It goes on and on, watching the river run

There are so many fascinating stories from the ’60s and ’70s about how and why bands were formed and broke up, who wrote which songs, who appeared on which albums, who paired off with whom, who produced the albums, which acts became famous and which didn’t.

And it’s such a gas to be lucky enough to hear these stories from someone who was there, right in the thick of it.

In the burgeoning Los Angeles music scene at the time, folk artists and rock musicians were combining forces to create the genre that became known as folk rock.  Soon thereafter, those who appreciated elements of country music added their talents to the mix, and the result was (what else?) country rock.

gtr_plyr_1977_smIn the middle of all of this creative mixing of styles and influences, one name kept popping up:  Jim Messina.

Most rock music aficionados recognize his name as one half of the popular ’70s duo Loggins and Messina.  Although, truth be told, most folks are probably more aware of Kenny Loggins, but are only marginally familiar with Messina and his accomplishments.  And that’s a shame.

In my opinion, and in the view of many knowledgeable observers, Messina is the greater talent.  In fact, without him, it’s likely no one would have ever heard of Loggins, as we shall see.  Messina’s contributions, meanwhile, have sometimes been behind the scenes and therefore less in the limelight.

unnamed-2As Messina and his current band came through town last week on the California leg of their concert tour, he graciously agreed to sit down with Hack’s Back Pages for a chat.  Let’s start this story at the beginning, which would be in 1965 when Messina, who grew up in the Riverside/San Bernardino area east of L.A., relocated to Hollywood at age 17 to pursue a career in music.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t going to find much work as a musician because everybody I came across was so damn good, so I started apprenticing as a recording engineer,” he recalled.  “I learned how to build studios, and had the chance to work on a home studio for Joe Osborn, one of the all-time great session bass players.  I loved the way he played, so I agreed to work for free if he would give me a few bass lessons.”

Messina’s ever-growing knowledge in engineering and recording soon brought him to Sunset Sound Recorders in 1967, a hotbed of rock music activity.  One of his first assignments as an engineer there was to set up mics for a simple guitar-and-voice session for a new artist.  He was awed by the gentle beauty of her voice and the delicate melodies she sang.  “What’s her name?” he asked, and was told, “Joni Mitchell.”

His next project, thanks to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, was as an engineer on the second album by Buffalo Springfield, the seminal rock/folk/country band that featured the formidable talents of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay.  “I had heard Stills’ song ‘Bluebird’ on the radio, not knowing who it was, so I was pleased to learn that was their song, and looked forward to working with them based on that,” Messina said.

In early 1968, when the band was set to record its third album, Messina was asked to be its producer, unaware of the inner turmoil that was threatening the group’s future.  “They’d seen what I was doing and trusted me, I guess, so I quickly accepted.  I had no


Buffalo Springfield in 1968:  Dewey Martin, Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

idea of the issues that were going on.  I soon saw I could never get these guys to come work in the studio at the same time.  Stephen would show up but Neil wouldn’t, and vice versa.  Or (drummer) Dewey (Martin) would be so stoned he couldn’t sit on his stool.

“Then (bassist) Bruce Palmer got arrested and deported back to Canada, so they were without a bass player.  I could play guitar, and I’d been practicing on bass, and I was very familiar with their sound, of course.  So I raised my hand and offered to play the bass parts.  Stephen was blown away with how it sounded, so just like that, I was in the band.  There were some live dates coming up, so I joined them for those too.”

Messina contributed his song “Carefree Country Day” and played bass on tracks like Furay’s classic “Kind Woman,” all the while serving as producer of what turned out to be the Springfield’s final product (the 1968 LP “Last Time Around”), trying to give continuity to what would have otherwise been a fragmented mess, as the group was disintegrating.  Many observers feel the album never would have been released if not for Messina’s efforts.

So as Young embarked on a solo career, and Stills headed off to collaborate with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Messina considered his options.  “Richie and I had become friends,” he said.  “He and I were both pretty straight, not really into the party lifestyle, and I loved his songs.  So we agreed we ought to team up.”

Furay and Messina were impressed with the pedal steel playing of Rusty Young, who was brought in on the final Springfield sessions, and he was pleased to join the new band.  They held auditions for a bass player, taking a look at both Gram Parsons (??) and a young Gregg Allman (??!!) before eventually bringing Randy Meisner into the fold.  With drummer George Grantham completing the quintet, they chose to call themselves Pogo, named after the Walt Kelly cartoon character.  “Kelly didn’t like that and threatened to sue,” Messina recalled.  “We were doing our first set of shows at The Troubadour, so our road manager had the idea of just changing the G to a C on the marquis, and we became Poco that night.”


