Another fine tune found deep in the vinyl

Here we go again. On this 24th edition of “Lost Classics,” let’s go exploring the deep tracks from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, looking for the hidden gems you never knew or forgot all about.

I love turning you on to great old songs. I hope you do too!

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“St. Judy’s Comet,” Paul Simon, 1973

Following his somewhat somber solo debut, Simon seemed to be amped up with joy and gratitude when he wrote the songs for “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” his 1973 masterpiece. There are ten songs that show his mastery of multiple genres, from gospel (“Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Tenderness”) to Dixieland (“Take Me to the Mardi Gras”), from reggae (“Was a Sunny Day”) to blues (“One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor”). Tucked in near the end is “St. Judy’s Comet,” an exquisite lullaby he wrote for his son, who liked to stay up and watch the night sky. He pokes fun at himself in the lyrics: “Well I sang it once, Then I sang it twice, /I’m going to sing it three times more, /I’m going to stay ’til your resistance is overcome, /’Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep, /Well, it makes your famous daddy look so dumb…”

“Shelter From the Storm,” Bob Dylan, 1975

After the understated and overt songwriting brilliance he displayed throughout his first seven or eight albums in the 1960s, Dylan went through somewhat of a dry patch in the early ’70s, as both critics and fans had lukewarm reactions to the albums of that stretch. But in January 1975, Dylan made a triumphant return with “Blood on the Tracks,” a timeless collection of songs that are among the best he ever wrote. Interestingly, he recently released a deluxe version that featured very different alternate takes of these tracks, which is worth hearing, but I prefer the originals. “Simple Twist of Fate,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and especially the marvelous “Tangled Up in Blue” — they’re all still so enjoyable 45 years later. I’m also partial to the comforting “Shelter From the Storm,” a ten-verse story with just his voice and guitar and a bass.

“Approaching Lavender,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1970

Another outstanding songwriter who got his start in the ’60s, Lightfoot wrote wondrous folk tunes on his first four albums (“Early Morning Rain,” “Did She Mention My Name,” “Pussywillows, Cat-tails,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) that were successfully covered by Peter, Paul and Mary and others. Once he was signed by Reprise in 1970, Lightfoot took a huge step forward as a recording artist with the beautifully produced “Sit Down Young Stranger” LP, which included his big hit “If You Could Read My Mind.” The whole album, with ace guitarist Red Shea and bassist Rick Haynes in support, is very satisfying, with splendid tracks like “Minstrel of the Dawn,” “Your Love’s Return” and one of the first covers of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” My favorite may be the captivating “Approaching Lavender,” with a string arrangement by Randy Newman.

“Leave It Like It Is,” David Wilcox, 1989

I’d wager that very few of my readers here are familiar with this talented, unassuming singer-songwriter from Ohio who eventually found his way to Nashville, where an appearance at the legendary Bluebird Cafe won him a contract with A&M Records. His warm, expressive voice on songs filled with keen insight and humor made his 1989 debut with them, “How Did You Find Me Here?”, a cult favorite at a time when singer-songwriters weren’t in vogue. Take a listen to how well-crafted these songs are: “Eye of the Hurricane,” “Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again,” and “The Kid” show how unjustly neglected Wilcox has been. Sure to elicit a chuckle or two are fun ditties like “Just a Vehicle” and the marvelous “Leave It As It Is,” which features great jazzy guitar and potent lyrics that explore how a paint can mishap can turn into a much-coveted work of art.

“That’s the Way,” Led Zeppelin, 1970

After two rocket-fueled years on the road evolving into the biggest blues rock band in the world, Robert Plant suggested that they chill for a month or two at a rural cottage in Wales he knew about, where they could see what musical inspirations might come. The “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II” albums had shown a hint of the group’s acoustic side on songs like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Ramble On,” but those were both acoustic and electric. For the “Led Zeppelin III” album, they devoted nearly half the album’s running time to four acoustic-based tunes that had critics and fans scratching their heads a bit. It still sold a zillion copies, and tracks like “Tangerine,” “Born-Y-Aur Stomp,” “Friends” and the all-acoustic “That’s the Way” were eventually embraced by fans and took their rightful place in the Led Zep canon.

“Crazy Mama,” J.J. Cale, 1972

Cale has always preferred writing and recording his songs to performing them, so it’s not surprising that the songs from his catalog you’ll know best are the ones covered by better known artists, particularly Eric Clapton (“After Midnight,” “Cocaine”) and Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Call Me the Breeze”). Cale was a leader in what became known as the Tulsa Sound, and his laid-back groove came through both in his understated guitar playing and his soothing vocals. He began recording his own songs in 1972 with the album “Naturally,” which included his own take on “After Midnight” as well as the jazz-inflected “Crazy Mama,” which became his only appearance on the Top 40 charts (#22). Cale eschewed the limelight, but Clapton’s collaborative effort with him, the excellent “Road to Escondido,” won him a Grammy in 2008. He died of a heart attack in 2013 at age 74.

