In 2012, in its third attempt to add order to rock history, Rolling Stone ranked the Top 500 Albums of All Time. Jackson Browne’s 1974 LP Late for the Sky came in at 375. I rate it much higher in my own Top 10, where it’s tied somewhere near the top with 100-or-so other albums. His lyrics are elegiac, knowing and human, akin (somewhat) to Robert Lowell poems set to music.

At the time of its release, I was a 9-year-old lad living in an arid foreign land. Although stark memories of various pop and rock songs from that era – including Jackson’s “Doctor My Eyes” – ricochet around my brain, my first remembrance of Late for the Sky comes from four years later, when my family lived in suburban Philadelphia. By then, an apprenticeship with Top 40 WIFI-92 had led me to the heavier rock sounds found on WMMR and WYSP, as well as the adult-oriented WIOQ; it was on those stations that I first heard the title cut, “Fountain of Sorrow,” “For a Dancer” and “The Road and the Sky.”

In short order, I picked up a few of his albums – beginning, in 1978, with his self-titled debut, the album home of “Doctor My Eyes,” which I’d already picked up on 45. I could lie and say I found the albums the best thing since sliced bread (or just Bread), but as I noted in this 2012 review of his concert at the Academy of Music, “lyrically speaking, Browne deals with subjects – love, disillusionment and death among them – that were beyond me at that point in my life. Yet there was a song or two on each of those albums that led me to buy the next, regardless, and through the years – and decades – I came to treasure the heartfelt insight of the songs I once dismissed.”

I remember listening to Late for the Sky for the first time and not knowing quite what to make of it. As I said above, many of its songs were beyond my 14- or 15-year-old comprehension – and yet they struck a chord, nonetheless. The uptempo “Road and the Sky” was my initial favorite.

As the years progressed and adulthood settled in, however, I came to hear those other songs for what they were: Adroit treatises on this thing called life. It’s often melancholic and wistful, but never downright depressing.

The title cut captures the final embers of a relationship, when the realization that it’s over has set in: “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” From what Jackson told Uncut magazine in 2010, prior to writing the song, the phrase “late for the sky” had been clanging around his head for quite some time. “I wrote that whole song in order to say that one phrase at the end of it.” In his speech welcoming Jackson to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, Bruce Springsteen listed it among the Jackson songs he’d wished he’d written.

In “Fountain of Sorrow,” finding a photograph of an old lover sends him spinning through the realities of the relationship that he didn’t recognize or understand at the time. “When you see through love’s illusions/There lies the danger/And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool/So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger/While the loneliness seems to spring from your life/Like a fountain from a pool.” In an interview with Mojo, he explained that “[i]t acknowledges that people are always looking for something in each other that they may not find, and says that not only is that OK, but what’s more enduring is the goodwill and acceptance of each others’ right to be on this search and to make your own choices, and that one’s longing or sorrow is part of your own search, not a byproduct of somebody else’s.” 

Another favorite song is “For a Dancer,” which he wrote for a friend who died in a fire. I’d wager that it’s been a song that’s sent off many souls in the decades since Jackson shared it with the world. It astounds me that it was written by a 26-year-old kid.  

Late for the Sky spent 24 weeks in the Billboard charts, topping off at No. 14. It went gold by the end of 1974, and achieved platinum status 15 years later. Sales alone, both short- and longterm, don’t signal an album’s greatness, of course, and such is the case here. No, these are songs that reflect the human experience like few others – for that reason alone, they should be a part of the soundtrack to everyone’s life.

The song list:

It’s been a wild and wacky few weeks for me and mine, so much so that my never-ending quest for new sonic adventures has taken a backseat to comfort music – aka old favorites. That’s not to say a few new releases haven’t turned my ear, though they’re actually from old “new favorite artists” as well as a few longtime musical companions.

1) Diane Birch – “Boys on Canvas.” Dub this one the “Love Art Blues.” On Valentine’s Day, the Church of Birch’s charismatic prelate shared this messianic message, which is sure to leave listeners floating in the clouds. She noted in a Facebook post that she and producer Paul “Strangeboy” Stacey placed performance ahead of perfection – aka the Neil Young approach. Diane’s piano and vocal were recorded in one take, while Paul and his twin brother Jeremy handled bass and drums. 

2) Shelby Lynne – “Here I Am.” This song, which Shelby released a few weeks back, isn’t “new” to anyone who purchased the Here I Am soundtrack and/or DVD from Shelby’s merchandise table a few years back, but it has finally been given a wide release. The movie, too, has been re-edited and retitled When We Kill the Creators, and is playing festivals to rightful acclaim, and the songs themselves were re-mixed for a new album that’s due April 17th. The original soundtrack, for those who have it can attest, features between-song spoken interludes lifted from the film that are riveting in and of themselves; we’ll have to wait and see whether they remain on the new album. (I’ve become so accustomed to hearing them that I can’t imagine not hearing “six feet under is six feet under.”)

