13.2.17

IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: THE LIFE & SOUL OF WILSON PICKETT by Tony Fletcher



Abuse runs in the family, or so they say. Those ill-treated as children go on to ill-treat as adults and it’s near impossible to break the cycle, all of which means it wasn’t easy being Wilson Pickett. It also makes the job of his biographer that much more taxing, especially if the family are involved, so getting the balance right – the magnificent music against the disagreeable nature of its creator – becomes a delicate responsibility, one not easily resolved. Tony Fletcher, however, has a proven record at dealing with this kind of dilemma. Dear Boy, his masterly biography of Keith Moon, spared few blushes when it came to writing about the Who drummer’s unpleasant side, so he isn’t afraid to tackle Pickett’s character defects either, with the result that In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett is an assured and illuminating book on the great soul singer, perhaps the best of them all in an era when great soul records from labels like Atlantic and Stax arrived with the dependability of Al Jackson’s snare drum.
Most music writers confine themselves to a genre in which they specialise but Fletcher recognises no such boundaries. He opened his account with indie (Echo & The Bunneyman and R.E.M.), slipped back into the mythical golden age (Moon), moved on to punk (The Clash) and even disco (a novel, Hedonism). Then he wrote a history of musical New York and an autobiographical memoir before reverting to type with The Smiths. I must therefore declare an interest: at Omnibus Press I was responsible for publishing the first five of these books and acquiring the UK rights to the sixth, and in the course of all this developed a professional relationship and close friendship with the author. So it follows that I am sympathetic towards his work; then again, in the unlikely event that he’d written a stinker, I’d have said so. 
That said, soul and black music generally isn’t an area where Fletcher has previously shown an interest, at least not in the books he writes. However, I happen to know that he’s the proud owner of a Hammond organ, the keyboard that Booker T used to supply those shimmering chords on Otis Redding’s records, as was his late friend and Face Ian McLagan, Small or otherwise, another soulman to his bones. So I guess it was only a matter of time before Fletcher flexed his marathon-toned muscles in this genre.
As he demonstrated in his history of New York’s musical past, Fletcher likes to dip into the history of America too, and in the opening chapters of In The Midnight Hour we learn about Pickett’s breadline childhood in central Alabama, where families are big and dinner portions small, and about the legacy of slavery that mutated into institutional racism buoyed up by the state legislature and redneck cops. Pickett, a name handed down from a slave owner, was one of 11 children and like the rest of them was expected to work in the cotton fields for a pittance. Fat chance. Wilson was a man of talent and ambition with a chip on his shoulder the size of a baked potato, so woe betide anyone who stands in his way. Then again, it might have been the ‘whuppins’ he received from his ma that drove him on. As Fletcher points outs these were administered regularly for minor infringements, not just as punishment but as a warning not to get uppity with white folks. To say the wrong thing to a white woman, Ma Picket knew, could result in retribution much worse than a sore backside.

May 5, 1966: Wilson Pickett on stage with Jimi Hendrix
at an Atlantic Records party is New York.