“Helpless,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1970

Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield in 1968, Young wasted no time putting together his first solo record by the end of the year, and the amazing “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” album (with “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”) came along only eight months later. Springfield pal Stephen Stills, together with David Crosby and Graham Nash, had become the hottest act of the summer, thanks to their stunning debut album’s songs and performances, but to take it on the road, they needed another guitarist. They invited Young, who showed up with two tunes that ended up as deep-track anchors of the CSNY album “Deja Vu,” a #1 album in the spring of 1970. “Helpless” was a simple, three-chord song that Young had already recorded unsatisfactorily with his other band Crazy Horse, and Crosby convinced him to re-record it with them, and they nailed it.

“By Today,” Batdorf and Rodney, 1972

I’ve been spreading the word about this amazing duo since I first heard them in 1971. Their astounding debut LP “Off the Shelf” still ranks among my Top 25 albums of all time. “Can You See Him” got considerable airplay, and “Let Me Go,” “Oh My Surprise,” “You Are the One” and others ring true with dexterous guitar work and fine harmonies. Their second album, “Batdorf and Rodney,” shines as well, with tracks like “All I Need,” “Poor Man’s Dream,” “Home Again” and “By Today,” which I’ve singled out here. The duo lasted for one more album (“Life is You”) in 1975. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and become friends with Batdorf over the past decade as he has continued writing and releasing great new music and performing at clubs and house parties.

“Bella Donna,” Stevie Nicks, 1981

From the moment she and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac in 1975, Nicks turned heads with her distinctive voice, memorable songs and mesmerizing stage presence. “Rhiannon,” “Landslide,” “Gold Dust Woman” and the #1 hit “Dreams” established her as a formidable enough force that she felt justified in embarking on a concurrent solo career. Her 1981 debut LP, “Bella Donna,” was a smashing success both commercially and critically, registering three Top Ten hits from it (“Edge of Seventeen,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and “Leather and Lace” with Don Henley). But there were other fine tracks as well — “Outside the Rain,” “How Still My Love” and especially the shimmering title track had all the elements of Nicks’ ouevre: mystery, gorgeous harmonies, poetic lyrics and studio dynamics, this time courtesy of produce Jimmy Iovine.

“Everybody’s Been Burned,” The Byrds, 1967

Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Alan Clarke became The Byrds in 1964, and in short order became cultural icons when they took Dylan’s acoustic “Mr. Tambourine Man” and turned into an electric “folk rock” prototype. It went to #1, as did their follow-up, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Clark left the band, but the songwriting of Crosby and Hillman had them trying other genres, specifically psychedelic rock and country, respectively. On The Byrds’ fourth LP, “Younger Than Yesterday,” McGunn and Hillman’s tongue-in-cheek tune “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” became a big hit, while Hillman added four songs with an overt country influence. Crosby’s finest moment, to my ears, was the moody, jazz-influenced “Everybody’s Been Burned,” with a superb vocal performance that presaged his classic “Guinnevere” with Stills and Nash.

“No Other,” Gene Clark, 1974

As one of the integral founding members of the original Byrds, Clark provided rich harmonies as well as occasional lead vocals and contributed several of his own songs to the band’s celebrated first two albums, including “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Set You Free This Time.” Sadly, Clark suffered from a profound fear of flying that prevented him from touring, which ultimately caused his departure from the lineup. Clark attempted a solo career, working with multiple labels and musicians over the next decade or so, receiving critical praise but almost no commercial success. Still, he persevered, and in 1974 he released “No Other,” a wonderful amalgam of country, rock, soul and gospel, and one of the most unjustly neglected records of that period. The haunting title track has been a favorite lost classic for me ever since.

“Spanish Nights,” Michael Stanley Band, 1982

Stanley was a Cleveland-born singer-songwriter whose first two solo albums, augmented by the contributions of Joe Walsh and other L.A.-based luminaries, included stellar tracks like “Rosewood Bitters” and “Let’s Get the Show on the Road.” He formed The Michael Stanley Band in 1975 and went on to release ten of the greatest Midwest rock albums the world has never heard. MSB set attendance records at numerous Cleveland-area venues and enjoyed a modest following in various other U.S. cities, but they failed to break through nationally, which is a crying shame, in my book. So many strong rock songs and power ballads alike, from “Last Night” and “In Between the Lines” to “Why Should Love Be This Way” and “Lover.” Probably the best of Stanley’s songs is “Spanish Nights,” a superb track from their 1982 LP “MSB.”

