Strummin’ my six-string, on my front-porch swing

When I turned 12 in 1967, I was, like many American boys with even an inkling of musical ability, eager to learn guitar and become a rock and roll star.  Or so I thought.

I persuaded my parents to buy me an electric guitar for Christmas…but I would have to save up to buy an amplifier.  (I think they hoped I would lose interest before I could

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amplify my lame caterwaulings throughout the neighborhood.)

I took lessons in the hope of learning how to be the next John Lennon, or Eric Clapton, or whomever.  But I quickly saw my limitations as a lead guitarist, and soon decided to alter my goals.  Perhaps, instead, I could become an acoustic strummer like Paul Simon.

So I sold the electric, and instead chose an economy-line 12-string acoustic guitar, slowly learning the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, the acoustic Beatles material, and more.

By 1971, my parents felt I was serious enough about playing guitar that they agreed we should invest in a D-12-28 Martin 12-string, one of the better instruments available.  Over the next few years, I expanded my repertoire to include songs by James Taylor, Neil

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Young, Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne and other singer-songwriters of that musically fertile period.

In college, I joined forces with a talented pianist named Irwin Fisch, and we played at coffeehouses around the Syracuse University campus.  With piano now in the mix, I learned even more songs, adding The Eagles, Dan Fogelberg, Jonathan Edwards.  What a blast we had.

I thought it might be fun to assemble a playlist of 20 songs I love to play on guitar.  Of course, I know plenty of the well-known hits by the artists mentioned here, but I decided it might be more interesting to dig into their catalogs and feature some acoustic lost classic deep tracks instead.

Maybe someday, if we cross paths, you can feel free to twist my arm to play one of these long-lost songs that bring back fond memories from your distant past.  Enjoy!

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“The Weight,” The Band, 1968

The-Band-Music-From-Big-Pink-Album-Cover-web-optimised-820Comprised of four Canadians and one Yank, The Band helped bring the counterculture back from psychedelia to more simple, homespun music with a prototype “Americana” style.  Never a chart success, The Band still came up with iconic material, particularly “The Weight,” since covered by more than 50 other major artists.  Everyone loves to sing along on the chorus, “Take a load off, Fanny, take a load for free…

“Follow Me,” Mary Travers, 1971

Mary_Travers_-_MaryJohn Denver wrote this ode to love and recorded it on one of his early albums, and Travers, branching out on her own after the breakup of Peter, Paul and Mary, did a marvelous cover on her 1971 debut.  I sang and played it to my fiancée at our wedding rehearsal dinner, so it’s clearly a special song in my family:  “You see, I’d like to share my life with you and show you things I’ve seen, places where I’m going to, places where I’ve been…”

“Beautiful,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1972

Album_Don_QuixoteCanada’s musical icon got his start in the early ’60s, and saw cover versions of his songs become hits in the US.  He finally broke through here himself with “If You Could Read My Mind” in 1970.  He went on to enjoy multiple hits throughout the ’70s, and is still performing today despite health issues that sidelined him for a while.  I always love to go back to “Beautiful,” a gorgeous track from his 1972 LP, “Don Quixote.”

“Longer Boats,” Cat Stevens, 1970

Tea_for_the_Tillerman.jpegGreek-British hybrid Steven Georgiou began his recording career slowly in 1967, then exploded in the US and UK with the back-to-back “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat” albums in 1970 and 1971.  More great albums followed, then Cat’s conversion to Yusef and a lengthy commitment to the Muslim faith before returning to pop music in 2010.  From Cat’s “Tillerman” LP is the wonderful singalong track “Longer Boats.”

“Sandman,” America, 1971

Unknown-28As it turned out, I lost interest in America and their songs, but the debut LP is incredible, and I listened to it incessantly.  I think “A Horse With No Name” is boring and overrrated and has rather ridiculous lyrics, but there’s a hypnotic track on the album called “Sandman” that became a sort of signature song for the “Hackett and Beard” duo I played in during my high school years.  It’s always fun to play in group settings.