3) Rumer – “Bristlecone Pine.” A few weeks back, singer-songwriter Rumer released “Bristlecone Pine” from her forthcoming album, Nashville Tears, which finds her performing the songs of legendary country songwriter Hugh Prestwood. It’s like listening in on heaven, just about.

4) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Stayin’ Alive.” Bruce Springsteen released the digital-only Songs Under Cover compilation on Valentine’s Day. It features an eclectic collection of in-concert cover songs from 1975 through 2017, including this bon mot from Brisbane in 2017.

5) Nichole Wagner – “Life During Wartime.” The Texas-based singer-songwriter previews her forthcoming Dance Songs for the Apocalypse EP, which is slated to include Neil Young’s classic “Ambulance Blues,” with this tasty cover of the Talking Heads.

Despite the varied features, album reviews and artist overviews, the day-to-day draw of the old site – which I launched 23 years ago this month – can be summed up with a name: Neil Young.

To give you an idea of what I mean: I created two mirrored versions of the same basic content: The Unofficial CSN/Y Pages and The Unofficial Neil Young Pages. By the time of the Y2K tour in 2000, the Neil pages were attracting 300+ unique visitors a day, the CSN/Y-branded pages about 50, and the rest of the site – en masse – maybe 25. As a result, my Neil pages – along with a few other NY-centric sites – were spotlighted in the short-lived Mojo Collectibles, which spelled my name wrong, and Record Collector.

(After the Y2K tour ended, I feel compelled to mention, the boom in overall visitors slowly dwindled to about a hundred a day.)

Mind you, folks weren’t visiting for my thorough album discography, which included useful links to CDnow.  They were seeking information on bootlegs. Neil bootlegs, to be precise. And with the help of a handful of fellow (and metaphoric) longhairs, I delivered: The site was home to 100+ bootleg reviews. We dove deep into the music, sound quality and other esoteric stuff, and advised folks on what to look for and what to ignore.

This review focuses on a set that collects Buffalo Springfield’s Monterey Pop performance and various sundries. It’s a good example of what we aimed to do: educate, ruminate and pontificate.

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“I’d like you to welcome now–with a great big, fat round of applause–my favorite group, the Buffalo Springfield…”

With that introduction from The Monkees’ Peter Tork, the Buffalo Springfield took to the stage at the now-legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival missing an important ingredient: Neil Young. The enigmatic guitarist had quit the band a month earlier, on the eve of the Springfield’s Tonight Show appearance. In his stead at Monterey sat replacement lead guitarist Doug Hastings and, on rhythm, none other than Byrd David Crosby.

In John Einarson’s For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, bassist Bruce Palmer claimed that Crosby “stunk to high heaven.” Doug Hastings’ take was that, due to David’s deficiencies as a rhythm guitarist, “he would rush the tunes.” While agreeing that their performance was rather lacklustre, Richie Furay shifted the blame from the Byrd to the Springfield itself, and their lack of rehearsals sans the absent Neil Young. “We were struggling because we didn’t have the whole band, the family.”

Since the band’s performance was inexplicably left off of the mammoth Monterey Pop box set from a few years back, fans themselves haven’t been in a position to judge – oh, sure, there was a Monterey Pop bootleg series in the early ’90s, but finding it was just about impossible then. Besides, it only contained four of the songs from what was a six-song set. Do you really want to pay $50 for four songs? I thought not. Along comes Monterey, Mannix & Gold Star…a one-CD affair that comes close to collecting the entire Monterey performance, adds in the two songs the band performed on a truly weird appearance on Mannix, as well as recordings from the Gold Star Studios that date from early- to mid-1967.

Like most rock scholars, the Old Grey Cat has always considered the Springfield to be “Stephen’s band.” Stephen Stills was the glue that held the group together; and the Monterey set offers strong supporting evidence…forget what the band members themselves thought. Musicians – like most artists – are their own worst critics, after all. The band cooks, especially on “For What It’s Worth,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” and “Bluebird,” with the latter two joined at the hips in an unintentional – but fantastic – medley. Richie Furay also comes off very well with his two forays into the spotlight. To these trained ears, David Crosby more than holds his own.

Now for a few quibbles: “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and “Pretty Girl Why” are displaced in the lineup. In fact, they weren’t the concluding songs that night; they were the third and fourth numbers. But my main gripe? “Pretty Girl Why” cuts off midway through the first chorus!

