vern's verbal vibe

 

Thoughts from Toronto singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vern Nicholson. I pontificate mostly on music (of course), with a smattering of sports, language and other fun miscellany.

Rediscovering 1970 

On Christmas Day, 1970, I received a Westinghouse transistor radio as a gift from my grandparents. I was nine years old, and little did they know what they were about to unleash. I inserted the supplied AA batteries, turned it on and tuned in 1050 CHUM, Toronto's Top 40 powerhouse. I discovered rock 'n' roll, and my life would never be the same.

What I heard that afternoon was probably something like this J. Michael Wilson aircheck from December 23. And if perchance CHUM was playing something drippy like The Partridge Family, four alternatives were on offer: 790 CHIC (Brampton), 1150 CKOC (Hamilton), 1280 CHAM (Hamilton) and 1430 CKFH (Toronto).

Fast forward 49 years and with the help of the CHUM Tribute site, I'm rediscovering the music of my youth, creating my personal Top 100 for 1970, 1971 and 1972. I consider these the prime years. From 1973 onward, the music grew increasingly saccharine. Then came disco. Regardless, I just downloaded every CHUM chart from January 3, 1970 till they stopped publishing them in mid-1975. I consider them pure gold: touchstones of my youth that I never expected to see again. I've been scouring the charts, especially their lower reaches, for obscurities I missed when I first assembled my playlists for the big three years, and I found some gems that fleshed out my Top 100.

So ... what can I say about 1970? I feel rather unqualified to discuss the year as a whole because I only signed up in the last week. I'm in the strange position of having heard The Beatles' debut solo singles before I'd heard of The Beatles. I remember thinking, sometime in 1973 maybe, "You mean John, Paul, George and Ringo were all in the same band once? Wow. I should check them out." And that, of course, sent me on another wonderful journey. Certainly, the breakup of The Beatles is the single biggest musical story of the year, followed by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. But 1970 is, as you'll discover below, so much more than that. Here you'll find pile-driving rockers, bubblegum classics, killer pop songs and the first stirrings of soul mutating into funk, not to mention a few oddball novelties. This was a time when white and black musics sat side by side on the charts in their many guises: soul, funk, rock, gospel, pop, folk, country and more. Music wasn't segregated and segmented as it is now. From fuzzed-out guitars to funky grooves to lush orchestral passages, 1970 has it all.

My Top 100 is in no particular order, other than what makes sense to me as a playlist. The nine songs that kick it off are among the first I ever heard, which is why I've given them prominence. A few songs released in 1970 didn't chart until early or even mid-1971 on CHUM. Regardless, they properly belong to 1970 and so are included here. In brackets is the date the song debuted on the CHUM chart, followed by its peak chart position. Chart-topping songs are in bold. You'll note that a few songs in my Top 100 didn't chart at all. Some may have charted on the other Top 40 stations mentioned above; as for the rest, they're worthy tunes I encountered later that deserved a better fate.

But enough rambling—here's my Top 100 of 1970. Explore, discover, and enjoy the great sounds of a terrific year!