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Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue

Alex and Edward, two young brothers whose family relocated from The Netherlands to Pasadena, California, in 1962, found that the best way to keep from getting picked on by their classmates was to make music.

Both had taken classical piano lessons but preferred rock and roll. Alex started playing guitar while Ed picked up a drum kit. “I had a paper route to help pay for the drums,” Ed said, “and while I was out, Al would pick up the drumsticks and give it a go. When I heard him play ‘Wipeout’ way better than I could, I was pissed off. So I grabbed his guitar and started playing. All the time, every day.”

The brothers started a band called The Broken Combs, and eventually changed their name to The Trojan Rubber Company (!). By 1972, they became Genesis until they became aware of the British progressive rock band with the same name, so they changed yet again to Mammoth. They played parties, school functions and the occasional street fair. By this point, Ed had become a truly formidable talent on guitar. Before he was 25, he was on the cover of Guitar Player magazine.

That young boy from Holland was Eddie Van Halen. He died Tuesday of cancer at age 65.

The band that had adopted the brothers’ namesake was, in fact, one of the most popular hard rock bands in the world from 1978 to 2012, selling upwards of 70 million albums and charting a dozen Top Five LPs in the US, including four #1s.

Van Halen‘s first LP, “Van Halen,” in 1978 was one of the most commercially successful debuts ever, eventually selling 12 million copies. It was highly regarded by fans of heavy metal as well as hard rock. Album-oriented rock radio ate it up, playing several tracks in heavy rotation, including “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and a blazing cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

What distinguished Van Halen from the dozens of other hard rock bands of the day was Eddie’s astonishing abilities and exuberant stage presence, and the sounds he was able to coax from his custom-made guitar. Joe Satriani, highly respected musician and guitar teacher, said in 2015, “Eddie put the smile back in rock guitar at a time when it was all getting a bit broody. He also scared the hell out of a million guitarists because he was so damn good.”

He became every bit the guitar god to up-and-coming guitarists of the late ’70s and early ’80s as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page had to the previous generation. He was a bit shy about the accolades at first: “It’s nice,” he said in 1980, “but sometimes I’m like, ‘Come on, I’m just a punk kid who plays guitar.’ Sometimes I’d play a killer solo and say, ‘Wow, that was magical, how did I do that?’ I’d try to do it again but I couldn’t!”

Van Halen toured relentlessly every year, promoting the latest album and gaining converts who were mesmerized by Eddie’s razzle-dazzle. His innovative two-hand tapping technique and quicksilver fingerings on the fretboard caused jaws to drop everywhere he went. “I’ve always said Clapton was my main influence — I memorized all of his lengthy solos with Cream — but I think I play more like Page, in a reckless-abandon kind of way.”

He used a broad range of guitars over the years but is most closely associated with his “Frankenstrat,” a Fender Stratocaster painted red, black and white, modified with a Gibson ES-335 pickup. He actually held a few patents on various tools he devised in order to get the unusual sounds you could thrill to on record and on stage.

In an obituary in the Washington Post this week, writer Geoff Edgers wrote, “For (Eddie) Van Halen, the point was musical. He was always searching and exploring with the tools he had available; just like John Coltrane or Stravinsky. The difference is that Van Halen made those sonic explorations fit within the framework of the most consumer-friendly rock band in America.”

Of course, guitar pyrotechnics only go so far with a mainstream audience. To make them among the most commercially accessible bands of their time, Van Halen found a way to write material that, though it leaned toward heavy metal, employed catchy melodies and pop hooks. Songwriting credits were split among the four members, but it was Eddie who wrote the central riffs.

David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen, Mike Anthony

In concert, Eddie shared the spotlight with David Lee Roth, the showy, somewhat goofy lead vocalist who had joined the lineup back in 1973 when Eddie grew tired of pretending to be a singer. “Roth had great pipes, and we both had a lot of fun out there,” he said. “With Alex kicking ass on drums, and Mike Anthony on bass, we were a really tight band.”

Time for my full confession: I really wasn’t much of a fan of Van Halen’s music at the time, and I’m still not. In a blog I wrote in 2018 about successful rock bands I never liked, I called Van Halen “mind-numbingly average” and described their repertoire as “boring, plodding, nondescript.” Listening to their catalog the past few days, I’ve found a few tracks that stand out above the others, but in general, I stand by my evaluation. To assemble a Spotify “Essential Van Halen” playlist for this piece, I relied on publications like Rolling Stone and the LA Times to identify the favorites of fans and critics alike.