The sound quality is good, if somewhat muffled.

The “studio out-take” of “Bluebird” is the nine-minute version found on the double-album best-of titled Buffalo Springfield released in the early ’70s, as well as on several bootlegs, most notably the cd version of CSNY’s Wooden Nickel. It’s Stills at his best, pure and simple.

What follows next is definitely not Stills at his best – though it’s not really his fault. In one of the most surreal moments in the history of the band, the Springfield guested on an episode of the TV series Mannix – yes, you read right. Mannix. In the episode (taped on August 14, 1967, but not aired until October), they provided the “atmospherics” in a bar … the only member of the band to be clearly seen on camera was Stephen, who was decked out in hippie regalia. The two songs they performed, “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” are featured complete with the dialogue from Mannix’s Mike Connors and the episode’s other actors. In other words: “Ugh!”

Perhaps the most startling factor of the appearance was that Neil had rejoined the band three days earlier. One assumes, then, that he also took part in this Mannix episode – Mannix but not The Tonight Show!? Go figure….

Now for the Gold Star material (much of which can also be found on the Stampede and Down to the Wire bootlegs): Forget what the accompanying liner notes claim; these songs were not the band’s “first attempt to make an album.” Rather, they’re demos and studio out-takes, primarily from early 1967 when the band was marking time. Sound quality is on par with Stampede (which is to say so-so), but the material itself is – for the most part – wonderful. Neil’s demo of “One More Sign,” for example, features a tender vocal. The two takes on “Down to the Wire” are great, too, with Stills’ lead vocal a delight to be heard. The only difference between this material and Stampede is that, here, “Come On” is replaced by an early run-through of “Mr. Soul.” (A-)

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As part of The Old Grey Cat’s ongoing 23rd anniversary shindig, here’s a favorite review/Q&A from 1999.

New England-based singer-songwriter Dana Pomfret came to my attention by way of her husband, guitarist Jeff Pevar (they since split up), who I interviewed in early 1999. I soon checked out her CD, Soul Collage, and was surprised at just how good it was. In fact, I liked it so much that I reached out and asked if she’d answer a few questions; she graciously consented. (Although the album is no longer in print, her 2004 Tracks compilation is available on the usual streaming services. It’s well worth a few dozen listens.)

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Soul Collage is the audio equivalent of a powerful, seductive drug: One listen and you’ll be hooked. Dana’s intoxicating vocals weave in and out of the catchy melodies, conjuring comparisons to such singers as Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro and Carly Simon, among others. Soon enough, however, those comparisons fade and you’re left with Dana, who takes you down funky and slow, alternately wooing and cooing you into her soul.

It was toward the end of my interview with CPR’s Jeff Pevar, I’d asked about his work with his wife, the singer-songwriter Dana Pomfret. I’d never heard of her and, as is my wont, admitted my ignorance. “You’d like her,” he assured me. Spoken like a proud husband? You bet. Yet, to be honest, I harbored my doubts. Blame it on my ever-increasing cynicical outlook on life. I mean, what was Jeff going to say? “She’s terrible”?

Imagine my surprise, then, when a few weeks later I plunked Soul Collage into my CD player. “In the ’50s they had the hula hoop” – Dana’s vocals immediately swoop in, and swoop you into the groove from the get-go. The first song, “Buttermilk Highway,” hitches a hook-laden ride into a then-now comparison of the ’50s and the present. A lot’s changed. A lot hasn’t: “Riding high on a buttermilk highway/Keepin’ tight on a jigger of gin/On our way to the pearly skyway/Pass the buck and I know I’m in…” Kids gunned down in Denver, hate crimes on the rise, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo…the list goes on. And rather than doing something about it, we tend to look the other way and pray the problems will disappear on their own. “Buttermilk Highway” makes you think – as well as hum its chorus while walking down the hallway at work.

The rest of the album’s just as potent as that opening track. “Girls In Their Cars” is a mid-tempo gem that comes across–to my ears, at least–as a marriage between early Rickie Lee Jones (minus her hipster lingo) and the Beach Boys. “Girls in their cars sing with the radio….” 

Accompanied by a deft backing track (featuring a nice mandolin solo plucked by the omni-present Jeff Pevar), it could very easily be a trip down a foggy nostalgia lane, but it’s not: “And girls on their feet/still raise up their kids alone.” There’s more going on here than the lush, to-die-for vocals, in other words. Rather than hitting the listeners over the head, Dana seduces us into the groove, into the stories she tells, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Another such moment arises with the album’s gorgeous closing track, “Sally,” which draws us into prepubescent innocence, painting a picture of kids playing kick-the-can.  “I’ve been waiting on my change,” she sings. “Sitting here waiting for my change/thinking I would shed my skin/come back new and strange.” But innocence isn’t as innocent as we might like to think: “I see her Dad’s belt buckle out/He ‘really means it this time’/so banged up – she never cried.” 