  1. Games - Redeye (12/12/70, #10)
  2. Love the One You're With - Stephen Stills (12/19/70, #1)
  3. My Sweet Lord - George Harrison (11/28/70, #1)
  4. Born to Wander - Rare Earth (1/9/71, #8)
  5. I'm Eighteen - Alice Cooper (3/27/71, #6)
  6. Express Yourself - Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (9/26/70, #15)
  7. Stoney End - Barbra Streisand (12/12/70, #6)
  8. Hey Tonight - Creedence Clearwater Revival (did not chart)
  9. We Gotta Get You a Woman - Runt (12/19/70, #7)
  10. Evil Ways - Santana (2/7/70, #5)
  11. Are You Ready - Pacific Gas & Electric (5/30/70, #24)
  12. Celebrate - Three Dog Night (3/7/70, #16)
  13. Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine - James Brown (did not chart)
  14. Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) - Edison Lighthouse (2/21/70, #3)
  15. Make Me Smile - Chicago (4/18/70, #5)
  16. Bus Rider - The Guess Who (did not chart)
  17. Spirit in the Sky - Norman Greenbaum (2/28/70, #4)
  18. The Witch's Promise - Jethro Tull (did not chart)
  19. Do What You Wanna Do - Five Flights Up (10/10/70, #22)
  20. Turn Back the Hands of Time - Tyrone Davis (4/4/70, #11)
  21. Tears of a Clown - Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (10/24/70, #3)
  22. Blue Money - Van Morrison (2/27/71, #16)
  23. Who'll Stop the Rain - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1/31/70, #1)
  24. Ohio - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (7/25/70, #6)
  25. Hitchin' a Ride - Vanity Fare (5/2/70, #4)
  26. As the Years Go By - Mashmakan (7/4/70, #1)
  27. We've Only Just Begun - Carpenters (9/26/70, #2)
  28. Black Magic Woman - Santana (11/14/70, #2)
  29. Cecilia - Simon & Garfunkel (4/25/70, #2)
  30. Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell (6/27/70, #3)
  31. In the Summertime - Mungo Jerry (7/18/70, #4)
  32. ABC - The Jackson 5 (3/21/70, #3)
  33. Somebody's Been Sleeping - 100 Proof Aged in Soul (11/14/70, #12)
  34. Give Me Just a Little More Time - The Chairmen of the Board (1/24/70, #5)
  35. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours - Stevie Wonder (7/11/70, #14)
  36. Mr. Monday - The Original Caste (4/25/70, #3)
  37. No Time - The Guess Who (1/3/70, #9)
  38. One Man Band - Three Dog Night (1/2/71, #20)
  39. Travelin' Band - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1/31/70, #1)
  40. Who Needs Ya - Steppenwolf (1/16/71, #17)
  41. Mexico - Jefferson Airplane (did not chart)
  42. You, Me and Mexico - Edward Bear (3/14/70, #3)
  43. Temptation Eyes - The Grass Roots (2/20/71, #7)
  44. My Baby Loves Lovin' - White Plains (4/11/70, #2)
  45. 25 or 6 to 4 - Chicago (8/8/70, #1)
  46. The Letter - Joe Cocker (5/2/70, #2)
  47. Tighter, Tighter - Alive and Kicking (6/20/70, #6)
  48. Corrina, Corrina - King Biscuit Boy & Crowbar (9/12/70, #23)
  49. Band Bandit - Tundra (did not chart)
  50. Yellow River - Christie (7/25/70, #5)
  51. Wild World - Cat Stevens (did not chart)
  52. All Right Now - Free (9/12/70, #2)
  53. You're the One - Little Sister (4/11/70, #12)
  54. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) - Sly & the Family Stone (1/24/70, #1)
  55. The Long and Winding Road - The Beatles (5/23/70, #1)
  56. No Sugar Tonight - The Guess Who (3/21/70, #1)
  57. Reflections of My Life - The Marmalade (3/14/70, #7)
  58. Question - The Moody Blues (5/9/70, #7)
  59. Come Saturday Morning - The Sandpipers (5/2/70, #16)
  60. Come Running - Van Morrison (4/4/70, #8)
  61. Up Around the Bend - Creedence Clearwater Revival (5/2/70, #1)
  62. Fire and Rain - James Taylor (10/3/70, #6)
  63. Love on a Two-Way Street - The Moments (5/16/70, #3)
  64. Ball of Confusion - The Temptations (5/30/70, #7)
  65. I'll Be There - The Jackson 5 (9/26/70, #1)
  66. O-o-h Child - The Five Stairsteps (6/28/70, #9)
  67. Mama Told Me (Not to Come) - Three Dog Night (5/30/70, #2)
  68. American Woman - The Guess Who (3/21/70, #1)
  69. Vehicle - The Ides of March (3/28/70, #2)
  70. Lucretia MacEvil - Blood, Sweat & Tears (10/24/70, #11)
  71. Up the Ladder to the Roof - The Supremes (3/14/70, #13)
  72. Go Back - Crabby Appleton (8/15/70, #10)
  73. Lola - The Kinks (10/3/70, #2)
  74. Ride Captain Ride - Blues Image (5/9/70, #8)
  75. Teach Your Children - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (6/13/70, #5)
  76. Oye Como Va - Santana (3/13/71, #19)
  77. No Matter What - Badfinger (11/21/70, #3)
  78. Indiana Wants Me - R. Dean Taylor (7/25/70, #4)
  79. Joanne - Michael Nesmith and the First National Band (8/15/70, #6)
  80. I Hear You Knocking - Dave Edmunds (1/16/71, #3)
  81. Instant Karma! - John Lennon (2/28/70, #1)
  82. Me and Bobby McGee - Janis Joplin (2/20/71, #9)
  83. Immigrant Song - Led Zeppelin (12/5/70, #2)
  84. (They Long to Be) Close to You - Carpenters (6/28/70, #1)
  85. Hand Me Down World - The Guess Who (7/11/70, #3)
  86. Out in the Country - Three Dog Night (9/12/70, #11)
  87. Spill the Wine - Eric Burdon & War (7/4/70, #4)
  88. Neanderthal Man - Hotlegs (9/5/70, #18)
  89. Hey Lawdy Mama - Steppenwolf (did not chart)
  90. Venus - The Shocking Blue (1/3/70, #1)
  91. If I Were Your Woman - Gladys Knight & the Pips (12/26/70, #6)
  92. 5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love) - The Presidents (11/28/70, #7)
  93. Colour My World - Chicago (7/7/71, #3)
  94. One Tin Soldier - The Original Caste (1/3/70, #1)
  95. War - Edwin Starr (7/18/70, #1)
  96. Have You Ever Seen the Rain - Creedence Clearwater Revival (2/20/71, #16)
  97. Domino - Van Morrison (11/21/70, #4)
  98. Bridge over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel (2/7/70, #1)
  99. Share the Land - The Guess Who (10/17/70, #3)
  100. Let It Be - The Beatles (3/21/70, #1)

Go Forth with New Strength 

You know, you can go years without giving a thought to your high school. I certainly did until Tuesday, May 7, when the lead item on the morning news was a six-alarm fire at York Memorial Collegiate Institute, a day after its 90th anniversary. For most Torontonians it's a tragedy, but one from which they might feel rather detached: some old high school in the west end caught fire. Sad, but oh, well, right? Well, it's a punch in the gut when it's your old school—even when we're talking almost 40 years ago.

Ironically, just days before I'd joined a Facebook group for YMCI alumni. We had a reunion scheduled for May 25 at the school, and I'd been waffling about going. There's now no school at which to hold a reunion. Yes, the building is still standing, but the roof is gone. The centre of the structure, including its magnificent auditorium replete with stained glass windows, is completely blown out. You can see right through it if you stand at the front doors. (Alternate, unofficial gatherings have been arranged for May 25, including a day-long open stage at the Cadillac Lounge. That's where you'll find me.)