Like his hero Sam Cooke, Pickett learned to sing in church and, though untroubled by the jump to secular, ‘Lord have mercy’ would litter his lyrics to the last. From Alabama he moves north, to Detroit where he is recruited into The Falcons (alongside Eddie Floyd), and thence to recording in his own right, often with Bobby Womack whose presence is crucial to this story. Fletcher is especially good at tracing Pickett’s path through the murky waters of the sixties music industry wherein producers, managers and agents are all out for what they can get and to hell with morals or ethics. Everyone knew that his lifetime manager, Jimmy Evans, was mafia. “They do no nonsense management,” Pickett’s brother Maxwell tells Fletcher. “When something needs taking care of, they just take care of it.”
On the road music was a cash industry where being handy with a gun was useful, and Pickett didn’t trust banks. He was wary of record companies too and soon cottoned on to the benefits of music publishing. He wasn’t called Wicked Pickett for nothing and it’s a credit to his ‘meanness’ – in Southern black speak read ‘unyielding’ – that he ends up with a nice house, a Rolls-Royce and the wherewithal to move his mother away from rural Alabama and buy her a home of her own, in cash from the wads of bills he stored in his wardrobe.
All of which makes for a lively and entertaining read. In the acknowledgements Fetcher lists no fewer than 67 interviewees, family members, romantic partners, fellow singers and musical accomplices, be they producers or studio hands, or members of bands that backed him on the road, of which there are dozens. In this respect the attention to detail is top-notch, most of them happy to recall the ways in which Pickett’s records were made and his bravura showmanship. All offer evidence that Pickett was a hard taskmaster but a virtuoso singer blessed not only with an extraordinary vocal talent but a musical brain that could weed out any tiny flaws in a track. So can Fletcher, who examines Pickett’s work in an almost scholarly fashion: ‘Every chord required of the song is announced in the opening two bars and one beat,’ he writes of ‘In The Midnight Hour’, Pickett’s masterpiece, ‘a descending pattern that, like a guitar beginner’s tutorial, follows the dotted marks of the fret-board from a high D major to an open E major…. Trumpets blaze those initial descending chords, on the last of which one of them breaks off to play a root note an octave higher, emphasizing the incoming E major.’ That’s but a sample – Fletcher devotes an entire page to his analysis of the song – and his assessments of other Pickett classics – ‘634-5789’, ‘Land Of 1,000 Dances’ and ‘Mustang Sally’ among them – are equally incisive. I particularly enjoyed the passage about the recording of ‘Hey Jude’, recorded in one take with Duane Allman on guitar, ‘the two locked into a musical communication that took on a life of its own’.
Pickett’s unpleasant side is never far away, however. He is perpetually violent towards the women in his life, perhaps a legacy of his upbringing but still inexcusable, unnecessarily aggressive when he drinks too much and more or less addicted to cocaine, which serves only to exacerbate his temper and his tantrums; the cliché ‘his own worst enemy’ is a common refrain. The eighties and nineties weren’t particularly kind to Pickett or any of his fellow soul men and when his career takes a dive after leaving Atlantic for RCA, there to succumb to the lure of inappropriate disco music, and thence to recording limbo, the wheels really start to come off. He winds up in jail, twice, on a variety of charges – assault, driving under the influence, firearms, drugs. “His life was chaotic,” producer Robert Margouleff tells Fletcher. “He was an alcoholic… not in control. That’s the reason he didn’t make records for years.” Other witnesses say much the same thing but almost all make the point that throughout it all he maintained his musical standards. “[Despite it all] he never really sang badly, and he never really sang out of tune,” adds Margouleff.
Pickett’s strong work ethic prevents him from going broke, and although salvation of sorts was offered by his impressive 1999 album It’s Harder Now, Pickett was unwilling to promote it, preferring instead to rely on the steady income accrued from cabaret-style shows staged to exploit his ‘legendary’ status, many of them in casinos. Sooner or later, though, even this proves too much and, his body devastated by drink, he finally comes off the road. In the end he collapses at home, alone, to be found three days later, only to die shortly afterwards in hospital, aged 64, from a heart attack brought on by a raft of health problems. There’s an unseemly squabble over his assets but Fletcher ends his book on a high, recounting how the pastor at his funeral service, a ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ devotee, ‘had the whole church chanting a joyous last hurrah: Na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’, and how a week later Pickett was honoured at the Grammys in Los Angeles. “This is for the Wicked Pickett,” roared Bruce Springsteen as an all-star band broke out into a glorious ‘In The Midnight Hour’. ‘He was doing so not just on behalf of the musicians on stage, but on behalf of every soul fan who had ever been touched by one of the greatest voices and, yes, one of the most volatile personalities of the last fifty years,’ concludes Fletcher.
One of the greatest songs too, he might have added.

10.2.17

REVOLUTION? RECORDS & REBELS 1966-1970 - The Victoria & Albert Museum.



