Homeward Bound: Christine McVie (July 12, 1943 — November 30, 2022)

I don’t normally post twice in one day here, but after completing this morning’s offering, I feel compelled to quickly return to my keyboard, having just learned of the sudden death of the great Christine McVie, at the age of 79.

Born Christine Perfect, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist made her first public musical splash in 1967 with the bluesy Chicken Shack, formed by a pair of her college musician friends, Stan Webb and Andy Sylvester. By the late 1960s, Christine was winning regular accolades in the English music press as one of that country’s greatest singers, deservedly so. (If you’ve never heard this early phase of her career, the group’s sole chart hit, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” is worth a spin, for sure). Christine left Chicken Shack in 1969 after marrying (and taking the surname of) John McVie, bassist of the then-equally-bluesy Fleetwood Mac. After guesting on the Mac’s Mr Wonderful (1968) and Kiln House (1970) albums, the latter of which featured her cover art, Christine McVie joined Fleetwood Mac as a full-time member in 1970. Her first album as a contributing vocalist, songwriter, and keyboard player was 1971’s Future Games, which also introduced Bob Welch into the Mac fold, alongside John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Danny Kirwan.

On the list of my Top 200 Albums Ever, there are three Fleetwood Mac albums cited: the legendary Rumours (1977, more about that one later), Future Games, and its 1972 follow-up release, Bare Trees. After Danny Kirwan abruptly left the Mac following Bare Trees, McVie and Welch essentially carried Fleetwood Mac over the ensuing three studio albums, through to the point in 1975 where Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined, and the group re-tooled itself for superstardom. (Welch left just before Buckingham-Nicks joined; he’s gotten a raw deal in the historical telling of his important role in Fleetwood Mac, which I’ve previously written at length about here).

Between 1975 and 1987, the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie-McVie-Fleetwood incarnation of Fleetwood Mac released five epic studio albums, which have collectively sold over 35 million copies in the American market alone. The biggest of them all, and one of the biggest albums ever, was Rumours, which documented the real-time dissolutions of the Buckingham-Nicks and McVie-McVie relationships amidst a monsoon of cocaine and alcohol abuse and marital infidelities. It’s perhaps the rawest popular album ever to hit so big, and it’s a testament to its greatness that the group was able to endure for so many years in its aftermath, the strength of its songs and performances transcending the circumstances surrounding their creation.

During that amazing dozen-year run, Fleetwood Mac put 17 singles into the American Top 40 Charts. For reasons I can’t quite explain, Buckingham and Nicks often seem to be perceived as the “lead” voices (writing and singing) in the group, but the numbers tell a different tale: Buckingham penned three of Fleetwood Mac’s Top 40 cuts during that time, Nicks penned four, and Christine McVie penned an even ten. Her keys, her words, her deft pop chops, and her smooth contralto voice were truly the secret sauce that bound the disparate elements of Fleetwood Mac’s glory years together somehow, even if she was less a visual element onstage behind her keyboards, while Nicks swirled in her scarves and Buckingham attacked his guitar on the front-line. She just wrote the songs that sold the albums, over and over and over again. The lack of commensurate single songwriting success within Fleetwood Mac eventually contributed to Buckingham’s (first) departure from the Mac in 1987. Nicks lasted through one more Fleetwood Mac album after her former partner’s exit, and the McVies and Mick Fleetwood made it through one more yet after that, at which point it seemed the long-running, multi-headed group was finally spent, its members seemingly scattered to the winds by 1995.

But behind the scenes, various projects involving various members of the Classic Mac quickly rekindled the sparks between the quintet, who announced a reunion tour in 1997. Marcia and I went to see them, our first time in their live presence, on November 26, 1997, at the venue then known as Pepsi Arena, in Albany, New York. It was one of the final dates on the tour, and I have to say . . . it was problematic. Nicks’ voice was completely shot at this point, the band was supported by a far-too-large and far-too-busy set of backing musicians, and Buckingham seemed openly, actively annoyed with everyone and everything in the arena. The one thing that was perfect about that flawed night? Christine McVie. Holy Moly, was she good, and it was a relief every time when the set list worked its way around to one of her spotlight numbers. The most memorable moment in the set was without doubt her solo piano performance of “Songbird,” her signature tune from Rumours.  What a voice. What a song. What a performance. Days later, as the tour wound to a close, Christine McVie announced her permanent retirement from Fleetwood Mac.