Eddie with Jackson, 1984

I thought it was a great move for both Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson when the two teamed up on “Beat It,” Jackson’s rock song on his mostly R&B masterpiece “Thriller” album. Eddie’s solo during the break became the hottest 30 seconds on the radio in 1983 and broadened his appeal among black musicians.

There’s no question that Van Halen was Eddie’s band, and that fact seemed to rub Roth the wrong way. The singer felt he was the front man, the guy that the audience was focusing on. Roth wanted the band to focus on a more pop approach with more tunes about drinking and sex, but the guitarist wanted to write longer, more complex songs, and he developed a home studio where he could compose material on his own.

By 1983, when Van Halen released its hugely successful LP “1984” with the #1 single “Jump,” Roth’s ego got the better of him. He recorded an EP, “Crazy From the Heat,” and enjoyed two hits singles as a solo artist, both covers of classic songs (“California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”). This internal tension came to a head in 1985, and “Diamond Dave” was given his walking papers. He went on to have three platinum LPs and a couple of singles over the next 10 years.

Hagar and Eddie, 1986

Meanwhile, Van Halen looked elsewhere for a new vocalist. They asked Patti Smyth of Scandal (not Patti Smith of “Because the Night” fame) but she turned them down. They invited Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates, but he declined as well. They finally settled on Sammy Hagar, former lead singer of the mid-’70s hard rock band Montrose and more recently a solo artist with the hard-driving hit single “I Can’t Drive 55.” Fans and critics didn’t react well at first, but soon enough, they embraced the new lineup, some now calling them “Van Hagar.” The first album with Hagar, “5150” (named after the address of Eddie’s studio), was their first #1 and, in fact, the first of four consecutive #1 LPs, including “OU812” (1988), “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (1991) and “Balance” (1995).

Even with the major lineup change, Van Halen retained its position as a premier rock act and record seller. The fact that they did well with either singer made it clear that it was Eddie and his guitar playing, composing, arranging and innovating that was the irreplaceable cog in Van Halen’s wheel.

On stage, Eddie was absolutely in his element, he said. “We’d tour for 10 months, and then come home, but within a week, I was like, ‘Hey guys, we gotta play! That’s all I know how to do!'” New York Times critic Jon Farber wrote that Eddie’s shows were “hyperactive and athletic, joyous and wry,” and my friend Jake concurred with that description. “I saw them in the Roth era, but regardless of if you saw Roth or Hagar, it was always Eddie we were there to see. And he didn’t disappoint.”

Valerie Bertinelli and Eddie

Eddie Van Halen found himself at a whole new level of stardom once he married TV star Valerie Bertinelli in 1981. He was on the receiving end of Hollywood’s paparazzi ambushes, but it broadened his fame among non-rock fans. They had a great marriage for the first 20 years, and had a son, Wolfgang, in 1991, who ended up playing bass in his dad’s band in the 2010s.

In 1996, internal tensions between Eddie and Hagar came to a head, again over creative control and direction. The band tried to reunite with Roth, which yielded a couple of new studio recordings for their Greatest Hits collection, but the old personality conflicts reappeared, and Eddie said no.

From this point on, you should excuse Van Halen fans if they suffered from whiplash for all the back-and-forth changes over the next couple decades. Gary Cherone, former lead singer of Extreme, took over the mic and did an a decent job on the album and tour in 1998-99, but record and ticket sales were disappointing, and Cherone was let go. Around 2000, things got dark for Eddie, and he let his fondness for cocaine and alcohol get the better of him. Bertinelli didn’t last long in that environment and the couple separated in 2001, finally divorcing in 2007, but they remained on good terms.

Van Halen was officially inactive between 1999-2003, partly because Eddie was in rehab and working on recovery. In 2004, Hagar was asked to rejoin, which he did for a couple new tunes and a lengthy tour. At tour’s end, there was bad blood about the gigs where Eddie was clearly drunk and playing poorly. Hagar headed back to his solo career in 2006, saying “I’m done with Van Halen” on his way out the door.

Roth with Eddie, 2008

Maybe not so surprisingly, the Van Halen pendulum once again swung back to Roth, but it took until 2008 before the oft-announced reunion tour would happen. After a long layoff from the studio, the band recorded a new album in 2012 with Roth, “A Different Kind of Truth,” and another tour.

In the wake of Eddie’s passing, a number of well-regarded musician peers were lavish in their praise for him. “Eddie Van Halen was a guitar superhero,” said guitarist extraordinaire John Mayer. “A virtuoso. A stunningly good musician and composer. I was so blown away watching him exert such control and expression. I never stopped watching in adolescent awe and wonder.”

Said guitar great Joe Walsh, “Eddie was a one-of-a-kind guitarist and human being. He was a master at his craft, and he was a friend I loved. The world will be dimmer and quieter without him around.”

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