extended Poco family lost one of our own recently – Claudia Upton. I made Claudia’s acquaintance online at first, as I did with most of this particular extended family, but then eventually met her at a show in the mid-nineties – although I don’t remember specifically when, or which show.

At my age, they all start to run together after a while.

Claudia was always dressed in black, usually with a camera around her neck, and has been responsible for some of my favorite photos from the time I’ve spent around the band over the years. She was, as was well known within “the family”, especially fond of Paul…as were a few other gals who turned up in the extended collection of folks who were often recurring characters in the extended “Poconut” gang. She adored my youngest, Danny, and was there at Danny’s very first Poco show when he was less than a month old (in King of Prussia, when Poco and Idlewheel appeared on an outdoor double-bill).

I got word that Claudia had passed via a Facebook message from a mutual friend as I was getting into my car in a parking lot outside the Mercy Lounge in Nashville…I think it came as a shock to a lot of us, even though those dark visits seem to become much more regular at this point in ones’ life. Her mother (who survives her) lives in an assisted living community and Claudia never missed a days’ visit – so when she hadn’t shown up for a few days in a row, folks became concerned and initiated an investigation and discovered that she’d passed, presumably peacefully, in her sleep at home.

Photo by Claudia – Tommy Geddes, myself, and Paul Cotton a decade or so ago

When word finally got out, someone had posted online that there’d be a memorial for her at the bands’ annual weekend of shows at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, MO this year. I commented on the post and tagged Jack Sundrud (Idlewheel bandmate, Poco bassist, and Nashville neighbor) and jokingly said that “if you need a ride north, I’ll drive” (most folks aren’t crazy about riding with me for some reason…can’t quite wrap my head around that)…but to my surprise, Jack messaged me back and said that if I wanted to come along, they could use some stage help…would I be interested?

I had worked this gig before with the guys, when Poco split a few Loggins and Messina dates back in 2009 or so. I had to change a broken E string on Richie Furay’s hollowbody Gibson, and got it done in just under two minutes…which won’t qualify me for anybody’s Roadie Olympics, but I thought it was pretty good for a rookie. I know how long it took because I clocked the time from the moment I took Richie’s guitar until I brought it back out on a YouTube video of the show someone had posted.

So I had the necessary experience, I guess.

I replied and said sure, I was game for helping out any way I could – so he circled back with Rusty & company and we confirmed everything for the weekend and it was written in pen.

I had just lost my ex-mother in law, and had made a trip to Pennsylvania the weekend prior, and had done the best I could to help my kids through that – so once I was back from that excursion, I swapped out the clothes in my bag and met Jack and drummer Rick Lonow at the car rental counter and we saddled up to head north. I volunteered for the first (and what I figured would be the only) shift behind the wheel…I fully intended to drive the whole stretch, but after managing to catch a speeding ticket in Metropolis, Illinois, the guys voted me out of the drivers’ seat for a spell.

(Fun Fact: If you get a speeding ticket in Metropolis, IL – you cannot just plead guilty and pay your fine online. You have to either show up for a court date or hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf. It’s easy to dismiss the stuff we hear about how corrupt and ridiculous the state of Illinois is, but there’s plenty of evidence that they’ve earned their shitty reputation.)

We got to Steelville just as it was getting dark and went to the venue to unload gear, meeting up with Rusty and Mary Young when we got there…it’s been a few years since I’ve seen either of them, and I was thrilled to see the two of them and catch up for a minute. I’m not unconvinced that Rusty doesn’t have a Dorian Gray oil painting aging away in the attic of his house…he’s managed somehow to steer this band through the past forty years and a full 80 percent of their lifespan and somehow appear outwardly to be none the worse for wear. I’ve been through a fraction of a fraction of what he’s been subjected to by this business, and I’m one of the most cynical bastards you’ll ever meet…but he still manages to remain gracious and kind and I’m honored to call him a friend.

Jack, Rick and I went to a BBQ joint in Cuba, Missouri that was right up the road from the hotel we were staying at before turning in for the night – we had a noon load-in at the venue, so we decided to try to get there a little before then, to wrap up getting the stage together.

I met Lex Browning in the car on the way to the show – Lex is the new guitarist/multi-instrumentalist who replaced Michael Webb, the departed keyboard player. Once we got to the venue, we got down to the business of getting the stage in order.

Not long afterward, though, the special guests showed up.

I hadn’t seen George Grantham’s wife, Debbie, since driving to Nashville almost fifteen years prior when his daughter and I were helping to set up a fundraising effort to generate cash for George after his stroke…Jack and I had gone to lunch with George here in town not long after I moved to town, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him at that point.

Not only was George getting up to sing during the show, but he was going to play drums for one song as well (Child’s Claim to Fame) – so that was something to look forward to.

Then Paul and Caroline came in.

The last time I saw Paul was in New Jersey in 2010 when I backed him on pedal steel, mandolin and dobro for a set he did at the first (and, to my knowledge, only) NationalRockCon event there…I had tried to coordinate a tour with Paul when I released Friends and Heroes in 2013 where I’d assemble a band, we’d open for – and then play behind – Paul as the headliner, but we never managed to get it off the ground. I ended up moving to Nashville the following year and we fell out of touch.

After landing in Nashville, 800 miles and a time zone removed from my old Northeast Corridor Poco family, I fell out of touch with the band for a while as well. I still did the occasional shows with Idlewheel (and Jack), and living in the same town as Jack, I’d occasionally try to connect with him as well, but I ended up hunkering down and shunning society for the past three years or so…OK, so not entirely, perhaps, but…I don’t get out much anymore.

So, flash forward to the present day – here was the current band with all my favorite members of the band over the years in the same room, getting ready for soundcheck. I assured Paul that I was behind him and that I had his back for the weekend – I don’t think he was expecting to see me, and certainly wasn’t expecting me to be there in a working capacity, so I think he was (at the least) relieved on that level. I won’t make any assumptions about whether he was happy to see me or not, but he sure seemed to be.

Rusty and I went over the technical particulars for the weekend – instrument changes, tuning, signal flow and the like – and reviewed the setlist. There’d be an initial set with the current band, and then after a short intermission and stage plot change, then Paul would come up, joined later by George who’d be playing drums on one song…we got all our traffic control details worked out, and they started soundcheck.

Why steal a setlist when you can just take a photo?

George and Paul both hung in patiently while the core band worked out monitor levels and the like, and then Paul came up to work through some of the songs he was doing: Indian Summer, Magnolia, Heart of the Night, Legend, Under the Gun, Bad Weather – it was as if I’d made the damn setlist myself.

As they played through the set, I remembered sitting in the audience in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theater – it was a show they’d done with America right after Paul had come back from his health crisis during their then-recent European run, when we were all legitimately worried that Paul might not be coming back at all. They played Magnolia as I sat there in the audience, in the dark, with tears streaming down my face – thinking about how very close I had come to never hearing that song again the way I’d always heard it. That moment was some fifteen years past now, and there sat Paul Cotton right in front of me…again, after all these years, reminding me of two very important things:

  1. Never say never.

2. Don’t ever take things for granted that may not pass this way again.

Claudia’s ghost was hanging heavy in the air for me the entire weekend, alongside Naomi Elkins and several other folks who’ve fallen off this plane of existence in the time since I came into this eccentric group of music loving geeks over twenty years ago. As such, it was hard not to think on an almost constant basis – how many more of these do we have in us? Will this be the last time I ever hear these songs from these people again? Paul and George, specifically, who’ve had pretty public health issues over the years – how many more shows could they have in their tank?

Grantham, Sundrud, Young and Cotton – Friday night show

After Friday nights’ show, we went back to the hotel to a dining room full of Poconuts, and I stayed up until the last of us left at around 2am – the Leavys, the Behlkes and myself. I got to my room and couldn’t sleep…I had my laptop and a couple of notebooks in my bag, so I started scribbling in one of my lyric books. I thought of the notion of mashing up as many Poco lyrics as I could into a brand new song, just for fun – TV in central Missouri at 2am doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and I was completely distracted by everything I’d been thinking all day long. Russell Hammond’s words to William Miller in Almost Famous came back to me:

“…This is the circus. Everybody’s trying not to go home.”