I was surprised at how deeply the fire affected me. My memories of the place, and my high school years in general, are neutral. High school wasn't the best time of my life nor the worst. Yet there I was last Saturday, school sweater on, heading up to Keele and Eglinton on the TTC because I had to see it. As an "active investigation" in fire marshal parlance, the area is fenced off so it was hard to get too close. Around back, I noticed a woman standing at the fence. She turned to me and I said, "Mrs. Henery?"

Now, Mrs. Henery has been retired for 25 years. She taught geography and math, I believe. I never had her as a teacher, but it's amazing how 40 years melted away in that flash of recognition. And there we stood, each fumbling to express an unspeakable sadness. I spent five years of my life there; she, perhaps 20 years of her working life. "You were in Miss Manson's class, weren't you?" she said. "Yes. Grade 11 history." "Well, I'm still in touch with her. I'll say hi to her for you. What was your name again?"

I never thought in a million years I'd write a song about my old high school, but I had to ... just to process the sudden onslaught of strong, unexpected emotions. Simple as that. And soon after I began I realized it wasn't really about me, though it's filtered through my particular lens. It's about York Memo and all of us who studied and worked there, through the many decades. The school motto—something my teenage self would likely have snickered at—was a perfect focal point for what I needed to express. It also gave me the song's title. And with that, I humbly present my demo of "Go Forth with New Strength," for Mustangs everywhere:

 
Red-and-gold fire trucks, a six-alarm blaze
My best friend Dan had his name on that wall
Murals and stained glass they just couldn't save
Flames tore through what once was the hall
They did all they could do
Now it's come down to me and you to bring it all back

Go forth with new strength and the love that remains
Battle-scarred and fire-charred, let's save the grand old dame
Go forth with new strength, Memo strong, Mustang proud
And shed a tear or two 'cause you're allowed

Met Mrs. Henery down by the back fence
Came all this way to salute her old school
Ashes, brick and cinder, it's so hard to make sense
We stood agape as only the helpless can do
"Say hi to Miss Manson"
And I'd pay you a king's ransom to bring it all back

Come on, you red and gold
Weave all the tales you've told
And all the lives you mould
Into a common goal
We want a new rebuild
Let's see that dream fulfilled now

Go forth with new strength and the love that remains
Battle-scarred and fire-charred, God bless the grand old dame
Go forth with new strength, Memo strong, Mustang proud
And shed a tear or two 'cause you're allowed
And shed a tear or two 'cause you're allowed
Don't forget to mourn, 'cause you know you're allowed

© 2019 Vern Nicholson (SOCAN)
 
 

Real Chords #6: Teenage Fanclub, "Shock and Awe" 

I've always loved this band, and I suspect most power-pop aficionados would agree that they don't get much better than Teenage Fanclub, once famously called "the best band in the world" by Kurt Cobain. Over the course of their first four albums the proto-grunge impulses melted away, leaving only the luscious, catchy tunes we power-poppers know and love.

In recent times, their records have consisted of four songs each from talented songwriters Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love, with each bringing unique melodic gifts to the proceedings. Sadly, Love has left the band and for me, their carrying on without him is like Paul, George and Ringo continuing as The Beatles without John. It's that big a loss. Yes, Blake's and McGinley's songs are usually good and occasionally great. But in my estimation, since Grand Prix Gerard Love's contributions have been uniformly stellar, the highlights of nearly every Teenage Fanclub album from that point on.

"Shock and Awe" is from 2010's Shadows, an album that for Gerry marked a minor slump—only two of his songs made my "greatest hits" playlist instead of the customary three or four. As always, it floors me what he's able to do with just a few chords and an achingly beautiful melody. Online transcriptions for this were in the ballpark, but yet again, the infamous fear-of-capo led the transcribers astray. I'll say it once more: most rock musicians, especially those I look up to, are songwriters first and virtuosos second, if at all. This means they're in search of the easiest and most natural way to play what they've written. So yes, you could attempt this without a capo and end up with F, Am/F and Gm9 in the verse and a gnarly A# in the choruses. (We'll overlook the fact that the Gm9 is really Gm7 and Am/F, a truly hideous chord, should really be a C/E. Oh, and in the key of F, the fourth is called Bb, not A#.) Capoing at the third fret not only makes the song easier to play but lends itself to some tasty rhythm licks, unavailable in the open position unless you're Andrés Segovia.

Here, then, are the real chords to "Shock and Awe," written by the magnificent and greatly missed Gerard Love:

Capo 3

  • Intro and verse: D A Asus4 A Em7* Em E7sus4 Em
  • Chorus: F#m G Em G D

* Fingering, low to high: 022033. There are other ways to play Em7, but this fingering enables you to play the rhythm guitar lick exactly as Teenage Fanclub does.

Notes: The intro/verse chords given here are the advanced version, containing all the rhythm licks that they do. If you want to simplify, you can easily get by with D A Em7. The instrumental bit in the middle is a variation on the intro/verse chords. I haven't worked it out because as a solo performer, I'll be ditching that part and heading straight to the intro. For what it's worth, during that bit they seem to hang out on the Em7 for long stretches. The G in the chorus sounds better to me with no third in it, which really makes it a G5: fingering 3x033. I play G like this 95% of the time anyway, but it's a matter of personal preference.

