Posts Tagged ‘The Old Grey Cat’

In celebration of the 23rd anniversary of The Old Grey Cat (sans the hiatus of about seven – or was it eight? – years), here’s a post from the original website. Just as I do on this blog at year’s end, I recapped one aspect of 1998 once December rolled around…

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DECEMBER 14th– This time of year, magazines, newspapers and the broadcast/cable networks look back at the year that was. And why not? It’s a cheap, easy way to fill space. Of course, few new insights are proffered; instead, we’re served clipped headlines and predictable analysis. For instance, 1998 is already being called “The Year of Monica.”

Uh, excuse me? As far as I’m concerned, 1998 was “The Year of Lucinda.”

Aside from being an instant classic, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was the best album of the year, hands down. In years to come, folks will write about it with the same reverence that they share for such albums as Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel or the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a genre-busting effort that is more than the sum of its parts. In a live setting, backed by a powerhouse band featuring the likes of guitar slinger Kenny Vaughn and vocalist extraordinaire Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda offered a stew of sublime, superb and incredible songs, tasty morsels all.

1) Lucinda Williams – June 26th – Philly/TLA – The circumstances were suspect, at best. Due to thunderstorms, Lucinda’s plane was detoured to NYC; she took a train south, and didn’t hit the stage until 10:30 p.m. Add to that the fact that she’d had two hours sleep the night before…but, to quote Stephen Stills, it’s “No matter. No distance. It’s the ride.” And what a ride this night was! She and her band were right in time; and we, the audience, were left moaning at the ceiling… especially on the extended guitar jam that brought bliss to “Joy.”

2) Steve Earle & the Dukes – Feb. 7th – Philly/TLA – The term “ragged glory” must have been invented to describe a Steve Earle show. After opening with the timely “Christmas in Washington,” Steve led the audience on a two-hour, 20-minute tour of society’s “other side”… “Taneytown,” “Copperhead Road” and Fort Worth were just a few of the stops. Others: “Guitar Town,” New York City and … the soul. This was a night of glorious, guts-first music that rocked the soul even as it connected with the intellect. I was lucky enough to see Steve twice this year, four months apart. The main difference? The band. Here, he was buttressed by Buddy Miller on guitar and Brady Blades on drums (half of Spyboy, in other words). Small wonder that, after Steve and the Dukes left the stage, the Philly crowd took up the chorus of the night’s closing song, “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” and brought him back for more.

3) CPR – July 1st – Philly/TLA – A sparsely attended show, but you’d never know it from the way Crosby, Pevar and Raymond played. Same goes for the magical opening act, Anastasia & John. An incredible, magical night. CPR remind me of Steely Dan, but minus (what to me is) the Dan’s smarminess. Crosby was in exc. voice, and the new songs are among his strongest. That’s not to say the old songs weren’t appreciated… don’t pass on seeing CPR, if given the chance. These guys rock (and Pevar’s guitar playing blows the mind).

4) Maria McKee – Dec. 6th – Philly/Tin Angel – This year, the Absolutely Sweet Maria undertook a brief tour billed as “A Close Encounter with …” At the Tin Angel, those words are oh-so-true. It’s a small venue, fitting no more than 125. Despite suffering from a cold and “airplane throat,” Maria took hold of the audience for a good 75 minutes… yeah, 75 minutes. Too short, to say the least, yet it was a riveting show. Suffice it to say, she is not collecting dust. She opened with “Life is Sweet,” played a hand-full of new songs and just a few of her older classics. “Panic Beach,” for example, tho’ these ears missed “Breathe.” The night’s highlight: An intense “I’m Not Listening.”

5) Steve Earle – July 15th – Philly/TLA – Minus Buddy Miller and Brady Blades, but still damn good. “Won’t get far on 37 dollars and a Jap guitar… WANNA BET!” See him, buy his albums, help him pay off that 16,000 pound phone bill he racked up in London last year… I could go on, but why?

