I think I love you on the highway to hell

Well, this ought to be interesting.

Since January 2016, I have been compelled to write no less than 15 blog tributes about rock music heroes who have passed away in that time span.

Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, George Michael, Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, and others — you know the long, sorry list.

But this week, two of the most disparate popular music figures you could possibly imagine died within a few days of each other, giving me the opportunity to somehow tie them together in one unusual blog obituary.

MALCOLM YOUNGOne:  Malcolm Young — co-founder, rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter of hard rock titans AC/DC — died at age 64 after a three-year battle with early-onset dementia.  He was a dedicated professional, a commanding instrumentalist and a tireless performer whose name appears on 90 percent of AC/DC’s formidable catalog, which happens to rank among the best selling in rock music history.

443ff80fbda1b7b04406bbc4bc285e42Two:  Teen idol David Cassidy — lead singer and nationwide heartthrob of the 1970s TV show “The Partridge Family” and a recording/touring sensation in his own right — died at age 67, following complications from liver and kidney failure as well as dementia.

The musical output of these two stars couldn’t be more different.  AC/DC plays pounding, bone-jarring hard rock featuring larynx-shredding vocals and anthemic riffs.  Cassidy’s catalog swings between bubblegum pop and covers of ’60s “adult contemporary” fare.  I’m hard pressed to come up with a more radically abrupt songlist segue than going from “Hells Bells” to “I Think I Love You.”

Still, Young and Cassidy had a few things in common.   They have both sold many, many millions of records over the years, and both enjoyed vast legions of frenzied fans who would very likely have been happy to sell their grandmothers in order to get front row seats and back stage passes to their concerts.

Michaud-ACDCAC/DC, in fact, have sold more than 150 million albums, ranking them in the top three most commercially successful acts of all time.  This astounds me, simply because, while hard rock has a fiercely loyal following around the globe, a greater majority of the public are decidedly not enamored with AC/DC or other bands of their ilk.

Unknown-10David Cassidy, meanwhile, had a shorter period of peak popularity (at least in the U.S.), but in 1971, his fan club had a bigger membership than The Beatles and Elvis Presley combined!  In the pantheon of teen idols, from Fabian and Donny Osmond to Leif Garrett and Bobby Sherman, Cassidy arguable tops them all.

Personally speaking, these two artists had one other thing in common:  I didn’t like their music.  I never did, and probably never will.

ac-dcWhen you look at it retrospectively, readers shouldn’t find this surprising.  In both cases, I wasn’t part of their target market demographic.  In 1970, when “The Partridge Family” debuted on TV and on the Top 40, I was 15, and already past the point where I might have been willing to listen to bubblegum teen-idol stuff.  In 1979, when AC/DC exploded on American rock fans’ collective consciousness, I was 24, and pretty much past the period when I was receptive to the monolithic, ear-splitting sound of two-chord hard rock with shrieking vocals.

But just because I didn’t care for their songs doesn’t mean I can’t show respect for their considerable accomplishments.

patridge-family-2af18060-9f80-4116-b4f3-ca3916fa2fc2Cassidy was the son of Hollywood actor Jack Cassidy, who helped pave the way for his son to pursue an interest in acting.  He debuted in a forgettable Broadway play called “The Fig Leaves are Falling,” which was by all accounts a flop, but producers took note of the 17-year-old Cassidy and invited him to Los Angeles for some screen tests.  Those led to parts on such late ’60s TV dramas as “Bonanza,” “Adam-12” and “Ironside,” and those, in turn, caught the attention of the producers of a new program based on the real-life family musical group The Cowsills.  Noted actress Shirley Jones, who happened to be David’s stepmother, had been cast as the matriarch Shirley Partridge, and eventually Cassidy won the part of Keith Partridge.

His undeniably pretty face and easy-going manner made him extremely attractive to young girls everywhere, but as it turned out, he could actually sing, too.  So, while the rest of the Partridge Family lip-synched their way through the performing segments and were replaced by session musicians on recordings, Cassidy was providing the lead vocals, and he was responsible for the success of The Partridge Family’s first three singles and first three albums, which rocketed to the Top Five of the U.S. charts.

David Cassidy Concert - LondonNaturally, he soon went solo, reaching the Top Ten in six countries with his cover of the ’60s pop anthem “Cherish” and the same-named LP.  His concert appearances with a backup band of seasoned pros were packed with tweens and teens, and he quickly matured into a polished performer and crowd pleaser.