In closing, let me point you to a great resource that's helped me figure out the names of the wacky chords I play. JGuitar's chord namer lets you punch in the fingering you're using, then tells you what the chord is called. The reverse—where you know the chord's name but have no idea how to finger it—is their chord calculator, which threatens to give you "every mathematically possible fingering" for the chord you specify. Of course, you know to try the easiest ones first, right? Or as they warn, "Be careful when adjusting the advanced options as they may result in chords that are very difficult to play." And we folk/rock rhythm guitarists want none of those, thanks very much.

Play Ball! 

Well, not here, not yet. But soon enough: opening day is March 28. Anyway, down in Florida and Arizona, all 30 MLB teams are playing ball in what's rather oddly called spring training. I say that because the first game took place on February 21. That's winter on any calendar, no? Regardless, I relish the arrival of spring training every year because it signifies the beginning of the end of winter.

Now, up here in Toronto, we've had more snow than we know what to do with, it's bitterly cold, and winter can hang around till mid-April. That's why I said beginning of the end. But the mere fact that baseball, that quintessential summertime sport, is being played somewhere means Old Man Blizzard and his good buddies Ice Storm and Wind Chill are on their way out. Good riddance, I say.

Baseball and radio go together like peanut butter and jam, and every year at this time I celebrate the return of my favourite broadcast teams: Jon Miller and Duane Kuiper (Giants); Dan Dickerson and Jim Price (Tigers); Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson (White Sox). As for the hometown Blue Jays crew, I miss Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth, but Ben Wagner and Mike Wilner do a decent job and their chemistry is good.

One pet peeve, and this is not confined to Blue Jay broadcasts, is the incessant use of player-specific adjectives. Examples:

  • "Three outs, all on fly balls. Now, that's an un-Marcus-Stroman-like inning."
  • "He just flailed at it. What an un-Miguel-Cabrera-like swing that was!"
  • "He's already issued five walks, which is so un-Sam-Gaviglio-like."

I've never understood this. Why invent new words when you've got old ones that work fine? It's as though they feel they must conjure up fresh adjectives for each player, because of course un-Marcus-Stroman-like is completely different than un-Sam-Gaviglio-like.

Newsflash, boys: there's an elegant, simple word that encompasses un-Marcus-Stroman-like, un-Miguel-Cabrera-like, un-Sam-Gaviglio-like and un-Insert-Player-Here-like. That word is "uncharacteristic." If it seems unwieldy, try "unusual." And you can even use "unlike" sans player name in the middle, like so: "He's already issued five walks, which is so unlike Sam Gaviglio."

I'm happy to report that things are looking up, though. Why, on a broadcast last week Wilner said of some pitcher, "He's just not himself today." Yeah! Beautiful. See? Pithiness is next to godliness.

But whatever your quirks, all you broadcasters out there, I thank you profusely for bringing the old ball game to us season after season, 162 games a year. Baseball is the sound of summer, even in these un-baseball-like frigid temperatures.

Autumn Micro-Tour 2018 

In the fall of 2018 I embarked on my second micro-tour, a venture cut short by my cat's illness—from which, I'm happy to say, he's largely and miraculously recovered. Nonetheless, I played enough shows to produce a few audio highlights, which I've posted on my music page. Before we get into the meat of it, I give you the stats:

  • Duration: 6 weeks, plus the final show a month later
  • Shows played: 9
  • Unique venues: 7
  • Songs played: 30 (15 originals, 15 covers)
  • Songs repeated: 1
  • Songs debuted: 5
 
Micro-touring at Free Times Café, November 17, 2018. Photo by Brian Gladstone.
 

"This Magnificent Dare" (Stop 2—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, October 13, 2018)

It took over an hour to get here by transit, and due to my late arrival I was lucky to grab a spot (10th). I'd hoped to go on first, as always, but a few performers were far more eager—the sign-up sheet had a 0 and -1 as write-ins. Anyway, that 10th spot, which was really 12th, came after the feature's opening half-hour slot, so it was a long wait. Said feature (an accordion/sax duo) played impeccably, but I'm afraid I was born far too late to appreciate what sounded like a pared-down Lawrence Welk. I did, though, enjoy the host's singalong version of The Beatles' "All Together Now." Still schmaltz, I guess, but at least of my era.

I brought the dulcimer along to accompany myself on "This Magnificent Dare," which I've also performed on guitar. I really wanted to play the dulcimer at an open stage before the outdoor humidity dropped too low. Flubbed part of a verse but recovered quite well. It's taken a while, but over the years I've learned to shrug off the mistakes and carry on.

"Let Love Strum You"/"On the Bus" (Stop 3—The Tilted Dog, Toronto ON, October 18, 2018)

I didn't feel like playing tonight, but TTD is walking distance from home and I promised the host I'd show up, so no excuses. This, by the way, is almost always the right decision. In 30 years of live performances, I can count on one hand the shows I wish I hadn't played.

The cover I cannot shake—and will never attempt, as I can't stand it—appeared in the midst of an otherwise pleasant set by a mid-twenties singer/songwriter. Yes, folks, it's Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," one more time. On the plus side, the crowd was treated to two Dylan covers tonight. A charming old hippie played a truncated "Desolation Row" with wildly varying tempo, while a nylon-string guitarist did a nice job on "Tangled up in Blue."

As for me, well, is one of your old band's originals not penned by you a cover? I say yes. That band was Sour Landslide, and way back in the 1990s I accompanied my brother's killer tunes on bass and harmony vocals. I've always wanted to try one of, um, their songs, and this one seemed the quickest way in ... after I changed the key. See, I often joke that my voice didn't change till I turned 50. Not only were my high harmonies on the 1994 recording unreachable; I couldn't even sing Vince's lead vocal in the original key! So, my version is lower and slower, as befits an aging indie musician. I also did a little tinkering to make it my own. I managed to up the tempo a bit for my original this evening, "Let Love Strum You," the chorus of which was shamelessly lifted from a radio commercial.