The first four lines were pretty easy:

In every day that passes us by
Indian summers, come and gone
I can still hear that nightbird’s cry
Singing straight on through until the dawn

The next four, though, came from somewhere else:

Now, none of us are young men anymore
Can’t ignore the writing on the wall
Maybe that’s what the stories and the songs are for
A chance to take our eyes off of the ball

Now this had turned from a fun little exercise into an actual song…

So many years have passed, but I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last, another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by, with a gentle aging hand
Because tonight, my friends, all of us are living in the band

This much of the song had taken maybe ten minutes. I didn’t have an instrument with me, I was writing words for a melody in my head at the moment…but the words started writing themselves – a healthy dose of outright theft of Poco lyrics, tied together with whatever I needed to add to clarify where I was going with this love letter to the band and to the friends I’d met along the road who shared this irrational love for these musicians, these records, these songs that bound all of us together.

In the beginning, not so long ago
For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee
There was just a little magic in that music they were singing
And I could hear them calling out to me

They left a trail of love and glory
As they crossed the southern sky
My life would be a sadly different story
If that harmony had somehow passed me by…

I added a slightly amended repeat of the chorus and a tag line…a repeat of the last line of the last chorus –

“..because tonight, my friends, what’s left of us – are living in the band.”

It’s both deceptive and disingenuous to take credit for writing the song, as the majority of the lines of the song are either direct lifts from Poco songs, or heavily – HEAVILY – paraphrased versions of lines from Poco songs…my job was essentially to put them in order and add what I needed to add to tell my story.

Lex Browning, George Grantham, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young and Jack Sundrud at soundcheck

I was absolutely certain that I’d forget how it went by the time I woke up the next day. We stopped for a bite to eat on the way to the venue the following afternoon and once I got the stage set, I grabbed Rusty’s acoustic guitar and hunkered down in the green room and recorded a demo of it so I’d have a record of the song (while Lex busily went about working on his pedalboard next to me).

They didn’t play Bad Weather the previous night, and I wasn’t sure whether they’d bother to add it the second night or not – the first night had been a little ragged in spots in the second set, and I wasn’t sure how that would end up informing the set on Saturday night.

I saw Paul briefly before we dropped the house lights and made sure he had everything he needed, checked off everything I needed him to know – your guitars are tuned, your pedals are powered up, your amp is all set, and I’m ten feet away if you need me. Caroline, his wife, handed me his glasses (which he hates) and I gave him a hug and told him I loved him and we took a photo together before the show started.

Rusty and I had gone over the set – there’d be a couple of changes from the night before, nothing major, just be alert and ready for whatever might end up happening. We double and triple-checked the signal from his acoustic guitar, which had dropped out during the Friday show…it was fine a mere 30 minutes before the show, but we ended up losing the signal again on Saturday night (happy ending: we figured out what the problem was).

The current lineup’s set at the beginning of the night was just plain badass. There’s definitely an alchemy with this group of guys, and it makes me happy to see it. We broke for the second half, I moved the pedal steel into place, struck the dobro and got everything ready…Paul came out and did Magnolia, Indian Summer and Under the Gun in a straight shot. I thought they were going to bring George up next for Child’s Claim to Fame, but Rusty called me over to ask where the clipboard was (I had put it on top of one of the speaker columns to keep fans from stealing the setlists) – he had made a chart for Bad Weather as a safety net (he hadn’t played it in well over a decade by this point, so that made sense)…

….they were gonna do Bad Weather. Just Rusty and Paul.

I checked in with Paul – he was originally going to play it on acoustic when we ran it at soundcheck, but he decided to stay with the Gretsch…I patted him on the back and got out of the way.

I walked over to the side of the stage and got my phone out and recorded it from my vantage point at the side of the stage and tried to hold the camera still without letting everything I was feeling wash completely over me. The first time I opened for the band (over twenty years ago), we all went back to the bed and breakfast that the band was staying in, and Paul played that song in the hotel bar while I sang harmony with him at God-knows-what-time in the morning. That song is in my DNA, and while Paul maintains ownership of it…it’s not complete without Rusty playing steel on it. For years, it was Paul’s solo moment in the set, and I understand that. But that song, in my mind, will always be the sum of those two parts. And again, I couldn’t get out from under the notion that had hung over my head the entire weekend…

…this could be the last time.

Could this be the last performance of Bad Weather with Rusty and Paul? Could this be the last time George sits in on the drums for Childs’ Claim to Fame?

George Grantham – the backbone of the group – as Rick Lonow looks on from the wings.

I know how fatalistic all this sounds. And this is something of a new outlook for me that seems to have descended on me within the past year or so – perhaps as a result of the rash of tragedy that’s passed by my window in that time. I typically don’t dwell on these things. Certainly, fate could well dictate that this could be the last time I post anything on my journal…tonight could be the last time I watch my youngest son dress up for Halloween. The unfinished songs on the hard drive in my studio downstairs could be the last songs I record. None of us knows how long we’ll be here, and we don’t get to know the answer to those questions. Faced with all this, though – I choose gratitude over some morose preoccupation with the darker side of it all. I got to be in the room for all this, and I’ve lived over half my life in the company of this band, this music, and these people.

Curtain call: George Grantham, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young, Rick Lonow, Jack Sundrud

I can’t help but feel like Claudia was tapping me on the shoulder the entire weekend, reminding me to soak this in, because you just never know.

You just never know.

George Grantham and Jack Sundrud after the Saturday night show at Wildwood Springs

After the show that night, I said my goodbyes to Paul and Caroline and we packed up the stage and loaded everything to get ready for the drive back the following day and we went back to the hotel…

…to another dining room full of Poconuts.

Keith Leavy, Rick Lonow, and Bob Behlke

And no, there was no way I was going straight up to my room. I was gonna stay there with George and Debbie, with Jack and Rick and Lex and the Poconut family who’d travelled from Seattle and New York and Eastern PA and any number of places in between and celebrate the weekend. Jack had brought his guitar inside, so I asked him if it was OK for me to play a song.

I got out my notebook and played “Wildwood” for the first time, for the absolute perfect audience…the best of all possible debut scenarios for what I’d co-written with my unwitting collaborators.

“…sing a picture of the days gone by
these crazy lovers understand
because tonight, my friends, all of us – are living in the band…
yes tonight, my friends, what’s left of us…are living in the band…”

Mugging with Paul before starting the second set

May we all someday arrive back here…at the beginning…not so long ago.

Yacht Rock: A Love Letter

I come not to bury Yacht Rock, but to tell you why it’s fucking awesome.

And no, I’m not joking, this is not a parody post, and I ain’t takin’ no shit from any haters, here.

So get yourself a tall glass of something refreshing (preferably with an umbrella in it), make sure you know your iTunes password (’cause you’re gonna be buying some music) and get comfortable, because we’ve got a lot to talk about, and there’s no point in wasting time.

The term “Yacht Rock” first surfaced for many of us some twelve years ago, as the brainchild of a handful of SNL-wannabe millennials on a site called Channel101 (before YouTube swallowed up all the also-rans that swam in its wake in those days). They made a mockumentary series that chronicled the birth and eventual death of what they deemed “Yacht Rock” – their term for the highly polished soft-rock music popular from the end of the seventies and into the pre-“Thriller” early 1980’s.

The term eventually caught on in spite of (or maybe because of) the amateur fratboy-prank footage that comprised the series and before most of us realized what was happening, the term “Yacht Rock” had managed to elbow its way into the musical vernacular.

So, since it now actually means something, let’s first agree on the definition of the term, shall we?

Yacht Rock (n.): A subset of popular (largely American) music generally released between the years 1976 and 1983 whose practitioners generally valued highly sophisticated chord changes, lush arrangements to include a very dry drum sound with very little decay and no bottom heads on the toms, usually a prominent Wurlitzer or Fender Rhodes keyboard sound, generous use of strings, horns and layered vocal harmonies. Practitioners of Yacht Rock from a production standpoint included Ted Templeman, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Kyle Lehning, and others.

Yacht Rock actually has an extensive (but thin on actual content) Wikipedia page, which defines it as:

“… broad music style and aesthetic identified with soft rock. It was one of the commercially successful genres of its era, existing between the mid-1970s and early 1980s.  Drawing on sources such as smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, funk and disco, common stylistic traits include high-quality production, clean vocals, and a focus on light, catchy melodies…”

As time has passed and the term has become evergreen, misconceptions about the term have grown over time. Many folks have used it as an umbrella to cover everything from Cat Stevens to Kenny G to Coldplay and, frankly, folks, that shit needs to stop.

