Straighten up and fly right

Today’s topic is what some rock music fans might call “a buzzkill.”

As most everyone knows, “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll” was a sort of unofficial mantra of the rock music scene in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Free love, recreational drugs and energetic rock comprised the hat trick of vices scorned by proper society, but to the generation in the thick of it, they were more of a menage à trois, the necessary components of a good time on Saturday night (or any night).

road recoveryThe thing is, when it came to drugs and alcohol, plenty of people overdid it, many because they had developed addictions and obsessive compulsions to keep using when others had stopped.

Musicians in particular were susceptible to this excessiveness because of easy availability and ubiquitous use/abuse among all those around them.  Sad to say, too many talented artists perished from their own self-destructive tendencies or reckless disregard for their own health and safety.  The list is too long and too familiar:  Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Lowell George, John Bonham, Bon Scott, Kurt Cobain…

Sobriety-Unplugged-Logo_no_bgStill, there are tales of triumph, too.  Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr, to name three famous examples, all went through a couple of decades of chronic abuse of coke, booze, pills and/or opioids that probably should’ve killed them, as it did their unfortunate peers.  But instead, they saw the light, went to rehab, recovered and have now led sober lives for nearly 30 years now.

In celebration of these guys and all those who are in recovery (including me), let’s take a look at some notable anti-drug rock songs that deal with either the despair of addiction or the joy of recovery.

Let’s start with Joe Walsh, who went straight in the early ’90s as a pre-condition of joe_walsh2_1jpghis participation in the reunion of The Eagles.  Walsh himself tells the story:

“For a long time, my alcoholism and use of drugs was manageable.  By that I mean I would hang out with people who would say, ‘Well, you’re not so bad!’  But you know, it’s a disease, and the last two or three years of my addiction were terrifying.  It gets bad beyond your wildest imagination, and then you crash and burn, and then it gets worse than that.  An awful lot of my buddies died before they hit bottom.  Fortunately, I hit bottom before I died.

“Getting sober was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because alcohol had convinced me that I couldn’t do anything without it.  You start with not knowing how to do anything sober, and you just build up your toolbox.  For a long time, I thought there was a possibility I might not be able to write music sober.  And I said, ‘If that’s the case, I’m just going to have to accept that.’

walsh12-1“So I stopped trying to write, but then one day this song ‘One Day at a Time’ (found on his 2012 “Analog Man” LP) kind of wrote itself.  I ended up telling my story about what it was like to be an addict, and my road to getting sober.  It just came out of me.  But the trick was I had to stop trying.  And so many addicts and alcoholics have contacted me to say they know exactly what I’m talking about in this song.  I’m saying there’s life after addiction, and it’s good.”  Sample lyrics:  “Well I finally got around to admit that I was the problem, when I used to put the blame on everybody’s shoulders but mine, all the friends I used to run with are gone, Lord, I hadn’t planned on living this long, but I finally learned to live my life one day at a time…”

“Kicks,” Paul Revere & the Raiders, 1966

R-7145038-1434724816-3922.jpegThis one is considered the first pop anti-drug song, which came out just as the recreational drug scene was blossoming.  It’s a great little tune, expertly produced by Terry Melcher, and written by pop songwriting gods Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill as a plea to their dear friend and lyricist Gerry Goffin (Carole King’s husband), who was headed off the deep end with drug use.  The upshot was, because of their involvement with this song, Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were never really a “hip” band, became somewhat blackballed by the counterculture as “a tool of the Establishment” (in ’60s lingo).  Sample lyrics:  “Well, there’s nothing that you ain’t tried to fill the emptiness inside, but when you come back down, girl, still ain’t feeling right, don’t it seem like kicks just keep getting harder to find, and all your kicks ain’t bringing you peace of mind, before you find out it’s too late, girl, you better get straight…”