"Groping to Victory"/"Skyway" (Stop 4—Hirut, Toronto ON, October 21, 2018)

This small, intimate open mic, hosted by the friendly, funny and talented Nicola Vaughan, is a little far-flung but right on the subway line (Woodbine, for you Torontonians). Unfortunately I have other commitments in the Sunday 3-6 time slot, so can rarely make it out. I feel a few pangs of guilt because this open stage needs support that I can't really give, but I enjoy coming when I can.

After Nicola regaled us with a few obscure Monkees songs, up came a parade of talented folk, blues and jazz players ... and me. Sometimes I envy the technically proficient, but I try not to compare. They do what they do, I do what I do, and it's all good. How dull these open stages would be if we all sounded the same, right? Now, I was quite taken by the jazzer's gear: an Ibanez electric with F-holes and a Bigsby vibrato, a tasty digital delay and a looper pedal. I was dying to hear him give the Bigsby a workout, but he barely touched it. Why, if I had a Bigsby, I'd be John Cipollina! (That's my delusion and I'm sticking to it.)

Delusions of guitar-hero grandeur aside, "Groping to Victory" went down well this afternoon, as did Paul Westerberg's delicate "Skyway," long a favourite of mine.

"Have I Been Expecting You"/"A Glimpse of Heaven" (Stop 5—Legends Sports Lounge, Toronto ON, November 1, 2018)

Tonight was supposed to be an out-of-town jaunt to Markham, but 25 mm of rain put a damper on those plans, you could say. I settled instead on this place, a block or so from Pape Station. Acoustics were a bit dodgy, as you hear on the recording, but I'd say overall this was my best show of the tour. As often happens at open stages, I was playing to two distinct (and small) audiences: fellow musicians waiting to play, attentive listeners all, and oblivious regulars chatting away, the latter faithfully captured by my Zoom H1.

I navigated my way through "Expecting," my somewhat tricky new song, then launched into this Strawbs cover that I do every now and then. For posterity I've preserved my exchange with a fellow musician at the end, who not only knew the tune but first heard it the same way I did, on an eight-track "best of" purchased at Woolco, circa 1981. Man, no one ever recognizes my obscure covers. I'm slipping.

"Mon Vrai Destin" (Stop 6—The Birch Bistro & Lounge, Bowmanville ON, November 8, 2018)

I took the 4:30 express train (no stops till Pickering), which was jammed. First time I've had to stand on a GO train. Even travelling express to Oshawa, it took the better part of two hours to reach Bowmanville. After a nice dinner at the local Mr. Sub, I head to the venue, early for once, and sign up to play first so I can get home at a reasonable hour. Unfortunately, the place started to fill up after I'd finished playing. So it goes.

The Birch has a pleasant, warm, almost-elegant ambience—far from the rough-and-tumble bars I associate with small towns. I'm allotted five songs, which is quite generous, and the stage sound is pretty good once the host turns down the guitar amp midway through my first number. I play reasonably well, though not at my blinding best. Halfway through "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," my new Beatles cover, I realize I should sing it an octave higher or change the key. Too late. This one, a Peter, Paul & Mary chanson, comes off much better.

Speaking of obscure covers, Sam, the young guy who follows me, tells the crowd that he traffics in them. I practically wet my pants when he announces "Broken," but no, it's not The Guess Who B-side from 1971. This is another "Broken," by ... Jared Somebody? Beats me. Then he says, "Here's a Catfish and the Bottlemen tune." Right. Uh, so, you know any Juff Gleento? Rufus and the Juts? The Ked?

"Liza Radley" (Stop 8—Dr. B's Acoustic Medicine Show, Free Times Café, Toronto ON, November 17, 2018)

Boy, that 1:00 start time is tough for me. I arrive late and sign up 13th, which is fitting. This has not been a good day. My front bicycle tire went flat around St. George, and I had to walk the bike from there. As I sip on the obligatory decaf coffee—at the Free Times you must order at least one drink, "no exceptions" as the sign says—I'm preoccupied not with my set but how I'll get home. It's possible to lug a guitar on the Carlton streetcar. Transporting a bicycle is more awkward, but I've done it. A guitar and a bike? No way.

Maybe I'll take the guitar home first, then come back for the bike. Or maybe not. That's four fares and besides, I'd like to get the bike in to my local shop before it closes. The other option? A 45-minute walk home, and the shop will be closed by the time I get there anyway. Unless I luck out with an empty streetcar that stays empty? Keep dreaming, pal. Not likely on a Saturday afternoon on College Street.

It's a good crowd, mostly performers, and Dr. B's is one of the city's higher-profile open stages. Hey, no pressure on a day that I'm feeling lousy. A grizzled poet named Dark Cloud takes the stage. I'm momentarily distracted from my dark cloud by his natty suit, walrus moustache, pork pie hat and ... seven-string guitar? I chat with him afterwards and yes, it's the G that's doubled with an octave string. He says it's a Martin, made specially for Roger McGuinn, king of the 12-string guitar. Roger must have tired of tuning the other five strings.

By now, I'm resigned to walking home. Wish I'd stayed in bed. When my turn comes, the host is genial, the sound fantastic—as the recording proves—and I play reasonably well. My stage patter is minimal, and I wisely decide not to whine about my flat tire. Inflicting a bad mood on innocent bar patrons is never a good idea.