If they don’t already know it, Who fans will be delighted to learn that their heroes are well represented in Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-1970, an exhibition at the V&A Museum that opened in September and is showing until February 26. The only act with a higher profile is The Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd having largely opted out, probably because they had their own exhibitions running around the same time this opened.      
I’d been meaning to check this out for a while and it wasn’t until earlier this week, when I had three hours to spare in the middle of an afternoon, that I headed over to South Ken, paid my £15 (£1 off for OAPs!), and joined a queue of folk whose ages ranged from teens to older than myself. I also opted to wear the headset as I walked round, and was pleasantly surprised that the opening track was ‘Magic Bus’ from Leeds. Much more Who would follow.
In many ways the exhibits are similar in approach to those at the hugely successful David Bowie Is exhibition a few years ago: lots of LP covers, clothing, handwritten lyrics, books, magazines, posters, musical instruments and miscellaneous memorabilia. In fact there are hundreds of LP covers to be seen as you wander from room to room, all of them evidently on loan from the collection of John Peel whose taste, as is well known, was beyond reproach. Peelie, you’ll be pleased to learn, was a methodical man and almost all his LP covers have a small handwritten four or five-digit number on a small label in the top left hand corner, no doubt signifying which shelf they belong on. In the days when I had a lot of vinyl, albeit a fraction of Peelie’s collection of course, mine had a letter in the same place, A for Abba, B for Beatles, C for Clapton etc. Peelie’s method was far superior.
But I digress. The most valuable artefacts in this exhibition are no doubt the handwritten Beatle lyrics on loan from The British Library, among them ‘Help’ by John and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ by Paul, and clothing worn by the Fabs including one of John’s early on-stage dark suits, John and George’s Sgt Pepper outfits and a couple of lovely embroidered velvet jackets worn by George and Ringo. There’s also Yoko’s white step-ladder upon which John climbed to peer through a magnifying glass at the word ‘Yes’ on the ceiling of the Indica Gallery, thus triggering the romance of the decade and, some would have you believe, the slow and painful break up of the group he founded.

It was twenty years ago today..

Regardless of the carping of history academics, it is right and proper that The Beatles should dominate the exhibition in this way, or at least the musical side of it, but there’s much more to it than music, to which I shall return later. In the first room we have a wall dedicated to the Profumo Affair, the sex scandal that in 1964 helped bring down Harold Macmillan’s complacent Tory government, and then it’s on to Carnaby Street, photography (Bailey & Peers) and Blow Up, sex (gay issues and the pill), feminism, drugs, Stones bust, dissent, the Oz trial, black power, anti-Vietnam War demos, the King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, early computers, space travel and probably more besides because there’s an awful lot to take in and as it was fairly crowded I wasn’t able to see everything or, indeed, spend as much time there as I would have liked. Visitors are advised to allot a minimum of two hours, preferably three if they want to absorb the lot.
There are a few eye-openers, the most profound for me the caption for a simple Barclaycard in a glass case which informs that until 1973 women weren’t permitted to have them ‘in their own right’. And all the while as I wandered around appropriate rock music (including a bit more Who) was playing in my headset, intercut from time to time with spoken words, changing automatically from room to room and a bit of a jumble really. By about half way round I took it off to concentrate better. I’d heard it all before anyway.
In some respects the design of the exhibition as it progresses mirrors the changing times, though I’m not certain this was deliberate. The earlier rooms are fun, brightly lit and colourful, the later rooms (with one exception) less so, dour and gloomy. As I remember it (and I know that if you remember it, you’re not supposed to have been there), the middle of the decade was, indeed, fun, mind-expanding, awash with possibility, all you needed was love and the hope that this might bring about permanent change. Then it turned sour, the dream was over, as John said, and the blue meanies, horrified that their power was diminishing, reasserted control, so away went the fun. ‘Four dead in Ohio,’ sang CSN&Y and the room devoted to this aspect of the sixties is grim and foreboding, as it should be, more stridently affecting than any other room in the exhibition and a bit of a comedown after Mary Quant’s technicoloured mini-dresses. 
The exception is the penultimate room, the largest of the lot, on which extracts from the Woodstock film are beamed on to a huge triptych wall beneath which sits Keith Moon’s double-bass drum ‘Pictures Of Lily’ kit, some of it anyway, to the right of which is a busted Gibson, presumably Pete’s, and Roger’s suede coat with the tassels that he wore on stage in those days. Headset back on, I watched and listened to the extracts: Country Joe, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and Sly Stone before The Who’s extended ‘My Generation’, after which Pete disdainfully lobs his guitar into the crowd. It ends, as it should, with Jimi playing ‘Star Spangled Banner’. All around me visitors sat on cushions on the floor to watch, creating that homely hippie vibe that I remember from the first Virgin record shop at the eastern end of Oxford Street. Then it was on to the final exhibit in the final room: John singing ‘Imagine’, a bit of a Pollyanna cliché really. 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' would have been more my choice.