LET THE RE-EDUCATION BEGIN

The single biggest mistake people allow themselves to make is to lazily categorize bands as being “Yacht Rock Bands”.

While it is true that some bands spent far more time in the Yacht Rock Mines than others, there is one universal truth that we have to acknowledge here, or this whole missive is pointless.

SONGS are “Yacht Rock” before BANDS are. BANDS can have SONGS that fit the category without being a “Yacht Rock Band”.

THE SONG ALWAYS COMES FIRST.

Shall we take a look at some examples?

AMERICA – “Horse With No Name“? No. “You Can Do Magic“? YES.

STEELY DAN – “Reelin’ In The Years“? No. “Peg“? Absofuckinlutely.

EAGLES – “Already Gone“? Not even close. “I Can’t Tell You Why“? YES.

HALL AND OATES – “Sara Smile“? Nah. “You Make My Dreams“? YEP.

KENNY LOGGINS – “I’m Alright“? No. Damn never everything else? Well…

you get it by now, right?

What we’re establishing here is that even the most conspicuous practitioners of the form are capable of stepping outside the Marina – just call up Steve Perry, record “Don’t Fight It” and shake off that stigma!

WHAT CAME FIRST – THE YACHT OR THE ROCK?

You may ask yourself – how did we get here?

Well, when looking at the music of that period in time in context with what came before, it’s not terribly hard to see how we landed our craft on this particular dock. The decade or so that preceded the advent of Yacht Rock was one of the most creatively fruitful in the history of popular music, and you gotta know that shit ain’t gonna last forever. But some of the explosions in the fabric of popular music that occurred in the early Seventies laid the groundwork for the delicious evolution of the Smooth Monolith that was Yacht Rock. If you factor in the fusion chops of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu, throw in a healthy dose of Gamble and Huff and the Philly Soul/TSOP catalog, a little Motown arrangement sensibility, and the accessibility and harmony of the pop music of the time – the only thing that could come from that casserole would be Yacht Rock.

Sure, that period in pop music history could be described as a lull between Woodstock and Punk if you need to call it something…but man, there were some great songs, some great singers, and some great bands turning out records during Yacht Rock’s heyday.

So let’s jump into the water, shall we?

THE SONGS, THE SINGERS, THE STORIES

My single biggest gripe with most of the know-nothings who like to throw the term around, on social media and elsewhere, tend to fall into the same trap. They all name check the same handful of artists over and over again, and while some folks have earned the label, other acts who deserve it seem to endlessly dodge the label and are left out of the conversation.

We’re gonna fix that today.

OK, let’s review the typical name-drops first.

STEELY DAN

Listening to Steely Dan’s landmark AJA album, it’s hard to argue that they haven’t earned a place at The Marina with the rest of Yacht Rock’s finest, and I seldom bother to argue about their inclusion. But if we accept the premise that the Yacht Rock Badge is awarded to songs over artists, we have to look at their catalog and consider songs like “Dirty Work“, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number“, “My Old School” and others and admit to ourselves that they don’t really carry the typical Yacht-like benchmarks. So sure, they dallied – perhaps much longer than they should have – at the docks and created some classics of the genre – “Hey Nineteen“, “Deacon Blues“, “Peg“, “FM“, and many, MANY more.

HALL AND OATES

Hell, they even made the original mockumentary, as did The Dan. And yeah, some of their material lives up to the descriptors of the genre, hands down. But dig a little further back into their catalog and take a look at songs like “How Does It Feel To Be Back” (an early single from their “Voices” album – one of their first to dip its toes into the waters of The Marina) or just about anything from “Abandoned Luncheonette” and it becomes clear that they had more depth and dimension than could be considered fair to be pigeonholed.

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS

This one makes me fucking crazy.

I have to assume that the same folks who consider the Doobies to be a Yacht Rock band probably would drop cash at the record store for a copy of Genesis’ “Wind and Wuthering” expecting to hear Phil Collins ballads on it.

Not unlike Genesis, we have to acknowledge that there are really two bands by the same name in both cases – just as there was Genesis before and after the Phil Collins Non-Hostile Takeover, we have to acknowledge that there are two separate bands – the Michael McDonald Version and the Other Band.

This might be an odd point in this diatribe to introduce this sidebar, but if you’ve bothered to read this far, it’s vitally important that you recognize, accept and acknowledge the Singular Universal Truth of Yacht Rock.

THERE IS NO YACHT ROCK WITHOUT MICHAEL MCDONALD. HE IS THE JESUS, ELVIS, MICHAEL JORDAN AND MUHAMMAD ALI OF YACHT ROCK.

The Doobies are often stigmatized in the genre due to the fact that the Messiah spent a few albums’ worth of his career as a member of the band – and also because the fucking National Anthem of Yacht Rock still carries their name on the sleeve:

Record of the Year at the Grammy awards in 1979, folks. Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (the Lennon and McCartney of Yacht Rock) and a classic, undeniable hit record if ever there was one, this song put the genre on the map and is still one of the most perfect examples of everything that makes Yacht Rock great.

So that’s definitely a thing that happened.

BUT….BUT – before this, there was “China Grove“. There was “Jesus is Just Alright“. There was “Long Train Runnin’” and “Listen To The Music” and “Rockin’ Down The Highway” and DAMMIT I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO POINT THIS SHIT OUT TO PEOPLE, FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD GO TO THE MALL AND STOP PRETENDING TO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT MUSIC….

OK, sorry. I had to get that outta my system. Now…let’s get to some of the folks who have EARNED the Yacht Rock distinction.

YACHT ROCK HALL OF FAMERS

Some folks have carried the Yacht Rock banner high and proudly over the years – maybe not necessarily embracing the title, but staying true to their musical stripes and proudly plying their trade…in some cases, playing the old songs alongside new material that they’ve continued to release in the time since the apex of their popularity.

One of those is Christopher Cross.

A short medley of what makes Christopher Cross a true badass.

Christopher Cross hit the ground just as the Yacht Rock Revolution was hitting its stride and carried the momentum into the 80’s with one of the classics of the genre, “Sailing” – which may be responsible for the label in the first place. His first two records (his self-titled debut and the stellar followup, “Another Page“) are absolute must-haves. His debut contains his first single, “Ride Like The Wind” as well as “Never Be The Same“, all radio staples. The follow-up had singles in “No Time For Talk“, “All Right” and “Think of Laura“, but every song on that record is amazing – the duet with Karla Bonoff, “What Am I Supposed To Believe” is achingly beautiful, as are “Nature Of The Game“, “Talking In My Sleep“, and the album closer, “Words of Wisdom“.

Unlike some of the other band who richly deserve to be filed under the Yacht Rock category but seldom come up in conversation, Christopher Cross seems to have earned the designation for his namesake song, but his early work is a rich vein of smooth goodness.

Now, let’s talk about some other bands who are richly deserving of the Yacht Rock moniker, but who seldom come up in conversation.

How about Ambrosia?

It could be argued that Ambrosia tripped and fell backwards into the Yacht Rock pantheon, as they had a long and storied history before the series of records bearing their best known songs were released in the late seventies.

A sampling of Ambrosia’s best known songs…

Lead singer David Pack had an expressive, distinct voice and their songs carried all the hallmarks of classic Yachtness – keyboard-centric arrangements that featured catchy melodies and densely layered harmonies over a tight, understated rhythm section. They created some incredibly memorable songs, but people seem to have complete amnesia when it comes to who recorded them.

So let’s move on to the two bands that are most deserving of Yacht Rock stature that NOBODY EVER SEEMS TO MENTION IN THESE FRIGGIN’ CONVERSATIONS BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO HUNG UP ON KENNY LOGGINS FOR SOME GODDAMN REASON:

The runners-up: England Dan and John Ford Coley!

Nobody…and i mean NOBODY – was smoother than these cats.

If you’ve ever ventured into a record store in modern times, one of the things you’ll invariably notice (whether it actually dawns on you or not) will be the sheer volume of albums that some artists have in their discography. I swear to Buddy Christ, I can’t think of a single reason for there to be so many damned Uriah Heep albums, but if you ever find yourself digging through the bargain bin at your local used record store, YOU WILL PONDER THIS QUESTION.

This can be said of a lot of acts for whom chart success or radio play was either fleeting or elusive altogether, but England Dan and John Ford Coley had one hell of a run. From their breakout hits like “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”, “Nights Are Forever”, “Falling Stars”, “It’s Sad To Belong” and “Gone Too Far” through their latter chart hits like “Love Is The Answer” and “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again”, it seemed like there was always a song on the radio by these guys for a solid six or seven years.