This month marks not one, but two noteworthy anniversaries within my online life: In February 1997, Diane and I launched the original Old Grey Cat website on GeoCities; and 15 years later, in February 2012, I joined the blogosphere via the Hatboro-Horsham Patch. I’ll save the latter for later this month, and focus on the former today and next weekend. 

Diane and I first traveled the electronic highway in the dirt-road days of 1991 on our IBM clone, prowling Prodigy’s message boards and trading tapes, making acquaintances, making friends. It was fun, if frustrating, due to the sometimes byzantine business practices Prodigy employed, such as charging per message and, later, by the hour. One could also access the World Wide Web, as it was known, but only through the Prodigy interface – which wasn’t that good. Then, sometime in the fall of 1996, offline friends who’d just made the jump to an ISP and Netscape Navigator introduced us to the Web proper.

Our minds were blown.

Within a few months, we shed Prodigy in favor of Erol’s Internet – and staked a claim on the Web thanks to GeoCities, where we “homesteaded” in the Towers section of the SunsetStrip subdivision. (For those unfamiliar with GeoCities, it was the WordPress.com of its day, providing free server space and a URL in exchange for modest advertisements on each page. And, just like WordPress, it provided an option to upgrade to a unique URL and no ads.)

For that first attempt at a website, I used Microsoft Publisher, a consumer-facing desktop-publishing program that included an option to convert pages into HTML files. We wrote a few reviews, which I then copied over to Publisher, and uploaded everything to the Web. I named the end result The Old Grey Cat – after our old grey cat. (His name was Smokey; he lived on the second floor.)

I also included this statement of purpose: “The aim of The Old Grey Cat is to bring back something that’s been missing from rock criticism in recent years: Passion. Back when the genre was born in the ’60s (via Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone), when you read a review of an album you were generally reading more than just a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” critique of the music. The writers went one step further and took you inside the music with their own words, reflecting the rhythms, melodies and themes so that the readers could/would get an approximation of what, say, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was about.”

That initial design, I should add, wasn’t very good: Microsoft was all about bucking HTML standards, as it wanted the Web for itself. Which is to say, the site looked as intended when viewed with Internet Explorer, but like a bazooka had made mischief with the layout when Netscape Navigator was used. I switched to Microsoft FrontPage, which did adhere to HTML standards, soon thereafter.

Unfortunately, my digital archives don’t include the original incarnation; I fear it’s been lost to time. (The above images are from sometime in ’99.) But, I did come across this on a backup CDR:

Yep, a page from the first year in which we celebrated all things High Fidelity – Nick Hornby’s novel, that is, not the movie (which wouldn’t hit the theaters for a few more years). Diane wrote the intro.

These were our Top 5 Albums of All Time:

These were our Top 5 Singer/Songwriters of All Time:

And, because the original aim was to be about more than “just” music, these were our Top 5 Novels of All Time (FGS is one of the offline friends who introduced us to the Web):

One present-day observation about the lists: I’ve become much less absolute when it comes to who or what ranks where in the pantheon that is popular music. By and large, it’s all good – and, as Neil Young famously says, “all one song.”

Another observation: Bruce Springsteen would place much higher on both our lists – he’d top Diane’s and place beneath Neil on mine (if I still made such lists, that is). Back then, we’d yet to recover from (and forgive him for) the Human Touch/Lucky Town debacle, not to mention ditching the E Street Band.

Years long ago, with the old website, I routinely received requests to review new releases from independent artists and bands. The emails arrived in my inbox (the same Yahoo Mail account I use today, believe it or not), contained links to low-quality song snippets, and if interested I replied with my address. A week or so later, a CD would show up in my mailbox.

I usually ignored such enquiries.

In late 1997, however, I received a request from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe, who thought that their song “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” was a natural fit for my site. As astute Internet historians should know, the original Old Grey Cat site leaned on Neil Young-related content to attract hundreds of visitors a day. I figured what the hell, and told them to send a CD my way.

