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

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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.”

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“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.”

 

 

 

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Take a sad song and make it better

Is there anything left to be said about The Beatles that hasn’t been said?

Well, maybe.

revolver_902_426_81_sThere have been hundreds, maybe a thousand or more books written about the Fab Four.  Some of them date back to the Sixties when the group was still together, while others were published as recently as 2017.  There are authorized (and unauthorized) biographies, detailed rundowns of their recorded works,  lurid exposés of their sex-and-drugs stories, “meanings behind the lyrics” discussions, tell-alls by ex-spouses, even coffee-table books with nothing but photos.  Being a huge Beatles fan, I happen to own a couple dozen of these myself.

So is there anything left?  Is there any new light that can possibly be shed on these guys and their music?

Amazingly, yes, but not in a new book.

The fascinating new information comes this time in video (DVD) form — a revealing series called “Deconstructing the Beatles,” which successfully breaks down specific Beatles recordings to their individual components in order to show how they were assembled, how they were accomplished, how they became the songs we have known and loved for all these years.

Beatle_4-cover_artwork_530x@2xTruth be told, these are essentially just glorified “TED Talks” — videos of lecture presentations before auditoriums full of like-minded folks who share the same love for The Beatles’ classic recordings.  I can’t deny that these talks occasionally made me roll my eyes just like some of those lame-o multimedia lectures we were all subjected to back in high school.

But damn, the “Deconstructing the Beatles” tapes are full of such fascinating information that I’m willing to overlook the less-than-excellent production quality.  Even for a Beatles aficionado like me, I was thrilled to find out many new tidbits I hadn’t known before.

The guy behind all this is an undeniably nerdy fellow named Scott Freiman, a curious combination of entrepreneur, scholar, composer, producer and Beatles enthusiast.  Here’s how he explains his motivation for this project:  “I like to take apart the creative process.  Isolating the tracks of the original recordings allows people to understand what The Beatles accomplished in the studio, and appreciate the music even more than they could just listening to it.”

So far, Freiman has “deconstructed” four of The Beatles’ 13 original studio albums.  He wisely began his efforts with what many would call the group’s best, most intriguing LPs — “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The Beatles (The White Album).”

1476049511599In each album’s deconstruction, he begins his talks with a 10-question quiz, just for fun,  to gauge the audience’s knowledge of that album’s songs.  He then provides historical perspective about the climate and conditions in which the album was created.

For example, we learn that “Rubber Soul” — a superlative collection of songs that exponentially advanced the band’s musical development — was recorded during an impossibly demanding 30-day window in late 1965, between the end of several months of live appearances and a firm date by which the lacquered mixes had to be delivered in time for the Christmas shopping season.

How utterly amazing that The Beatles walked into Abbey Road studios on October 12th of that year with only a couple of rough song fragments, and then exited on November 13th with 16 extraordinary recordings (14 album tracks and a two-sided single) that not only rocketed to #1 on the charts but earned widespread praise for their sophisticated growth in musical ideas and lyrical content.

On the other hand, “The White Album” was laid down in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the world was rocked by assassinations and upheaval, and the band’s vibe was one of increasing tension and estrangement.  No wonder at least one third of the songs on that album were essentially solo tracks rather than band recordings.

What “Deconstructing the Beatles” gives us, most of all, is an audio-visual breakdown of individual song tracks so that we can hear vocals (lead and harmonies) without instruments.  Or we can hear just the inventive bass part, or just the drum flourishes, or just the harmonium or organ, to learn how or why those individual parts made such an important contribution to the track’s final result.

On the “Rubber Soul” DVD, we are reminded how large a role the tambourine played in Beatles recordings in 1965.  And we learn how a bouzouki (a Greek stringed instrument) was the source of the unique sound heard on “Girl,” and how George Harrison’s attempts at sitar parts on “Norwegian Wood” were noticeably lame on the first few takes.  Perhaps most remarkably, we are shown how the harpsichord solo in the middle of “In My Life” was, in fact, not a harpsichord at all but a piano played at a slower tempo and then sped up on the recording to sound like a harpsichord.

We learn that, as the band convened in the spring of 1966 to begin work on “Revolver,” the studio very quickly became a workshop where new ideas, new sounds, new methods were explored and employed in the making of the game-changing tracks found on that album.  These days, technology allows bands to get any sound they want through the use of synthesizers and similar devices, but in 1966, they had to come up with imaginative ways to achieve the sounds they heard in their heads.

