We’re bringin’ you back down home

Poor Poco.

When I mentioned to a few friends that I would be writing about Poco this week in memory of the passing of founding member Rusty Young last week, I was met with blank stares.

“Haven’t heard of them,” said one. “I know the name but don’t know a thing about them,” said another.

These were folks in their sixties, pretty music-savvy, and yet, they didn’t know Poco.

Poco, circa 1972: Rusty Young, George Grantham, Richie Furay, Timothy B. Schmit, Paul Cotton

The band that can rightfully claim the title as one of the pioneer groups of country rock had a strong pedigree, a devout following, recorded many albums, and toured relentlessly. But the commercial success they chased remained, for a long time, elusive. That’s a damn shame, for Poco’s catalog includes some truly memorable songs and impressive musicianship, and they were known for turning in some exhilarating performances in concert.

If you’re a fan of country rock, perhaps this piece will reaffirm your appreciation of a talented band. If you’re new to Poco, let this be an opportunity to learn about a group that’s more than worthy of your attention.

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Poco’s story begins among the ashes of the late, great Buffalo Springfield. Here was a Southern California band that played its rock and roll with more than a hint of country influence. Its members included Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay, all multi-talented singers/songwriters/guitarists who offered up a dizzying array of uptempo electric folk (“Rock and Roll Woman,” “Sit Down I Think I Love You”), harmony-rich ballads (“Sad Memory”), spirited hit-single anthems (“For What It’s Worth”), esoteric rockers (“Bluebird,” “Mr. Soul”) and country-pickin’ ditties (“Go and Say Goodbye,” “A Child’s Claim to Fame”) in a dazzling stew that filled two strong LPs in 1966 and 1967.

But all was not well. Neil Young was a difficult maverick who quit and rejoined the band and quit again, eager to blaze his own trail, and bassist Bruce Palmer was deported to his native Canada for marijuana possession. Stills grew frustrated by the band’s instability and found himself drawn to making music with ex-Byrd David Crosby.

Final lineup of Buffalo Springfield: drummer Dewey Martin,
Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

The group’s third and final album, released to fulfill a contractual obligation even though the group had essentially disbanded, included only one song that featured the whole group. If not for the efforts of engineer Jim Messina, who became the group’s bass player in the waning days, the album might have never seen the light of day. Among the strong gems on this underrated LP (“Last Time Around”) is a wonderful country ballad by Furay called “Kind Woman,” which featured pedal steel guitar by contributing musician Rusty Young.

In late 1968, Furay and Messina decided they enjoyed each other’s company and musical leanings, and recruited multi-instrumentalist Young (pedal steel, banjo, dobro, guitar) to form a new band. Said Young, “It seemed natural to think, “What if we take this in a country direction? We’ll take rock and roll songs, but the palette that we’ll add to it will be with country instruments. We’ll be using traditionally country instruments to play rock and roll, and not playing the typical country thing.”

With the addition of Randy Meisner on bass and George Grantham on drums, Poco was born. Furay wrote virtually every song on the new group’s debut album, appropriately titled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (from the Springfield’s demise). Originally calling themselves Pogo, the band was faced with a cease-and-desist order from cartoonist Walt Kelly (creator of the comic strip “Pogo”), so they altered their name to Poco, just in time for their first concert at the famed Troubadour in Hollywood. Critical praise came immediately — “Poco is the next big thing,” said the L.A. Times — but on the charts, there were no singles and only a modest #63 peak for the album.

The original Poco: Randy Meisner, Rusty Young, Jim Messina, George Grantham and Richie Furay

While one critic called it “a great record, a landmark in country rock,” I tend to agree with The Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau, who wrote, “Nice and happy, but, considering the personnel, a disappointment.” To my ears, the production sounds thin, and many of the songs just don’t grab me, especially when compared to what Furay’s former band mates were releasing at about the same time in mid-1969 (the “Crosby, Stills and Nash” LP and Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”).

Meisner was unhappy with what he felt was Furay’s dictatorial manner and split Poco early, heading first for Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and eventually becoming a founding member of The Eagles, who had instant commercial and critical success with their 1972 country rock debut. Meisner’s replacement in Poco was Timothy B. Schmit, whose strong tenor voice bolstered the three-part harmonies that were so integral to Poco’s sound.