So why don’t people mention them when the heavy hitters of Yacht Rock are being discussed? Is it the name? Is it too much to remember?

One of the mysteries of life, man.

But our grand prize winner – I’ll never understand why they’re not mentioned in the same breath with King Michael when the roll call happens.

Pablo Fucking Cruise.

Seriously, click this goddamn link, because you need to hear this.

If somebody went to Central Casting and said to the lady behind the desk, “Hey, listen…I need a prototypical Yacht Rock band…smooth grooves and lush, layered arrangements played by dudes in sandals and hawaiian shirts who sing great together…and they should look fuckin’ happy to be everywhere they go!” – she would’ve reached in her top desk drawer and pulled out an 8 x 10 glossy of Pablo Cruise and you’d be so happy you made that call that you’d jam a straw into the nearest pineapple.

Seriously – these guys created some of the most straight-up, unadulterated Yacht Fodder of the entire era, but people are too busy looking like idiots by trying to jam the Doobies down our throats to remember that these dudes deserve at least Thomas Jefferson status on the Yacht Rock Mount Rushmore, but for way too many people, they barely manage to earn Grover Cleveland status…which doesn’t get them on the mountain, but they damn well deserve to be.

Go back up there and listen to that clip if you haven’t – absolute Sailboat Gold, right there.

SAILING IN OBSCURITY – YACHT ROCK’S UNSUNG HEROES

Now that we’ve got you thinking – and hopefully, questioning everything you thought you knew about Yacht Rock – I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a few folks who may have flown under your radar, some amazing songs that never got their due and should be considered classics in the genre, save for the fact that they just never managed to achieve critical mass.

(Amy Holland’s “How Do I Survive” from 1980)

You’ve likely never heard of Amy Holland – if you have, you may know her as Mrs. Michael McDonald, as they’ve been married since 1983 and have two children (who will inherit the Yacht Rock throne someday, whether they ever sing a note or not. It’s just how shit works.) This song barely made a ripple when it came out, but it’s textbook Yachtness is delicious.

(Chris Rea – Fool If You Think It’s Over from 1978)

I challenge you to try to get the chorus of this song out of your head after listening to it all the way through. Hypnosis might not even work. Rea enjoyed a long career as a recording artist in Europe, but this song was his lone American radio single…and it’s a great one.

(Terence Boylan – Did She Finally Get To You from 1980)

There are three versions of this video on YouTube, and combined, they have less than a thousand views – Terence Boylan isn’t exactly a household name, and only made a couple of records, including this single that came out on Elektra/Asylum in 1980. I found it in a box in the attic of a radio station I worked at in high school (along with Florence Warner’s brilliant Epic debut album from 1973 or so, but that’s a whole ‘nother diatribe for another time). Great chorus, very understated arrangement and maybe barely only qualifies for Yacht Rock status, but it’s my blog so I make the goddamn rules.

(Robbie Dupree, Steal Away – 1980)

1979 and 1980 were magical years for Yacht Rock – so many classics from the genre surfaced during those two years…it was like 1967, but with cocaine instead of LSD. Actually, it was nothing like 1967, so let’s abandon that premise and take a minute to appreciate a masterfully crafted recording with a cameo by Michael McDonald in the bridge. Swooning is both allowed and encouraged.

(Lauren Wood, Half as Much (1981)

Lauren recorded two albums for Warner Brothers, one in 1979 and the followup (which contained this near-perfect example of YachtRockery) in 1981 before vanishing for almost fifteen years, only to resurface with a song on the Pretty Woman soundtrack called “Fallen“. Her voice is an amazingly distinctive instrument and nearly every song on her two Warners records is a textbook example of the genre, but this one is something special.

(Jim Photoglo, “Fool In Love With You”, 1981)

Fool In Love With You” was the title track from Jim’s second record on the UA label in 1981, released after his first album managed to chart two songs, “We Were Meant To Be Lovers” and “When Love Is Gone” in 1980. As a label, UA had a short lifespan, but turned out to be the Motown of Yacht Rock, siring the careers of Photoglo, Robbie Dupree, and Christopher Cross.

(Franke and the Knockouts, “Sweetheart” (1981)

This song was literally everywhere the summer it came out. Maybe not where you lived, but between the rivers in West Tennessee, it seemed like it was on EVERY radio station multiple times a day. The band went on to make three records for their label (Millenium) before folding in the mid eighties. Drummer Tico Torres went on to play with a struggling hard rock outfit called Bon Jovi and lead singer Franke Previte wrote an obscure song called “I’ve Had The Time of my Life” for a movie that had some success called “Dirty Dancing“.

(Cliff Richard, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, 1979)

Cliff Richard enjoyed Ricky Nelson-esque status as a pop star in the UK dating back to the early 60’s, but this song (along with his hits “Dreaming” and “Carrie“) were his Yacht Rock staples of the late seventies in the US.

(Greg Guidry, “Goin’ Down” from 1982)

By 1982, the smooth sounds of Yacht Rock had peaked, although you’d have a hard time arguing as much looking at the pop charts – but within the space of the next two years, the world would have to contend with Madonna, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, and the slowly turning tide of influence as MTV began to dictate what radio played instead of the other way around. This song, Greg’s only chart hit, reached the top 20 in 1982 as Yacht Rock’s reign began to fade.

YACHT ROCK’S TRAGICALLY OVERLOOKED SUPERGROUP

Rock and roll is cluttered with tragedies – artists who died at their creative peak without ever achieving any tangible success, records that were born of some magic combination of timing and talent that fell on deaf ears and never saw the light of day, musicians who couldn’t set aside their personal differences in spite of undeniable chemistry, and we’ve canonized some of the legendary stories of some of those artists over the past seventy years of popular music history.

Yacht Rock has its own tragic story of a blockbuster success that never was, a band whose recorded output culminated in a third album that has never been equaled in terms of sheer songcraft, musicianship and production qualities.

Nielsen Pearson was the Big Star of Yacht Rock.

They made three albums before disappearing into obscurity and oblivion, culminating in Blind Luck, their masterpiece that came out on Capitol in 1983. Unlike the Memphis power pop band who managed to achieve critical acclaim years after their dissolution, Nielsen Pearson never managed to harvest the success that the quality of their final album deserved. Their Wikipedia page is – quite literally – two sentences.

Seriously, TWO SENTENCES.

A long-abandoned MySpace page, linked at the bottom of their uncomfortably bare Wikipedia entry, rounds out the remaining information available about them online. Reed Nielsen passed away in 2014 after settling in Nashville and having some songwriting success here, and there’s no trace of Mark Pearson whatsoever (unless he and the Folksinger Mark Pearson are the same person, which seems preposterously unlikely).

Mystique abounds, however.

The masterful third album, Blind Luck, is somehow posted in its entirely on SoundCloud:

If you’re somehow still reading this voluminous love letter, then this record is my personal thank-you to you, dear reader. This record deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Michael McDonald’s genre-defining solo debut, If That’s What It Takes or Christopher Cross’ masterful second album, Another Page.

This record captures two individually talented singers and songwriters operating in perfect harmony, both with easily identifiable voices but working together in sublimely complementary fashion. EVERY SONG is a textbook example of the genre – from the failed radio single “Hasty Heart” that opens up side one to “Carrie” that closes out side two of the record.

The only chart single the band would ever have was “If You Should Sail” from their Capitol debut, Nielsen Pearson…that song was a top 40 hit in 1980.

Obscurity claims so, so many talented folks – artists, writers, musicians, poets, actors – luckily for Reed and Mark, there was tape rolling while they were hitting their stride and these songs were preserved for those of us who know where to look.

So, fellow Yacht Rock lover, I leave you today to listen to this lost classic of the genre and ponder how we all missed out on a record that came so close to defining the entire genre, only to fall on deaf ears and almost disappear under the dust of years past.

Let us ponder the wonders of Yacht Rock for years to come…

…but seriously – don’t mention the Doobie Brothers if you want anyone to take you seriously.

a little random advice…

SO – recently, I was approached by a musical colleague with a proposition to produce his debut album.  I was (and continue to be) flattered – it’s not a scenario that comes up often, even though I’ve been involved in production for some years now.