“Cocaine,” Eric Clapton, 1977

maxresdefault-13Clapton had kicked a nasty heroin habit in the mid-’70s, but he then merely substituted copious amounts of alcohol instead.  When he recorded the J.J. Cale song “Cocaine” in 1977, he was drinking heavily every day and using coke as well.  He finally sobered up in 1988 and has stayed drug-free ever since, even establishing rehab clinics and sponsoring fundraising events.  Clapton maintains that Cale wrote “Cocaine” as a subtle anti-drug song.  “He knew if he tried to write a deliberately anti-drug song, it wouldn’t go over with the record buyers.  It would irritate them to have someone shoving that message down their throat.  So instead he wrote the lyrics in a cleverly ambiguous way.  If you don’t listen closely, it just sounds like a song about cocaine, neither pro nor con.  But if you reflect on it a bit, really look at the words, you’ll see it’s saying that cocaine is no good.”  Sample lyrics:  “If your thing is gone and you want to ride on, cocaine, don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back, cocaine, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine…”

“That Smell,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1977

Lynyrd-Skynyrd-1977-Street-SurvivorsAs Lynyrd Skynyrd grew successful, singer Ronnie Van Zant was becoming concerned about the band’s increasingly reckless indulgences, including his own.  A near-fatal car crash by guitarist Gary Rossington ultimately led Van Zant to write “a morbid warning song” about the possible consequences of careless overuse of drugs and alcohol.  In the wake of a plane crash that claimed Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and others, only three days after the album’s release, “That Smell” became notorious, thanks to the line “The smell of death surrounds you.”  While the crash had nothing to do with substance abuse, the lyrics offered dire warnings about it:  “Angel of darkness is upon you, stuck a needle in your arm, so take another toke, have a blow for your nose, one more drink, fool, will drown you, ooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you…”

“Snowblind Friend,” Steppenwolf, 1970

220px-Steppenwolf7Thanks to songs like “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam,” Steppenwolf had an image as a “druggie band,” but like many quickie interpretations, this reading was wrong.  As it turns out, the group, popular between 1968-1975, mostly shunned drugs.  In fact, “The Pusher,” made famous by its inclusion in the soundtrack of the counterculture classic “Easy Rider,” was an anti-drug song, pointing the finger at the guy who enables the addicts.  Country singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton wrote it, along with another song about the tragedy of drug abuse, “Snowblind Friend,” which lead singer John Kay liked and brought to the group.  It focuses on the difficulty of trying to help a cocaine addict:  “He’ll always be a problem to his poor and puzzled mother… He said he wanted heaven, but praying was too slow, so he bought a one-way ticket on an airline made of snow, did you say you saw your good friend flying low, dying slow…” 

“No No Song,” Ringo Starr, 1975

51t-FC5YaNL._SX466_Hoyt Axton shows up again as the songwriter, this time for a #3 hit song that takes a whimsical approach to drugs and alcohol.  Ringo sings the tale of the narrator, a recovered alcoholic/addict who is offered Colombian grass, Spanish cocaine and Tennessee moonshine, only to refuse them all because “I’m tired of waking up on the floor.”  Axton, who had struggled with addiction early in his career, claimed he was poking fun at himself.  Ringo, meanwhile, with a touch of irony, was a heavy drinker and pot smoker at the time the track was recorded, but he got clean in the late ’80s and has been sober ever since.  He still sings the song in concert:  “No no no no, I don’t smoke/snort/drink it no more, I’m tired of waking up on the floor, no thank you please, it only makes me sneeze, and then it makes it hard to find the door…”

“Running to Stand Still,” U2, 1987

U2T71592The song’s title phrase originated from Bono asking his brother how his struggling business was going.  He replied, “It’s like running to stand still.”  Bono was intrigued by the phrase, and thought it expressed what he’d been told about heroin addiction, which was raging through his native Dublin in the 1980s.  In his review of U2’s “The Joshua Tree” LP, Andrew Mueller of The Ultimate Music Guide agreed, saying the phrase was “a perfect distillation of the dynamic of feeding on addiction.  You’re always running, but you’re going nowhere.”  The song describes a woman’s hellish life on heroin:  “She runs through the streets with eyes painted red, under a black belly of cloud in the rain, in through a doorway she brings me white gold and pearls stolen from the sea, she is raging, and the storm blows up in her eyes, she will suffer the needle chill, she is running to stand still…” 