A few months later, on February 8th, 1998, I posted the below essay, which used the “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” song as a launching pad for something more than a straight review; I’m sure it wasn’t what the band wanted, but c’est la vie. (I have edited the piece for clarity, excised a few digressions of digressions – back then I subscribed to a stream-of-consciousness approach I now find abhorrent – and added the YouTube clips.)

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That’s me in 1972 or ’73, above.

Yeah, even then I was something of a hippie, an outsider, a rebel, ready, willing and able to sneak off with a buddy for a smoke – of tobacco. The smoke seduced and corrupted our young lungs, with the coughs erupting from within us little more than echoes of our fading innocence.

Music was a known entity to me: My mom and dad liked “the anti-Neil,” Neil Diamond, and me, I thrived on Johnny Horton. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s a shame: In the late ’50s, he hit the charts with a variety of historical-based novelty songs -“The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “Jim Bridger” and “Johnny Freedom” – to name but a few. I played his Greatest Hits album on my portable record player, listened to the music and memorized the words.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but he was a “Honky Tonk Man” who mined the rich veins of hillbilly music, a pioneer who helped pave the way for Buck Owens and, later, Dwight Yoakam. “Guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music/it’s the only thing that keeps me hanging on,” Dwight sang on his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., capturing on vinyl (or cassette, in my case) the reflection of his – and mine, and yours – soul. It’s an undeniably great album. If you don’t have it, get it, and crank it up. Hell, yes, it’s hillbilly music. It’s real. Authentic.

Certain songs, certain albums stay with you for the long haul. They take you back to a time, a place, a street like a lot of other streets in a town like a lot of other towns – and, yes, I more or less copped those last lines from the final episode of The Wonder Years. But great music does more than just take you back: It speaks for you in the present, too. We change, it changes.

Neil Young’s music is like that. “Down by the River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) means many things, few of which are actually articulated in the lyrics. It’s the guitar rising, falling, swirling in space like a Deadhead twirling, each time ’round different from the last. It speaks volumes – especially when played loud.

Another album, another year: Neil’s Old Ways in 1985. Not a great album by any means, but “Bound for Glory,” a duet with Waylon Jennings, is sublime. Came out the year before Dwight’s LP and another landmark, must-buy album, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town. In that same time frame came yet another genre-busting effort: Lone Justice’s debut, which featured the absolutely sweet Maria McKee’s mercurial vocals on such songs as “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” “Ways to Be Wicked” and “You Are the Light.” 

If you don’t have Lone Justice’s debut, hunt it down. I recommend investing in – at the least – Maria McKee’s entire catalogue; whether live or on album, she sends shivers up the spine with just about every song she sings. That’s a cliché, I know, but that’s what happens when you write about music: you find yourself groping for words and phrases that accurately sum up what it is the music makes you feel. ‘Cause in the end, that’s what great music does: It makes you feel.

It doesn’t matter if it’s new or old; the best songs and albums, like great literature, communicate in the moment, not the past. I wasn’t at Woodstock; I don’t remember Kent State. When I was five, I met then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and was thrilled to shake his hand. I knew nothing of hippies or the anti-war movement, of his or President Nixon’s crimes. But I was in the stands in Atlantic City when Neil Young dedicated “Ohio” to the students slain in China.

That song – although about a specific time and place – transcends its origin. For good and ill, Kent State has entered the lexicon as a metaphor. And, to paraphrase David Crosby, metaphors are the driving force behind great songs.

“My heart wants to be unbroken/my dreams rattle here unspoken/my days have all got a number/I need a good song so I don’t feel so wrong/so I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul/I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul…”

Those lyrics are from a recent find which came the Old Grey Cat’s way quite by chance. There, in my mailbox last December, was an invite from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe: Review us, they said. They’d just released a song they thought I might appreciate: “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul.” It’s a sentiment, obviously, that captured my imagination.