We’ve been going back and forth for a week or so, exchanging thoughts and demos and such, and tonight he sent me an email with the question:

“…do you think I should even be thinking about making a record right now?”

I sat down to reply to his note, and several hundred words later, I finally got around to hitting “send” and thought – maybe these words might find a nerve with a larger audience, so – here you go.  Reprinted here in its entirety.

 


 

Boy….you’ve asked the $64,000 question, there.

And of course, I’m not gonna be able to go to bed without spitting out an answer of some sort.

There’s really only one person who can answer that question, and that’s ultimately you.  BUT – there are some points to consider when thinking about something like this.

You can’t really base the answer to “should I make a record?” on the number of Facebook followers you have, or how many people are showing up for gigs, or statistics, or algorithms – because none of that is gonna give you the right answer.

First of all, you should come to terms with a couple of universal truths:

1. Your first album will underperform your expectations.  Even if it sells a quarter million copies, it will fall short of some mark you’ve set for it in your mind.  It’s just the way our brains work.  There’s nothing you can do about it either before or afterward, it’s just the way it is.  Might as well prepare for it.

2.You will hate your first record for the rest of your life.  I won’t try to explain that to you in an email, it’s best saved for a conversation – but you should also make peace with that beforehand.  It’s yet another universal truth – you will likely end up hating your first album.  Jackson Browne hates his first record, and it’s universally considered one of the best debuts ever.  Counting Crows’ first record is brilliant, as is the debut by Crosby, Stills and Nash – they’re the exceptions to the rule, as those records represent something unique to their frames of reference….but if you surveyed a thousand bands or artists, 997 of them will hate their first record.  They will almost all have fond memories of making their first record, they’ll have stories about the making of their first record, they’ll tell you all about what they learned making their first record, but they’ll insist they hate it.

NOW – that last point is important.

Because – not unlike having children – making your first record is something that it’s easy to convince yourself to put off, to postpone, to talk yourself out of making that first record.

But days become weeks become months becomes years until it becomes “why bother” and you end up shelving it indefinitely.

So the answer to your question is yeah – you should make a record.

BUT – what’s a record?

Does it need to be a full length, 12 song effort?  Can it be an EP?  Does it need to be physical product?  Can I release it on iTunes/Spotify/etc. only, or do I need to actually have something you can hold in your hand?

This is all stuff you have to think about and come to the best conclusion for yourself, but I’ll tell you this:

Every single artist whos’ ever walked the earth has been in your shoes.  Everybody started somewhere, everybody had to figure this out for themselves, everybody had to make mistakes to learn valuable lessons from, everybody played to empty rooms, everybody slept in rest stops, everybody lost sleep and worried too much…frankly, if they didn’t, they’re not doing it right.

Making your first record is a rite of passage – no matter what the final product is (EP, CD, Vinyl album, iTunes only release)…it doesn’t matter.

You’re gonna learn the process, you’re gonna figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, you’re gonna develop preferences for certain rooms, certain microphones, certain instruments, certain players – and honestly, man…the only way to do it is to do it.

I feel like my job in this process is to make it as painless for you as possible, and the way to do that is to develop as clear a vision as we can for what you want the final product to sound like and come up with a way to get you there.  What form that product takes is up to you, and we don’t necessarily need to know that out of the gate…obviously, with limited budgets, that’s going to affect the process and we’ll have to make decisions around that once we start devising the game plan.  You have options.  A veritable SHITLOAD of options.  There’s no one right way to make a record, and our mission is to figure out YOUR right way to make a record.

I don’t need charts at the moment, but I appreciate the offer.

Since you’re not on a timetable, then right now my advice would be to keep writing.  Keep making demos.

Momentum generates momentum.

If you tell yourself you’re making a record, it grants validity to your efforts, it creates inspiration, and it makes you feel like you’re working towards something.

So write and record at home and think about this vague concept of a “record” and write with that in mind and write so many fucking songs that you’ll lie awake nights thinking about which songs belong on the record, and what the record will sound like based on your choices.

Some folks might call it anxiety, but I tend to think of it as feeling alive.

Let the work call the shots, and we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go – it’s far and away the best way to make a record.

That way, when you’re seventy years old and thinking back on this time of your life, you can look at the whole experience with a smile on your face.

Yeah, you’ll hate your first record, just like everybody else…but if you don’t make your first record, you’ll never make your second, or your third, or your fourth – so at some point, you gotta jump on into the water, brother.

Come on in and join the rest of us.

Tom Petty

So I’ve come to the conclusion, based on almost two weeks’ worth of introspection and careful consideration, and…I’ve decided that – during the course of my lifetime, anyway, that there have been three deaths within the realm of rock and roll that, within my world, could be considered seismic in nature.

Ronnie Van Zant, Jerry Garcia, and…Tom Petty.

Certainly, there have been deaths that affected me more deeply on an emotional level (Dan Fogelberg, T-Bone Wolk, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gregg Allman, Michael Hedges), and there have been people who’ve passed that would be considered more influential (John Lennon, Bowie, George Harrison, Prince, Kurt Cobain), but – from the perspective offered from my own view of the world, these three mark significant, distinct turning points.

Ronnie Van Zant and the infamous Skynyrd Plane Crash happened when I was twelve years old and literally just discovering rock and roll from my perch in rural western Tennessee, and their importance within my peer group couldn’t possibly be overstated. Southern Rock was at its zenith at the time – I hadn’t been around for Duane and Berry…or Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, even…and The Day The Music Died happened years before I was born – so the first death within this new world I was just discovering was the grim and grisly events of October 20th, 1977…now almost exactly forty years ago.

It was surreal for a 12 year old kid to hear music coming out of the radio played and sung by folks who’d shuffled off this mortal coil. I’d experienced Elvis’ passing, but – no disrespect – his music didn’t speak to me at all. Elvis’ music didn’t belong to me, it belonged to “old people”. I didn’t have the respect for history then that I have now, clearly. In retrospect, it’s odd to think that Elvis passed away barely more than 60 days before the Crash, but the two events affected me completely differently.

The Skynyrd Crash was a perpetual subject of discussion among all the kids I knew who were remotely into music…and even the ones who weren’t. And it’s interesting to realize now, all these years later, that my first memories of the music that I was discovering, the specific stuff that I related to was already inextricably married to tragedy. It’s a thread that’s run through almost everything that I’ve been musically attracted to ever since, somehow. If there’s a self-destructive tortured artist involved somewhere in the mix, I’m sold. Gram Parsons, Chris Bell, Ted Hawkins – I’m all in. But with Ronnie, his songs and voice were literally everywhere. And, as has been thoroughly chronicled in the time since in print and documentary alike (the BBC alone has done Song of the South and Sweet Home Alabama: The Southern Rock Saga to cover the subject), the Skynyrd Crash was the bellwether that foretold the end of the dominance of Southern Rock as a microcosm of rock and roll in general. Obviously, I had no way of knowing it at the time, but in retrospect, the turning of the tide is undeniable. The shift was bigger than just the music, through…times were changing all around us, and music was just a means by which to measure the direction. But by the time the wave had crested and broken on the shore, I had ventured well past the Point of No Return. I was coming home from school and plopping down behind the drums and playing until my mom told me that everyone else was going to bed and I had to cut it out. I was gone, and there was no coming back for me…and the footprint left on my impressionable palette by Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and the lost Skynyrd brothers was permanent.

Time went by, my focus drifted from the drums to the desire to write songs…I saw Dan Fogelberg at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in 1983 shortly before leaving my hometown to join the military, and – it wasn’t that I lost interest in playing drums as much as I felt like there was an entire world that had opened up to me, and I intended to learn to play guitar and learn to write songs. The future, as it’s said, was wide open.

Rock and Roll was my identity. In a lot of ways, it still is. I learned to play guitar. I became a pretty decent singer. I learned how to record myself. I made demos of my amateur songs and taught myself how to sing harmony by singing along to those homemade Portastudio recordings. Music was all I thought about. Sure, I had a job, I had shit that I had to take care of, bills to pay, groceries to buy – but any sense of purpose I had at all was related to my identity as a musician.

My first wife was a self-professed “deadhead” – and I’d heard the Grateful Dead in fits and starts prior to meeting her, but it was one of thousands of blips on a huge radar screen, and my attention was focused on what I thought were bigger, more important dots around the radius. But she hipped me to the fact that the Grateful Dead Experience wasn’t just about buying the records and listening to the music, it was much, much bigger than that – and that, in fact, “The Dead” didn’t really give a shit about making records. Making records was, to them, an afterthought…and their tours and live performances were not only their bread and butter, but the lifeblood to an entire counterculture that found its way into their orbit as the Sixties became the Seventies and the tectonic plates shifted beneath our collective feet.