What goes around comes around, I suppose, and this story has a happy ending. I unlock my bicycle and am maybe one minute into my long, dreary trek when I gaze up at a storefront and see the sign: Urbane Cyclist. A bike shop!

"We Howl" (Stop 9—The Tilted Dog, Toronto ON, December 20, 2018)

This was the gig I didn't expect to play, as a few days after the Free Times gig I cancelled the rest of the tour due to Muswell's worsening condition. About a month later, he'd made such a stunning recovery that I was able to make this, the scheduled final date. Kudos are due my veterinarian, clinic staff and the various medicines my cat has been on since late November, to be sure; but I'd also like to offer my thanks and gratitude to God for answering my prayers. I'm not a preacher, so I'll leave you with the words of James 5:16, should you feel so inclined. But I will say that in my experience prayer really works, often when nothing else does.

As seems to have been my custom this tour, I arrive just after everyone else has signed up. I'll be on seventh, which is a long way down the line because everyone gets four songs. It's a small crowd gathered here this Thursday evening, mostly performers. Host Robert Labell kindly dedicates "Embryonic Journey" to me, and continuing the Jorma Kaukonen theme, finishes his set with a couple of songs off the first Hot Tuna album. I really must offer to accompany him on bass sometime. Way back when, I learned how to play by copping licks off that record, among others, and I'd love to revisit it and get back into playing bass. I miss it.

Among my four numbers this evening is "We Howl," one of my older songs and probably the first thing I wrote that I actually liked. Some songwriters are innately gifted; the rest of us have to write a slew of bad songs before we start writing good ones. This was my first good one, and I'd never played it live till tonight.

And there you have it: my latest adventures in micro-touring. Look for my next micro-tour this spring, which will be upon us all soon enough.

Another Imaginary Box Set 

This time we set our sights on the quiet Beatle, George Harrison, an artist who's for the most part been ill-served by compilations. Isn't it a pity, too, as of the Fab Four, George's solo career is arguably the most consistent.

Of those compilations, the first, The Best of George Harrison (1976), was assembled by former label Capitol without his approval. The song selection, as far as it goes, is excellent; but only half the record (roughly 24 minutes' worth) covers George's solo career to that point. The entire first side consists of Harrison-penned Beatles material. Great stuff, of course, but misplaced on what is nominally a solo artist's greatest hits album.

We'd have to wait until 1989 for the second collection, Best of Dark Horse 1976–1989. As the title suggests, this isn't a comprehensive career overview; it covers only George's work on his Dark Horse label. George was involved in this one, and it shows: in the quality of material chosen, the fact that all period albums are represented, and the two new songs specifically recorded for this project. That said, I'd quibble with a few of his choices, and have duly replaced the questionable songs with better ones on my homemade compilation.

Which brings us to Let It Roll (2009), touted as George's first true career-spanning compilation. According to the album's Wikipedia entry, "the track list was selected by George's widow Olivia with some assistance from close friends and family." Finally, the man has been given his proper due, right? Wrong. Sure, Let It Roll spans Harrison's entire career, but with gaping holes—three consecutive mid-'70s releases (Dark Horse, Extra Texture and Thirty Three & 1/3) aren't represented at all. Neither is 1982's Gone Troppo or the 1992 Live in Japan album. As a result, key singles are missing, like "Bangla Desh," "Dark Horse," "You" and "Crackerbox Palace." Worse, the compilers have managed to sneak The Beatles in again, through the back door this time (the three tracks from The Concert for Bangladesh are all Beatles songs).

So, this brings us to the compilation-that-should-be, namely mine. (I'm telling you, some record label really ought to hire me.) It's not that hard. Take all the artist's albums, cherry-pick the best three songs from each, add the odd soundtrack contribution and non-album single and put it all in chronological order. Oh, and toss in a couple of Beatles numbers when you have no other choice (Live in Japan). And here you have it: a truly representative, career-spanning compilation that easily fits on three CDs.

Disc 1 (69:44): Apple Years—1970-1975

  1. My Sweet Lord
  2. Isn't It a Pity
  3. What Is Life
  4. Bangla Desh
  5. Wah-Wah (live)
  6. Awaiting on You All (live)
  7. Beware of Darkness (live)
  8. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
  9. Don't Let Me Wait Too Long
  10. Living in the Material World
  11. Dark Horse
  12. So Sad
  13. Far East Man
  14. You
  15. This Guitar (Can't Keep from Crying)
  16. Tired of Midnight Blue

Disc 2 (61:35): Middle Years—1976-1987

  1. This Song
  2. Crackerbox Palace
  3. Beautiful Girl
  4. Blow Away
  5. Love Comes to Everyone
  6. Here Comes the Moon
  7. All Those Years Ago
  8. Writing's on the Wall
  9. Life Itself
  10. That's the Way It Goes
  11. Mystical One
  12. Circles
  13. I Don't Want to Do It
  14. Got My Mind Set on You
  15. This Is Love
  16. When We Was Fab

Disc 3 (43:20): Final Years—1988-2002

  1. Heading for the Light
  2. Cheer Down
  3. Poor Little Girl
  4. Cockamamie Business
  5. I Want to Tell You (live)
  6. Here Comes the Sun (live)
  7. Devil's Radio (live)
  8. Any Road
  9. Rising Sun
  10. Stuck Inside a Cloud

If you'd like to try on this box set ("playlist," as the kids would say) for yourselves, all the material is available on YouTube and probably various streaming services, too. Enjoy the soulful, melodic sounds of George Harrison.
 