The first time I heard their self-titled CD, I said to Diane, “They’re going far.” It was neither an affirmation of the music nor a condemnation, just a recognition that they possess all of the ingredients necessary to storm the charts.

I’ve lived with the disc for just over a month and can honestly say I like the Neil Young song: “You say I’ll never be forgiven/your way is taking no giving/that my role is that of a sinner/I need a strong song/that rockin’ free world song/I find myself…leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul.”

It rocks and, as importantly, it captures in “feel” that part of us that turns to certain songs for inspiration. There are other moments of clarity as well, including “Crooked by Design” (“This life of mine, tangled in twine/May not be pretty, but it suits me/Rebel inside, just won’t hide…”) and “Nothing Now,” which documents a relationship’s dying days. 

I don’t know how or where Permission to Breathe and/or “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul” will rank in the pantheon of music that makes up the soundtrack of my – or your – life. But, that’s the thing about music. You meet a song, you embrace and it’s with you for the long haul unless and until, for reasons best left unsaid, you leave it stranded on the roadside. “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul,” that one is in the “probable” stage right now. It’s great on a tape right before…you got it: “Down by the River.”

While digging through my digital archives, I came across this 1997 email interview I conducted, for my old website, with Canadian rock music historian John Einarson, author of such respected tomes as Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied, Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock, and Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers, about his then-current There’s Something Happening: The Story of the Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth.

It was, and remains, the best book on that influential band.

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To my way of thinking, despite recent acclaim and their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Buffalo Springfield remain one of the most overlooked and under appreciated bands that the 1960s produced. That’s an arguable fact, I’ll grant you. After all, “For What It’s Worth” is the song de rigueur used in movies to echo the mood of the ’60s … yet, blank stares still grace too many faces whenever the band is mentioned. “Buffalo who?”

Hell, the day of the Springfield’s entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I listened in horror as a disc jockey at a local, respected music station reported the news and then went on to describe the band’s lineup as including “Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and David Crosby.” Excuse me? Crosby!? Yeah, he did hang out with Stephen Stills; he’s said to have come up the guitar lick Stills based “Rock & Roll Woman” on. He sat in with them at Monterey Pop, joined them at a couple other gigs. But a member of the band?

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

The David Crosby “saga,” such as it is, receives its rightful mention in John Einarson and Richie Furay’s book, There’s Something Happening: The Story of the Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth, with colorful quotes from Bruce Palmer (“Crosby stunk to high heaven”) and fill-in guitarist Doug Hastings. The same can be said for every other important event in the band’s lifespan and beyond, including an ill-fated “reunion” in 1988 that Neil Young skipped at the last minute. Einarson does a deft job of documenting these moments, interspersing a crisp narrative with first-hand observations from some, if not all, of the participants.

Aside from delving into the inner-group dynamics that drove (and ultimately broke up) the band, the book is thankfully respectful of private lives. This is no tell-all/groupie-laden chronicle, in other words, but a serious examination of the Springfield’s career. That’s not to say you don’t get clear pictures of the principles. Stills, for example, comes across confident and cocky, a young man sure of himself and his talents. He strove not only to write and sing the songs, but play lead guitar, too. In short, he saw the band as his. Neil Young, on the other hand, didn’t just doubt his role in the Springfield; he doubted the group itself. That he skipped out on the eve of their biggest break – an appearance on The Tonight Show – says it all. He possessed (still does) a distinct vision of what rock music should and shouldn’t be. And in the shadows of those two opposites stood the good-natured Richie Furay, not necessarily content with his role but accepting of it all the same.

OGC: What led you to write a book about the Buffalo Springfield?