“He has an instinctive command of audiences,” said his manager, Ruth Arons, in 1972.  “The way he leaps out and bounces around on the stage, his little yellings of ‘I love you’ – it’s exciting, and theatrically effective.  He projects a joyful, affirmative sexual appeal.  He is not, as some critics say, a hoax that’s being foisted on the public – a figment of someone’s imaginings, a put-on. He’s not a make believe performer.”

david-cassidy-ups-and-downs-2But he soon tired of his teen idol status and hoped to be taken more seriously by the hip rock culture, even granting an in-depth, revealing and controversial (for its time) interview that put him and his naked body on the cover of Rolling Stone.  But it didn’t work.  The fact that he simply couldn’t shake his original image frustrated him greatly, and it helped exacerbate an ever-increasing abuse of booze and drugs, which haunted him for most of the rest of his life.  He resurfaced periodically to ravenous crowds in various comebacks and nostalgia tours in the ’80s and ’90s, but by 2010 things spiraled out of control for him as he was charged with multiple DUIs and his health deteriorated.

1200x630bb-3Conversely, AC/DC, Australia’s most popular export, had no such immediate adulation here in the U.S.  They were at first shunned by their American label, even as they built enthusiastic support at home and in Europe.  It wasn’t until the band’s fifth LP, 1979’s “Highway to Hell,” that they caught on in the U.S., and their fame exploded like a California wildfire.  With Bon Scott caterwauling away on vocals, Angus Young contributing fiery lead guitar solos and brother Malcolm providing the steady rhythm guitar, AC/DC vaulted into the Top 20 album charts.

At precisely the worst possible time, Scott then died of alcohol poisoning, and the group almost called it quits, but they regrouped, added vocalist Brian Johnson, and continued their mercurial rise by releasing “Back in Black,” a quasi-tribute to Scott and a 41kj36cVMFL._SL500_juggernaut hard-rock manifesto that went on to sell an incredible 50 million copies worldwide (22 million copies in the U.S.), making it the second-highest-selling album of all time (after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”).  Two more Top Five LPs quickly followed — “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (a reissue of the Australian 1976 album with Scott) and 1981’s “For Those About to Rock” — and AC/DC found themselves among the hottest concert draws in the world, including the U.S.

The band plugged away throughout the ’80s as leaders of an ever-growing hard-rock/heavy-metal genre that included rivals like Ozzy Osbourne, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.  My 31-year-old son-in-law, a producer/songwriter, described AC/DC this way:  “They were good-mood, fun, almost cartoonish hard rock.  It was kind of indulgent and gimmicky, the riffs, the song titles, but it was smart business because it was a brand that worked.  Many of their best songs are the ones everyone wants to turn up to 11 and sing at the top of their lungs.”

Malcolm Young, though, had also developed an alcohol problem, so he wisely checked younghimself into a rehab program and cleaned up his act, returning to the band’s lineup after just an eight-week absence.  To his credit, Young maintained sobriety for the rest of his life, and he remained the reliable linchpin on stage for several tours in the 1990s and 2000s, and as the band’s most consistent songwriter.

Sadly, early-onset dementia was one more thing Cassidy and Young had in common.  In Cassidy’s case, he confessed he had a feeling he’d be afflicted with it, as it had stricken both his grandfather and his mother.  Because of an inability to remember words and/or chords, both men were finally forced to retire from public appearances several years before their deaths last week.

No word has emerged yet from the AC/DC camp as to whether the band intends to soldier on without their co-founder, but the odds are good they will.  Indeed, they’ve been touring and recording for nearly a decade with Young on the sidelines, and have even recently replaced longtime vocalist Johnson with ex-Guns ‘n Roses frontman Axl Rose on stage and in the studio.

As for Cassidy’s legacy, well, he is remembered fondly by women who were of an impressionable age at the time he was in the eye of the media storm.  And, as his ex-manager put it, “No matter what happened later, he still did something special that few artists have achieved.”

 

 

 

 

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Go ahead, bite the Big Apple

“New York, New York is so big, they had to name it twice.”

That pretty much describes the enormity of New York…which manifests itself in so many ways.

shutterstock_170076830So many films…so many TV shows…  So much of New York City — Manhattan, Broadway, Brooklyn — is ingrained in our popular culture, particularly for those who have never been there.

This is especially true when it comes to popular music.  Since at least the 1920s, New York has been a ripe field for lyricists.  If you look online at “songs about New York,” you’ll find more than 3,500 entries!

San Francisco has “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Starship’s “We Built This City.”  Chicago has “My Kind of Town” and Graham Nash’s “Chicago.”  Detroit has J. Geils Band’s “Motor City Breakdown.”

But New York — holy smokes, the list is damn near endless.  Of course, there’s Sinatra’s “New York, New York”…  Billie Holiday’s “Autumn in New York“…  And for crying out loud, there are 125 songs about Brooklyn!   There are 80 that refer to Broadway … and 30 just about Coney Island!

So when I decided I wanted to write a blog entry about New York songs, I was immediately overwhelmed.  How, pray tell, can I whittle down 3,500 songs to maybe 20?

42nd_pic5It’s interesting to note that New York City may be the only city that has had entire albums focusing on its life, people and culture.  The Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” LP (1978), for example, makes many references to New York:

“I’ve been walkin’ Central Park, singin’ after dark, people think I’m craaaaazy…”

“What a mess, this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered, my brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan, uh huh, this town’s full of money grabbers, go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots…”

joejackson_photo_gal_36503_photo_1961803463Even British New Wave artist Joe Jackson recorded two LPs — the Top Ten success “Night and Day” (1982) and the uncharting sequel “Night and Day II” (2000) — that were entire song cycles focusing on New York City:

“Uptown, downtown, no one’s fussy, I’m a target, day, night, black, white, no one’s fussy, I’m a target…”

“It’s a hell of a town, steppin’ out in a bulletproof gown, so get 220px-JoeJacksonNightAndDay2out of my goddamn way, I’m walking here, I’m talking here…”

Since I write about tunes of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that immediately helped me.  But even within that limited scope, there are still hundreds of songs to sift through.

But somehow, I’ve assembled a setlist of 20 selections of representative New York songs of that period.  Two Spotify playlists are found at the bottom of this blog entry.  The first covers the songs I featured in this blog entry.  The other offers songs from the “honorable mention” list.

And here we go:

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cover-large_file“New York State of Mind,” Billy Joel, 1975

Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, Joel has been a New York booster all his life, and “New York State of Mind,” a dramatic classic from his 1975 LP “Turnstiles,” permanently installs him in the unofficial New York Rock Hall of Fame.  It has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand and Elton John to Tony Bennett and Alicia Keys.  He sings about the Rockies, Miami Beach and Hollywood, but ultimately, “I’m just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line, I’m in a New York state of mind…” 

1999-1982“All the Critics Love U in New York,” Prince, 1982

Prince wasn’t yet the superstar that “Purple Rain” would make him in 1984, but his “1999” album was popular enough, and this rock tune from that album is worth checking out.  Its lyrics belittle New York rock music critics, saying they’ll love anything as long as  it’s outrageously different:   “You can wear what you want to, it doesn’t matter in New York, you could cut off all your hair, I don’t think they’d care in New York, all the critics love you in New York…”

New_York_Minute“New York Minute,” Don Henley, 1989

During The Eagles’ 15-year break (1981-1995), it was Henley who found the most success, mostly because his songs and recordings were far superior to his colleagues.  On his excellent “The End of the Innocence” LP,  which featured singles like “The Heart of the Matter” and the classic title song, “New York Minute” stood out as an unheralded gem, with a sophisticated arrangement and literate lyrics that played on the lasting metaphor about the fleeting nature of a “New York minute.”

art-garfunkel-a-heart-in-new-york-cbs-2“A Heart in New York,” Art Garfunkel, 1981

This song is a hidden beauty.  Garfunkel’s solo work did pretty well on the charts — the “Breakaway” LP in 1975 reached #9, thanks to the shimmering remake of the Thirties classic “I Only Have Eyes for You” and S&G’s reunion single “My Little Town.”  But this song, written by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, perfectly captured the feeling of New York, and was warmly received when performed during the iconic “Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park” HBO special and Columbia CD in 1981/1982.