Still, my path went in another direction and it didn’t really intersect – at the time – with what the Grateful Dead were about. It took some years of absorbing their music and a gradual understanding of their work ethic for it to sink in. To this day, I’m still more a fan of their songs than I am the extended, improvisational jams that were their trademark…I’ll listen to American Beauty and Workingmans’ Dead all day long before I’ll put on a tape of a show from 1971 with an extended “drums and space” segment. I’m a song guy. That’s just where my head’s at.

In August of 1995, I was playing a lunchtime show on an outdoor stage in Hershey, PA – and a buddy of mine tended bar during the day at a club in town that I played at on a regular basis, so I went over to pop in and visit before I turned around to head home. When I walked in, everybody in the room was morose and Brokedown Palace was playing on the jukebox. I sat down and ordered a Rolling Rock and opened a volley of small talk. “Yeah, kind of a bummer of a day,” he volunteered.

“Garcia died today.”

I sat there, silent, for a minute…he filled in the details, but I don’t know that I really heard him. I don’t think I stayed for more than another five or ten minutes before I got in the truck to drive home…I was as much stunned as I was saddened by his passing – it very much felt like the final nail in the coffin of an era that – without Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, couldn’t possibly forestall its demise any longer. Sure, the sixties, hippie culture – it had been over for fifteen years by then, but you could still go to a Dead show and forget, even for a few hours, about Ronald Reagan and the collective sellout of the Hippie Ideal. Jerry was a musical and visual representation of something that, I came to learn later, he quietly resented – he never set out to carry the burden of being the Shepherd of the Anti-Flock…and all he ever wanted to do, from the beginning, was to Play In The Band.
I’m not sure which demons eventually consumed him, but he was gone.

I drove home and grabbed a blank VHS tape and popped it into the VCR and spent the rest of the night watching and recording news reports of Jerry’s passing. I called off sick at work for the next two days…I was both saddened beyond belief and – honestly, very much surprised by how affected I was by his passing. For years afterward, I would mark the anniversary of his passing by watching that tape with a six pack of Rolling Rock.

I’ve come to learn a lot more about the clouds that surrounded the band in the final days, and I’ve also come to appreciate the improvisational nature of the band to an extent, as well – but I still feel a deep sadness that I didn’t appreciate Jerry and his contributions while he was here as much as I do now. And I’ve had opportunities to dip my toes into the DeadHead waters as a musician and a bystander to what still exists of Deadhead Nation, and I’ll be eternally grateful for his spirit for the rest of my days.

In the years since, there have been legions of talented musicians, writers, and “rock stars” who’ve left us…and again, this isn’t to catalog our fallen brethren by net worth or cultural relevance or any other means of measurement other than their significance as signposts in my life. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Time passed.

I matured as a musician, I wrote songs, I recorded my own songs, I played my own songs for other people, and…I eventually found a path I was comfortable travelling that was much more centered on being a sideman and contributing to other peoples’ visions than trying to force my own works on people. I put tens of thousands of miles behind me, played hundreds of hours’ worth of shows….changed a LOT of strings, played a lot of sessions, made a LOT of friends, had a lot of experiences I’ll never forget, and I’ll be thankful for the road I’ve taken until the day I draw my last breath.

It really has been a Wonderful Life.

So I suppose it’s fitting in a sense that, at this point in my life – as I’m reaching the twilight of my own musical career and looking down the road to a point that I can begin to identify as The End Of The Road that we would lose someone like Tom Petty.

Goddamnit.

For me, there was literally never a point in my musical life that Tom Petty wasn’t a part of.

My mother got me a clock radio for Christmas in 1977, and that bullshit little $15 radio became my tether to the world that existed outside my ridiculously limited view. The following summer, the movie FM came out, with Breakdown on the soundtrack and an actual appearance by the band in the movie, so – as far as I was concerned, they were part of the echelon. They weren’t one of those bands that I stumbled upon later that I got the privilege of going back and rediscovering their back catalog after they’d already done a handful of records….they were there from the outset, and they just NEVER. FUCKING. WENT. AWAY.

I need to admit a couple of things, though.

They were never my favorite band. I never put them at the top of my personal musical food chain, and – truth be told, there were periods of his career that I wasn’t particularly fond of.

But then again, I’d be willing to bet there are fans of Neil Young and Bob Dylan who would admit the same thing if they were willing to be completely honest.

I didn’t care much for the Jeff Lynne method of making records where it applied to Tom’s music…I had become too much of a fan of the records they made in a largely live setting, and the Jeff Lynne process just didn’t resonate with me. Obviously, I’m in the minority there, as they were some of his most successful recordings, but – as I’ve said multiple times, your mileage may vary.

For me, the Holy Trinity of Tom Petty albums are:

Damn the Torpedoes
Hard Promises
Long After Dark

As with Bob Seger, he had the good fortune of having a three album run that – for me – really perfectly represented his artistic identity. For Seger, it was Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind…for Petty (again, in my opinion), it was those three records.

I know Tom wasn’t fond of Long After Dark – I think it was made with waning interest from Jimmy Iovine, and there were a lot of distractions that didn’t fuel the creative process, but – man, it’s a fucking great record. The singles were phenomenal, and the album tracks that most folks aren’t familiar with could easily be cornerstone material for a lesser band – Deliver Me, I’m Finding Out, Straight Into Darkness…seriously, those songs are just plain unbelievable, and I wish the record had been successful enough that more people heard those songs.

As I fell deeper and deeper under the spell of the electric guitar, Mike Campbell became one of the faces on my personal Mount Olympus, and those records were textbooks.

And as I started to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, they were a huge dot on the map for me…and, thankfully, towards the end, they rediscovered the mojo (pardon the pun) that they seemed to have lost for a moment there, when they were making records instrument by instrument for those years between Long After Dark and Highway Companion.

Too often, when we’ve lost important, influential artists, we look at their work in a typical creative curve with low points at the front and back and an apex in the middle…but I feel like they were really doing some of their best work on Highway Companion and Mojo…and their live shows over the past decade have been Springsteenesque tours through not only their own discography, but through the history of rock and roll in general.

To me, that’s one of the biggest tragedies of Tom’s passing.

I feel as though we’ve lost a thread that connected us all to the very seeds of rock and roll. Tom still had the fire, right up until the very end. Tom came from The South, just as Ronnie Van Zant had – he had that particular soulfulness that seems to emanate from this particular plot of land down here in the Southeastern quadrant of the US…and he carried that spark with him, in varying degrees, right to the bitter fucking end. It’s to his credit that he went out with all his sensibilities intact. Maybe he couldn’t hit the high notes of Refugee or Here Comes My Girl anymore, but he still played like he fucking meant it, and he still brought it, ALL of it, every night, right up through the last show of their 40th Anniversary Tour at the Hollywood Bowl, just a week before he died.

Now, that tether that tied us to the genesis of rock and roll is gone.

And maybe to much of the world – the world that’s enamored with Real Housewives, Bullshit YouTube channels, and InstaCelebrities like Nicki Minaj and the like – maybe they won’t notice so much. They’ll hear some fuckskillet like Jason Aldean when he turns up on SNL and do one of Tom’s chestnuts and that’ll be the extent of what they know about any of this. They didn’t live through it, it didn’t comprise any of the rings inside the tree for them…they know his name, they know the video with the top hat or the video with Johnny Depp or the video with Kim Basinger and that’s about the extent of what they know or can relate to.

I find myself often thinking about Johnny Carson in the days since Tom died, and how he was just Always There. No matter what else might be going on in the world at large, you could turn on the TV after the evening news and Johnny and Ed would put a smile on your face. Likewise, where TP was concerned…it could be said that some albums were better than others, he had peaks and valleys…but you always knew that he had another great record in him. Or that if you went to a show, you were going to leave with a smile on your face and a memory that no one could take from you.

We’re riding out the waning moments of 2017, and there are quite a few folks still walking among us that, frankly, I’d have expected to have preceded Tom Petty. And there are still others who I can’t really allow myself to consider the thought of losing at the moment.

Springsteen. McCartney. Dylan. Any of the CSN principles. James Taylor.