John Einarson: The idea to do a Springfield book stemmed from several factors, really: the subject seemed logical given that I covered Neil’s career up to that point in a previous book [Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied]; I have always had a great appreciation and fascination with the Springfield’s music and troubled history; and because there is a strong Canadian connection and all my previous books tend to have that thread through them. But besides that, I’ve always been a Springfield fan. I’m probably dating myself here but I first got into the Buffalo Springfield in late 1966/early 1967 when I first heard their debut album on the radio here in Winnipeg. Neil was home for Christmas and he brought a copy with him and a local deejay played it (actually Neil only lived up the block and one street over from me). I was fascinated with the Springfield sound because I was into folk rock and I found their style unique from the Byrds and other folk-based groups at the time. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” ranks as my personal all-time favorite song.

OGC: What role did Richie Furay play in the book’s creation?

Einarson: Richie was my main source on the group. I found him extremely open, receptive and eager to get the Springfield story documented accurately and completely. The group holds a very special place in his heart and he didn’t want a toss-off book. I spent four days with him in Boulder, Colorado in intense interviews, plus several lengthy follow-ups by phone. Throughout the entire research and writing process, Richie was directly involved and approved the final manuscript. Given his participation, the book becomes the authentic, authorized story of the Springfield. Richie and I first hooked up back in 1992 at Neil Young’s suggestion when I was researching Don’t Be Denied. When I decided to pursue a Springfield book, I first contacted him because I viewed his participation as pivotal to the book’s development. We renewed our friendship and took it from there. He is a man of integrity who had no particular agenda or axe to grind. He tells it like it was. And you couldn’t meet a nicer guy than Richie. He also provided me with contacts to interview other people associated with the group and loaned his scrapbooks and rare collection of photos which appear throughout the book.

OGC: While doing your research, did you discover anything that surprised you?

Einarson: TONS!! Where to begin? It’s all in the book I guess. When I undertake a project, whether an article or a book, I immerse myself in research in order to be well-prepared for interviews, Actually Richie was knocked out at my detailed knowledge and chronology. However, given that I had a more than casual knowledge of the group’s checkered history I was still overwhelmed with the volume of new information I discovered. For example, Neil’s epilepsy was a far greater issue than ever assumed and affected the band several times (even being the catalyst for “Mr. Soul”). I never envisioned the enormity of the Stills-Young rivalry. The attempt to oust Dewey for Skip Spence. The influence of two Moby Grape songs on “For What It’s Worth.” The whole Au Go Go Singers and Company story. The sheer volume of songs recorded yet left unreleased (and still languishing in vaults unheard). The problems putting Last Time Around together. That the group considered going on as a 4 piece on two occasions. Neil’s self-indulgence and lack of commitment. Bruce’s many drug busts. The fact that their bass position was far more in flux than I realized. The fact that the group had decided to break up long before their May, 1968 swansong. The ineptitude of their managers…. and on and on. It was quite a revelation, albeit pleasant.

OGC: Were you able to interview all of the principles? What were they like?

Einarson: I interviewed just about everyone in or associated with the group plus key contemporaries at that time. As well, I interviewed people associated with several members’ previous groups like the Au Go Go Singers, and Squires. I had interviewed Neil Young a few years back while researching Don’t Be Denied and we had talked about the Springfield so I had that already, a lot I hadn’t used in that book. Stephen Stills was a different story though. He refused to cooperate. Richie, who collaborated with me, was disappointed that Stephen refused all entreaties to cooperate even after he personally attempted to break through. It seems Stephen doesn’t share the same regard for the past as some others do and I was informed that he was planning his own book down the road sometime. But by collaborating with Richie, it gives the book a unique perspective because he was the man in the middle between these two creative yet often combative factions, Stephen and Neil. His insights into their personalities are quite revealing. I did manage to interview several dozen key people such as Dickie Davis, Dewey Martin, Doug Hastings, Bruce Palmer, Miles Thomas, Rusty Young, Chris Hillman and notorious manager Charlie Greene.