Roger's outfit, centre

So I came away with the thought that the only permanent memorial of the swinging decade really is the music, unless you count credit cards being available to both sexes. Successive governments of a right-wing bent have done their best to negate the social progress that sixties idealists sought to establish, some gains here, some losses there as our topsy-turvy world stumbles through the second decade of the 21st Century in the sinister shadow of Trump.
On the way out there was a book to sign with a space for comments. “Born 1947. We tried,” I wrote after my name.

5.2.17

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY, 2017



Those of you who have followed my posts about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will be pleased to learn that as a voter I have, as ever, been invited to the Induction Dinner at the Barclays Center in New York on April 2, 2017. The 2017 Inductees are Joan Baez, ELO, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes, only one of whom – Yes – I voted for. Chic have been ignored again, though Nile Rodgers is to be given a separate Award For Musical Excellence, and Kraftwerk, too, have been given the thumbs down, probably because no one is quite sure who Kraftwerk is these days, apart from Ralf Hutter who runs the franchise and recruits ‘touring members’ for shows, and who probably isn’t on the other three members of the ‘classic’ line-up’s Christmas Card lists.
Anyway, nice to see Yes making it at last, and what a shame that Chris Squire – the only member of this multi-personnel ensemble to have played with every edition of the group – won’t be on the podium. Of the rest, ELO, Journey and Pearl Jam were never really my cup of tea, I’m not big on rap and I always thought Joan was a folk singer. Lovely voice, mind.
However, I shall not be attending the event. This is not a protest against my votes being ignored (and again I shouted loudly but in vain for Richard Thompson) but because the cheapest ticket is $3,000, the most expensive (Chairman’s Sponsor) $100,000 which gets you and nine friends into the rehearsal, a pre-event dinner with inductees and a few more bells and whistles.
Finally, I’m probably not alone in thinking that as the years go by the calibre of names put forward for induction becomes less and less distinguished. Unlike awards that are presented on the strength of records released during the previous 12 months (of which there are far too many, but that’s a separate issue), entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is judged on a career’s worth of work that is deemed to have sufficient merit to warrant it. Six seems to be the minimum number of nominees inducted each year (and sometimes it’s more), so it is logical that the benchmark will gradually decline. Since artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record, it is a terrifying thought to realise that in four years time The Spice Girls will become eligible.