Poco in 1970:  Rusty Young, George Grantham, Timothy B. Schmidt, Richie Furay, Jim Messina

Their 1969 debut LP, entitled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (the pieces of Buffalo Springfield — get it?), is now widely regarded as one of the first important country rock albums.  Messina again produced, and played guitar and sang, and most of the songs were written by Furay.  Meisner recorded his parts but then had a falling out with Furay and soon left, eventually joining The Eagles and riding that rocket to stardom.  Poco replaced him with bassist/singer Timothy B. Schmidt, and this lineup released the fine “Poco” album in 1970,   included Messina’s minor hit “You Better Think Twice” and the fabulous 18-minute jam, “Nobody’s Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa.”  It should’ve been a huge hit, in most critics’ opinion, but the general public was still apparently not enthused, and even the FM album-oriented rock radio stations weren’t playing it.

Poco had a loyal following, and the band toured relentlessly, but the albums just didn’t sell, which Messina said was a source of great frustration to Furay, who watched with envy while his former bandmates Stills and Young became superstars.  “He was angry,” Messina noted, “in ways that started affecting our friendship, and it reached the point when I decided I needed to leave.”  He agreed to help groom his successor, guitarist Paul Cotton (who remained with the group for decades), and finished producing the Poco live album “Deliverin'” in early 1971 before signing a six-record deal with Columbia as an independent producer.

Curiously, the first artist Columbia paired him with was easy listening crooner Andy Williams.  “I turned them down,” Messina said.  “He was a very sophisticated singer who typically worked with orchestras, and I told them there were other people better suited to the job.”

The next attempted pairing was with newcomer Dan Fogelberg.  “I loved his voice, and he had some pretty good songs, but when I asked him why he came to me out of all the choices he had, he said, ‘I’m a big Poco fan, and I want to make a Poco record.’  I had to tell him, ‘Well, I just spent two years making Poco records, and we were told by radio programmers that we were too country for rock stations, and too rock for country stations.’  I didn’t want any more of that frustration, so I passed.”

Then along came Kenny Loggins.  Said Messina, “I liked him, and I liked his songs, especially ‘Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner.’  I agreed to produce him, but I knew we had a lot of work to do.  He was basically a folk singer, and some of the stuff he brought wasn’t really what we needed.  We had to make the kind of album that a solo artist would need to be successful in that arena.  People like Dave Mason, Delaney and Bonnie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were out already, doing sophisticated types of songs, and I needed to bring Kenny up to that level.  He’d never had a band, didn’t even own a guitar, had no manager, no agent.”

51NVG15ASRLMessina worked with him to assemble a talented band of players — drummer Merle Bregante, bassist Larry Sims, multi-instrumentalists Al Garth and Jon Clarke, and keyboardist Michael Omartian — with whom they rehearsed and recorded Loggins’ songs, plus several more Messina contributed (“Peace of Mind,” “Listen to a Country Song,” “Rock and Roll Mood” and “Trilogy”).  “My mindset was we needed to get Kenny out on the road quickly, right after the album was released, to help promote the album and get his name out there, and it needed to be with this same group of musicians.”

Messina had made such a significant contribution to the finished product (and because Messina had more name recognition than Loggins at that point) that Columbia chose to title the album “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In.”  The marketing strategy seemed to work; while it peaked at only #70 on the Top 200 album charts, “Sittin’ In” spent 113 weeks there (more than two years), and they sold a lot of concert tickets because of it.

660af44b8b8ad4110597e12963625557Loggins the solo artist had now morphed into Loggins and Messina the duo, and the eponymous follow-up LP, which reached #16, included the tour-de-force “Angry Eyes,” Messina’s catchy “Thinkin’ of You” and the Top Five single “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” which became their signature song (although neither Loggins nor Messina thought much of it).

They remained a formidable recording and live act for another five years and six albums.  “Full Sail” (1973), “On Stage” (1974) and “Mother Lode” (1974) all reached the Top 10, followed by “So Fine” (1975), “Native Sons” (1976) and another live album, “Finale” (1977).   Loggins then finally began the solo career he’d been seeking, while Messina, meanwhile, continued producing, also recording a few solo albums of quality material.

