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Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy Paul DanoEarly on in the new Brian Wilson biopic there’s a moment that just about brought me to tears: Paul Dano, playing the young Brian, is seen by himself at an upright piano, hesitantly picking out the chords of “God Only Knows”, as if they’re just occurring to him. Exposed in that way, their unearthly beauty is even more apparent. A glance at the piano arrangement suggests that they include an F#mi6, a Cdim and an A#5-. Brian would have been 23 at the time. Where on earth did he get such ideas?

Love & Mercy can’t tell us that. No one can. But it makes a very good attempt at showing us what it must have been like to be Brian Wilson at two important stages of his career: 1965-66, when he was conceiving Pet Sounds and Smile in the face of scepticism from certain fellow Beach Boys, and the late ’80s, when he met his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, while under the dictatorial control of the therapist Eugene Landy.

I met Brian five years after the first period, when he was virtually silenced and living with his first wife, Marilyn Rovell, in the house on Bellagio Road where he wrote those masterpieces, and then again in the middle of the second, when he and Landy came to London and stayed at the Mayfair Hotel, where I went to try an conduct an interview.

Notoriously, Brian’s weight has always been an indication of his state of mind. He was seriously overweight the first time (although not close to the 300lb that he would become), and almost skeletal the second. In the Beverly Hills house he was charming and forthcoming, to the point of sitting down at the piano to perform the complete “Heroes and Villains” and his own arrangement of “Shortnin’ Bread”; he also insisted that we listen to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” several times. In London he was practically a zombie, fussed over by the ever-attentive Landy, and it was such a depressing experience that I went away and didn’t write up the meagre results of our conversation.

John Cusack does a good job of portraying that older Wilson, but Dano (above) is exceptional in his ability to convey Brian’s temperament through mannerisms. The director, Bill Pohlad, gets the period details right — the studio scenes with the Wrecking Crew at Gold Star and Western are wonderfully realistic — and loses his way only towards the end, first with an impressionistic attempt to depict the damage that sent Brian deaf in one ear and then with a surrealistic sequence that places him at various ages, from infancy to late middle age, in a white bed in a white room.

Inevitably, the movie’s bad guys are Landy, Murry Wilson and Mike Love. But, as with a lot of real-life bad guys, there is something to be said in mitigation for each of them. Before he turned into a manipulative monster, Landy (who died in 2006) almost certainly saved Brian from the potentially fatal consequences of a pathological overconsumption of drugs and Reddi-Wip cream topping. Brian’s dad was another monster, with a violent temper, but at least he encouraged his three sons’ desire to form a band. And although Love might live to be 100 without getting his head around Van Dyke Parks’s “Over and over the crow flies uncover the cornfield”, he did provide the lyrics to “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations”.

The last time I saw Brian, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007, I went with two tickets, an invitation to go backstage after the show, and my daughter, who loves the Beach Boys. It was a thoroughly good example of the latter-day Brian Wilson concert: not as historic as the Pet Sounds and Smile recreations, but spirited, accomplished and deeply enjoyable. Afterwards, having made our way backstage with the idea of saying hello, we found Brian seated at a table, signing things. There was a queue, so we joined it. By the time we got to the front  he seemed exhausted and wasn’t even raising his head to greet his visitors. So we simply thanked him and left.

That little episode made me think about what he had been through to bring us all that marvellous music and about what it had cost him — and was still costing him, to an extent, even though his almost miraculous rebirth seemed to have brought him private satisfaction along with a fresh wave of public acclaim. Love & Mercy is an authorised film, which means that it omits some things and elides others, but in the end it’s worthy of its subject. And if you come out thinking Paul Giamatti made Eugene Landy seem scary, I can tell you that the real thing was a whole lot more terrifying.

The word from Moses

Moses Boyd2©Sam_MardonWhen I saw Moses Boyd playing with Soweto Kinch in Berlin last year, I was knocked out. Here was a young drummer with the kind of litheness and sense of “lift” that I loved in the playing of Billy Higgins and Frank Butler. And of Tony Williams, who turns out to have been Boyd’s hero as well as mine.

Wrists are important to a drummer, and sometimes you only need to see the way they work to tell how good he or she is. A drummer with good wrists is more likely to draw the sound out of the drums and cymbals, rather than bashing it into them. Moses Boyd has very fine wrist-articulation, which gives him a lovely touch and the ability to produce a finely graded set of tones. It also helps him achieve a fantastic fluidity in his playing, whether it’s swing or eights or free. I feel I could watch him through soundproof glass and know that he’s an ace.