In 1970, the band’s second effort, entitled simply “Poco,” should’ve been the one that made them stars. Messina’s spunky “You Better Think Twice,” which stiffed at #72 on US pop charts, was one of the great shoulda-been hits of that era. “These songs represent Poco’s blend of country and rock at its finest and brightest,” said Allmusic critic Bruce Eder, “with the happy harmonies of ‘Hurry Up’ and ‘Keep on Believin” totally irresistible.” Most notable to me is the startling 18-minute “El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa,” a top-notch instrumental jam featuring Rusty Young’s unparalleled pedal steel guitar, played through a Leslie speaker to make it sound more like an organ.

But the album managed only #58, while Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were topping the charts with their “Deja Vu” album featuring Nash’s sweet countryish hit “Teach Your Children.” This gnawed at Furay and made him unpleasant to deal with, according to Messina. “With Poco, Richie wanted to be as big as Crosby, Stills & Nash. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but there were, and are, no guarantees in the music business. To think that way was a sabotage of every aspect of what we were trying to do.”

The radio stations said they weren’t sure about Poco. “Too country for rock stations, too rock for country stations” was the knock on Poco that seemed to limit airplay. Although the live album “Deliverin'” in 1971 broke the Top 40 and reached #26, Furay’s expectations continued to place a strain on the band, Messina said.

“I became frustrated because Richie was frustrated. This was the guy in the band who I loved and I still do love, who I looked up to and admired, and I just could not understand his behavior. It scared me, and I had to get out of the way.” And with that, Messina was gone, returning to producing, eventually partnering with singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins as Loggins and Messina for a successful run (1971-1977).

Cotton, Grantham, Furay, Schmit,
and Young (seated)

Taking over lead and rhythm guitar duties was Paul Cotton, a strong singer and songwriter as well, who became a mainstay in the group’s lineup pretty much ever since. His song “Bad Weather” was one of the highlights of the next LP, “From the Inside,” which, along with Furay’s pretty “What If I Should Say I Love You,” showed a lighter, more reflective approach. Still, the album peaked in the mid-50s on the charts, and again, no single.

Ardent fans, sometimes known as “Poconuts,” argued, “Who cares if there’s no single? We love Poco’s albums, all of them, every track.” But the bitter fact of the music business is you need a hit single to earn your keep, sell more albums and tickets, and survive.

Furay, growing more and more disconsolate, stuck around for two more albums (1972’s “A Good Feeling to Know” and 1973’s “Crazy Eyes”) but their inability to improve the band’s standings in the charts were the last straw. Poco would have to soldier on without him, for he had agreed to mogul David Geffen’s offer to sign him to a new trio called Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with songwriter John David Souther and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. (That outfit lasted only two modestly successful albums, during which Furay converted to evangelical Christianity and essentially quit the music business.)

I first saw Poco in concert right after Furay left, in 1974. Admittedly, I’d gone to see fellow country rockers Pure Prairie League, who were the warmup act, but I left with a solid appreciation for Poco’s musicianship. I saw them a second time in 1976 when they were the warmup for the fleeting project known as Stills-Young Band. Neil Young was in an ornery mood and Stills seemed out of it, which meant Poco pretty much stole the show that night.

Grantham, Schmit, Cotton and Young in 1975

Poco was now Rusty Young’s and Paul Cotton’s band, with Schmit and Grantham as the rhythm section and on backing vocals, and this quartet lineup made some of the best music in Poco’s catalog. “When Richie exited the group, it left room for another songwriter,” said Young. “I had always been just an instrumentalist, but I really thought I could write songs too, so I started writing then. Paul and Timothy were better at it, I think, but I enjoyed it, and a few of mine made it onto those Poco albums, which I’m proud of.”

They still struggled in the singles market, and the albums never fared better than the mid-40s, but the songs were getting more interesting, more accomplished instrumentally, more melodious, more richly produced. Listen to the warm feeling of Schmit’s “Find Out in Time,” or Cotton’s acoustic guitar-driven “Too Many Nights Too Long,” or two of Young’s first attempts at songwriting, “Sagebrush Serenade” and “Rose of Cimarron.” Really great stuff.