The other four issued another studio album, Say You Will, in 2003, and it was notable to these ears for what it missed: the aural glue and centering that Christine McVie added to the group dynamic. It felt less like a Fleetwood Mac album, and more like a collection of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham solo songs, put together somewhat willy-nilly style. Which isn’t awful, mind, but it’s just not magical, the way things were when McVie was in the mix, with any of the various members of the various Macs that she spearheaded. Marcia and I saw Fleetwood Mac for the second time live during this four-piece era, during a trip to Las Vegas in 2013. It was a much better show than the Albany one we’d caught, despite Christine McVie’s absence, in large part because Stevie Nicks’ voice was in good form, which made a huge difference, given the number and prominence of her spotlight songs. We also caught Lindsey Buckingham solo for the first time in this period, and he was superb.

In 2014, Christine McVie announced her un-retirement from Fleetwood Mac, rejoining her crew for another string of tours. We caught the reunited five-piece in Des Moines in 2015, and it was a grand show. Things fragmented again for the Mac after that tour, and in a surprise twist, McVie and Buckingham (with John McVie and Fleetwood onboard) released a duo album in 2017 called, easily enough, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. I rated that record in my Top Five Albums of 2017 report, summarizing how and why I felt about it and them in my blurb review, which I quote below:

I neither understand nor approve of the legal and music industry conventions that allow Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to record and tour together as “Fleetwood Mac,” while Buckingham, McVie and Fleetwood playing with Christine McVie may not do so . . . but be that as it may, and whatever this record is called, this is the best music anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac have issued since Rumours to Tusk days, no kidding. Buckingham and McVie write and sing gloriously together, and the arrangements and production are as sparkling and meticulous as you’d expect with Lindsey in the producer’s chair. The venerable J. McVie-Fleetwood rhythm section helps out with their customary skill (you don’t necessarily pay active attention to them, but they make everything atop their base sound better, always), and Mitchell Froom is along for the ride to provide supplementary keyboard and occasional production flourish. Buckingham remains one of the greatest guitarists of his era, and his finger-picking leads and swirls are just magical, as is the opportunity to hear him and Christine singing together, his piercing tenor and her dusky alto just as sublime together as they’ve always been. For all of the attention focused on Buckingham and Nicks over the decades, it’s worth noting that Christine McVie actually wrote more Mac hits than the two of them combined, and her melodic sense and skill is in ample force throughout this disc. Just a lovely record, all around, from the real Fleetwood Mac, whether they can say so or not.

With word of her death reaching us today, that duo disc is now destined to be her final one. Marcia and I saw the tour supporting its release in Chicago, and it was a great evening out, with great songs, and great voices, and the great Christine McVie in fine form, indeed. We’ve since seen Lindsey Buckingham yet again in Phoenix, and that was also wonderful, in its own way. I’m saddened to reflect that the long and tortured Fleetwood Mac story isn’t going to feature one final twist where Christine McVie emerges from the wings unexpectedly to deliver one more sublime “Songbird” for her adoring fans (me among them), but all good things must come to an end, I suppose.

In closing, while I know that the next few weeks are going to be rife with Rumours references as Christine’s passing is memorialized, I would just like to recommend that you give her earlier work with the Mac a spin, especially Future Games and Bare Trees. The other two songwriters on those albums (Welch and Kirwan) are also both dead, both in somewhat tragic circumstances, but the material they left behind is sublime, and you can now lift a toast to the three great songwriters in the band, all flown away from us for good. I picked the title for this post (“Homeward Bound”) from a Bare Trees track by Christine McVie, within which she discusses her dismay at the travails of rock and roll travel, longing instead for a drink and a cigarette in her old rocking chair at home. I’m hoping that she was still enjoying those things, right up until the end.

Finally, one more thing must be said: John McVie and Mick Fleetwood live on, and as long as they’re still kicking, there’s still the chance for more Mac magic down the line. It won’t be the same without Christine McVie, at all, but the various permutations of Fleetwood Mac have often been better than a lot of other things one can choose to experience in this big world of ours. I’ll continue to keep my eyes and ears open, in case they want to surprise us, one more time.