Miles of Miles 

Before I start: thanks to those of you asking about Muswell. He's doing quite well! I'm still having to give him various pills, powders and potions, but they're working.

Several years ago now, a friend of mine initiated me into jazz via the iconic, visionary trumpeter Miles Davis. And though I can't say I'm a jazz buff yet, I really dig Miles a lot, if I may use some dated hipster lingo.

As a pop-rock person, my entrée into the world of Miles was his fusion period. When I first heard In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the language spoken there was roughly akin to some of the music I grew up with. What he's most celebrated for—and my friend's preferred iteration of Davis—is his 1950s work, culminating in the legendary Kind of Blue. For me this material has been a challenge to appreciate, and I'm still trying. In fact, the first time I heard Kind of Blue, which is universally acclaimed as the greatest jazz album of all time, I cheekily renamed it Kind of Boring. It's still not my favourite Miles album, but I'm slowly coming around.

Anyway, it's not just the longevity of Miles Davis' career that astounds but its dizzying breadth. From a Rolling Stone article: "Miles was once seated next to a senator's wife at a felicitation of various artists at the White House. The lady, obviously not familiar with jazz, asked Miles what he had done. 'I changed music six times, ma'am,' was the quick response."

Wanting to broaden my horizons, I went shopping for a career-spanning box set. Surely an artist of Miles' stature, active for 45 years, has been given the comprehensive overview treatment, right? Nope. Not unless you count the 70-CD Complete Columbia Album Collection. Comprehensive, yes; overview, no. So, I decided to make my own.

I took as my starting point The Essential Miles Davis, a double-CD collection that barely skims the surface and, in my opinion, glosses over some major works entirely. After a lot of research and digging through YouTube, I arrived at my version, which I'm calling ...

 

 
Even though mine is strictly an mp3 playlist, I curated it as if Columbia had hired me to create that career-spanning box. I've divided his work into six CDs, each representing one of the "six times" alluded to by the man himself.

A few ground rules I used:

  • The material is to be ordered chronologically, by recording date.
  • Each CD should be as close to full (80 minutes) as possible.
  • Every major album is represented by one song, whether that song is three minutes or thirty minutes.
  • Seminal, ground-breaking albums are allowed two songs.

Given those parameters, I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. Inevitably, some works are underrepresented and arguably, some are given more space than is warranted, depending on your tastes. Example: were my friend still alive, he'd probably split the periods much differently than I did. I can envision my Discs 3-6 crammed onto Disc 6 in his version, with the '50s/early '60s material taking up Discs 1-5.

Disc 1 (79:03): Hard Bop and Beyond—1945-1959

  1. Now's the Time
  2. Jeru
  3. Rocker
  4. Compulsion
  5. Tempus Fugit
  6. Walkin'
  7. It Never Entered My Mind
  8. 'Round Midnight
  9. Miles Ahead
  10. Générique
  11. Milestones
  12. Stella by Starlight
  13. Summertime
  14. So What
  15. Blue in Green

Disc 2 (76:36): Post-Bop—1960-1967

  1. The Pan Piper
  2. Someday My Prince Will Come
  3. Once upon a Summertime
  4. Seven Steps to Heaven
  5. My Funny Valentine (live)
  6. E.S.P.
  7. Circle
  8. Masquelaro
  9. Nefertiti
  10. I Fall in Love too Easily (live)

Disc 3 (76:35): Electric Cathedral—1968-1969

  1. Stuff
  2. Tout de suite
  3. Petits machins
  4. Ascent
  5. Shhh/Peaceful
  6. In a Silent Way

Disc 4 (78:23): Full-On Fusion—1970-1972

  1. Pharaoh's Dance
  2. Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
  3. Right Off
  4. Little Church
  5. Directions (live)
  6. Black Satin

Disc 5 (74:34): This Is Jazz?—1973-1975

  1. Calypso Frelimo (excerpt)
  2. He Loved Him Madly
  3. Prelude (live)

Disc 6 (76:55): The Man with the Horn—1981-1991

  1. The Man with the Horn
  2. Jean Pierre (live)
  3. Star People
  4. What It Is
  5. Human Nature
  6. Time After Time
  7. Orange
  8. Portia
  9. Mr. Pastorius
  10. Chocolate Chip
  11. Boplicity (live)
  12. Blues for Pablo (live)

And there you have it: the Miles Davis box that should exist but doesn't. If you'd like to re-create it, all the material is available on YouTube. Happy exploring!

Announcement: Remainder of Micro-Tour Cancelled 

My beloved cat Muswell is seriously ill with advanced kidney disease, among other things. I'm adapting to a treatment regimen that's time-consuming and constantly changing and also making frequent trips to the vet, at times in near-emergency situations. 

As a result, the rest of the autumn micro-tour is cancelled. I'm hoping to play the occasional show here and there, but cannot at this time make firm commitments. Though the tour has been cut short, all shows were recorded and I still (at some point) intend to post the highlights on the music section of my website. Look for those in December or January. 

If you'd like to send prayers and healing Muswell's way, here are a couple of photos of my beautiful boy. Heartfelt thanks, dear readers, for your kindness and concern, and blessings to you and your families.