“Duncan,” Paul Simon, 1972

PaulSimon-Front-1Simon’s first foray into a solo career was met with some skepticism, seeing as how his final work with Art Garfunkel had been one of the biggest successes of 1970.  But the new songs were well received, from “Mother and Child Reunion” to “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”  For me, the sleeper track “Duncan” has always been one of my go-to songs.  Great story-song about a guy leaving home and searching for love and a new life.

“Younger Girl,” The Lovin’ Spooful, 1966

81otQJlCuIL._SL1500_John Sebastian wrote all the classic hit tunes for his East Coast band The Lovin’ Spoonful, which dominated the airwaves in the 1965-1967-period.  Everyone knows “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream” and “Summer in the City,” but not everyone is as familiar with the minor hit single “Younger Girl,” a wonderfully dreamy song that always gets an “awww” reaction whenever I play it.

“Fountain of Sorrow,” Jackson Browne, 1974

s-l300-1The poet laureate of the Laurel Canyon scene (other than Joni Mitchell, of course) was Browne, who wrote some astonishingly candid tunes that made us all examine our own paths and dreams a bit more deeply.  From “Rock Me on the Water” to “These Days” and “The Pretender,” Browne wrote some of the best introspective pieces of the ’70s, and most near and dear to me has always been “Fountain of Sorrow,” from his iconic 1974 “Late For the Sky” LP.

“Sit On Back,” Livingston Taylor, 1970

Livingston_Taylor_coverBrother James became such a star that his talented younger brother couldn’t possibly match up.  Consequently, his delightful albums therefore slipped under the radar of most fans of the singer-songwriter genre, which was a shame.  He has continued to perform at small clubs and venues, mostly in the East and Midwest.  From Livingston’s debut LP is this effervescent track that’s bound to bring a smile to your face.

“Tupelo Honey,” Van Morrison, 1971

17a16f4310f5299c244170f5846584a2--my-music-music-mixMorrison, a titan of songwriting since his late ’60s debut, has released three “Best of Van” collections over the years, and it has never ceased to amaze me that he has neglected to ever include this lovely tune on any of those collections.  From his 1971 album of the same name, “Tupelo Honey” — melody, lyrics, arrangement, all of it — are simply sublime, and I always get a warm response when I include it in my set.

“There’s a Place in the World For a Gambler,” Dan Fogelberg, 1974

220px-Dan_Fogelberg_-_SouvenirsLike so many singer-songwriters, Fogelberg arrived slowly, offering gorgeous, introspective songs on his 1972 debut “Home Free,” which stiffed on the charts.  Then he recruited Joe Walsh as producer and guitarist, with guest appearances by Graham Nash, Don Henley and others to produce the 1974 gem “Souvenirs,” featuring his first hit single “Part of the Plan.”  Also on that LP was the stunning closer, “There’s a Place in the World For a Gambler,” which is so much fun to play on guitar.

“Wondering Aloud,” Jethro Tull, 1971

JethroTullAqualungalbumcover-1Tull was a progressive rock giant, known for aggressive flute-driven anthems like “Aqualung,” “Minstrel in the Gallery,” “Thick as a Brick” and “Locomotive Breath.”  Still, singer-songwriter Ian Anderson loved to sprinkle every album with a few delightful acoustic numbers to keep everyone guessing.  On the “Aqualung” LP, “Wondering Aloud” was always the one that grabbed me.

“Cloudy,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1966

2667835I learned virtually the entire Simon & Garfunkel catalog, and sang their stuff with my guitar compatriot Ben Beard in my formative years.  Beyond the obvious hits (“The Boxer,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Homeward Bound”), there were so many other hidden treasures.  From the duo’s third LP, 1966’s “Parsley, Sage Rosemary & Thyme,” I’m very partial to “Cloudy,” a special favorite of my dear departed friend Chris Moore, who loved to harmonize on it with me.