600x600“The Boy From New York City” — The Ad Libs, 1964

A nobody duo of songwriters, George Davis and John Taylor, came up with this doo-wop classic, which ended up as a #8 song in late 1964 by The Ad Libs, produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, one of the great songwriting teams from Brill Building fame.  The success of this tune inspired the California-bred Beach Boys to write and record a response tune, “The Girl From New York City” in 1965, which noted, “The California guys can’t peel their eyes from that girl from New York City…” (Check out both songs on the Spotify playlist)

 

Bob_Dylan_-_Bob_Dylan“Talkin’ New York,” Bob Dylan, 1962

His first LP was wildly uneven, and showed very little of the magnificence that would come bursting forth in his 1963-1966 period.  But tucked onto that first record is “Talkin’ New York,” a ragged folk song that describes his arrival in New York from the hinterlands of Minnesota, with references to Greenwich Village (his early proving ground) and how he was originally received: “Come back some other day, you sound like a hillbilly, we want folk singers here…”  

new-york-groove-57e10f6732992“New York Groove,” Ace Frehley, 1978  

Originally a #9 hit in the UK by the British teen glam-rock band Hello in 1975, “New York Groove” later became the only hit (#13 in the US) that emerged from the four mostly lame solo LPs released by the members of KISS in 1978.   Ace Frehley, a native of The Bronx, was Kiss’s lead guitarist, and he has said he chose to record “New York Groove” because it seemed to accurately describe his time in the late ’70s when he was hitting on Times Square hookers.

images-10“New York City Serenade,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

One of his finest dramas, from his incredible “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” LP (1973).   As a Jersey boy, Springsteen often looked across the river at the “Big City” and longed for the big stage.  He wrote “vignettes of urban dreams and adolescent restlessness” and this 10-minute track is one of the best examples of his early work, before he boiled his thoughts down to four minutes or less…

YardbirdsPR“New York City Blues,” The Yardbirds, 1967

If you’ve ever been to New York City, you know what I’m talking about, they got such pretty girls in that big town, make a man want to jump around and shout…”  The Yardbirds, then led by Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, recorded many blues-based tracks, some of which went on to become substantial hits, but this deep track wasn’t one of them.  Lead vocalist Keith Relf wrote this one, which appears on their “Greatest Hits” CD (although, curiously, it didn’t appear on any of their original studio albums).

maxresdefault-3“King of the New York Streets,” Dion, 1989

Dion DeMucci, one of New York’s true native rock talents, called his band The Belmonts because they rehearsed in a Brooklyn house on Belmont Avenue.  His early hits “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” and “Ruby Baby” defined him as a doo-wop specialist, but his 1968 tribute “Abraham, Martin and John” showed he was capable of more.  His impact on other greats who followed gave him the cachet to be reborn in the late ’80s with solid songs like “King of the New York Streets.”

JOHN_LENNON_BOB_GRUEN_NEW_YORK_CITY_SHIRT_1974“New York City,” John Lennon, 1972

John & Yoko’s “Some Time in New York City” LP in 1972 was full of heavy-handed protest songs about the issues of the era, but musically, the tracks were widely disparaged as weak and disjointed, especially from someone with the credentials of Lennon.  But the Chuck Berry-inspired “New York City” wasn’t all that bad, with references to the Staten Island ferry and the Max’s Kansas City nightclub.

1127a80db5b3bfdaf79a8aa2da726c71.1000x1000x1“Daddy Don’t Live in New York City No More,” Steely Dan, 1975

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the duo behind the wondrous Steely Dan, met in New York, and the city shows up in many of their songs (“The Royal Scam,” “Black Cow,” “Brooklyn”).  This infectious track from 1975’s excellent “Katy Lied” LP tells the sordid tale of a father crippled by alcoholism who shuns New York, preferring instead to “driving like a fool out to Hackensack, drinkin’ his dinner from a paper sack…”

…Nothing_Like_the_Sun_(Sting_album_-_cover_art)“An Englishman in New York,” Sting, 1987

The Police got bigger and better during their 1977-1983 period, but Gordon “Sting” Sumner, who wrote almost all of the band’s songs, headed out on his own in 1985.  By 1987, his multi-platinum LP “Nothing But the Sun” spawned numerous radio classics like “We’ll Be Together,” “Fragile,” “Be Still My Beating Heart” and Sting’s commentary on being a Brit living in the US, “An Englishman in New York.”

b-j-thomas-the-eyes-of-a-new-york-woman-vogue“The Eyes of a New York Woman,” B.J. Thomas, 1968

Houston-born Thomas went on to much greater fame with the 1968 hit “Hooked on a Feeling” (later made into a cringeworthy #1 hit by Blue Swede in 1974)  and the “Butch Cassidy” ditty “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”   But to my ears, his greatest moment was “The Eyes of a New York Woman,” which peaked at #28 in 1968.  The lyrics say a lot:     “East side cafes, west side plays, uptown, downtown, I’ll be there, I’ll never have to look for more, I found what I’ve been looking for…  Deep in the eyes of a New York woman …

0828768957028“I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” Nilsson, 1969

