Ironic that The Band have always been considered the quintessential American group. Like nobody before them they merged gut-bucket rock and roll, country, rag-time, soul, bluegrass, folk, and the blues….into a stew that sounded both rustic and entirely new at the same time. Their best music was so shocking not because it covered unknown ground, but because it came as close as possible to perfecting what was already there.
I say ironic because, The Band were all Canadians. Except for Levon Helm. From Arkansas.
Levon was the band’s spiritual and musical leader. Armed with 2 astounding songwriters, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, Helm’s voice somehow encompassed something as huge as the American Civil War. To listen to him as Virgil Kane in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is more than just pure musical bliss. It’s a master class. It explains, more than any weighty tome I know, what divides us and why. Then, and now. It’s both majestically triumphant, and unbearably sad. And it rocks like hell, as Levon also just happened to be one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Not bad for a modest southern country boy.
If there is ever a musical Mount Rushmore, Helm deserves to have his face carved into it. Bearded preferably. He made me want to grow one. At 45 I’m still trying.
I’m just gutted right now. I want to cry but I can’t. I wish I could but there’s nothing there. Dry. So I listen to the music instead. There’s always the music. It will live forever.
There’s a great story about Levon that some may know. It’s worth re-telling.
The Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz”, directed by Martin Scorcese, is probably the best known concert film of all time. It featured a who’s who of mid 70s names….Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison…plus the titanic blues legend Muddy Waters. Quite a party really. So much so that when Neil Young took the stage he had a gob of cocaine hanging from his nose, a shot that Scorcese had to airbrush out of the film. Anyway….the sound was a bit ragged due to various backstage stimulants and what not…and every single performer was brought in after the fact to re-record his or her live vocals (Robertson’s vocal mic wasn’t even turned on)…which is one of the reasons ”The Last Waltz” sounds so glorious.
Levon refused to re-do anything. His performance was perfect because….well…..his performance was perfect. He was that good. And when the show was running a bit long….and there was talk of cutting Muddy Waters from the show, Levon Helm told Scorcese and Robbie Robertson to….essentially….f- off.
Muddy played. Levon backing him up on the drums with one of them smiles that says….”boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
It never would again. Robertson left the Band….and they carried on without him with dwindling returns. They went from Stadiums to hick bars. But where Robbie went to Hollywood for the glamour, Helm drove the van and unloaded his own gear at the back door of seemingly every dive club in the country. Not because he had to. But because he wanted to. He was a rock and roller.
These are such strange times. For a while Helm couldn’t afford to pay his own mounting medical bills (cancer has no pity). He nearly lost his house in Woodstock, New York. Only the frequent “midnight rambles” he hosted on his property, musical picnics featuring some huge names, kept him in the black. But through it all he never stopped playing. Even when the cancer and 28 chemo treatments ravaged his vocal cords, he kept at it, drafting his daughter into his band. Music came from Levon Helm the way sweat comes from the rest of us.
Just yesterday it was announced that the end was near for Levon Helm. Cancer had eaten him up and it was only a matter of hours. The announcement was all but obliterated in the press by the insane ramblings of Ted Nugent, which says more about the country we live in than I really care to get into. You take a look at the grace and dignity of a Levon Helm….and then a fool like Ted Nugent comes swinging into the picture on a vine….and it’s no wonder we’re still as fractured now as we were back in 1861.
Levon Helm never divided anyone. By force is personality and sheer talent he turned four Canadians into the most graceful of American rock and roll bands. He never compromised. He just played. And smiled. And when he smiled, at least I would always think…”boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
And it probably never will again.
I may be able to cry now. Finally.
But I’ll wait until this song is over….
In a bit..
It must be told, this story. It’s what rock and roll is made of.
It started with a phone call. I was felling a wee bit depressed from spending the past 11 years in my basement with an acoustic guitar….writing songs and releasing records into the vastness of cyberspace….waiting for royalty checks that rarely arrived.
Not that I wasn’t proud of these records, but I longed for a change of pace. I longed for volume. You see, I’ve been typecast as a “folkie” due to my acoustic records. Fine by me. I don’t care what I’m called if you’re buying it. But I’ve always loved rock and roll above all else, and always thought I was making rock and roll records all along. Just, you know, really quiet ones.
I think Woody Guthrie is as rock and roll as Joe Strummer.
Anyway, back to the phone call. It was to Sound Investment Studios. And it went sorta like this..