Boyd is from South London, and so is Binker Golding, the tenor saxophonist with whom he’s just made a duo album. It’s called Dem Ones, and it’s on the Gearbox label, which specialises in vinyl-only recordings made in a North London studio on equipment manufactured by companies like Studer, Westrex and Telefunken — the sort of names you used to see on the back of albums on the Contemporary label, whose owner was proud of the sound quality of his releases. “No editing, overdubbing or mixing” is what it says on the sleeve, and the process of recording direct to two-track tape and cutting the master directly from the result certainly helps preserve a sense of intimacy and immediacy.

Binker and Moses (which is how they bill themselves) are 29 and 23 years old respectively. They’ve played together for some time in a variety of contexts, and their improvised interplay is marked by both familiarity and adventurousness. Golding has a very nice sound: tough but warm. If you needed to locate his approach, you might place him somewhere between George Coleman and Sam Rivers. He plays a lot of notes but doesn’t waste any of them. He and Boyd are in each other’s pockets all the way, whether the music is thunderous or gentle.

Here, to give you a taste, are three tracks from Dem Ones“Man Like GP”“Black Ave Maria” and “No Long Tings”. And here’s a piece from Exodus, another of Boyd’s projects, again with Golding plus Theon Cross on tuba and Artie Zaits on guitar. It’s in a different direction. I’m guessing that he’s got a few of those, and that they’ll all be worth following.

* The photograph of Moses Boyd was taken by Sam Mardon, who also shot the video for “Man Like GP”. Here’s where to find Gearbox Records, who also have vinyl albums by Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott:

Another summer with Johnny

Johnny-Hallyday-noir-et-blancIt’s summer, which means that Johnny Hallyday is almost certainly playing some arena or other in the south of France. He’s 72 now, but after recovering from a serious health problem in 2009 he shows no signs of stopping. Rester vivant is the title of his recent album and of his current French tour, which takes him through to next February.

Back in the autumn of 2012 he came to London for the very first time, something not to be missed by a Francophile like me. To add to the authenticity of the event, the 5,000 seats of the Royal Albert Hall were almost entirely occupied by members of the French colonies of South Kensington and Kentish Town, currently numbering several hundreds of thousands. To sing the words of Michel Berger’s “Quelque chose de Tennessee” — possibly the best French pop song of the last 50 years — along with them and Johnny was a very stirring and precious experience.

The latest album was produced in California by none other than Don Was, former member of Was (Not Was) and current president of Blue Note Records. To be frank, it sounds pretty much like everything Johnny has released in the latter stages of his career: the slightly overwrought music of someone in love with the whole mythology of post-war American cultural imperialism, with just enough of a bitter-sweet hint of Gallic chanson to give it a dimension beyond the image of a man in black Levi’s, a motorcycle jacket and a single earring strumming a sunburst Strat with a Lucky Strike wedged in the tuning pegs, looking out over a Malibu sunset, with a chopped gunmetal ’55 Chevy idling in the background.

Don Was and his crew of Hollywood session men do a perfect job: the Hammond B3 is a security blanket, and the guitar and tenor saxophone solos are idiomatic but never overdone. Among those present are Greg Leisz, Dean Parks, Audley Freed and Matt Rollings. The drumming is by Charley Drayton, once a member of Keith Richards’s X-Pensive Winos. The bassist is Laurent Vernerey, a member of Hallyday’s road band.

The material is all new, from sources including the singer Yodelice and the lyricist Isabelle Bernat, whose collaborators include the English songwriters David Ford and Andy Hill. As usual with songs tailor-made for Johnny, they’re about love and life and hope. None of them has yet quite stuck with me in the way that “C’est pas une vie” from 2008’s Ça ne finira jamais did, although “On s’habitue à tout” makes good use of Leisz’s pedal steel and Gabe Witcher’s country fiddle. But I’m happy to give them time while I listen again and imagine I’m on holiday in Provence, drinking a cinquante-et-un and still smoking unfiltered Gitanes.

Late Lee

Lee Konitz A TraneThis is Lee Konitz, the great alto saxophonist, reflected in the window of A-Trane, a small jazz club in Berlin that was packed to the gunwales for his performance last night.