 

 

Real Chords #5: Jefferson Airplane, "Today" 

It's with a heavy heart that I present this one, having learned of the passing of Jefferson Airplane founder and singer Marty Balin last night. I'll have more to say about Marty in a moment, but to pay tribute I've worked up this gem from Surrealistic Pillow that I'll debut during my upcoming micro-tour. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, "'Today' stands as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written," and I can't disagree. Haunting and ethereal, it's a timeless ballad revolving around a simple but effective chord sequence.

Before I get to those chords, a few words on Marty Balin and his legacy. Without him, there would be no Jefferson Airplane, period. The band was his idea and vision, and after recruiting its members one by one he created a venue, The Matrix, in which they could hone their craft. It's not an overstatement to suggest, as former band manager Bill Thompson did, that “Marty was the one who started the San Francisco scene."

The first two Airplane albums were largely a product of that vision—love-fuelled folk/rock about to bust out into the wilder frontiers of psychedelia—and Marty's sweet-as-honey tenor led the charge. But by the third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, Marty had retreated somewhat (as a songwriter and lead vocalist; his harmonies permeate all their best work, Baxter's included). Jefferson Airplane was a group of strong, disparate personalities, each beginning to assert themselves, and in the chaotic ferment of the late 1960s no singular vision could dominate for long.

As the '60s careened into the '70s, drugs, egos and musical differences led Marty to leave the band he founded. And tellingly, the Airplane crashed without him. Marty's romantic, soulful musings, often the source of his bandmates' ridicule, were a necessary balance to Paul Kantner's sci-fi polemics, Grace Slick's icy sarcasm, and Jorma Kaukonen's blues-based excursions. And indeed, that corrective is what enabled spinoff band Jefferson Starship to scale the heights it did in the '70s. Red Octopus, their 1975 release, once again saw Marty at the helm; his "Miracles" topped the charts that summer. Simply put, he had a radio-friendly touch that for the most part eluded his compatriots. In Paul Kantner's words, "Marty has the ability to express really simple emotions that most people might be embarrassed expressing. He's able to get away with singing 'Ooh, baby,' and meaning 'Ooh, baby.'"

Here's an excerpt from Jorma's moving tribute: "I always felt that he was somewhat guarded … the quiet one. His commitment to his visions never flagged. Times come and go but his passion for his music and his art was never diminished. He was the most consummate of artists in a most renaissance way. I always felt that he perceived that each day was a blank canvas waiting to be filled."

Rest in piece, Marty Balin, and thank you for your life, your music and your vision. And with that, here are the real chords to Jefferson Airplane's "Today," written by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner:

  • Intro: D5 C (grace notes: BCD) A5
  • Verse*: D5 Am7 C D5
  • Chorus: (Cmaj7 F Em C D C D) x2
  • End: Dm Am Bb Am Dm Am Bb Gm7 (grace notes: EFEC) D

The online tabs for the song had, well, some of it right, but missed two key chords which were dead obvious to my ears: the Cmaj7 in the chorus and Gm7 at the very end. Nobody heard the Am7 in the verse, either, which I admit is more implied than played on the recording. Tip: for a lovely variation, substitute an A7sus chord in the intro in place of the A5. That's not how they play it, but I quite like it. The fingering for A7sus, low to high, is x02030.

* Note: On the live version from Monterey Pop, the band plays a slightly different arrangement. Grace plays the rhythm on harpsichord, and her verse chords are F Am C D5. I'm sticking with the studio version for my transcription, but either will work.

    Music Lessons? Moi? 

    Like most rock-based musicians, I'm self-taught. I've been blessed with a good ear, and in my early days I found it easier and more natural to learn what I needed to by copying chords and riffs directly from my favourite records. Formal music training seemed like the long way around. Mum taught piano, so I picked up bits and pieces of music theory just the same—enough to get me by.

    So, I kind of surprised myself a month ago when I signed up for a group harmony and composition class that starts tonight. It's four sessions, with the possibility of continuing on if I can afford it and am getting something out of it. I don't feel I need lessons, necessarily; it's more of an experiment. I suppose after all these years, I've become open to the possibility that a bit of formal training might steer my songwriting in new and interesting directions.

    I'm glad, too, that I took the plunge before the confirmation e-mail cheerily told me that "the prerequisite for this group is knowledge of all key signatures and 12 major, harmonic, and melodic minor scales." Gulp! I cobbled together a cheat sheet containing the circle of fifths and those helpful mnemonic devices telling the story of Father Charles and the battle he ended (or the battle that ended him). I can't yet claim "knowledge" of key signatures, scales and their attendant chords, but I am hoping the cheat sheet will help. For now, I'm concentrating on those keys with three or fewer sharps or flats. I mean, who willingly plays or composes in, I don't know, Db?

    To counter the heaviness I associate with formal music study, I've added some levity by springing for a kiddie keyboard, the Casio SA-46. With 32 mini-keys and 100 sounds, it's fun, it's portable (I can fit it in my backpack and bring it to class), and I can practise my scales on goofy voices like Bandoneon, Synth Brass 1 and Space Choir. I say this only half in jest; some of the SA-46's voices are astoundingly good. It also contains 50 rhythm patterns if you want to play your scales and chords to a trance, salsa or bhangra beat, among others. For only $50 it packs quite a punch, as useful for songwriters working on the fly as children taking their first foray into the world of music.

    So, my kiddie keyboard and I are off to our first class tonight. I'm cautiously optimistic, while at the same time hoping I won't be in over my head. Regardless, I think Mum is smiling down from above, and I thank her for my very early introduction to the gift of music.

    Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
    Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
    Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
    All pages and contents © 2017-2019 Vern Nicholson.