ME: I wanna come in and make a record.
SI: Ok. What kind?
ME: One that’s really loud.
SI: So a full band thing?
SI: Ok, what’d you got?
SI: In your band. Two guitars, bass, keys…?
ME: Um…I don’t have a band.
ME: Is that a problem?
ME: Well….could you put one together for me?
SI: Yea, we can do that. What are you looking for?
ME: Guys who play really loud and in tune.
SI: Yea, we have those kind.
ME: Great. When can I come in?
SI: You got songs?
SI: The band will need to learn them…
ME: Really? They’re kinda easy. I only know a few chords.
SI: It would help. Just saying..
ME: Ok, I can post acoustic versions of them on YouTube.
SI: Ok, that’ll be fine
ME: When can I start?
SI: When do you want to start?
SI: Well, we’re kinda busy….
ME: Ok….whenever you can fit me in. Oh…do you have guitars there?
SI: Well…yea, why?
ME: I don’t have one. An electric I mean.
ME: Is that unusual?
SI: Well…are you a guitar player?
SI: Were you planning on playing electric on the sessions?
SI: Then it’s kinda unusual
ME: Ok….how much is this gonna cost me?
SI: Don’t worry about it….see you in a month (click)
I’m telling you….for me this was massive preparation. I was totally ready.
So I get there on the appointed date after getting lost and driving up a long road towards the Preate Winery. My GPS was telling me “you have arrived” but I was skeptical. It’s impossible for man or machine to find the studio if you haven’t been there before. Their directions tell you to cross a bridge that isn’t there anymore.
Had to call and they led me there. Off to a great start. I get in….and the first thing I ask is “where do I stand?”
I was gently led to a vocal booth. An amp and a guitar were waiting for me. It even had a tuner hooked up to it, which I’d never seen before. Prior to this, I tuned by humming what I thought was an A note. I had to put headphones on too, but kept getting them tangled with my guitar cord. It took me most of that first session to realize I had the right phone on my left ear and the left phone on my right ear.
Anyway, my drummer, whose name I still did not know, was across the way in a drum booth…bashing away on practice fills. I was kinda intimidated ’cause he sounded really good and seemed eager to either get going or get the hell out of there. I heard a bass player in my headphones but had no idea where he was. He was nowhere in my line of sight. I could see the engineer through a window on my left. He says…”you ready?”
If the booth I was in had a back door I would have run away. What the hell did I think I was doing?
But I was quite stuck. So I meekly called out the first number, which I didn’t remember and had to find scribbled on a piece of paper with the lyrics (lyrics I just was changing in the parking lot before coming in). We took a quick pass at it…just to feel it out. I loved the guitar sound they had set up for me. The only instruction I gave was to “make it sound like Townshend when he’s really pissed off”. I was as impressed that they understood what I meant as much as I was their ability to make it so.
Did another run through. It was borderline out of control but stayed on the road. Nasty stuff. A voice said…”that’s a keeper…come on in and give a listen”. I was too shocked to move really. I still didn’t know anybody’s name but I was starting to like these guys. I’m notorious for losing interest in a song if it doesn’t work itself out in the first 3 minutes. The thought of doing take after take filled me with dread. It seemed I was working with kindred spirits….and that maybe this wouldn’t be a total disaster after all. It quickly dawned on me that if re-takes were in order, it wasn’t gonna be because the rhythm section screwed up.
Listening to that first playback is when I met my band, who I had already named the Shilelagh’s without telling them.
Joseph “Wiggy” Wegleski was producing and engineering…and was also my lead guitarist. A man of many hats who only wears one. Everybody knows and loves the guy. We got along immediately. He put up with me literally not knowing where to stand, allowed me to play one of his precious guitars (and his killer amp) and I put up with his constant blabbering about how great “Slash” is. More on Wiggy later.
My drummer was Chris Condel, an altogether kind, decent, caring man who just happens to beat on the drums like they stole something from him. I’d had bad experiences with drummers in my younger years, once nearly killing one when I threw a mic stand at him. As the guitarist and singer for a mercifully short-lived bar band, I’d drag out Van Morrison’s “Gloria” for 20 minutes or so, just to piss off the guy and hear him scream at me (above the din of the PA mind you) that his arms were about to fall off. One night he signaled me to stop playing by hitting me in the back of the head with a drum-stick. We despised each other, and after I nearly impaled him he “borrowed” my golf clubs, then quit that band. Haven’t seen the fucker or my clubs since.