Konitz was born in 1927; it is almost 70 years since, aged 18, he replaced Charlie Ventura in Teddy Powell’s big band. Before he was 21 he had begun his studies with Lennie Tristano and taken a starring role first in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, playing Gil Evans’s arrangements of bebop tunes, and then in Miles Davis’s nonet, which became known as the Birth of the Cool band. These days he plays less than he did, in the sense that he lets his sidemen — and, on this occasion, a guest singer, Judy Niemack — carry quite a lot of the weight, and much of his own performance is taken up with his own weightless scat-singing, but every note that comes from his saxophone is worth hearing.

A couple of years ago I wrote here about my admiration for his late work. The repertoire doesn’t change: variations on “Stella by Starlight”, “All the Things You Are”, “Out of Nowhere” (in the Tristano variation called “312 E 32nd St”). There was also “Kary’s Trance”, which Konitz wrote in 1957 on the chords of “Play Fiddle Play”. At one point he invited his extremely sensitive and adept accompanists — the pianist Florian Weber, the bassist Jeremy Stratton and the drummer George Schuller, plus Niemack — to create a collective improvisation from scratch, tacitly reminding us that in 1949 he was part of the Tristano group which, with two pieces called “Intuition” and “Digression”, made the first attempts at such a thing.

And then, alone with the rhythm section, he sat and played a version of “Body and Soul” that made an old, tired song sound completely fresh and new, all the accumulated wisdom of his long career poured into a few frail but beautifully shaped phrases.

Eggleston’s Memphis

EgglestonWilliam Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton is a portrait of Memphis, Tennessee in 1973, shot in black and white in bars and on street corners. Best known for his colour-saturated still photographs, such as the one of the blood-red motel-room ceiling used on the cover of Big Star’s second album, Radio City, Eggleston used an early Sony Portapak camera for this project, giving the result a blurred, flaring immediacy.

Restored and re-edited by Eggleston in collaboration with the author Robert Gordon, the 77-minute film was screened last night at the Barbican art gallery in London as part of Doug Aitken’s Station to Station, a 30-day festival of happenings and installations featuring a range of artists from Kenneth Anger to Olafur Eliasson. Aitken invited Jason Pierce — J. Spaceman of the band Spiritualized — to provide a live score, which might seem an odd request since Stranded in Canton already has a soundtrack of its own, including performances by the bluesmen Furry Lewis and Johnny Woods and the pianist Jim Dickinson.

Pierce brought along two fellow members of Spiritualized, the guitarists John Coxon and Tony Foster, a/k/a Doggen, and a drummer, Rupert Clervaux, who has played both with Spiritualized and with Coxon’s project Spring Heel Jack. The three guitarists and the drummer formed an inward-facing circle on a low stage in the middle of the gallery, with the film projected on to one main screen and on to the other three white walls. The audience sat on benches and beanbags, or on the floor, or on the edge of the stage.

Using a pedal, Pierce could control the volume of the film while cueing the band to play against certain sequences, usually those in which an indistinct ranting seemed to be going on. He had prepared a set of instrumental pieces that could have been off-cuts from Exile on Main Street: a variety of after-hours drone-boogies using distorted arpeggios (Pierce), scrubbed chords (Coxon) and moaning slide figures (Doggen). Clervaux paced the music with elegant simplicity, using a reduced kit and, occasionally, a glockenspiel.

The spirit of the Rolling Stones at their most dissolute, a kind of  quaalude-deadened sluggishness interrupted by random bursts of menacing craziness, hangs over the whole film — there is even a glimpse of Eggleston’s friend Stanley Booth, the author of the best book about the band — so it was appropriate that the live soundtrack should contain things that sounded like half-remembered versions of the backing tracks from “Love in Vain” and “Wild Horses”. And Pierce devised a brilliant nerve-jangling crescendo to counterpoint the look-away finale, which moves from a competition to bite the heads of live chickens to a concluding episode of terrifyingly casual gunplay.

Not quite concluding, actually. The credits feature stills of the participants, with captions describing their subsequent fates, most of them — such as that of the transvestite “Lady Russell” — unhappy. But this is not a happy film. It’s a jagged, intimate, handheld portrait of a disturbing time in which certain forces set free in society created a sizeable amount of collateral damage. As a work of art, Stranded in Canton resembles a sequence of picaresque doodles: Hogarth on Beale Street. At last night’s screening, however, Pierce found a way of adding a dimension that made it feel much more complete. They should do it again.