When asked about the craft of songwriting, he said, “Remember, I’d been engineering and producing for some damn good songwriters from early on.  Intuitively, even then I knew what I needed to do, which was to grow and become a better musician, and a better singer.  I saw what was necessary for a song to be successful, and learned a lot from that period.”


“Mother Lode” (1974)

Indeed.  If you aren’t familiar with specific songs in Messina’s composing portfolio, let me introduce you to his best.  In addition to the tunes already mentioned, check out these:  “Watching the River Run,” “Traveling Blues” and “Pathway to Glory” from “Full Sail”;  “Be Free,” “Changes,” “Lately My Love,” “Move On” and “Keep Me in Mind” from the superb “Mother Lode”;  “Sweet Marie,” “Pretty Princess” and “When I Was a Child” from “Native Sons”;  “A New and Different Way” and “Seeing You For the First Time” from his first solo LP, “Oasis” (1979); and “Whispering Waters” and “Child of My Dreams” from 1981’s “Messina.”

Poco, meanwhile, had soldiered on with and without Furay, with nothing resembling a hit single or album until 1979, when “Legend” became a Top 20 LP on the strength of Rusty Young’s “Crazy Love” and Cotton’s “Heart of the Night,” both Top 20 singles.  Ten years later, in 1989, Poco’s original lineup of Furay-Messina-Young-Meisner-Grantham reunited for the “Legacy” LP, which included two Messina-penned tracks, “Follow Your Dreams” and “Lovin’ You Every Minute,” and a Top 20 single, “Call It Love,” co-written by Messina.  The fivesome toured behind labelmate rocker Richard Marx before disbanding again.

LogginsMessinaNewPubcA much-discussed Loggins and Messina reunion finally occurred in 2005 with a lucrative tour and a live CD, “Live:  Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl,” and then another tour in 2009.  On his own, Messina released “Under a Mojito Moon,” which features Cuban and Spanish-inflected melodies and Messina’s flamenco guitar work.  More recently, he and his band released “Jim Messina Live at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts,” a venue near San Luis Obispo, in 2012.

At 70, Messina is still plenty busy.  He runs The Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, a six-day program for aspiring artists he conducts at resorts and hotels around the country, and he stays active producing and engineering as a recording studio owner.

a1274309676_10He is currently on the road promoting “In the Groove,” recorded live in 2015 with Rusty Young making a guest appearance.  This release is available on vinyl and, in a new innovation, as a USB card, which includes not only mp3 files of the songs but also files of lyrics, video footage and more.

IMG_2489“It’s pretty cool,” Messina said,  “You can pop it into your laptop and play or download whatever you want.  I’m told this is the wave of the future as far as physical music delivery systems are concerned.”





And we laughed until we cried

Can rock music be funny?

h_00427772_lSure it can, in a number of different ways.  We might begin with a couple of jokes about rock bands:

Q:  What do you call a rock musician who doesn’t have a girlfriend?  A:  Homeless.

Or:  “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a rock guitarist.”  “You can’t do both, son.”

Or maybe:  Q:  Why did Bono fall off the stage at a U2 concert?  A:  He was standing too close to The Edge.  (Cue the rim shot)


But really, the primary way rock music can be funny is in the lyrics.  The rock and pop music pantheon has many dozens of artists from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who knew how to write words designed to make us laugh, whether it’s just one or two amusing lines or entire songs.  My readers will no doubt be able to come up with many other examples, but the ones I’ve cited below are the songwriters who have impressed me with their ability to write funny stuff.  (And there’s a Spotify playlist at the end that includes some of their best.)

1*YiXJ_jcj1SllwNhxYccVSAJimmy Buffett has released nearly three dozen albums over four-plus decades, each containing at least one whimsical track.  A quick look at a partial list of song titles alone should have you chuckling:  “The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Off to See the Lizard,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw,” “It’s Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About,” “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season.”  He’s even got a song called “Door Number Three” that tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a contestant on the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Frank Zappa and his erstwhile band, The Mothers of Invention, made many dozens of albums featuring a unique blend of rock, jazz, classical and avant-garde, with titles like “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” “We’re Only In It for the Money,” “Sheik Yerbouti” and “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar.”  In his voluminous catalog are scores of outrageously funny, adult-rated tracks like “Dinah-Moe Humm,” “Stick It Out” and “Penguin in Bondage,” as well as more radio-friendly tunes like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl.”

mqdefaultRandy Newman has used humor in his songs ever since his 1968 debut LP, which includes “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the song (later made into a #1 hit by Three Dog Night) about the awkward boy at a party who wished he’d listened to his mother’s advice.  Ten years later, he had his own hit, “Short People,” which used dry humor to skewer those who discriminate against people who are different than they are.

