Macon Breakin’

September 7, 2009

“Ol’ Bishop’s band was playin’ / That lowdown funk…”

These iPads** the kids are using nowadays are really something! You load up tons and tons of CDs into a little metal cigarette pack, then it does something that you couldn’t do in a lifetime. You hop into the Internets (“It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes!” – thankfully former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, June 28, 2006), dial up the Apple store, and tell it you want your iPad to become a “Genius.” Once they teach it to, it can look around its little innards and reorder your music, starting from any song you want, and give you a playlist of other songs you’re likely to enjoy. It’s like your own personal FM jock. To do this without an iPad, go to the Internets site called Pandora. (To be fair, it probably gets stuck when you start with a selection from Lou Reed’s METAL MACHINE MUSIC. I used to regularly win beer money by betting the latest sucker $5 that s/he couldn’t listen to the entire double album on headphones at one sitting. So far, everybody has paid up rather than sit through as much as one whole Lp side with the knowledge that three more are coming through those same cans. Some things just ain’t worth five bucks.)

What you get, then, is an artificial intelligence that roots through everything, even music you haven’t heard in a long time, because of course the AI cannot distinguish between the familiar and the arcane: the simple algorithm is, if you liked that, then try this on next. Those CDs that were literally gathering dust? They’re potentially on the A-rotation again, because it’s all the same to this little tunebot. I was half-listening to a jumpin’ jive Genius playlist when Elvin Bishop’s “Travelin’ Shoes,” from 1974, cranked up. It jerked me to attention and sent me 35 years into the past, when, for one brief moment, I was present at the epicenter of pop music.

“Travelin’ Shoes” is a rollicking, funny, mock-irritated rant against Elvin’s woman. The singer’s too dumb to realize that he’s really the cause of it all (“I talk and talk and talk, she didn’t hear a word I said”), and his remedy comes from a more cornpone time (“Wanna git Hank Aaron’s baseball bat and tenderize her head”). But the lyrics have nothing to do with why people loved the song; they’re just syllables that could say anything. Since he first recorded the tune, Elvin’s even cleaned up that Unutterably Misogynistic batshit stuff. I know, I know, it was a joke all along — calm down — but no kidding, the lyrics mean zippando, nothing. The red meat is an extended instrumental break, featuring dual guitar leads that are quick but not too jazzy, pounding barrelhouse piano (played here with great showmanship by Phil Aaberg, who went on to quieter fame as “Philip” Aaberg, one of Windham Hill’s legion of legato solo pianists – gotta say I liked him better when he was bangin’ the 88s for Elvin), and a polyrhythm section that does much more than just keep time. It’s the prototypical mid-Seventies Southern sound. The template was the Allman Brothers Band, the foremost label was Capricorn Records, and its home was Macon, Georgia.

In 1971, in graduate school at the University of Georgia in Athens, I started writing a general arts column, “Vicious Rumors,” for the school newspaper, just as I had for my undergraduate school back in Mississippi. A fellow journalism student, Jim Pettigrew Jr., also had a column in the ol’ RED & BLACK — his was about rock music. Jim was a colorful fellow, lazy Southern drawl to go with his trademark cowboy hat, oval mirrors for a hatband. Huge Z Z Top champion. He knew everything about the blues and how it related to a developing Georgia scene headlined by the amazing Duane Allman and his band. I had already published two short news pieces in Rolling Stone (then only five years old, still a tabloid folded over once for the newsstand), and one night Jim invited me to hop over to Atlanta with him for a record-company party at the rock club Richards’. That was the first time I ever saw Lynynrd Skynyrd, but what impressed me even more than the band was the free grub provided by their label; collegians are frequently thus impressed. Jim! How can I get in on this? Get some reviews published, mate! My editor at Rolling Stone gave me Jon Landau’s number: he was the reviews editor at the time, now he’s Bruce Springsteen’s manager. Jon gave me a tryout with a new album by Wet Willie, a Southern boogie band on the Capricorn label. I wrote it, he ran it, and I was off to the races.

Fortunes and careers are usually made possible by dumb luck, and I had some of my own to help with my new avocation. There weren’t many rock writers working in the Deep South at the time, and the region was quickly turning trendy. I had nothing to do with either phenomenon, but I sure took advantage of them both.

There was once a Brill Building scene, a Mersey scene, a Motown scene, a San Francisco scene. Later, a Seattle scene, an Austin scene, and so on. By that I mean a sliver of time in which nationally known tastemakers are selling records and thus inspiring new acts to come forward, a loop that self-perpetuates for a while. It usually doesn’t last much longer than a tween idol, because pop taste is just as fickle as that idol’s fans, and times do change. Think about those symphonic-pop bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes (pre-AM-hit-phase), how pompous and pretentious they sound today. But once they were the bee’s knees. Sic transit gloria trendi.

Well, there was also a Georgia scene, and it was forming just about the time I started scribbling. “Georgia” is an abbreviation, because part of the sound came from Memphis and part from Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but the most important locations were Atlanta and Macon. (The artsy, bohemian Athens of the B-52s and R.E.M. was still in the future; for the moment it was shitkickers all the way down.)