“Working Class Hero,” John Lennon, 1970

JohnLennon_PlasticOnoBand.jpegLennon was a rocker from the very beginning, and although his Beatles songs were mostly inspired by Elvis and Chuck Berry rock ‘n roll knockoffs, he was plenty capable of more introspective acoustic numbers like “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life,” “Julia,” and “Across the Universe.”  Upon the band’s breakup, Lennon chose to release a debut solo LP full of raw, emotional tracks that many found tough to absorb, but I was entranced by the haunting “Working Class Hero.”

“Friends,” Elton John, 1971

FriendsElton and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote and released many songs on various labels when they first started out, and fans were therefore astonished to find not one, not two, not three, but four albums of Elton John songs available in the spring of 1971, one of which was an obscure soundtrack LP from a slight but charming French film called “Friends.”  The title track has always been a huge favorite of mine.

“Blackbird,” The Beatles, 1968

The_Beatles_album_coverBecause so many songs in The Beatles’ catalog were acoustically based — “And I Love Her,” “Yesterday,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Norwegian Wood,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Julia,” “I Will,” “Here Comes the Sun” — I learned many of them on guitar.  One of the best of the bunch is “Blackbird,” the McCartney-penned gem from “The White Album” that has been covered by dozens of great artists through the years (Crosby, Stills and Nash, Sarah MacLachlan).

“Every Woman,” Dave Mason, 1973

MI0000087322-1Mason was one two great songwriters that comprised the British folk/rock/jazz band Traffic, but after two albums (1967-68), he felt pushed aside by Steve Winwood and chose to head out on his own.  His 1970 debut, “Alone Together,” is full of great songs and performances, but I found his 1973 LP, “It’s Like You Never Left,” just as enjoyable.  Mason wrote and recorded “Every Woman” in a brief 1:50 arrangement, then re-recorded it in 1974 with pedal steel and other instruments in a superior recording.

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

Unknown-27Young’s songs are simply structured and are ideal for new, aspiring guitarists to master — “After the Gold Rush,” “Helpless,” “Cowgirl in the Sand, “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man” — and I could’ve included any of a dozen songs from Young’s catalog here that I enjoy playing, but this spare, haunting track from 1972’s “Harvest” is still among his best.  It’s brief, but harrowing, an ode to his friend Danny Whitten, who died of a heroin overdose in 1971.

“She’s a Lady,” John Sebastian, 1970

R-1712561-1455757831-6737.jpegSebastian’s 1970 solo debut is, in my opinion, one of the most sadly neglected albums of its time.  After all his delightful work leading the Lovin’ Spoonful, and his widely admired appearance at Woodstock the year before, his subsequent solo LP curiously never got the attention it deserved.  One of the prettiest tracks was the gentle folk ballad, “She’s a Lady,” which I take so much pleasure in playing.

“You Can Close Your Eyes,” James Taylor, 1971

mudSlimBecause his vocal range and mine are so similar, I can comfortably play almost anything in James’s catalog, from “Country Road” and “You’ve Got a Friend” to “Carolina on My Mind” and “Lighthouse.”  One of the prettiest songs he ever wrote is the lover’s lullaby “You Can Close Your Eyes” from the wonderful “Mud Slide Slim” LP in 1971.  I’m so thrilled that he still usually plays it in concert all these years later.

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And now, today, at age 63, I still really enjoy strumming and singing these old songs at

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living-room gatherings, back-yard parties, bonfires, and even the occasional stage when I’m lucky enough to be invited (or if the scheduled artist is a no-show!).  Indeed, this weekend, I’ve been asked to bring the guitar to two patio get-togethers, where some of us will take turns providing the foundation for group singalongs.

I also do music therapy at a seniors day care center a couple mornings a week, sometimes bringing a smile of recognition to the face of an Alzheimer’s sufferer.  And I regularly encourage, and sometimes give lessons to, aspiring young guitarists, perpetuating a time-honored tradition present in nearly every culture on Earth:  Playing and singing music is a universal language that brings joy and happiness to damn near everybody.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

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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.”