“Amazing,” Aerosmith, 1993

aerosmith_-_get_a_tripEveryone in Aerosmith has confessed to abusing drugs and/or booze during their initial run of success (1973-1979), and the group’s early ’80s splintering was due to internal tensions exacerbated by drugs.  Singer Steven Tyler in particular had several embarrassing public episodes, including passing out on stage, which ultimately led to an intervention and a lengthy stay in rehab.  By 1989, the group was clean and back on top of the charts to stay.  For the 1993 multiplatinum LP “Get a Grip,” Tyler (with help from songwriter Richie Supa) wrote the power ballad “Amazing” about his sobriety.  The lyrics do a commendable job of explaining the desperation of bottoming out and the exhilaration of recovery:  “There were times in my life when I was going insane, I was so sick and tired of living a lie, I was wishing that I would die…  It’s amazing, with the blink of an eye you finally see the light, it’s amazing, when the moment arrives that you know you’ll be all right, it’s amazing, and I’m saying a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight…” 

The Needle and the Damage Done,” Neil Young, 1972

young_neil~_harvest~~_101bThis delicate, haunting Young tune deals succinctly with his grief over the heroin overdose of friend and Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten.  Appearing as a deep track on his #1 LP “Harvest” in 1972, this song summarizes Young’s experience with drug tragedies.  “I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see because of heroin.  And it started happening over and over again.  Then it happened to someone I knew.  So I just wrote a little song.”  Sample lyrics:  “I hit the city and I lost my band, I watched the needle take another man, gone, gone, the damage done…”

“Stone Cold Sober,” Del Amitri, 1989

51vnBO+xdeL-1I found it curious that there are about a dozen songs with this title, and only a couple have anything to do with being sober!  In fact, Rod Stewart’s 1975 track is all about not wanting to be stone cold sober.  The British band Crawler had a great 1977 song with that name, but it has more to do with wanting to flee town on the next train.  On its 1989 debut LP, “Waking Hours,” the Scottish band Del Amitri recorded its take on “Stone Cold Sober,” written by guitarist/singer Justin Currie, that explores the endlessly vicious circle of obsession with alcohol:  “And these dark days make the nights seem brighter than they are… So we get loaded and totally legless, but stay the same, I may be stone cold sober, but I’m looking for bottles of love…”       

Other anti-drug songs from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to check out:  “Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand),” The Dramatics, 1973;  “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Etta James (1967);  “Just Dropped In,” Kenny Rogers & The First Edition (1968);  “Demon Alcohol,” Ozzy Osbourne (1988);  “Needle of Death,” Bert Jansch (1965).

Unknown-18Songs concerning addiction or recovery seem to have become more prevalent in recent years.  Coincidentally, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink recorded different tunes called “Sober” in 2007 and 2008, respectively.  In 2014, Seventies singer-songwriter John Batdorf released “Soundtrax 2 Recovery,” an extraordinary collection of sensitive tracks inspired by the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here are just a few more examples of such songs released in the past 25 years:

“Wise Up,” Aimee Mann, 2004;  “It’s Been a While,” Staind (2001);  “Young Homie,” Chris Rene (2012);  “Fallen,” Sarah McLachlan (2004);  “Slow Suicide,” Scott Stapp (2006);  “Powder Blue,” Elbow (2001);  “Habit,” Pearl Jam (1996);  “Devil in a Bottle,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1994);  “The Drugs Don’t Work,” The Verve (1997);  “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley w/Alison Krauss (2004).

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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

buff_spring

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.”

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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.”

LogginsMessina-MotherLodeAlbumCover

“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.”