You must understand that the music business circa Seventies is almost unrecognizable from the vantage point of the present day. The unit of distribution was the album, mostly sold on Lp vinyl. (The new ancillary technology was the cassette tape, which was busy supplanting 4-track and 8-track tape cartridges.) Singles were issued to promote albums, not as profit centers in themselves. An army of promotion men, sometimes packed with secret illegal goodies including dough, tried to persuade AM radio “program directors” to “add” that week’s prioritized singles, and FM stations (at which individual jocks had a little more discretionary power over what to play) to listen to the rest of the album for spinnable stuff. Your tour sold your album, not vice versa, like it is today. (In fact, your most important relationship was with your label: “Please welcome Mercury recording artist…”) There was no MTV or MP3. We rock writers were still ugly because there were no TV shows for us to appear on: our key medium was print. Promo money flowed like water, each stunt more outrageous than the last. (It’s no coincidence that Alice Cooper and Kiss both arose in this environment.) For more details on a great and goofy time, read Larry Harris’s hilarious, dishy memoir AND PARTY EVERY DAY. One fine afternoon in late 1974, I sat in Mr. Harris’s Casablanca Records office on North Sherbourne Drive in Los Angeles and watched him pull out a garbage-quality baggie stuffed as big as a basketball with…let’s just call it an American smoking mixture. It was, and remains, the largest amount of that substance I’ve ever seen in one place.

After overdosing on sensitive singer-songwriters like Dan Fogelberg and Jim Croce, the zeitgeist decided it wanted something rawer. You got anything else like those Allmans? Man, we thought they were black! And of course, there were bands being formed by kids all over the South who idolized the old bluesmen just as much as the Allmans (or the Rolling Stones, for that matter) but reflected their influences in different ways. Wet Willie, whose second album was my Jon Landau audition, were a bar band from Mobile whose lead singer played mouth harp and sax. The Marshall Tucker Band, from South Carolina, tipped toward Appalachian country with electric instruments, including a flute. Atlanta’s Hydra were a Southern heavy-metal band. The Atlanta Rhythm Section were recording-session magicians who could play anything. Memphis had the Amazing Rhythm Aces. And from Jacksonville, Florida, came the bad boys of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Stones of the genre. But this creative energy also guaranteed outliers, like Thermos Greenwood and the Colored People (they painted their faces blue, orange, green, get it?), and the twin Frank Zappas of the South, Darryl Rhoades and His Hahavishnu Orchestra, and the Hampton Grease Band. See, this sort of thing didn’t start with the B-52s, folks (although they were already there lurking).

Meanwhile, all the Dixie noise was attracting interlopers like Al Kooper (who produced the debut albums of both Skynyrd and the Tubes!) and Elvin, who had made his name in Chicago with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but now dressed in overalls and sounded like he done come straight down from the RFD (he’s actually from Tulsa, so same difference). An annual pilgrimage to Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records Barbecue and Summer Games on central Georgia’s Lake Sinclair was de riguer: Phil’s masterstroke was that he was selling his home region, so he stayed there and made the L.A. execs come to him. To give you a sense of the cultural cross-section, one year I met Lester Bangs, Jimmy Carter and Andy Warhol, the latter just strolling through the picnic grounds and taking it all in. The night before, at a pre-picnic party at Paragon, Phil’s booking agency, the door greeter was Martin Mull (also on Capricorn), who said, “Come on in! Everybody’s here! Brian Jones is in the pool out back!” It was crazy, homes.

I wrote about all these people, not always flatteringly. Then, because I was situated near Atlanta, I could catch a non-Southern touring act for a quick feature. There were plenty of music papers to go around and, like I said before, not a whole lot of competition. The money was minimal, but I was awash in free records (the more you write, the more labels want to make sure you hear their stuff early), and I got to try and unravel the mystery of musicmaking with lots of great people and a few assholes, but the great ones included Rory Gallagher, Arlo Guthrie, Ray Manzarek, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Bramlett, Toy & Tommy Caldwell, Tom Dowd, Bob Weir, Jimmy Pankow, Leo Kottke, the guys in Skynyrd, ARS, Wet Willie and Kiss (turns out I’d known the bass player in an earlier life), and even ol’ Elvin, who I interviewed one day at a diner counter in Macon: “I always wanted to have a spread down in Jawja,” said the National Merit Scholar (no lie!), patting his stomach.

Then two things happened. The zeitgeist decided it had overdosed on Dixie rock, and the God of Abraham smote us with the scourge of disco. Wet Willie went to England to try and become a pure pop act. Death took Toy Caldwell, Marshall Tucker’s talented lead guitarist. A horrendous plane crash killed three Skynyrd members, including its lead singer. ARS resumed studio anonymity. Most of the outliers faded away or went back to the clubs. Only the very top acts remain: reconstituted Skynyrd and Allmans, and very few others. Capricorn was essentially over, and went out of business in 1979. Then there was disco, the next Big Thing, which burned as brightly as anything had, but nearly took down the entire record business with it when the fad extinguished itself just as quickly (it was actually already on the way out when the surprise blockbuster SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER’s shock therapy caused a brief second wave). I couldn’t stand the stuff, except for rare exceptions like Parliament. The end for me came when I desultorily opened a mailer of new records and pulled out THE ETHEL MERMAN DISCO ALBUM. Yep, “Hooray For Hollywood” to a robotic disco beat. I’ve seldom been so depressed. I never wrote another record review, just sat back and watched the Sex Pistols light a new fuse. The Clash, Dire Straits, Talking Heads – they were all coming to save us, but of course we didn’t know it at the time. I define rock & roll as the music your parents hate, which is why hip-hop is squarely in the rock & roll tradition. But it’s beyond me, so I’ve basically lost any authority I might once have had. Besides, too many kids are listening to “classic rock,” the music their parents love. Rock writing (if it even still exists) is a young person’s game. It was fun while it lasted, but I have nothing more to say. 

**EDIT, 1/27/10: Hey, Steve Jobs, I was just kidding! I didn’t mean you had to call your new gizmo an iPad just because I did it in jest way up there in the first graf last September…

%d bloggers like this: