When I first heard Al Kooper was coming to town, spiky little hairs sprung up in places I didn't realize hair existed; ropes of drool formed at the corners of my mouth and I quivered like Kirstie Alley caught in a cyclone. Kooper, you see, is a lifelong hero, and I'm hardly alone in this Al-dulation. For despite his lack of wide renown, Kooper is a visionary figure in rock & roll; revered among his peers but largely unknown to the unwashed masses. This dichotomy is exemplified by the fact that it's been 30 years (!!!) since Kooper last played San Diego. Whazzap with that??
"Nobody invited me," Kooper deadpanned in a recent interview. Awww, gee...
Happily, Kooper finally appears Friday night at the Acoustic Music San Diego series, and you must attend this concert.
Allie turned pro in 1958 at the tender age of 14, becoming a member of the Royal Teens ("Short Shorts"). By the early '60s, he was a working songwriter, penning tunes for pop acts including Gene Pitney, Freddy Cannon and, umm, Pat Boone. Notably, Kooper wrote "This Diamond Ring," which became a Number One hit in '64 for Gary Lewis & the Playboys; their unmanly rendition appalled the composer, who wrote it with the Drifters in mind.
Koop's Kred skyrocketed when he finagled his way into the recording sessions for Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album. There, he encountered nascent guitar god Mike Bloomfield flaunting terrifying licks that intimidated our man into temporary guitaristic retirement (he's since reconsidered and redeemed himself most admirably).
"I never dreamed that someone my age and color could play like that," Kooper recalled. "I was completely awestruck by him. Up until that day I considered myself a guitar player, but that experience told me that I shouldn't even try anymore."
Still determined to contribute to the historic sessions, Kooper planted himself at the Hammond organ -- an instrument he'd never played before -- and proceeded to flail about. Dylan liked what he heard and beefed Kooper up in the mix. When "Like A Rolling Stone" stormed the charts in '65, copycat tunes simulating Kooper's moody noodling proliferated; he subsequently became a Dylan fixture, appearing on nine of Bobbo's albums through the '90s.
Now officially a bigwig, Kooper was asked to join the Blues Project, a wildly eclectic/eccentric group which performed a peculiar but prophetic mix of blues, jazz, gospel, psychedelia, folk and pop. Massively influential but fractious, the so-called "Jewish Beatles" split up after a scant two years.
"The fact that we stayed together for more than five minutes was amazing, because everyone was coming from different places," said Kooper. "[Guitarist Danny] Kalb was a very unique, wildman musician. We just tried to hold it down and let him play anything he wanted over the foundation, which was really fun. [Guitarist Steve] Katz was another story, a bizarre situation. He was like this crooner guy, but we accommodated him. I think his harmonica playing on Blues Project recordings sounds like a duck call."
In '67, Kooper formed his dream band, Blood, Sweat & Tears. Conceived as an experimental, horn driven colossus; augmented by strings and state-of-the-art studio technology; merging every style of music under the sun to stunning effect, BS&T painted a masterpiece song suite with its debut, "Child Is Father To The Man." The album is frequently held up with the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" and the Rolling Stones' "Beggar's Banquet" among the most significant musical achievements of the '60s. However, sales failed to match the magic; relationships soured; mutiny was in the air.
"I wasn't trying to knock the charts down, I just wanted to make music I liked the way I liked it," said Kooper. "But a faction formed that was more [commercially] ambitious than me. Eventually, they just sort of edged me out of the band. It was very much like the Frankenstein story - I built a monster and the monster killed me."
David Clayton-Thomas -- a ridiculous, histrionic vocalist and prototype for Creeping Bolton-itis -- was installed as BS&T frontman. The group then emitted a series of chart-topping singles like "You've Made
Me So Very Happy," "Spinning Wheel" and an unforgivable assassination of Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child" that were designed to make middle-aged people in Nehru jackets and love beads feel like hipsters.
"They did things I never would have done, things that horrified me," said Kooper. "So in retrospect, it turned out great that I left anyway."
Throughout the '60s, Kooper played on an amazing sequence of eternal classics, including Simon & Garfunkel's "Parsely, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme," the Who's "Sell Out ," Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" and the Stones' "Let It Bleed," to name but a few. In '68 came the top-selling "Super Session," recorded with Kooper, Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, a spontaneous jam album that brought an air of highbrow jazz respectability to rock & roll.
Meanwhile, Kooper recorded several solo albums through the mid-'70s; many magnificent in parts, sometimes overly-arty/experimental in others, each inevitably a commercial disappointment. Kooper poured his heart and soul into 1976's "Act Like Nothing's Wrong." When it failed to chart, he packed it in as an active performer. "I decided that if this was the best I could do and it still wasn't successful, I wasn't going to do it anymore," he said.
Kooper has been in a state of semi-withdrawal as a solo artist ever since, but he didn't exactly become complacent. For starters, Kooper discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, produced their first three albums and unleashed "Freebird" into eternal Clear Channel Hell ("I don't brag much about that one," he joked). He also produced albums by the Tubes, Joe Ely, Green On Red and B.B. King, among others, and waxed sessions with George Harrison, Alice Cooper, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, and of course his old crony, Dylan .
Fans rejoiced when, against the odds, Kooper reunited with key members of the Blues Project and BS&T for a superb 1995 live concert album, "Soul Of A Man." In 2001, he compiled the anthology "Rare & Well Done," which coupled essential recordings with intriguing demos and unreleased tracks.
In the album's liner notes, 30 music biz hotshots offered a paragraph or two of fulsome praise for Kooper; among them Pete Townshend, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Dave Alvin, Billy Gibbons and Mavis Staples. Whew!
If it's an injustice that Kooper isn't a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee, that he never received a Grammy, that his isn't a more familiar name, well, those loving testimonials served as the grandest gold watch of all.
"When all these great people said these wonderful things about me, that was better than being given any award or being in any institution," a sentimental Kooper sniffled. "That means far more than a bunch of record fucking company presidents and writers saying you're good. In fact, that was the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Al Kooper, January 14 at Normal Heights United Methodist Church, 4650 Mansfield Street in San Diego, 7:30 p.m., $20 - $25, (619) 303-8176.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Sidebar 1 KOOPER REMINISCES ON HIS WORK WITH THE HEAVIES:
BOB DYLAN That organ sound [from the "Highway 61" album] was borne of ignorance, and it was extremely humorous when it started getting copied. Bob and I would go to the record store and buy a bunch of stuff that mimicked that sound, and then go home and laugh at them.
JIMI HENDRIX He lived down the street from me in the Village, so we bumped into each other all the time and became friends. Anyway, he asked me to play on his record, so I said "sure." After the session, he sent me one of his guitars. I was very flattered to be asked, but really, it wasn't a great session and it wasn't a very good production, either.
THE WHO I met them at the Murray The K Easter Show in 1967. The Blues Project, the Who, Wilson Pickett, Mitch Ryder, Cream - and everyone played three songs, can you imagine? It was unbelievable! We became good friends, they asked me to play on a few things, and I was honored. I did find out that Keith Moon and John Entwistle couldn't play with other musicians as well as they could with the Who. You know all the jamming and everything that was going on in those days? Those guys sucked in that situation. As
great as they were with the Who, that's how much they sucked without them.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD At the time I heard them, music was in a weird place. Progressive rock was very big, and while I don't really want to put it down, I thought it lacked both heart and groin. I felt that if I could make a great record with a three-chord band -- something that was really missing from the radio at that time -- I could make like a gazillion dollars. "Freebird" was such great head-banging music, I knew people were just gonna run into the fucking wall when they heard it.
THE ROLLING STONES What can you say about that (laughs)? Thrilling, just thrilling. I had a wonderful time and got treated really, really nicely. How can you complain about working with the Stones?
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Sidebar 2 AL KOOPER STUFF YOU NEED TO OWN:
The Blues Project, "Live At Town Hall," 1967 While most fans cite "Projections," the group's sole studio outing, as the Project's indispensable release, I prefer this frequently-maligned "live" effort (actually, some of it was recorded in the studio with an audience overdubbed). The extended, electrified, echo-drenched version of "Flute Thing" sets the gray matter reeling, and the manic version of "I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes" is acid-drenched insanity at its finest/scariest.
Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Child Is Father To The Man," 1968 From the breath-taking charts of "House In The Country" to the wrenching whiteboy soul of "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" (which went on to become an R&B standard); from the cool groove-pop of "I Can't Quit Her" to the widescreen big band blues of "Something Goin' On," this is ultimately Kooper's magnum opus, ranking high on every respectable musicrit's list of desert island discs.
