I often feel old. Combine my tight upper back, cracking joints, and my constant repeating “I really need to get to bed at a decent hour tonight,” and you’ve got an angry old man in training. And this annual business of my favorite musicians passing on just makes it worse. Your favorite artists feel like new friends when they first come into your life, and over time you become like family returning in sadness and grief, or to sing and dance.
I was lucky to see Charles Bradley perform several times when I lived in New York City, the final being at the foot of the newly built Freedom Tower, 1 World Trade Center. He finished with an excellent cover of “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young, a song perfect for Bradley because he always sounded like a man searching for something, needing more, pleading for love. Not physical love. Bradley howled for humanity, acceptance, tenderness, understanding, and peace. He was also an absolute gentleman on stage and extremely grateful for his newfound career singing for appreciative audiences. I loved him for that alone.
After the last chorus the band played on while Bradley walked through the crowd hugging anyone who was willing. He embraced over a hundred people that afternoon, and I think he would have hugged all of lower Manhattan if he could have.
I still remember the car rides to school my freshman year in high school, that mix of nervousness, hormones, worrying about my clothes and shoes. My older brother played great music in the car and this is where I first heard “American Girl.” My first tape was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, which I opened on Christmas morning in the fifth grade and learned the words to every song including “Zombie Zoo.” (Am I the only person who loves this song?)
“American Girl” was something else; younger, but not in a way that suggested inexperience. I loved the bass in the first minute telling me “Yes, bass players can do that.” Petty’s singing was cool, passionate, and as desperate as the girl in the song. I wondered why he sang about her if he wasn’t part of the story. Maybe he was why she was so desperate or maybe he just felt for her because he had a big heart.
I love great lines, and I don’t know if there’s one as fun to sing as “after all it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to.” It’s a song that makes me proud to be American, and that’s nice to be reminded of these days.
When I lived in Austin, Texas, my friends and I hung out at the Horseshoe Lounge. Most of the patrons were like me, doing our best not to grow up. We drank Lone Star, played shuffleboard, smoked cigarettes, and played the best jukebox I’ve ever known. “I’m a Ramblin Man” by Waylon Jennings has never sounded better than it did in that bar.
There was a cab driver that hung out there named Bucky. One night he told us he came from the Pacific Northwest where he played drums and sang in a band called Bucky & the Bandits. They performed “mostly R&B … tough R&B.” This sounded pretty cool to us and downright mysterious. You can describe R&B in a lot of ways but rarely as being “tough.” We all agreed he meant dangerous not difficult.
Bucky didn’t talk much; he smiled a lot, drank heavily, and would disappear shortly after midnight to sleep in his cab, which was parked out back. Before he retired for the evening, he played “I Want to Walk You Home” by Fats Domino on the jukebox. He would stand next to the box, swaying back and forth, and whisper sweet nothings to an imaginary girl, telling her all sorts of nice things. I realize this sounds creepy and weird, but somehow it didn’t seem that way. Bucky was a gentle soul.
I love that Fats Domino made Bucky want to be sweet to someone even if it was all in his head. This was Bucky’s “walk home,” his time to make romance. For two minutes and 21 seconds Fats Domino brought him happiness. That’s what great music can do.
There is a wonderful scene at the end of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, the 1986 film about Chuck Berry. The camera pans slowly until it lands on Berry playing expressive and sad notes on a pedal steel guitar. It reminds you how much Berry loves music, which is a beautiful thing because at times during the film he seems like a man who approaches his music like a day job, a bitter artist determined not to get screwed by anyone ever again.
His bitterness says more about the music business than it does about Chuck Berry. You’d be correct to question an industry that shaped an artist who articulated fun and freedom like no one before and few since, into someone who hired pick-up bands in towns across America to back him, sometimes poorly, on some of the most poetic songs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll because it put more money in his pocket.
There are flashes of brilliance in the film’s performances and those bum notes, too. Those notes were part of Berry’s charm, and part of the excitement he conjured when shaping country music, blues, and pop music into the rock ‘n’ roll we know today. It weren’t jazz after all.
I read an article shortly after Greg Allman died that suggested his brother Duane pushed him to sing in that powerful, bluesy tone on songs like “Whipping Post,” “Revival,” and “Midnight Rider” from their first two records. Duane was soaring as a guitar player and urged Gregg to push his vocal abilities, too, unlocking an inner power he had never really explored before. The article further ventured that after Duane passed Gregg never sang in that style again, opting for a softer, sadder, and more reflective tone on songs like “Melissa” and his cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.”
That’s all debatable but take one listen to his version of the latter and you’ll hear the sound of a broken heart, a beaten man who has lost everything except his own life. Many have covered the song but no one touches Gregg’s reading. To me it’s a testament to his love for Duane, his musical brother, his soul brother, his blood brother.
The Rhinestone Cowboy knew how to pick a hit song and he knew how to pick that guitar, too, boy. I’ve always been partial to his version of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” It’s straight, no rough edges or surprises, and the recording has a polish I don’t normally go for. It’s akin to watching an old movie when you’re 12 years old to impress your grandparents.
Glenn’s records sound like he was up for making good music with his friends, figuring out what made a song work and the best way to sing it. People that buy records tend to like that.
Summer of ’94, the “Black Hole Sun” video plays on MTV at least once an hour. I still remember the girl in the bathing suit and her lizard tongue and how that felt so subversive at the time. It was that summer’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and Chris Cornell sounded like God.
It’s not easy to write dumb guitar hooks that are actually fun to hear. I mean that in all sincerity and respect. “You Shook Me All Night Long” is one of the best ever written and it’s made up of a variation of four notes. Malcolm Young had a great ear and he knew that the space between those notes and feel was everything. And everything else was for someone else to play.
Matt Williams hosts a music show on WOHM Charleston, 96.3 FM called Dancing in the Dark on Saturdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. He plays in two local bands, Solid Country Gold and Honky Cat, and works for The Nature Conservancy. He lives in Charleston with his wife and two kids, and can be contacted at email@example.com.