“Rose of Cimarron,” 1975

“Indian Summer,” 1977

Epic Records had dropped the group in 1975, and ABC-Dunhill stepped in to keep Poco afloat through this period. Then fate intervened in 1977 when, following the release of the fine “Indian Summer” album, Schmit announced he had accepted an offer to join The Eagles, coincidentally replacing Meisner again. Poco decided the time was right to take a break, with Young and Cotton choosing to collaborate as a duo called the Cotton-Young Band. Once the material was written and recorded, however, ABC execs changed their minds and insisted the album be released as the latest Poco album, entitled “Legend.”

Lo and behold, ten years after Poco’s formation, they finally had a hit single with “Crazy Love,” written and sung by Young. “When Timothy left to join The Eagles, it left room for me to also sing the songs I was writing. So the funny thing is when we started the band, I didn’t sing and I didn’t write, and we never had a hit, but by 1978, it was a song I wrote and sang that became a hit. Unbelievable.”

“Crazy Love” reached #17 on the pop charts, and also was #1 for five straight weeks on the new Adult Contemporary chart, which helped push the album into the Top 20, peaking at #14. A follow-up single — Cotton’s tribute to New Orleans, “Heart of the Night” — also cracked the Top 20. Poco had arrived.

As Young put it 30 years later to an interviewer, “The only reason you and I are talking now is ‘Crazy Love.’ It’s a classic, and it still pays the mortgage.”

Young added, “At first, Poco always wanted to take the idea of country rock further, and for a while, we were popular on FM radio, but we didn’t cross over to AM with hit singles like The Eagles did. They were a lot smarter, writing songs tailored for that market. They really captured the country rock sound. ‘Crazy Love’ finally gave us a hit, but it was more light pop rock than country rock.” Indeed, how strange that Young’s tasty pedal steel guitar, a trademark of Poco’s sound through the years, is glaringly absent from their biggest hit.

The 1980 follow-up LP, “Under the Gun,” cracked the Top 50, as did two Cotton-written singles, the sweet “Midnight Rain” and the rockified title track, but from there, each album performed more poorly than its predecessor. Cotton and Young remained in charge, but the rest of the lineup changed several times, as did their record label. By 1982’s “Ghost Town” and 1984’s “Inamorata,” the band was using synthesizers and drum machines, which were in vogue at the time but a million miles from the traditional Poco sound. They still toured, but the venues were smaller and the gigs fewer.

“Legacy,” 1989

In 1989, backed by RCA Records, the original lineup of Poco (Messina, Furay, Young, Meisner and Grantham) reunited for “Legacy,” a welcome surprise that reached #40 on album charts, thanks to the #18 hit single “Call It Love,” with Young again on lead vocals. The leadoff track, “When It All Began,” was a nostalgic look back at the band’s genesis, with these lyrics by Furay: “I remember the feeling, not so long ago, /The kids came dancin’, their hearts were romancin’, and the music was live Poco, /Some called it country, some called it rock and roll, /But whatever the sound, it was sure to be found with a heart, rhythm and soul…”

The reunion turned out to be only a short-lived phase, with Furay, Messina and Meisner all returning to their individual careers again.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Young kept the Poco name out there by assembling various touring configurations that included Cotton and guitarist Jack Sundrud, among many others. Furay and/or Messina would occasionally join them for one-off concerts. Young finally chose to retire in 2013, bringing the Poco story to an end.

Furay, Schmit, Messina and Cotton
(with Young off camera) at a 2002 show

Poco may not be inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the band is prominently featured in an historical country rock exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Young’s death last week brought Poco back into the public eye, giving me the opportunity to tell their tale, and Young’s memories of how his pioneering pedal steel guitar playing evolved.

Rusty Young

“In a music store in Denver in the mid-’60s, I met a guy named Donny Buzzard, who was my hero,” Young recalled. “He was a brilliant musician, and he introduced me to all kinds of stuff. He said, ‘You can try playing the steel with a comb, and it will sound like a tack piano.’ Or ‘You can run it through a fuzz tone and listen to what that sounds like.’ Or ‘Run it through a Leslie speaker.’ He just opened my eyes to the fact that the pedal steel is an instrument that can do anything, and it shouldn’t be limited to just country and western music. So I decided to take off with what Donny had showed me, and the rest is history.”

