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.”

61CCG5tDlFL

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.”

 

 

 

Advertisements

I must be strong, and carry on

Ever since I was about 14, I’ve felt a strong bond with Eric Clapton, and that kinship has only increased over the years since.

EricClapton 1968When I heard him play those amazing electric guitar passages on the great songs by Cream, I knew I wanted to learn guitar.  I persuaded my parents to buy me a hollow body electric, and I took lessons in the hope that I could someday play like him.  Alas, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have the dexterity to be a lead guitarist, so I revised my dreams and started strumming a 12-string acoustic instead, and that suited me fine.

But I kept listening in awe as Clapton continued churning out incredible recordings as part of Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, and then throughout a solo career that has spanned nearly 50 years and included 25 studio albums, a dozen live LPs and numerous collaborations.

He and I also share a heartfelt appreciation for blues music.  Clearly, his passions have run far deeper, pushing him on to become one of the premier blues guitarists of his time, while I am merely a devoted follower.  As Clapton himself put it, “It’s difficult to explain the effect that the first blues record I heard had on me, except to say that I recognized it immediately.  It was as if I were being reintroduced to something that I already knew, maybe from another earlier life. For me, there is something primitively soothing about the blues.”

Bluesbreakers_John_Mayall_with_Eric_ClaptonIt was Clapton’s early recordings that got me hooked on the blues.  His performance on Freddy King’s “Hideaway” on “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” (1966) still floors me to this day.  And that’s only one of probably a hundred tracks on which he shows unparalleled chops on smokin’ fast blues and smoldering slow blues alike.

Mayall, regarded as The Godfather of the British Blues revival, described Clapton this way:  “When it came to blues, there was nobody like him. He knew the history of it, the background of it, had the emotional feel for it, and the technique to express it.  And my band gave him the freedom to let loose.  And it’s truly incredible what he has accomplished since those days.”

In 2007, Clapton released his autobiography, entitled simply “Clapton,” and I bought it right away.  I was profoundly moved by it because he laid bare so much of his personal life, which has been riddled with traumatic, life-changing events and inner demons with which he has struggled mightily.

In particular, his addiction to heroin in the early ’70s and then alcohol for many years after that came close numerous times to making him another rock music casualty.  Instead, in the late ’80s he successfully recovered and, in the process, became a positive role model for countless others.  In 1998, he established the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, which quickly evolved into an internationally renowned addiction rehabilitation facility.  To increase awareness of the potential for recovery, and to directly aid those who needed treatment, Clapton initiated the Crossroads Guitar Festival, a series of benefit concerts featuring some of the finest musicians in the business.  Festivals in 1999, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013 were all recorded for CD and DVD packages, all as fundraising efforts for the Antigua center.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I have learned a great deal from Clapton’s example, and I now look up to him for his inner strength and humility, in addition to his musicianship.

This month, Showtime premiered an extraordinary documentary called “Eric Clapton:  Life in 12 Bars,” which builds on the revelations of his autobiography, offering 0_0_3452596_00h_1280x640previously unreleased archival footage and new interviews of key people in his life, much of it narrated by Clapton himself.  Even for casual fans, this is fascinating and moving, and I strongly recommend you check it out.

He speaks very candidly about the unspeakable tragedy he endured in 1990, when his ftw-940x-tears_in_heaven1four-year-old son Conor accidentally fell 50 stories to his death from his Manhattan apartment building.  Incredibly, Clapton found a way to turn this anguish into the Grammy award-winning song, “Tears in Heaven,” with its tender melody and heartbreaking lyrics:  “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?  Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?  I must be strong, and carry on…”

He also shares his thoughts on the difficult developments that occurred in his early childhood.  He was raised in a loving, stable household with doting parents, but at age six, he learned that the couple he thought were his parents were in fact his grandparents.  Clapton’s real mother had been only 15 when she gave birth to Eric, and at 17, she moved away to Canada, leaving the boy to be raised by her parents.  If that wasn’t c43deb3e2733ea3484d4dbab402a677c--eric-clapton-rockstarsdisturbing enough for Eric to discover, he then had to endure, at age nine, the return of his mother to England for a lengthy visit, during which she cruelly withheld her affection and dismissed his pleas. “Can I call you Mummy now?” he asked, to which she replied, “I think it’s best, after all they’ve done for you, that you go on calling your grandparents Mum and Dad.”

The enormity of that rejection quickly turned to hatred, anger and resentment that Clapton carried with him for decades afterward.  It negatively affected his schoolwork, his self-esteem, his general attitude, and his ability to maintain any lasting relationships with women.  It also no doubt contributed to his near-fatal immersion in drugs and alcohol.

On a positive note, this terrific angst was what drove him to seriously explore his infatuation with blues music, isolating himself in his room for months on end, listening to, and trying to copy, the works of blues masters like B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.  Clearly, we are all beneficiaries of the single-minded zeal with which he pursued his craft.