Arlo Guthrie‘s repertoire includes several funny songs like “Comin’ Into Los Angeles” (a humorous look at smuggling weed), and the legendary “Alice’s Restaurant,” in which he takes 18 minutes to tell a mostly true story about protesting the Vietnam war that starts out with Guthrie being arrested for, of all things, littering.

The great Tom Waits has written numerous tracks that feature wry lyrics, none more than on his 1976 LP “Small Change,” with songs like “Step Right Up,” “Pasties and a G-String” and “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me).”  I love this line from “Better Off Without a Wife”:  “She’s been married so many times, she’s got rice marks all over her face…”

0d8b472ac30ec904aa781f9e690cc19c--simon-garfunkel-paul-simonAlthough known more for lyrics of poignancy and melancholy, Paul Simon has written some funny lyrics as well.  From 1970’s “Cecilia”:  “I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed, someone’s taken my place…”  From 1973’s “Kodachrome”:  “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…”  From 1986’s “You Can Call Me Al”:  “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?…”

Country music has its share of humorous lyrics, and two of the biggest hits by country rockers The Charlie Daniels Band — 1973’s “Uneasy Rider” and 1978’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — both used humor to tell tales of a long-haired hippie avoiding a beating in a redneck bar, and an absurd fiddle-playing contest between Satan and a young Southern boy.

3fcd8210-2bd2-4edd-ad5a-2f8730942715Joe Walsh employed self-deprecating humor to satirize his rock star lifestyle in the 1978 hit “Life’s Been Good”:  “My Maserati does 185, I lost my license, now I don’t drive… I got me an office, gold records on the wall, just leave a message, maybe I’ll call…” 

Aerosmith‘s 1975 tune “Big Ten-Inch Record” used a sexual double entendre to comic effect:  “She said, ‘Now, stop that jivin’, and whip out your big ten-inch….record of a band that plays the blues…'” 

J Geils Band‘s 1981 song “Centerfold” took an amusing look at a boy who is crushed when the girl he idolizes at school turns up in a nudie magazine pictorial: “My blood runs cold, my memory has just been sold, my angel’s in a centerfold, my angel’s in a centerfold…”

The 1950s song “Twisted,” recorded in 1973 by Joni Mitchell, took a droll approach to psychoanalysis:  “My analyst told me that I was right out of my head, but I said dear doctor, I think that it’s you instead… To prove it, I’ll have the last laugh on you, because instead of one head, I got two, and you know two heads are better than one…”

Johnny Cash had his biggest pop hit with the whimsical “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, and Commander Cody enjoyed his only foray on to the pop charts in 1972 with his amusing country-pickin’ ode to fast cars, “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Meat Loaf‘s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” is a humorous mini rock opera about a couple going through the motions of whether or not to have sex:  “Will you love me forever?…What’s it gonna be, boy?  Yes or no?…Let me sleep on it…” 

8cd5e75d72045a2c079dabfac81b49f2Even rock gods like The Beatles weren’t above knocking off a track that amounted to comedy.  On the flip side of the “Let It Be” single, released as the band was breaking up in 1970, there was a strangely funny piece called “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which saw the Fab Four horsing around in a variety of voices and styles that put an emphatically comic exclamation point on their otherwise sterling career.


There was a strange British outfit called the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band that put out some seriously humorous parodies — check out “The Intro and the Outro” for a quickie introduction.

The “rockumentary” film by Rob Reiner known as “This is Spinal Tap” certainly qualifies as a presentation of very funny rock music.

There’s a whole category of (purportedly) funny music known as “novelty songs,” which are usually lame little ditties, often written expressly as a one-off to capitalize on some pop culture trend or figure.  The once-popular craze known as “streaking” — running naked through a public place — sparked country singer Ray Stevens’ big #1 hit “The Streak” in 1974, and the huge success of citizens band (CB) radios in the mid-’70s made 500x500C.W. McCall’s 1976 disgrace “Convoy” a #1 hit.  That same year, Rick Dees rode the tails of the disco craze with the excruciatingly idiotic “Disco Duck.”

Early one-hit wonders like The Rivingtons and Bobby “Boris” Pickett had cultural curiosities in 1962 with their funny camp classics, “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “Monster Mash,” respectively.  Brian Hyland, who also had a few typical early ’60s hits like “Sealed With a Kiss,” went to #1 with the amusing 1960 bossa nova novelty track, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini.”