So drummers always make me nervous. Take a guy who beats things with sticks all the time, he’s probably not like you and me. Plus Chris was wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt, which I admit made me a little hesitant at first. You hang around with guys in Bob Marley t-shirts long enough and eventually guys dressed in black-vests are gonna come pouring through the door yelling “hands up”. But this was just my paranoia. CC was there to beat the shit out of the drums, and the main reason there were so many smiles during that initial playback was because he kicked the song’s ass. Where was this guy my whole life?
The reason I couldn’t see my bass player was because he was playing in the control room itself. Lenny Mecca is John Entwistle without the hair-dye, which Lenny doesn’t need ’cause he’s got no hair. What he does have is the ability to play like he’s got 26 fingers. Simplistic Da-Da-Dum-Dum on the beat stuff is not his thing. He sounds more like a Panzer Corps when he gets rolling. When I started to veer away from the tempo….Lenny’s bass actually scared me back into time. I get nervous just being in the same room with his bass. The thing just screams authority.
Lenny is from Dunmore, which alone is reason enough to like him. But the fact that he rarely if ever hits a bum note leaves a guy like me, who covers up my numerous clunkers by saying “I was just playing a bit of jazz there”, in awe. You cannot be a good rock and roll band without a Lenny Mecca. If you don’t have one, you’ll suck forever. Plus, he can recite all the dialog from Spinal Tap. This is crucial when Wiggy is experimenting different Slash-type solos during overdub sessions.
Ah Wiggy. A guy who plays so well it makes me not want to play ever again. His playing can be understated and economical, or it can shred the wall paper. He can soar through a song like a bird, or drag it screaming down a dark alley. And he can do it all with the rest of the band hovering over him during the overdub, making unhelpful remarks like, “that’s killer if you’re going for the ABBA vibe…” It’s what friends do.
There’s really nothing that Wiggy can’t play, which is why everybody wants him on their record. I know how lucky I am to have him….so he can talk about Slash all he wants.
It was Lenny who taught me that you didn’t need to say anything to Wiggy to show approval. Just flash him the Angus Young devil horns. Yea….we all kinda grew up in the 70s early 80s. So what if it shows. We’re too old to worry about what the young punks think.
And through it all Wiggy is also arranging things and doing all the technical stuff. He’s real tolerant of my ideas….until I suggest that a song that’s being played at 100 miles an hour should have its tempo doubled to sound like the Ramones on methamphetamines . “Um….no.” And then, “Trust me” he says. So I do.
Totally professional. All of them. Mindful that time is money. Willing to work….and work more. No stimulants required.
Until last night when I murmured after a take, “I could use a beer”.
Floodgates open. The boys were wary of drinking at another’s session. Admirable behavior. But totally unnecessary, as I made clear. Turns out the boys like a beer or three. Lenny was dispatched for Yuengling Porter, and we all pounced like survivors on a life raft.
After all, we are the Shilelagh’s.
But we’re all grown-ups too, which is a good thing when you’re attempting to record things for posterity. A few jars and then back to work. I see no hotel room smashing in our future, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make noises that make us sound like hotel room smashers. After all, the latter bit is the rock and roll part.
Record should be available sometime this summer. After that, who knows?
Since Axl has declined his hall of fame induction, perhaps the Shilelagh’s can take his place? I wonder how Wiggy would take getting in before Slash?
I think he’d be alright with it.
All this is a bit pre-mature maybe….but stranger things have happened.
After all, ABBA is in there.
In a bit..
Studio tomorrow night.
Then the bread line.
In a bit..
Coming down the wire with the new full band record. Gonna have 10 new songs and it’s gonna be loud.
Just started writing new acoustic songs….and I’ve set up the 2 carvin mics and the Yamaha 8 track in my office again so I can record there. Not sure why I need 8 tracks, since I do everything live down there with just a voice and guitar, but maybe someday I’ll have to patience to go through the manual and figure out how to do more. I doubt it, but still. I try not to dwell on my inability to work machines.
Have a brand new song called “Cincinnati” that I’m pretty happy with. Need to tinker a bit more before I sit down and cut it. But it feels good to pull a song like that out after being away from things for a while.
Going to extremes with the volume these days. I see no reason to discriminate. Gotta keep on keeping on.
As always, for those that listen, I thank you. For those that don’t, you should ’cause it’s been free up until now.
In a bit..