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Here’s a playlist I assembled of three dozen songs from throughout Poco’s admirable career. Give it a listen!

Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Did you know someone in middle school or high school who was relentlessly bullied, picked on, or humiliated by other students?  Of course you did.  It’s pretty much a universal thing and, sad to say, it’s been going on for many decades, and only recently is it being more seriously addressed by school authorities.

It happened in the late 1950s at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas.  Kids there taunted and tormented one particular girl they felt was an ugly freak, a shy outlier who had severe acne problems and weight fluctuations.  Try as she might, she never fully got over the persecution, and suffered self-esteem problems the rest of her life.  But she survived by befriending other outcasts, listening to blues records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Nina Simone and Odetta, and developing her own singing voice by mimicking theirs.  It was a strategy that worked well for her…for a while.

That girl was Janis Joplin.

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Fifty years ago this Sunday, Joplin died in Room 105 of the Hollywood Landmark Hotel (now the Highland Gardens), a short walk from the Hollywood Bowl where she had thrilled a sold-out crowd a year earlier.

She had been an intermittent heroin user, and the dose she injected that night was allegedly cut with something else, which killed her.  She was 27.

Her death was a punch to the solar plexus of rock music lovers everywhere, particularly because it came only 16 days after the passing of the wondrous but troubled Jimi Hendrix, who died in similar fashion in England.

Friends, family members, business managers, armchair therapists and countless others have written books and granted interviews in an attempt to analyze Joplin, a moody, hugely talented, self-destructive, fun-loving young woman whose star shone so brightly for only three years before being extinguished far too early.

images-302Joplin’s influence was enormous and far reaching.  Hundreds of female vocalists and blues musicians in the five decades since her death have lavishly praised her electrifying live performances and her surprisingly polished studio recordings.  Critics sometimes took exception to the way she  overworked her material to the extreme, but most adored her “devastatingly original voice,” her “overpowering and deeply vulnerable artistry” and her “Elvis Presley-like ability to captivate an audience.”

British singer Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, who wasn’t born until 17 years after Joplin’s death, had this to say:  “She was so vulnerable, self-conscious and full of suffering.  She tore herself apart, yet on stage, she was totally different.  She was so unrestrained, so free, so raw.  It seems to me her suffering and the intensity of her performance went hand in hand.  There was always a sense of longing, of searching for something.  I think she really sums up the idea that soul is about putting your pain into something beautiful.”

Unknown-576Despite her small-town upbringing, Janis was a free spirit from an early age, rejecting Port Arthur’s narrow thinking regarding sex, segregation and a woman’s place in the world.  She attended college in Beaumont and in Austin, playing coffee house gigs as a solo acoustic act, honing her chops on folk and blues tunes.  At the first opportunity she left Texas for California, hitchhiking there with her friend Chet Helms, who later became manager of the San Francisco band Big Brother and The Holding Company.

Eventually, Joplin became that band’s lead singer, and by 1966, Bay Area people were buzzing about the gypsy-like girl who could belt out blues tunes with unparalleled passion and energy.  She dove head first into the

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no-rules milieu of the counterculture, experimenting with psychedelic drugs , wearing outré boutique clothes, and enjoying sexual relationships with men and women alike.  She considered herself “one of the boys,” sleeping with whomever she pleased and resisting the double standard that said men could do that but women could not.

Even before they had released their first LP, Joplin and Big Brother won a slot at the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, and her mindblowing performance there was so spectacular that it forever secured her place in the rock pantheon.  It also won her a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Despite all this attention (which she adored and craved), Joplin confided that she was plagued by self-doubt, always fearing she wasn’t really good enough.

Unknown-532Ah, but she most certainly was.  Joplin and Big Brother recorded a stellar set of blues and rock songs which comprised the compelling LP “Cheap Thrills,” the #1 album in the country for eight weeks in late 1968.  Joplin and producers chose to add manufactured audience sounds to make it appear to be live, but in fact only the final track, the explosive “Ball and Chain,” was recorded in concert.  The Top 20 single “Piece of My Heart,” “Combination of the Two,” a cover of the Gershwin classic “Summertime” and the Joplin original “Turtle Blues” combined to make a well-rounded blues album for the ages.

images-342Big Brother wasn’t the most precise band around, and Joplin grew weary of their sloppiness.  At the same time, the band grew resentful of her “star trip” eclipsing the band, and by year’s end, they went their separate ways.  Janis had become enamored with soul and R&B and rounded up musicians who shared that bent.  They became The Kosmic Blues Band, with prominent horns and a much funkier beat than Big Brother’s psychedelic blues.