My favorite Fleetwood Mac album. Go give it a spin, right now. Shoo! Shoo!!!

You Can’t Stop Progress

1. Another week, another need to make a couple of “in memoriam” observations. I guess that comes with getting older, huh? First, I note with deep respect and awe the passing of author and artist Brian Catling, who emerged late in his life as an incredible and prolific novelist, creating a strange and wondrous canon that I devoured in its entirety. His official website (which has not been updated to note his passing as I am typing this) is a treasure trove of weirdness, touching on the host of creative and transgressive activities in which he has engaged for many decades; I recommend giving it a look-see. Closer to home, on this website, I’ve twice written essays about his works, and I link to those pages below, encouraging you to explore his work, if you can, and if you dare:

2. I also note the passing of the amazing jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders this week, at the age of 81. After struggling to find an audience for his work in the early 1960s, Sanders joined John Coltrane’s live group in 1964, and played with that legend until Trane’s death in 1967, crafting an extraordinarily influential and powerful body of work together. Sanders then emerged as a band-leader in his own right, and also as a key collaborator with Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) on a series of albums that shaped the form of what’s come to be known as spiritual jazz. After a long quiet phase, Sanders re-emerged last year with a beautiful, haunting, and critically-acclaimed new album called Promises, which was a collaborative effort featuring electronic artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It will prove to be a most worthy musical epitaph, for sure. My own personal favorite from Pharoah’s catalog sits at the heart of his long collaboration with vocalist Leon Thomas, the 1969 album Karma, and its cornerstone cut, “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” I consider that (long) song to be one of the most incredible works in the history of jazz, an epic suite with a beautiful and accessible melody that’s torn to shreds and rebuilt multiple times over the work’s run, creating senses of tension and relief that feel like life itself feels, glorious and harrowing in equal measure. At its sweetest points, it can move you like the most gracious gospel music ever recorded, then in its hardest breakdowns, it feels as intense and atonal and chaotic as the most abrasive things in my industrial and death metal catalogs. But it all works and flows flawlessly, a piece so much larger than the sum of its parts, truly. In the LP’s original format, “Creator” was split across two sides of the record, so I do appreciate that in our modern digital era, we can get the whole thing as a single track. Do yourself a solid sometime this week: carve out a half-hour of time and crank this jam in your fave listening zone, and feel the world change a little bit, just because you did:

3. We spent three days last week in Prescott, Arizona (our county seat) where Marcia had been selected to serve jury duty. Fortunately, her case was not as long and painful as the one that I got pulled into last year, which ran for nearly three weeks. As I wrote about in item #2 here, Arizona has a very small number of very large counties, meaning that getting to our local seat of power is a long drive. We elected to stay over in Prescott accordingly, and I figured I could get some good hikes in while Marcia was doing her civic duty. Alas, the weather did not cooperate and it rained almost the entire time we were there, meaning I spent a lot of time reading in our hotel room. But I was able to get one decent schlep up onto Thumb Butte during a brief sunny window one day, for a nice view back down over Prescott:

I had another brief window of opportunity to be out and about the next day, so decided (as one does)(when one is weird) to check out a little cemetery nearby that I’d spotted on the map. There’s almost always something interesting to see in any out-of-the-way burial site. This one proved to quite weird indeed, a semi-abandoned (I think) Independent Order of Odd Fellows graveyard that seemed to have peaked in terms of burials between the 1930s and 1970s, but is largely overgrown and disheveled looking now. But, oddly enough (no pun intended) there were interesting clusters of graves that were clearly receiving regular love, attention and visitation, even though none of them were anything close to current or recent burials. The odd vibe was enhanced by the presence of various vehicles tucked away in various corners with various people sitting in them for no obvious reasons, which tends to imply that this location is either a good place to score drugs or a good place for sexual adventuring. Or both. And neither of those propositions were the least bit appealing to me, so I made my rounds, snapped some snaps, and beat a discreet retreat, keeping a cautious eye out as I worked my way back down the muddy trail toward town. Here’s a peek at what it looked like, minus the creepers in their cars:

4. Between the Anno Virum and our moves from the cultural hub of Chicago to the less culturally endowed Des Moines and Sedona, getting to see good live music has mostly become a memory for us, not a current-day regular activity. But we did catch a nice al fresco show this weekend at a block party thrown by one of the regulars in the group with which I hike each Monday. The featured group was called Black Forest Society, and they offered a really engaging collection of original songs from within an interesting voice, guitar, cello, and percussion line-up. Their music is ostensibly folk-based, but it features a lot of open tunings and drones and wordless ululations that give it an interesting cross-cultural vibe evoking both traditional (Asian) Indian and Celtic motifs and moods. I particularly enjoyed their songs that featured 12-string guitar work, some of which reminded me of the late, great Robbie Basho and his yeoman efforts to bring steel-stringed guitars into the classical traditions of Indian music, establishing a western raga system in the process. Toss in the fact that we were sitting outdoors with friends, noshing tasty snacks, surrounded by our wondrous red rocks, and it made for a really lovely Sunday outing; you can click on the photo below to visit Black Forest Society’s website and hear some samples of their music:

5. Speaking of my Monday hiking group, we did another fantastic backwoods trek yesterday, (way) up to four native ruins, two with impressive rock art formations, all of them located on precipitous overhangs with challenging approaches. Click the pic below, at the first ruin we visited, to see the mini-photo-album for this trek:

6. And to close on another happy note, we wished Katelin and John a most happy first anniversary this week, all of us noting that it seems hard to believe that it’s been a year since we traveled to their home in Las Vegas for their wedding. We’re heading out for a little road trip tomorrow up to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, then over to Zion National Park in the southwestern part of the Beehive State. Katelin and John will be driving over from Vegas to join us while we are in Zion, so we’ll celebrate their anniversary properly in person then. We love them dearly, and are proud of them always.

Nail on the Head

1. My prior post noted the anniversary of a moment of great private mourning for my family, just as the very public mourning for Queen Elizabeth II was beginning. That was a lot of heavy matter spilling out of the Interweb Pipes all at once here, as I don’t enjoy feeling like a ghoul picking over the remains of the dearly departed. That said, I do want to note two other recent passings of personal import to me, then will move on to some less death-centric material.

Firstly, astrophysicist Frank Drake passed away earlier in September. He spent much of his career engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) from a macro hard science standpoint, not from the fringes of the micro bug-eyed men with anal probes standpoint. He was involved in Project Ozma in 1960, which was one of the first technologically sophisticated attempts to discern communications signals from the stars. Dr. Drake later went on to play key roles in developing the Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager Golden Record and the Arecibo Message. But his achievement that resonates most closely for me was his Drake Equation, developed in 1961. Marcia, Katelin and I all have that equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here’s two-thirds of the family collection, freshly inked:

The Drake Equation is a probabilistic calculation designed to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. Here’s an explainer of its various elements. We know a lot more about some of its variables today than we did when Dr. Drake postulated his argument, but for most of the variables related to potential intelligent life forms, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of but one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all. The equation resonates with us as a family in a variety of ways, and has framed a variety of discussions and digressions among us over the years. But at bottom line, I think Marcia summed up what we love about it best, when she noted: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” Amen. Thanks for that, Dr. Drake.

A second memorial nod must be tipped toward the late great jazz-man Ramsey Lewis, who died this week after an incredibly long career as a composer, performer, radio host, educator, and philanthropist. His best known works were recorded around the time that I was born, yet they still sound vibrant and joyful to modern ears, or at least my modern ears anyway. Lewis’ trio was also where the equally late and equally lamented Maurice White cut his performing teeth, before departing to launch Earth, Wind and Fire to massive creative, commercial, and critical acclaim. While we were living in Chicago, we got to catch a special performance by Ramsey as part of the Chicago Jazz Festival, a gig billed as his retirement performance, which turned out to be a passionate, warm, emotional experience of great heft to the creative community in the city where Ramsey spent the vast majority of his life. Here are a pair of Ramsey Lewis’ most beloved performances, offered with immense respect for his life and work:

2. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about respectfully visiting a variety of hard-to-find, hard-to-see native historic sites in and around our area. The group I hike with have since done two more excursions up into the highlands at the northern edge of our local red rocks region, and we did find some interesting ruins, if not any dramatic rock art. For these hikes, for me, the highlights were actually the views from on high. While archaeological assessments of native sites obviously focus on the practical reasons why people would have lived there (e.g. access to food and water, shelter from the elements, safety from other humans, etc.), I do deeply believe that our ancestors also must have shared some version of our own appreciation for “location, location, location,” especially for locations with utterly exquisite views. Here are a pair of snaps from each of those past two hikes. Wouldn’t you have loved to live here too? (Note: at the tip of the central promontory on which I am standing in the second photo, you may just be able to see one of the ruins we visited; I’d wager it was a sentry or guard post, based on the panoramic views of all approach routes from within its confines; you can click either photo to see a larger version).

3. Closer to home, and while I’m sorting photos, we have fine views from our windows and yard, though not quite as grand as the ones above. We also have an incredible variety of visitors who make their homes in our yard, or at least pass through on a regular basis. I’ve posted a lot of photos of various yard critters here over the past two years, but here are three guests who came to see us since last I posted. Note that the mule deer is reacting to one of the very few yard guests that I don’t like: the mosquitoes that swarm here after the monsoon leaves plentiful pools of water for them to breed in, ugh.

4. I’ve long used arcane titling conventions for posts like this one, which offer a variety of short pieces rather than a single conceptual article. Back in 2017, I tried to recreate the roster of those conventions in a post called So Many Ways To Say Some Stuff. For a variety of reasons, it seemed that after I compiled that list, I didn’t find myself writing many such posts anymore, favoring instead a variety of more series-based articles like Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists, or 10,000 Words, or Best of the Archives, or With Which I Am Well Pleased. By early 2022, I was feeling a bit burnt-out by all of those various series, and by the pace that I’d kept up here throughout the Anno Virum, and by the time being consumed by a not-yet-ready-for-public-announcement writing project away from the web. I whithered a bit on what to do, and have cut back the frequency of posting here since then, but that seemed to open up the window to more compendium posts again, like this one. I only state that publicly here to note that my naming convention for such posts through 2022 has been based on song titles by the great Uriah Heep, and that after fourteen such posts, I think it’s time to move on to a new rubric. I know that virtually no one reading this piffle and tripe will note such arcane conventions, nor necessarily pick up on the new paradigm, but it pleases me to have structure, and to have little tricks and hooks that help me sort the immense volume of stuff here, even if nobody notices but me.

Twenty Years

My father died twenty years ago today, shortly after he was critically injured by an elderly driver who blacked out behind the wheel of his car, leading to a head-on auto accident. Dad died in the same hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where I had been born some four decades earlier. He was not conscious when I arrived at the hospital, and he never regained consciousness, though my mother and sister and I (plus a close family friend) were there with him when he left the troubles of this world behind and flew away.

In the brief period after the accident while he was still able to communicate with us, Dad watched from his hospital bed while his beloved North Carolina State Wolfpack stomped my own alma mater Navy’s football team by a score of 65 to 19. The last time that we spoke, by phone, we talked about that game, despite his morphine fog. I’m glad he got to see it. The last words he heard from me on that phone call were “I love you.” We’re one of those families that ends pretty much every phone conversation or written communication with those words, because you never know what tomorrow might bring. In this case, tomorrow brought something awful, so having said that was important to me.

We ran this memorial on the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death. Time flies, and it doesn’t ever move backward.

The day after my father’s death, we were all engaged in the sad business associated with funeral arrangements and announcements and such, precisely as the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks were being marked around the country, adding a surreal extra layer of national grief and loss to our own personal mourning experiences. I delivered the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral a couple of days later, having crafted it quickly on his old computer in his old office, reading from a printed hard copy that, alas, I did not save after the service. But I believe I’ve recreated and summarized the gist of my remarks a few times over the years, and they went something like this . . .

Colonel Charles R. Smith, Jr., (July 29, 1939 – September 10, 2002) was born and raised in the small Piedmont mill town of Albemarle, North Carolina. He attended and graduated from North Carolina State University before being commissioned in the United States Marine Corps in 1961. He served on active duty for 28 years, retiring as Chief of Staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, then going on to career in ministry as the station manager and on-air personality for the largest Christian radio station in South Carolina’s Low Country.