The documentary also spends time addressing the well-known story of how Clapton fell 57971_uxb5mSomdCgyq-FF_31873madly in love with Pattie Boyd, who happened to be the wife of his friend George Harrison.  This unrequited love for an unavailable woman agonized and tortured him, spurring him to write what became his signature song, “Layla,” with its poignant lyrics of frustration and longing:  “I tried to give you consolation when your old man had let you down, like a fool, I fell in love with you, turned my whole world upside down, Layla, you’ve got me on my knees, Layla, I’m begging, darling please, Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind…”

A few years after he emerged as a brilliant virtuoso of the electric guitar, Clapton was persuaded by producers, managers and peers to cultivate his singing voice, and to start writing songs as well.  “I was reluctant because I didn’t fancy myself much of a singer,” he said.  “There were much better vocalists in the groups I was in, guys like Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood.  On one of the first songs I wrote, ‘Presence of the Lord’ from the ‘Blind Faith’ album, Steve felt I should sing it, but I just wasn’t ready, so I insisted he do it instead.  But slowly I started giving it a go, and I found I enjoyed it, especially when I was singing songs I had written myself.”

On classics like “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power,” “Let It Grow,” “Bell Bottom Blues” and “Layla,” all songs he wrote or co-wrote, his plaintive vocals add such emotional depth to the recordings that it’s nearly impossible to imagine them sung by anyone else.

EricClaptonThere’s no denying that the music Clapton made in the ’70s and early ’80s, both in the studio and in concert, was often sloppy and uninspired, due to his raging alcohol abuse at that time.  He freely admits this in the Showtime documentary:  “I used to do crazy things that people would bail me out of, and I’m just grateful that I survived.  But the music got very lost.  I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t really care. I was more into just having a good time, and I think it showed…  I would say I also deliberately sold out a couple of times by agreeing to record songs that the record label thought would do well, even though I didn’t like them very much.”

In the years since he got clean in the late ’80s, Clapton’s love for the blues never wavered.  f7e2c3b44db14a9a90bd4f2927e4e2beHis multi-platinum, Grammy-winning “Unplugged” album in 1992 is dominated by acoustic versions of blues tunes like “Before You Accuse Me,” “Old Love,” “Hey Hey” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”  In 1994, he released “From the Cradle,” an album of nothing but electric covers of hard-core blues numbers.  In the 2000s, Clapton offered “Me and Mr. Johnson,” a collection of covers of Delta blues giant Robert Johnson’s repertoire, and “Riding With the King,” a Grammy-winning traditional blues collaboration with the late great B.B. King.  Indeed, every album he has released in the last 20 years has included at least a handful of blues tunes.

But as he has aged, Clapton has often chosen a mellower path, writing and singing lovely Clapton2010Coveracoustic guitar-based songs like “Change the World” (from the 1996 film soundtrack for “Phenomenon”), “My Father’s Eyes” (from 1998’s “Pilgrim”), R&B-flavored tunes like “One Track Mind” (from 2005’s “Back Home”) and gospel tracks such as “Diamonds From the Rain” (from 2010’s “Clapton”).  Even as far back as his popular “461 Ocean Boulevard” LP in 1974 (which included his only #1 single, a cover of Bob Marley’s reggae hit “I Shot the Sheriff”), Clapton began dialing back the incendiary guitar solos in favor of a more nuanced technique.  Although this sometimes alienated his longtime fans, it gained him a new audience that embraced the lighter touch and the forays into non-blues genres.

Most recently, he has even taken to covering creaky old standards from the 1930s and 1940s like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” and “Goodnight Irene.”  As you might expect, you’ll find both charming successes and embarrassing failures among these selections.

eric-clapton-story-rolling-stone-fricke-207343e1-9728-499f-8868-ca85db26c081The older I get, I too find myself preferring calmer, more melodious music, so I enjoy his more recent recordings perhaps more than most Clapton fans.  I’ve been playing his solo records continually over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve discovered some great tracks I guess I overlooked the first time around which are worthy of your attention:  “Spiral” from “I Still Do” (2016);  “Angel” from “Old Sock” (2013);  “Everything Will Be Alright” from “Clapton” (2010);  “Danger” from “The Road to Escondido,” his 2006 collaboration with J. J. Cale; and the title track to “Back Home” (2005).

clapton-bigBut I must confess I still return again and again to Clapton’s brilliant ’60s catalog.  There’s simply nothing like the mind-blowing, improvisational live performances of “Crossroads” and “Spoonful” or the studio recordings of “White Room” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” from Cream’s #1 “Wheels of Fire” LP.  I’m also a sucker for the amazing 2005 Cream reunion package “Live at Royal Albert Hall,” where the famed trio offer impressive remakes of their anthems, and 2009’s “Live at Madison Square Garden,” which captures Clapton and Winwood’s reworking of classic rock material on their successful 2009 tour.

In short, I never tire of Clapton.  He has achieved so much on so many records for so many years, and he has soldiered on in the face of so much personal adversity.  His songs, his vocals, and especially his scintillating guitar work have always kept me coming back for more, and he rarely disappoints.  He is an inspiration and a true blues rock legend.  But you probably already knew that.

*************

Here’s a Spotify playlist of the Clapton songs I’ve mentioned above, along with others I think you’ll enjoy.  There are some rare gems like “She Rides,” which is the same song as “Let It Rain” but with a different set of lyrics, and a hard-to-find live version of The Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad.”

Rock on!