1.2.17

I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN by Sylvie Simmons




Odd how four words can make you well up. ‘The applause was deafening,’ writes Sylvie Simmons at the start of chapter 18 of I’m Your Man, her acclaimed biography of Leonard Cohen that I have only just got around to reading. It follows a chapter that describes in horrific detail how Cohen was fleeced of over $10 million by a deceitful manager and another in which, in order to shore up his crumbling finances, he is obliged after five years away from the spotlight to tour again, albeit very reluctantly and only after months of preparation in which he seriously believes no one cares any more. So, when after all this we read that at the first show on the tour, in the Canadian backwater of Fredericton, ‘the applause was deafening’, it becomes an affirmation that right will win out in the end and that this great artist, writer, poet, musician, songwriter and singer was as missed in his absence as he is adored in his presence.
The absence occurred because Cohen opted to spend his time in a Californian monastic retreat, dressing in monks’ robes, eating frugally, rising at 4am to observe ritual chanting in the lotus position and generally devoting his life to acquiring divine knowledge at the feet of his spiritual master Jushu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen master of the Rinzai school of Buddhism – ‘hardcore’, as Simmons puts it. This might seem unusual for someone who through no fault of his own was often lazily categorised as a ‘rock star’ but then again, as this book confirms, Cohen was much more besides. Also, in view of his much reported fondness for beautiful women – and them for him – it comes as something of a relief to discover that celibacy was not part of the pact, and that there occurred the odd tryst with a friendly nun in the front seat of his jeep parked nearby.
Such levity notwithstanding, this is a serious book, beautifully written, the definitive work on Cohen, and for the writing of it Cohen gave Simmons his full support and asked for nothing in return, not even to read her manuscript. This also explains why her research was facilitated by interviews with many musicians and producers who had worked with Cohen, friends and fellow poets going back to his home town of Montreal, not to mention the many women in Cohen’s life, all of whom seem to adore him still and look back warmly on their relationships with him as immensely valuable experiences.
Completed in 2012 and not yet updated to take into account Cohen’s death last year, I’m Your Man makes clear that music was by no means Cohen’s first career choice. Prior to signing with Columbia in 1967, he was through his novels and poetry already a distinguished man of letters in his native Canada, and by this time he’d reached the age of 33, positively ancient by recording industry standards. Also, despite an appetite for recreational drugs and good wine, he wasn’t the sort to fit into the déclassé world of rock. He was dapper, erudite, modest, a man of culture who invariably dressed in dark suits, a legacy from his family’s prosperous clothing business. (‘Darling,’ he tells Simmons, ‘I was born in a suit.’) It is not therefore until we reach page 161 (out of 499, excluding back matter) that we find Cohen in the recording studio attempting to record ‘Suzanne’, his most famous song until ‘Hallelujah’ slaughtered all before it rather late in the day.
By this time Simmons has painted a picture of Cohen as assuredly his own man insofar as life decisions are concerned. He is a seeker, a voracious reader, curious about religions, restless, often on the move – the descriptions of life on Hydra are as delightful as the Aegean island itself, as are passages about less well known visits to Mumbai – rarely looking back, unconcerned with material possessions or accumulating wealth, though the success of his music would eventually make him rich. Also, he’s a reluctant performer, largely due to stage fright, but when the occasion arises – as at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival – he rises to it, wondrously. At two in the morning, high but serene on Mandrax, Cohen asks the huge but restless crowd to light matches – perhaps the very first manifestation of this now ubiquitous concert practice – which they did. ‘It was magical,’ producer Bob Johnson, watching from the side of the stage, tells Simmons. ‘From the first moment to the last. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was just remarkable.’
Cohen was never prolific. His record label grew used to long waits between albums, though in the USA Columbia seemed not to care because – extraordinarily – it wasn’t until very late in his career that American audiences wised up to him. Latterly, of course, he was welcomed everywhere, especially in Europe where he’d always enjoyed massive admiration. The ‘Awards And Honours’ listing in the index extends to 28 lines in the tiniest type, the longest I’ve ever seen in a music biog. The concerts he performed following the management swindle were amongst the most over subscribed ever, everywhere, again and again, and in London he was able to fill the O2, not that he enjoyed it much. Intimacy was Cohen’s game, but this wonderful lap of honour makes the prefect climax to Simmons’ book, a fairy-tale ending she delights in telling.
This book has already been praised to the hilt by numerous reviewers, and deservedly so, and I came to it late. As Cohen’s most authoritative biographer Sylvie Simmons found herself called upon last year to talk endlessly and with a heavy heart about a man whose death she would have mourned more sorrowfully than most. She discovered him in 1968 as a teenager on the cut-price sampler The Rock Machine Turns You On, where Cohen’s ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ shared vinyl space with 14 other Columbia acts, of which only Bob Dylan and Paul Simon can be said to rival him. For a biographer, that’s the kind of credential that makes for a great read and Simmons doesn’t disappoint.