My father was a combat veteran of both Vietnam and Lebanon, and was handsomely decorated for his service over the years, earning The Legion of Merit, The Bronze Star (with combat V), The Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), The Navy Commendation Medal (with Silver Star), The Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (two awards), The National Defense Service Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal (with four stars), The Humanitarian Service Medal, The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (two awards, with Silver Star and Palm and Frame), The Presidential Unit Commendation (one star), The Combat Action Ribbon (one star), The Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and The Lebanese Order of the Cedar. He’s one of a very small number of non-Lebanese citizens to receive that last honor, granted to him for his peace-making work as Marine liaison to Ambassador Philip Habib, a crucial and meaningful side duty while he was serving as Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut in 1982-83.

While the biography that can be gleaned from my father’s list of medals and ribbons was an important part of who and what he was, there was obviously more to his life than the details of his military accomplishments. Dad was well educated with a pair of Masters Degrees, and he spent much of his life as an educator, either directly (as a school teacher, later in his life) or indirectly (as a mentor, storyteller, sage, and church elder). He was a man of great, deep faith, who touched countless lives through his ministries. He was also a “foodie” without pretense, who could just as easily appreciate a good chili dog as he could a fine meal at one of the world’s great restaurants. He was a loving husband to my mom, a great dad to my sister and I, and a doting grandfather to my daughter, niece and nephew.

But I think what I miss the most, when all’s said and done, is the fact that he was really quite the goofball much of the time, and was a lot of fun to spend time with. He had an infectious laugh, and loved to tell tall tales and stories; the truth was malleable for him, and did not necessarily have to correspond to reality. (The excellent Tim Burton movie, Big Fish, could have been his biography). He also found humor in all sorts of places where most folks didn’t look for it. I remember one time when my sister and I were young and our Mom was away for some reason, so Dad was left with the responsibility of making dinner for us. He spent a long time in the kitchen that night making a very special dinner for us: A Spam Lamb (for my sister) and a Spam Ram (for me). Both of them were anatomically correct, ahem.

We laughed and laughed and laughed through our dinner, and meat from a can never tasted as good as it did that night. Later, I watched him make his grandchildren laugh just as hard as he did his children, which was lovely, and powerful, and memorable. I will miss that, a lot. I know I’m not alone in that regard.

Groovy Early ’70s Summertime Family Photo, taken in my grandparents’ backyard in Albemarle, North Carolina.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since I first wrote and delivered some version of those words. Some days, it seems like a lifetime ago, since so much has changed since then — but other times, it feels like yesterday, since I remember it all so vividly, down to the tiniest details that usually fade with time. A couple of years after my father died, I was asked to contribute an article for a “summer special” edition of the alternative newsweekly for which I wrote, describing unique or lasting memories of the year’s balmiest season. I think that was the first time that I formally put pen to paper (proverbially speaking) after the funeral to try to capture the experience of time spent with my Dad, and then the experience of the days after, without him. Here’s a link to that article, if you’d like to read it.

We were in Santa Barbara this summer on what would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. I got a good beach hot dog in his honor, though my Mom correctly pointed out that it should have had greasy chili sauce and mustard and way too many onions on it to properly replicate his preferences. Urp.

I miss my Dad, at bottom line, all these years on, and I rue the fact that he was not with us in the flesh to share in so many amazing experiences over the past two decades. And, thus, I must make the public service announcement that I offer pretty much anytime I mention my father online: if you know an elderly or infirm driver who is no longer capable of safely operating a motor vehicle, you really need to graciously, yet firmly, facilitate and support that person’s transition to a non-driving state. The man who killed my father walked away with a sprained wrist, while our lives were irrevocably changed, forever, for the worse. You don’t want your own loved ones to be responsible for doing that to somebody else’s family. So take the keys when it’s time to do so, please and thanks.