2017-06-07_DeconstructRevolver_BThrough the isolation of tracks on the recording of “Yellow Submarine,” Freiman explains how chains pulled through shallow water made the sound of waves, and how various noisemakers from the Abbey Road sound effects cupboard were used to produce the sounds approximating the noisy underwater chamber of a submarine.

By isolating the background vocal tracks of “Paperback Writer,” Freiman reveals that at one point, George Harrison and John Lennon are actually singing “Frere Jacques” behind Paul McCartney’s lead vocals.   Freiman also shows us how the basic structure of McCartney’s Motown tribute “Got to Get You Into My Life” borrows heavily from Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” which was a big hit at that time.

By the time we scrutinize the songs of “Sgt. Pepper,” we are treated to a fascinating look-see into how the sounds behind those tracks were devised.  Freiman shows us how a tamboura and a Lowery organ gave us the effects behind “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, and how harmoniums and snippets of calliope recordings were mixed together to create the circus-like sounds of “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”

Just as important to Freiman’s storytelling is the inclusion of little-known tidbits about the back stories behind the Beatles songs.  For instance, the inspiration for “She’s Leaving Home,” which tells the tale of a girl from an upper-class background who flees her parents to test the waters of a hippie lifestyle, is an actual British runaway to whom Paul once awarded a prize on British TV’s “Ready Steady Go” program back in 1963.  Similarly, we learn that the Prudence in “Dear Prudence” is actually Mia Farrow’s sister, who squirreled herself away in her cabin at the Mahareshi’s India retreat and needed to be cajoled to “come out to play.”

Freiman isolates the song tracks to show us how toilet paper and combs were used to create sounds on “Lovely Rita,” or why Lennon was so eager to have his vocals altered on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”   Freiman also features a previously unheard demo tape to show how Lennon used the inspiration of a breakfast cereal commercial to come up with “Good Morning Good Morning.”  He gives us insight into how Lennon directed the use of various animal sounds to create the fade-out to the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise track.

Perhaps most insightfully, Freiman explains how the wondrous “A Day in the Life” track was constructed, allowing us the chance to hear isolated orchestral instruments as they built toward the mind-blowing crescendo.

So many interesting stories here.  I’ll bet you didn’t know that the edgy sound you hear on “Yer Blues” was achieved by the band cramming into a ridiculously small studio room to record it.  And I’ll wager it’s news to you that the Beatles made a 30-minute, slow-paced heavy-metal take on “Helter Skelter” that preceded the frenetic faster-paced recording we hear on “The White Album.”

And did you know that The Beatles recorded more than 100 takes of a Harrison song called “Not Guilty,” and then ended up cutting it from “The White Album”?  (It eventually appeared a decade later on a Harrison solo LP.)

And who knew that McCartney played lead guitar parts on several Beatles tracks — “Taxman,” “Back in the USSR” and “Sgt. Pepper,” to name just a few — because Harrison was either not available or couldn’t adequately perform what was required?

deconstructing-5Here’s my favorite new factoid of the entire project:  When Lennon and McCartney were working on “A Day in the Life,” and were searching for some way to connect McCartney’s “Woke up, fell out of bed” fragment back into Lennon’s main “I read the news today, oh boy” part, they used the chord sequence they’d just heard in Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “Hey Joe” (F-C-G-D-A).  Fantastic.

Freiman has indicated that his next “deconstructing” project will address The Beatles’ final studio LP, “Abbey Road,” and I eagerly anticipate his exploration of how that incredible “Side Two” medley was assembled.

He hasn’t yet mentioned any plans to deconstruct the group’s first five albums (“Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Beatles For Sale” and “Help!”), probably because those recordings were far more simple in arrangement and production, and lacking in studio trickery.  Consequently, there’s very little “deconstructing” there to be done.

But it sure has been fun to get this behind-the-scenes look at how our favorite Beatles tracks were made.

The Spotify list below draws from “The Beatles Anthology” series of CD sets released in 1995-1996, which offer “first drafts,” alternate takes and previously unreleased fragments culled from the recording process of those classic Beatles songs.  Enjoy!