Al Kooper, "Soul Of A Man," 1995 Kooper celebrates his 50th birthday with a career retrospective concert reuniting him with the Blues Project and BS&T, captured on two blazing discs. Several of these performances transcend the original studio versions, and Allie shows tremendous growth as a singer, despite suffering a nasty cold the night of the show.
"Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards," 1998 This is hands down the funniest, most enlightening and brutally honest rock & roll memoir I've had the pleasure to read. Regale yourselves of knee-slappingly inappropriate booze-and-drug-fueled butt hi-jinks, damning indictments of Koop's myriad evil nemeses, tender tales of dearly-departed cronies and cinematic portraits of several rock & roll eras. It all makes you feel like you were right there, experiencing it firsthand.
Al Kooper, "Rare & Well Done," 2001 While there are some glaring omissions here - what, no "Wake Me, Shake Me," "His Holy Modal Majesty" or "Easy Does It"?!? - this is currently the best and most comprehensive Kooper Kollection available, until Rhino Records or some other culturally responsible party gets off its bum and releases the multi- disc boxed set we need.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>> BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
Coco Montoya has long numbered among the most critically praised blues guitarists on the scene. Some of this is due to his admittedly formidable arsenal of chops; partly because of his pedigree and many years of service as a sideman - Montoya played drums in the late Albert Collins' band during the '70s, and later switched to guitar as a Collins understudy. In the early '80s he became a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and was a focus of Mayall's show, where he really forged his initial rep. Montoya finally emerged as a front man in his own right with the 1995 solo debut, "Gotta Mind to Travel," and has
since released five albums on blues specialty labels, Alligator and Blind Pig. While you'd have to be deaf not to acknowledge that Montoya is a monster player, I find him to be entirely generic, adding nothing distinguished or original to the blues vernacular. He'd also be well-
served by a modicum of discipline and good, old-fashioned taste - Montoya's road crew could do their boss a tremendous service by hiding his damned wah-wah pedal.
Every blues fan has their own concept of what defines the best of the genre, and as regular readers know, I'm a bit of a traditionalist (well, okay, a step more than "a bit," I admit this). Those disposed towards the gauche, showy shredding of such like-minded hotshots as Tinsley Ellis, Johnny Lang and Walter Trout will doubtless attain great pleasure from Montoya in concert, Friday night at Humphrey's Backstage Lounge. Me, I'm more inclined to stay at home listening to Hound Dog Taylor CDs, or find out where old-time local Tomcat Courtney is playing that night.
What to make of Jay Farrar? I've endured three interviews with this human fungus over the years and was torturously bored each time. Farrar inevitably answers each question posed with a simple "yes" or "no," offers zero elaboration or insight and basically has nothing of any interest whatsoever to say about his music or anyone else's; I imagined him absent-mindedly picking at his navel or scratching himself in unspeakable regions as we spoke. Farrar strikes one as either a major dullard or heavily medicated on Thorazine, and it amazes me that this guy can actually write a song.
But write he can, that's ultimately been Farrar's strength throughout both his solo career and previous tenure with '90s roots rockers Son Volt (my fave Farrar feat is Volt's "Ten Second News," with its imagery of "a beach known for cancer"). As for the rest of the package, Farrar's personality, or lack thereof, is unfortunately manifest in much of his drowsy, unexciting music, and the last thing anyone needs is another guy out there aping Neil Young's hoarse, constipated vocal style, which seems all Farrar is capable of as a singer.
Despite this, Farrar, too, remains quite the critical darling; sort of a simpleton counterpart to desperately self-promoting fellow nouveaux roots rock hack, Ryan Adams. Go thee if you must, oh Stetson-sportin' trendoid, and regale yourself of Farrar in concert, Wednesday night at the Belly-Up.
Guitar great Hank Garland passed away on December 27th; he was 74. Garland wrote the standard six- string hillbilly workout "Sugar Foot Rag," subsequently recorded by fellow guitar gods ranging from the Ventures and Duane Eddy to Jimmy Bryant and Junior Brown. In his lengthy, genre-defying career, Garland backed the likes of Elvis Presley, Charlie Parker, Hank Williams Sr., Roy Orbison, George Shearing and Patsy Cline, to name but a few. A member of the Grand Ole Opry since the '40s, Garland stepped out as a jazz musician in 1961, blowing more than a few minds, but a near-fatal car accident shortly thereafter slowed his brain and hands for the rest of his life, although Garland never abandoned playing his guitar.