One final closing memory: I think I inherited a strong penchant for taking dubious shortcuts when driving or hiking or biking from my Dad, as part of both of our penchants for wanting to see how things connect, even if the shortest path between Points A and B is a dirty and dangerous and stupid one. I remember one time when I was a kid, probably of the age shown in that family photo above, and my Dad and I hiked up Morrow Mountain in the Uwharries of Central North Carolina. You could drive to the top of the mountain by car, or walk up along the road, taking advantage of the many switchbacks. Or you could just clamber straight up the steep faces between the switchbacks, although the park rangers probably wouldn’t have much cared for the third choice. So, of course, that was the one we chose. We made it to the top, so all’s well that ends well, but it wasn’t one of our brighter father-son outings together. Oh well . . . I guess if we’d just walked up the road or driven to the top, I wouldn’t have written this sonnet about that day, some 30 years after it happened:

The serpent switchbacks cut the mountain’s side,
each hairpin turn just higher than the last.
Straight up, between the curves, a gravel slide,
where trees were felled by avalanches past.
Both slide and road went to the mountain’s peak,
one paved and winding, one more steep, but straight.
We stood there at the bottom, by the creek,
and chose the rock slide without much debate.
We scrambled up the loose slate, crossed the road,
and climbed the next pile, careful of sharp shale,
bypassing slippery spots where moisture showed,
ignoring man-made paths for nature’s trail.
Exhausted when we finally reached the top,
amazed, on looking back, how steep the drop.

 

Into The Storm: Alan White (June 14, 1949 – May 26, 2022)

I was sorry to learn this morning that long-time Yes drummer Alan White flew away from this mortal coil yesterday. I’ve seen him half-a-dozen times live over a 30ish year period, and he was one of those cool, cool cats who could play hard, complicated works for hours, without looking like he was exerting himself, and while exuding genial “what could be better than doing this for a living?” vibes, always. After Yes founding member Chris Squire died in 2015, White became Yes’ longest continually serving member, an honor he held until his death. (Though in recent years, his health had been such that Jay Schellen had been deputized by Yes to do some of the heavy lifting in concert settings, allowing White to play select songs and pieces, adding flash and flair to the proceedings instead of anchoring them). In the end, White was a member of Yes for half a century, from 1972 to 2022. How many artists can claim careers like that?

Yes are, of course, known for their complicated family tree, with various members coming and going and going and coming over the decades, rival troupes attempting to claim the “Real Yes” banner (oftentimes with both sides having excellent arguments for said claims), and radical changes in tone and style creating a fan base that is often widely enthusiastic in their appreciation for certain eras of the group, and lackluster or even antagonistic about other eras. For all of Alan White’s gifts, in the minds of some sizable portion of the Yes fan base, he was damned or denigrated for no other reason than the fact that he was not Bill Bruford, the founding drummer of Yes. Bruford is a genius, yes, in his own ways, and he went on to become a member of the Progressive Rock Royalty for his subsequent service with King Crimson, Genesis (briefly), UK, and his own various solo and small group projects. No argument about the merits of Bruford’s work and career, but most drummers aren’t him, obviously, and Alan White brought his own formidable gifts to the Yes fray, ending up playing on several of my own personal favorite Yes albums (e.g. Relayer, Drama, and Fly From Here).

It’s also important to look at the roles that Alan White played outside of Yes, and the esteem in which some of the most acclaimed rock musicians in history held his work and deployed his skills. He spent most of the ’60s backing such then-big, but now-mostly-forgotten rock and pop stars as Billy Fury and Alan Price, along with stints in Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Balls (a proto-supergroup featuring Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Wings, and Trevor Burton of the Move, among others). In the cultural paroxysm that followed the dissolution of The Beatles, with each of the four Ex-Fabs working to establish themselves as unique solo artists, White was tapped to serve as the live and studio drummer for John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, appearing on the three records that arguably stand as the pinnacle of John’s solo career: Live Peace in Toronto 1969, the “Instant Karma!” single, and Imagine. White’s band-mates in the original incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band were John and Yoko, Klaus Voorman and Eric Clapton, and later incarnations of the group included George Harrison, Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins. If that weren’t enough of an endorsement, John’s fellow ex-Beatle George also tapped White after their “Instant Karma!” appearance together to serve as one of his time-keepers on the epic All Things Must Pass album, again, arguably that particular Beatle’s peak recorded work as well.