OGC: Don’t Be Denied covers Neil’s early years. For What It’s Worth picks up with the Springfield. Do you have plans to document the next “chapter(s)” in Neil’s career

Einarson: No, I’ll leave that to others more knowledgeable about his later period. My expertise is in the early years and every book written on Neil Young since Don’t Be Denied was published has borrowed from my research and acknowledged my work. That’s where my interest lies. I’m currently collaborating on a European CSNY book that will cover each of the four members from the earliest years up to today. Several writers are involved and I’m doing Young and Stills’ early period up to the end of the Springfield.

OGC: Are you a fan of Neil’s post-Springfield work? Stephen’s? Richie’s?

Einarson: I like some things from each of them. I liked Neil’s work through to the end of the 70s but sort of lost interest since 1990, the godfather of grunge period. I loved Richie with Poco and the Souther Hillman Furay Band. I still think he has one of the best country-rock voices around and hope he gets back to performing. I guess out of the three I followed Stephen’s solo career less, though I love Crosby, Stills & Nash, still do. That debut album was phenomenal.

OGC: The portion of For What It’s Worth that dealt with the possibility of David Crosby’s joining the band fascinated me. Do you really think he would have joined if Stills had asked? Or, as he claimed on a radio show a few months after Monterey Pop, was his sitting in with them just in keeping with the times?

Einarson: David denied it again when I posed the question to him while researching the book but I think that he might have jumped ship if the timing had been right. If Stephen had asked at the point when the Byrds kicked Crosby out, in the fall after Monterey, I think he might have accepted. But by then Neil and Bruce were back and it was full steam ahead. There’s no question that once the Springfield members had decided to call it a day, Stills phoned Crosby first. Chris Hillman still maintains that Crosby wanted to be a Buffalo more than a Byrd by 1967. Certainly the Springfield were more creative than the Byrds by then. Who knows. Interesting that for a brief time three Buffalos–Stills, Young, & Palmer–were together with Crosby and Nash in CSNY. But David didn’t like that very much.

OGC: Would you agree with the assessment that the Springfield was “Stephen’s band”?

Einarson: Yes. Now that’s not to negate the contributions of the others but from the outset Stephen Stills set the course, arranged the music, made most of the major decisions, conducted most of the interviews as spokesman, and wrote the most commercially successful songs. To the average person at that time, the Buffalo Springfield was the voice of Stephen Stills. And he hung on until the end still trying to make the group work. One can see how someone as singularly focused as Neil Young could have problems with that, especially after “For What It’s Worth” became a hit.

OGC: Overall, where would you rate the Springfield in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll?

Einarson: Right near the top. Their influence shaped the sound and style of so many other artists that followed them. The Springfield’s folk rock was quite different from the Byrds or anybody else at that time, drawing instead on an earlier folk tradition that incorporated acoustic and electric guitars together laying down intricate lines woven around each other. Theirs was a truly unique sound that later found success in groups like The Eagles. As well, their emphasis on developing individual singer/songwriting styles within one group, as evidenced by their Again album which is highly diverse, helped set that whole singer/songwriter trend of the early seventies and the whole California country rock/soft rock genre. Their induction into the Hall of Fame, a group who really only scored one Top Ten hit not even a Number 1 record in a brief two year lifespan, is testament to their importance to the development of rock music. Almost all their recorded work was never fully appreciated because it was ahead of its time. That masterpieces like “Bluebird,” “Expecting To Fly,” and “Rock And Roll Woman” could fail to crack the Top 40 remains bewildering. Unfortunately when people think of the Springfield, they tend to focus on who came out of it and the success achieved by the individual band members following the demise of the group.

OGC: What’s the next project on tap?

Einarson: That’s always a secret. I just might take on a project in a completely different direction. I currently have a couple of offers and some irons in the fire. Doing the Buffalo Springfield story was a personal dream of mine that I am very pleased to have fulfilled. I hope it brings many more people back to their music and maintains their legacy.