* You can find extracts from Stranded in Canton here.

The Wrecking Crew

Wrecking CrewRoger McGuinn tells a great story in the course of The Wrecking Crew, Denny Tedesco’s film about the Hollywood session musicians behind countless hits of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He’s recalling the frustration of the other members of the Byrds when they discovered that they’d been replaced for the recording of “Mr Tambourine Man” by a group of session men, including Leon Russell and Hal Blaine. McGuinn himself was permitted to sing and play 12-string guitar on the track, which was completed in a couple of passes. He was the only Byrd on the record. A few months later, now established as one of the world’s biggest groups, the whole band were allowed into the studio to play on “Turn, Turn, Turn”. They needed 77 takes. Enough said.

The film is a loving project, in every sense. The director is the son of the late Tommy Tedesco, whose guitar graced many of those hits (including Jack Nitzsche’s “The Lonely Surfer” and the Sandpipers’ “Guantanamera”), and whose presence gives the work its bookends. But there’s plenty of space for encounters with others, including Blaine, his fellow drummer Earl Palmer, the saxophonist Plas Johnson, the bass-guitarists Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn, the trombonist Lou McCreary, the percussionist Julius Wechter, the pianist Don Randi, the guitarists Bill Pitman, Glen Campbell and Al Casey, and many others, including the engineers Stan Ross and Larry Levine, as well as Brian Wilson, Herb Albert, Cher, Jimmy Webb and Lou Adler. The project was started by Denny Tedesco many years ago; several of his interviewees — including Palmer, McCreary, Wechter, Ross, Levine and Casey, as well as his father — have died since he filmed them.

Inevitably, there’s a touch too much boosterism. Hollywood isn’t the only place where the making of the great pop hits of the ’60s was facilitated by great session men. But these certainly were fantastic musicians, most of them jazz-trained but ready to dial down their chops to whatever the producer required, be it Phil Spector or Snuff Garrett. Once or twice you get a hint of less positive feelings about the tasks that were put before them, but there seems to have been a genuine enthusiasm for the imagination Brian Wilson brought with him into the studio — although, of course, Wilson’s sessions at the time of Pet Sounds and Smile tended to go on for weeks at a time, ensuring a steady revenue stream.

Wechter tells a fond story about Alpert, whose first Tijuana Brass session was not registered with the union, enabling him to pay the musicians below the standard rate, which was all he could afford. When “The Lonely Bull” became a massive hit, the first thing the trumpeter did was go round to the union, fill in the forms, and pay the musicians the full scale.

Somebody relates how, at the time of “These Boots Were Made for Walking”, Nancy Sinatra and her father were both appearing at separate Las Vegas venues. Irv Cottler, Frank Sinatra’s veteran drummer, discovered that Blaine, whose bass-drum fills had provided “Boots” with one of its hooks, was being paid $2,500 a week to leave the studio and back up Nancy on stage. He, Cottler, was making $700 a week.

The guys who spent their lives shuttling from Gold Star to Western to Capitol to Radio Recorders got rich in the process, which leads Blaine himself to tell the saddest story. The studio income from a career including 50 No 1 hits and six consecutive records of the year at the Grammy awards (including “Strangers in the Night”, “Up, Up, and Away” and “Mrs Robinson”) had brought him a mansion in Beverly Hills, a motor yacht and and a Rolls-Royce. They were all taken away by a divorce settlement that coincided with the ending of the boom time for session men. Out of music, he left Los Angeles and worked for a while at a menial job somewhere in Arizona. But then in 2000 he and Palmer, his mentor, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his life in music restarted.

Back in 2011 Blaine gave a great quote about the experience of listening to oldies stations to Marc Myers of the Wall Street Journal. “You hear your youth,” he told Myers. “I hear a day at the office or a divorce.” But that’s just a session man’s humour. The film is full of warmth and remembered pleasure, like the moment Carol Kaye shows us how she came up with the walking bass riff that made Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” into a great record rather than just a decent song.

The Wrecking Crew was premiered at the South by Southwest festival in 2008 but a long campaign for Kickstarter funds was required in order to to pay the song licensing fees before it could be allowed out on a proper, if limited, release around the world (I saw it at the Art House cinema in Crouch End, North London). It’s not as polished a cinematic artefact as Standing in the Shadows of Motown or Muscle Shoals, but that’s part of its appeal. As an addition to the historical record, it’s priceless.