And God help me when either Jackson or David Lindley passes. It ain’t gonna be fuckin’ pretty in my neighborhood, folks.

I remember an Idlewheel show from 2010 or so in New Jersey….we were sitting at dinner between soundcheck and showtime, and Craig said something about the notion that, at some point in the not too distant future, we were gonna hit a slick in the road and all our heroes and musical icons were gonna start dropping like flies. I still think about that conversation all the time…as if I’d know when we’d arrived at that point. But I think I’ve come to realize that it’s not an impending landslide, it’s a constant, undulating erosion of the landscape. And it’s getting harder and harder to maintain a foothold.

But I’ll try to remain grateful for the fact that I got to walk the earth before so much of the musical topsoil washed away.

Jerry Opdycke, 1953 – 2014

(Jerry’s official, self-penned obituary can be found here.)

once upon a time, in a land far, far away...
Jerry Opdycke at far right in the rear…behind the guy with the afro in the red hoodie.

Instead of offering any additional commentary on my friend, I’ll share with you what I shared with the folks at his memorial service earlier today.

I’ve had a week to grieve, and I feel like I’m just getting warmed up.


(I didn’t have any prepared comments…I made notes before I left – which I glanced at and then sat down beside me and forgot about.  This is from memory, and isn’t exactly as I recited it, but it’s pretty close.)

Hi, Everybody…

It’s been 32 years since I’ve been here – this room wasn’t even here when I graduated in 1983.  I actually had to use my GPS to find the high school…it’s been that long since I’ve been here.

it’s been that long since I was in a band with Opie, too, but that relationship went beyond Jerry’s talents as a musician.  The few times I came back to town, I always sought him out.

Jerry was the person who broke the news to me that David Philips died a few years ago…I know a lot of you knew David as the co-owner of Maxine’s House of Music on Florence Road that I used to haunt as a teenager.  I remember telling Jerry that day that I could count the people in Savannah that I went out of my way to keep in touch with on my testicles, and now that David was gone he was gonna have to be careful or he was gonna leave me in a hell of a bind.

Well, folks, I stand before you today as a man with no testicles.

Jerry has left us – and some of us may have expected it, but after him battling back from everything that life’s thrown at him, I fully expected him to battle back from this, too, and I’m sorry to have been wrong about that.

At almost 50, I think I’d rather be without my testicles than to be without Opie.

I see a few faces here that I know, but a lot more that I don’t, so let me introduce myself – as Debbie told you, my name is Tom Hampton.  I doubt many of you know me, but I met Jerry when I was a teenager and we played in a band together called the New Hope Music Project.

When I was 14 years old, I had the audacity to dial a number I heard on the radio to call the studio that Jerry shared with the band because I’d heard them on the radio, talking about a 45 they’d just released, and I called to ask if they ever needed session musicians.  I was 14 – I didn’t know if that was how it worked or not, but they actually told me that if I wanted to come down and try out, that I was welcome to.

I think I knew even then that they were probably just being nice to a green kid who’d never been in a band before – but my aunt took me to the studio, i went in and played three songs with them, and they took my number and wrote it on a card and hung it on the wall in the control room.  and time went by…a lot of time…and one afternoon i got a phone call from the band, because their drummer had taken a job out of town and had to leave the band – so would I be interested in coming in and auditioning for their band?

It was the beginning of a two year run playing drums behind Jerry with a group of musicians who were all at least a decade older than i was…and in bands, there are inevitably cliques that emerge – Pat and Frankie were longtime friends, and Ricky the soundguy was dating the lead singer, so Jerry and I were the last two left.  If we were gigging in town, Jerry would drive me to the gig in his turd-brown Toyota Tercel hatchback and he’d brainwash me on the way to and from the gigs by playing Little Feat incessantly in the car.  We’d go back to Jerry’s house after shows and he and I would rifle through his album collection and he forced me to fall in love with Karla Bonoff…we covered her song “Trouble Again” and I had to hear where that came from.

I talk about Jerry and David Phillips in the same breath because just about everything good that’s happened to me in my life since crossing paths with them was made possible by the fact that they took an interest in me. I was a dirt poor kid, living in Walnut Grove with my mother, brother and sister, and if those two hadn’t shown me the possibility that there was something else life had to offer, there’s absolutely no way that I’d have had the experiences I’ve had. It might sound cliche’ to say it, but it’s absolutely true that Jerry changed my life.

I joined the Navy and left town, and took my guitar with me because it was impossible to travel with drums…and Jerry’s ghost followed me too.  In fact, I listen to recordings of myself playing guitar during the years that I was “graduating” to playing lead, and if you listen to him and listen to those tapes back to back, the influence is undeniable.

When I came back to Savannah the first time after having left, I looked Jerry up and he told me to meet him at the old drive-in…I thought he was nuts, as it had been closed for ages, but Jerry had helped convert the refreshment stand at the old drive-in to the first Elks Club in town, and we talked for hours and hours…I remember snippets of the conversation, and I remember him saying several times that “your money ain’t no good here” when I’d try to pay for drinks.   After a while, I don’t really remember much else about that night…or leaving…or how i got home.

Our paths crossed time and time again over the years – he came to Nashville to see me play with my band, he came to Nashville to pick me up at the airport when my car crapped out on the way to a gig with Daryle Singletary…and he was always a phone call away.  I’ve still got voicemails on my phone from him.  I talked to him at 9 o’clock the night before he died.  Even after all that he’d been through, he was a rock.  I truly believed that we had a lot of miles left on our odometer.

About a month ago, I came to town with my friend Bert, who’s here today, to visit with Jerry…I brought my wife and 5 year old son, neither of whom he’d ever met, and we spent the afternoon together. Capped it off with a shot of Jack, his favorite drink. And I remember thinking on the way home that we should’ve taken a picture…but that we could do that next time.

One of the things I find a lot of peace in is the fact that there wasn’t anything unsaid between Jerry and I…he knew I loved him, and I told him everything I’ve told you today.  He was aware of the profound effect he had on my life, and I’m so happy that we got that afternoon together last month.  I thought it would be the first of many more, but it turned out to be the last.

If there’s a silver lining that we can take away from losing Jerry…all of us…go home today and pick up the phone.  send an email or a text.  Find somebody that you haven’t talked to in a long time and start a conversation.  Let them know you miss them.  I’m incredibly fortunate to know, at the end of the day, that Jerry and I said everything we needed to say to one another.

I was lucky in that respect this time.  It’s not usually the way it ends…but that’s the way I want to do it from now on.

how do ya get to carnegie hall?

just a short note from the unsolicited advice department here at tomhampton.com, for you aspiring guitarists out there – and in here, as well…

it’s extremely important for any aspiring musician to learn to recognize the difference between studying your instrument, practicing your instrument, and playing your instrument.

this is a distinction that is easily lost on newcomers, and often overlooked by intermediate players as well…but it’s hard to become an advanced player without eventually coming to terms with the differences between the three.

some of you probably aren’t crazy about the idea of thinking of your instrument as something that you have to study, but the form of study that you apply to your instrument doesn’t have to be purely academic. you may also be one of the many players who tends to confuse the study of your instrument with the concept of practice, but the two are actually separate and independent of one another.

the study of your instrument consists strictly of gathering new information about it. when you learn something new from watching a video on YouTube, or seeing another player live, or reading something on the internet, this qualifies as study. anytime you’re gathering information, it can be considered study.

when you take that information and apply it to your instrument, it can be debatable to some whether that should be considered study or practice, but for the purposes of our discussion, practice should be considered as the process of taking information that you currently possess about your instrument and learning to apply it in a playing environment. this means that you’re taking those rudiments and scales that you’ve already learned and you’re running through them to reinforce them in your mind, and you’re also working on your physical technique to improve the means by which you actually play your instrument. speed, accuracy, and fluidity aren’t born into the vast majority of us, and improving those qualities takes a degree of repetition to hone them, and to push our personal envelopes past our comfort zone.

a healthy (but not necessarily exclusive) regimen of study and practice are vitally important to you as a player if you want to continually grow and improve. when a player constantly practices the things he already knows, the only opportunity he’s really giving himself is to become better at executing the things he already knows – and there’s a brick wall waiting at the end of that path. conversely, you can study your instrument, gather information about it, learn new things about it – but if you don’t take the time to work on incorporating that information into your vocabulary as a player, then that information only exists as random academia in your brain, and not in the muscles that control your instrument.

your ultimate goal in finding a balance of these two activities should be in cultivating the ability to take your instrument into a gig or a session or any other performance situation and be able to call upon this stream of new information when you play.

you’ve likely heard it said before – when you strap in and get ready to do this for real, the best work you’ll ever do is when your brain is switched off and you’re relying on your internal wiring to send the signals back and forth without fully realized instructions from your conscious thought processes. if you’ve done the necessary work to gather information about the instrument (study), apply that information to your personal ability as a player and have repeated it enough times to commit it to your vocabulary (through practice), you’ll find that it’s not really necessary to expend a lot of attention towards your actual technique when you’re playing with your band or cutting a track for a session.

i don’t know much, but i do know that – without a doubt – one of the best things about being a musician is that moment of euphoria that occurs when something flies off your fingers that amazes you as much as anyone else who might have heard it…and leaves you wondering where the hell it came from.

you may not always know specifically where it came from…but if you strike the right balance of study and practice, you’ll at least know why it came.

with Paul Cotton of Poco at National RockCon, East Rutherford NJ

(thanks for fellow Poconut Claudia Upton for use of the photos.)