The popularity of the “Peanuts” comic strip in the ’60s gave a group called The Royal Guardsmen all the impetus they needed to reach #2 on the charts in 1966 with “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a slight confection complete with sound effects of WWII airplane dogfights.

R-4647087-1452452539-4366.jpegSinger songwriter Harry Nilsson had a big hit in 1972 with “Coconut,” a silly tune about how a doctor prescribes a drink of coconut and lime to relieve a bellyache.  Rock and roll icon Chuck Berry even found his way to #1 on the charts a few months later with “My Ding-a-Ling,” a throwaway ode to his penis.

Comedy acts have had occasional success with musical bits that became popular enough to reach the Top 40.   The pot-smoking comic duo Cheech & Chong made fun of cheesy R&B songs — first came “Basketball Jones,” a sendoff of the 1973 single “Love Jones,” and later on in the Seventies, “Bloat On,” a parody of the Floater’s #2 hit “Float On.”  “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” was Allan Sherman’s funny 1963 song about the 6-6-KING-TUT-Facebook-300x225trials and tribulations of summer camp:  “All the counselors hate the waiters, and the lake has alligators, you remember Jeffrey Hardy, they’re about to organize a searching party…”  Seventies comic sensation Steve Martin made the hit parade in 1978 with his hilarious single, “King Tut,” a spoof of the Egyptian boy-king:  “Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, King Tut…”


In a category pretty much by himself is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who writes pointed lyrical parodies of popular tunes.  His most famous was the #16 hit “Eat It,” his takeoff on WeirdAl-500x400Michael Jackson’s #1 smash “Beat It,” where he lambastes a kid’s fussy eating habits.  He had plenty more along these lines, poking fun at songs by Madonna (“Like a Surgeon”), The Knack (“My Bologna”), Queen (“Another One Rides the Bus”), Joan Jett (“I Love Rocky Road”), Huey Lewis (“I Want a New Duck”), James Brown (“Livin’ With a Hernia”) and Cyndi Lauper (“Girls Just Want to Have Lunch”), to name just a few from his first few albums in the mid-’80s.


Lastly, let’s not forget that some rock musicians have a pretty good sense of humor, saying some hilarious things in interviews with the press over the years.

As Keith Richards was facing drug-related charges in a Canadian courtroom, he said, “Let me be clear about this:  I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.”

Frank Zappa, always quick with a caustic zinger, once described rock journalism aspeople who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.”

54ae0542efaaf619106e71d9be745f1d--alice-cooper-classic-rockGuitarist Angus Young of the heavy metal band AC/DC poked fun at the band’s critics this way:  “I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”

Alice Cooper had a big hit in the fall of 1972 called “Elected,” and when he was asked who he supported in the upcoming presidential election, he said, “If you’re listening to a rock star to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are.”

George Harrison, commenting on the “new” single the remaining Beatles produced in 1995 from an old John Lennon cassette:  “I think John would have liked ‘Free As A Bird.’  In fact, I hope somebody takes all my crap demos when I’m dead and makes them into hit songs too.”

Joe Walsh, when asked if he still like playing “Rocky Mountain Way” at every concert, replied, “If I knew I had to play that song the rest of my life, I probably would’ve written something better.”

Jimi Hendrix once noted how other guitarists were attempting to mimic his style of playing, saying, “I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.”

898578_1323479502140_fullIn defending his many years of excessive bad-boy behavior, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler said, “We believed anything that was worth doing was worth overdoing.”

Paul McCartney, reflecting on the craft of songwriting, said, “There’s nothing like the thrilling moment of completing a song that didn’t exist before.  I won’t compare it to sex, but it sure lasts longer.”

The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox, commenting on creeping commercialism among rock stars, said, “There are two kinds of artists left — those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.”

images-16Guitar great Jeff Beck, saying he was overwhelmed upon first seeing Jimi Hendrix perform, said, “After I saw Jimi play, I just went home and wondered what the hell I was going to do with my life.”

When reporters asked Elvis Presley some technical questions about music, he responded, “I don’t know anything about music, but in my line of work, you don’t have to.”


Musicians of other genres could be funny, too:  

Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery:  “I never practice my guitar, but from time to time, I open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.”

dukeellingtonBig-band bandleader Duke Ellington:  “I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right.”

Classical composer Igor Stravinsky:  “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”