Early on, critics and rival songwriters alike (including John Lennon and Paul McCartney) sang the praises of little-known Harry Nilsson, a Brooklyn-born wonder who moved to LA and found fame with songs like “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Me and My Arrow,” “Without You,” “Jump Into the Fire” and “Coconut.”  Before all that, he wrote and recorded this New York tribute song that mirrors “Everybody’s Talkin'” in arrangement and melody.

the-bee-gees-nights-on-broadway-rso-2“Nights on Broadway,” Bee Gees, 1975

The Bee Gees had been a hit pop group, Australia’s first, with hit singles in the late ’60s (“Holiday,” “To Love Somebody,” “I Gotta Get a Message to You”).  After “Lonely Days” (#3 in 1970) and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (#1 in 1971), producer Arif Martin suggested they retool their sound toward the coming disco craze, and the results brought astronomical fame and fortune.  “Jive Talking'” started the ball rolling, followed quickly by “Nights on Broadway,” helped along by Barry Gibbs’s newfound falsetto voice.

Simon_and_Garfunkel,_Bridge_over_Troubled_Water_(1970)“The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1970

As Art Garfunkel began his acting career with the Mike Nichols film “Catch-22” being filmed in Mexico in 1969, Paul Simon remained in New York, writing more songs and preparing for what turned out to be the duo’s final album, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  This stunning piece refers to Art as “Tom,” which was Art’s nickname when the duo marketed themselves as “Tom & Jerry” in the 1950s.  It was rather obtuse when released, but “The Only Living Boy in New York” all makes sense when you look at it years later.

R-7174503-1435398126-8836.jpeg“On Broadway,” The Drifters, 1963

You can’t possibly assemble a mix of songs about New York that doesn’t include this awesome classic, a rare collaboration of rival songwriting teams Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  Together, they finished off a song that had been left uncompleted so The Drifters could record it within the imposed deadline.  The result was not only a #9 song, it was covered by five or six dozen other artists over the next 25 years, including The Coasters, Bobby Darin, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra and Eric Carmen, and of course George Benson, whose jazzier cover version reached #7 on the US charts in 1978.

chicago-another-rainy-day-in-new-york-city-cbs-3“Another Rainy Day in New York City,” Chicago, 1976

Chicago brought a revolutionary, big brass sound to Top 40 radio in 1970, but by 1976, they had settled into a comfortable, light-rock sound that many fans found disappointing.  But the band still found themselves high on the charts with hits like this one from “Chicago X” (the chocolate cover), which also included the #1 hit “If You Leave Me Now,” rush-released after “Another Rainy Day” stiffed at #32.  Still, its lyrics paint an appropriate picture of life in the big city when the rains come: “Softly sweet, so silently it falls, as crosstown traffic crawls…”   

maxresdefault-4Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” Christopher Cross, 1981

If you’ve ever seen the film “Arthur” (and you really must), there’s no getting around the Oscar-winning theme song, sung by Christopher Cross and written by a songwriting team  comprised of Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager,  Peter Allen and Cross himself.  The film takes place in Manhattan, and the lyrics refer repeatedly to being “between the moon and New York City,” making it a no-brainer inclusion on this list.

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Honorable mention:

First We Take Manhattan,” Leonard Cohen, 1988;  “Paranoia Blues,” Paul Simon, 1972;  “Brooklyn Kids,” Pete Townshend, 1983;  “Wall Street Shuffle,” 10cc, 1974;  “Empire State,” Fleetwood Mac, 1982; “Funky Broadway,” Wilson Pickett, 1967;  “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” Elton John, 1972;  “Coney Island Baby,” Tom Waits, 1974;  “New York’s Not My Home,” Jim Croce, 1973;  “Looking for Love on Broadway,” James Taylor, 1977;  “Harlem Shuffle,” The Rolling Stones, 1985;  “Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder, 1973;  “Do Like You Do in New York,” Boz Scaggs, 1980.

Since 1990, New York hasn’t lost any of its lustre as a fertile ground for hit songs:

Marc Cohn’s “Ellis Island” (1998);  U2’s “New York” (2000);  Richard Ashcroft’s “New York” (2000);  Ryan Adams’ “New York New York” (2001);  The Cranberries’ “New New York” (2002);  R.E.M.’s “Leaving New York” (2004);   Elton John’s “Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way (NYC)” (2006);  Stephen Bishop’s “New York in the Fifties” (2009);   Taylor Swift’s “I Love New York” (2014).