 

since i was a teenager, paul cotton has been an icon to me. one of the heads on my personal mount rushmore of guitar, along with david lindley, with dan fogelberg, with joe walsh, with lindsey buckingham, and a small handful of others – and as a near-lifelong fan of poco, his playing and songwriting were practically engrained into my DNA.

i’d loved their music as a teenager, and had been fortunate enough to have gotten to know them as acquaintances, then as friends, then later as peers during the course of my musical career. every so often, i’d gotten the chance to open shows for them as a solo artist, and then later as part of any one of several bands that i’ve worked with over the years.

so when i woke up one sunday morning a while back to my wife delivering the news that she’d just heard on facebook that paul had left the band that he’d been part of since jim messina’s departure in 1970, some forty years ago. i was absolutely stunned. not surprised, but stunned – if that makes any sense. not surprised in that it was becoming obvious that there was a rift, but stunned in that it actually came to the point where they parted ways.

the one constant in poco has always been rusty young – and rusty hired a replacement and has kept the band going – it’s not the same band, but then they’ve been through plenty of changes over the years…and it was to be expected that they’d weather this as well.

now, some time before this, poco had a date at penns peak in jim thorpe – paul’s flight came in late, and i picked him up at the airport in philadelphia and drove him up to the hotel for the gig. during the drive, we’d talked about some of the idlewheel dates that i’d done with jack (poco’s bassist) and craig bickhardt, to include a house concert we’ve done on pretty much every run that we’ve done at charlie and dorothy wade’s house in union, NJ (which we’ve since nicknamed “the casbah”). paul’s eyes lit up…”i definitely need to do some of that kinda thing,” he mentioned…”at some point.”

well, under the present circumstances, it became somewhat more of a priority to explore the possibility of doing some paul cotton solo shows.

not long after all this went down, i got an email from paul – he’d been asked to perform at RockCon, a weekend-long convention that featured live performances throughout…he wanted to have myself and tommy geddes accompany him for his set at RockCon, and we’d get some MP3’s of the songs we were going to do via email and we’d work everything out before the gig at the hotel.

with paul and drummer tommy geddes at RockCon

for a music geek like me, it was a pretty cool thing – i could see where someone more cynical than myself (if there is such a thing) would see it as something of a star trek convention for aging rock stars, but there were a lot of folks there that weekend who i was familiar with. paul’s merchandise booth was set up right next to johny barbata, the drummer from CSNY and later, jefferson starship. i was excited to see him because i’d heard that he was in a pretty serious car crash some years ago, and wasn’t sure if he was even alive at this point. i was mighty pleased to find that not only was he alive, but that he’s still a hell of a player…and a nice guy to boot. al jardine from the beach boys was there – gene cornish from the rascals…and my new friend john ford coley, who i’d done a show with at the record collector in NJ a short time prior…it really was a nice collection of folks, some of whom i was familiar with, but many that even i had no idea as to who they were – people who were the 326th runnerup in season three of american idol, that kinda stuff.

now, as far as the performance goes – we were originally going to do a full band thing, but i heard from paul shortly after i started putting everyone together that we weren’t going to be allowed to play as a band, that we could only play acoustic instruments – which struck me as oddly as it’s probably striking you right now. so, we worked out a different set and discussed what instruments to play on which songs and the like…but after a while, i thought it might be a good idea to actually check in with someone involved with the event and see if i could get a bead on what the actual deal was. not because i didn’t trust paul, but because it just seemed like such an odd premise to begin with, and i wanted to make sure that everything had been properly whispered down the lane.

i called pat horgan, who helped put the event together, and got the scoop – apparently, the venue was in the jurisdiction of a stagehands local chapter, and they were exercising jurisdiction over the event. and what that meant was that, in order to comply with the union regulations, they had to set up the stage at the beginning of the event and it had to remain the way it was. that is to say that the amps that were in place had to remain in place, the drums that were in place had to remain in place – nothing that could be considered backline could be taken away or added to the stage for the duration of the event.

so we could’ve done the show as a full band – we just wouldn’t have been able to bring our own amps or drums or anything…we’d have had to use what was there.

armed with this new information, i gave paul a call and told him what pat had told me…and we revisited the setlist. first of all, for heart of the night, we’d definitely want to go with the pedal steel…it’s such a defining instrument in that song, and it really needed the hook. same thing with bad weather…it really needed the pedal steel to work in the trio format. i’d play mandolin for under the gun and barbados, and dobro for child’s claim to fame. there’d only really be three instruments from my perspective, changeovers should be easy enough, and we’d be in great shape.

so the day of the show, i picked tommy up at home and we drove up the interstate to east rutherford, new jersey – home of the new york football giants – to meet up with paul and caroline at the hotel and rehearse the set that afternoon. paulie seemed upbeat, he looked good…and we ran the set acoustically in his room (with the pedal steel through a small amp that i brought up to the room just to use for rehearsal) and everything sounded great. paul told me – “in thirty years, i’ve only ever played heart of the night with one other steel player, ya know….”

as we were headed down to the elevator to go downstairs for lunch, i took a minute to let that sink in.

we spent the rest of the afternoon before the set wandering around the conference rooms where the tables were set up, chatting with folks, and waiting to go on. we were set to go on after vince martell and vanilla fudge. the legendary new york disc jockey pete fornatale came up to bring us on, and began his introduction as the vanilla fudge guys were getting off the stage…as soon as he started talking, i knew we were in trouble. there was no way we were gonna get them off the stage and get the three of us set up and ready to play in the time it would take him to do paul’s introduction. and sure enough, he announced paul while we were still plugging in cords and situating instruments. thankfully, he picked up on what was going on and rescued his introduction and started talking again to give us a couple of extra minutes.

can't remember what we were laughing at....

now, since we had to use the existing backline, i could bring up the pedal steel, but i had to use whatever amp they had onstage. my choices were a marshall solid state combo amp and a line 6 spider. i thought i’d be better off with the line 6, but after playing the first notes i played on the pedal steel, i got a knot in my stomach. it had practically no bottom end, and the sound of the steel through this amp was like someone jamming razorblades into my auditory canal. i know it sounds like i’m exaggerating, but it was truly, truly awful…from where i sat, anyway. that, combined with the fact that no one had bothered to bring any boom stands (which meant that i had to play pedal steel with a mic stand between my arms and legs, sitting between me and the pedal steel), made this set extremely uncomfortable. we got through it, though, and it was quite well received. for me, it was yet another example of how hard it is to turn in a comfortable, well-executed performance when so very little is going your way.

when we parted ways that afternoon, we planned on doing more of these shows down the road…we’ll see how that turns out. it’d be great if we could, but i also know that paul doesn’t want to head north in the winter, and with that being the case, it could be a while.

on the way out of the hotel, we bumped into charlie gracie standing outside, smoking a cigarette…charlie is a rockabilly legend, someone that paul mccartney still considers a hero. but here we all were, standing outside shooting the breeze. i mean, in this day and age, there’s really not much left of the mystique that used to be such a big part of rock and roll…but between the internet cultivating the perception that we should have full, unfettered access to the people who make the music we love and things like this, that mystique should be all but extinct once this generation of rock and rollers has passed on into the sunset.

and those who come afterward will have no inkling of what they missed.