That’s not to say Soul Collage is just about “important” issues. To the contrary, it’s about life large and small–the world around us as well as the world within. For every “Buttermilk Highway” there’s “Trick’s on You”: “When my Grandma calls out to me/I curl up on her breast/she says ‘don’t sweat the b.s. baby and just forget about the rest.'”

Like many of the albums – CPR’s, Stacey Earle’s – reviewed within these pages, this one stands head-and-shoulders above the “product” the major labels and today’s static radio stations routinely push at consumers. As I stated above, I approached this disc with some trepidation–and wound up a convert.

My (Email) Q&A with Dana:

You dedicate the album to Sammie Coleman. Who is she?

Sammie Coleman was a brilliant, poetic, fierce, funny woman. Born and raised in rural Georgia, she came North to try and make a better living for herself after graduating high school. When we moved to NYC, mom went back to school to get her teaching degre–and Sammie came to take care of my little brother and me, Tuesdays and Thursdays. She was my “second mom”–as she put it. We baked, played, danced and sang. Early on, she was one of the people who gave me genuine, unconditional support and love–and she encouraged me to become a singer. “Don’t be a doubtin’ Thomas” and “take what you got and get what you want” were two of her favorite expressions. She taught me to follow my heart and never give up. Sadly, she died in Feb of  ’98, so I dedicated the CD to her…

Looking back at when you recorded Soul Collage, is there any moment that crystallizes the process? In other words, what’s the first thing you think of?

Heh…Here are a few:

  • Doing vocal takes in between plane landings (we’re in a bucolic spot – but close to the airport).
  • Living with ALL the musicians in our little cabin while we recorded the basic tracks nearby at Jim Chapdelaine’s studio – who worked long hours with his screaming cockatiel Dizzy perched on his shoulder.
  • Taking the drummer, Franck Ridacker–who’d come all the way from Paris to record–on 
  • a 2 a.m. tromp through the woods, where we got lost. All he could say was, “where is my bed?”

Where’d the title come from?

I’d written a little poem with that title – just a word list, really. I thought it applied to the record; the cover painting ended up being a collage, the music is an amalgam of styles, all music comes from the soul, and a wonderful mix of people came together (from Paris, NY, CT, past & present) to help make it happen. My whole feeling about life-on-the-planet is that it’s a kind of moving collage – everything all-at-once: choose your vision.

Who are your influences? I hear Laura Nyro in there…

It’s funny – because I never had any of LN’s records – but I heard her on the radio and liked her a lot. My folks were into wonderful jazz – Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, etc. – and classical (courtesy of my dad). And incredible folk stuff – everyone from Odetta to Pete Seeger to Woodie Guthrie to the Weavers (courtesy of my mom). My own picks were Marvin Gaye – his hits as well as the more obscure stuff – the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, CSNY, The Persuasions, The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha, Jethro Tull, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Sweet Honey in the Rock. ETC! – everything I could get my hands on and especially music that moved and harmonized. Couldn’t get enough.

What comes first – the words or the melody?

It depends on the day, the minute, the mood. Sometimes it’ll be a bass line, sometimes a rhythm, sometimes (and I kiss the floor when this happens) whole songs just seem to spontaneously write themselves. I carry a tape recorder everywhere because inspiration always hits in the weirdest places.

For “Tricks on You,” you credit the novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer… 

The book is a big, moving picture about the underbelly of the ‘wild west’. It’s poetry, pornography, love, tragedy, humor. An inspired yarn with a lot of soul and some incredible images.

Crosby & Nash…how’d their contributions come about? Martin Sexton?

I met David & Graham through Jeff – and eventually they each got copies of my first disc. Graham knew I was recording a second CD, and emailed Jeff that he could “sing his ass off” for me if I wanted. WOW! I went through the ceiling, then emailed David and asked if he’d do it as well. He agreed – they are both incredibly generous spirits – and we did the back-ups to “Permanent Bitter Pill” and “Underground World” at Graham’s studio in Los Angeles. It was a lovely rush to work with them; I learned so much about harmony from listening to their records – and there we were doing “aaahhhhhs” together!

And Sexton… I saw Sexton sing his ass off one night at a little coffee shop upstate, so I called him up and asked him to sing on the disc. I was especially interested in his trumpet impersonation. He came down to the cabin with his daughter and just nailed it.