It was at this time that I personally became aware of Joplin.  I was 14 and buying up as many hip rock albums (Zeppelin, Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Cream) as I could afford.   I admit I bought “Cheap Thrills” partly because I was captivated by R. Crumb’s fantastic comic book art on the cover, but when I took it home, I was so taken by the music, especially “Ball and Chain,” that I played it incessantly.

images-304I was first in line at the record store when she and her new group released “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!” in September 1969.  I was pleasantly surprised by the R&B punch of “Try,” “To Love Somebody” and “Maybe” with their dominant horns and keyboards, but she was still true to her blues on “One Good Man” and the riveting title track.  What a fine album!

Joplin had solidified her cachet by appearing at Woodstock that summer, even though she felt it was a sub-par performance and refused to allow it in the documentary film or its soundtrack.  She broadened her fame by making several memorable appearances on national TV on the quasi-hip “Dick Cavett Show,” having a blast chatting and giggling about everything from her regrettable high school days to her left-leaning political views.

As it turned out, Janis and the Kosmic Blues Band musicians never really gelled, so she left them as well.  She made it known that, despite her ability to pack arenas like Madison Square Garden, she actually preferred playing much smaller venues and clubs — another example of her inner conflict between self-loathing and a need for adulation.

images-300She took time off in 1970 to travel with a new paramour to Brazil, taking time to give herself a little distance from the drugs and the craziness of her rock star life.  When she returned a month later, though, her heroin use resumed.  She assembled a third group, The Full-Tilt Boogie Band, which featured organ but no horns.  They did a train tour of Canada and added some U.S. dates at the end, which met with mixed reviews.  Some praised the band’s tightness while others felt Joplin appeared exhausted and uninspired.

In an interview that summer, Janis confirmed what others have said about her conflict between the inner woman and the outer performer:  “I’m a victim of my own insides.  There was a time when I wanted to know everything.  It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling.  I just didn’t know what to do with it.  But now I’ve learned to make that feeling work for me.  I’m full of emotion and I want a release, and if you’re on stage, and if it’s really working and you’ve got the audience with you, it’s so sublime.”

In August and September of that year, she and the band recorded several songs in Los Angeles with producer Paul Rothschild at the helm.  Vibrant tracks like “Move Over,” “Half Moon” and “Get It While You Can” showed a renewed vigor, while Joplin’s reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” showed the full range of her unmatched vocal talent.

images-303The band laid down the instrumental tracks for “Buried Alive in the Blues,” and Joplin planned to record her vocals the following day, but it was not to be.  In tribute to Janis, the track was left as is, leaving listeners to imagine her vocal part on their own.

Just as with Hendrix, Jim Morrison and others who died young, her tragic death only served to raise never-resolved questions like, “I wonder what kind of music she would’ve been making in her 30s, 40s or 50s?”

Unknown-531The final songs were compiled onto her final LP, the posthumously released “Pearl,” which rocketed to #1 in early 1971, as did the single of “Bobby McGee.”

At age 20, Stevie Nicks was performing with Lindsay Buckingham in a Bay Area band called Fritz, often serving as a warmup act for legends like Joplin and Hendrix.  She recalled watching her from the wings during her performances.  “When Janis got up on that stage with her band, this woman became my new hero.  She was not what anyone would call a great beauty, but she became beautiful to me because she made such a powerful and deep emotional connection with the audience.  I didn’t care much for the feather boas and the bell-bottom pants, but she didn’t dress like anyone else, and she definitely didn’t sing like anyone else.

“She put herself out there completely,” said Nicks, “and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real.  She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm & blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song.  She really gave you a piece of her heart, and that inspired me to find my own voice and my own style.”

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God love ya, Janis.  Your legacy is in your performances on the records, and I’ll cue them up and dig ’em whenever I need a dose of “dem ol’ kosmic blues, mama!”

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