By 1972, Alan White was gigging regularly while living in London with producer-engineer Eddy Offord, famed for his work with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes, among many others. During the final stages of recording Yes’ legendary album, Close to the Edge, Bruford made the decision to jump out of Yes and into King Crimson. As White had gotten to know and spend time with the other members of Yes via his association with Offord, and given his impressive chops and resume, he was offered the gig, on short notice, to replace Bruford on the group’s imminent tour. (Selections of White’s work on that tour were released on the classic Yessongs album, a three-slab set that may be the exemplar and prototype of the live rock album idiom in the ’70s).

As Yes evolved and (occasionally) went into periods of hibernation and inactivity, White remained stalwart and steady behind his drum kit. He only released one solo album, Ramshackled, in 1976, when Yes decided that each member of the group needed to do so, whether he wanted to or not. White worked with a collection of colleagues from his Alan Price Set days in the ’60s, allowing them to write and sing the songs, while White just did what he did: he played the drums, really well. White also occasionally guested on other solo albums by Yes members, or with fellow travelers like Gary Wright and Paul Kossoff and Donovan and Joe Cocker, but, at bottom, he was Yes’ drummer, for better or for worse, in health and in (lately) sickness, until time, damnable time, finally took him away to the great drum riser in the sky.

His work and music gave me a lot of joy over the years. While I would have been hard pressed to imagine Yes existing and continuing on without Chris Squire, they’ve done so, and having already deputized Schellen to support White in his later years, I sort of expect that they might do the same thing again, leaving guitarist Steve Howe as the solo “classic era” member still standing in the group. (Of course, if the group undergoes one of its regular re-permutations that brings back classic era singer Jon Anderson and keyboardists Rick Wakeman and/or Tony Kaye, then all bets are off about the future). I guess from where I sit, as a fan, Alan White was such a stoic and supportive and solid member of the group for so long, that I’d feel okay if his passing was the final straw that made his colleagues, new and old, say “Yeah . . . that was a great run, let’s let it go in style.”

I’ll guarantee you that there will be plenty of drummers in plenty of bands out there who will keep Alan White’s work alive by playing plenty of his songs for plenty of audiences, for plenty of years to come. Yes don’t have to carry that sole responsibility to their collective graves. So RIP to a great player. All things must pass, indeed.

Alan White (1949-2022)

 

Different World

1. Marcia and I made a brief return to the Grand Canyon this past weekend. We wanted to get some hikes and exploring in, but we weren’t quite ready to do a trek as heinously difficult as the one we did last October. So instead of carrying our tents, bedding, and food down into and back out of the Canyon, we elected to stay at the Under Canvas resort some 20 miles south of the Park Boundary, and it was a delightful experience. Yeah, we slept in a tent, but we didn’t have to carry it. And it had a wood stove, which was helpful when the temperatures dropped to 29°F on Friday night. We ate breakfast and dinner in Under Canvas’ main tent, twice each, and the food quality and ease of ordering and service were both outstanding. We also had live music out under the stars each night, while we made S’mores over the propane fire pits, and it was a nice place to just sit around when you didn’t feel like doing anything strenuous. We’ll do that sort of trip again, for sure. (They’ve got several other locations around the country, so we’re already scouting them out). For our Grand Canyon hike, we elected to take the South Kaibab Trail down to Skeleton Point, down some three miles horizontally and 2,100 feet vertically from the South Rim, just far enough to get a first peek at the Colorado River, waaaaayyyy further below us. (It made our minds boggle that we actually went all the way down there last fall, and then hiked back out, with 30-pound packs). This past weekend, we made it down to Skeleton Point in about 90 minutes, and back out in about two hours, the latter trip slower not only because of the vigorous climbing, but also because of the temperatures, which approached 100°F, with the sun’s position offering paltry shade as we hugged the cliff walls on the way up the various switchbacks. The next day, after a lazy morning, we headed back toward Flagstaff and hiked up to Red Mountain, a really distinctive and cool collapsed volcanic formation. I snapped some pics, as I do, and you can see them by clicking of the sample photo below, taken at Cedar Ridge, about halfway down to Skeleton Point. . .

2. For our final years in New York and our first couple of years in Des Moines, I used to go out golfing with Marcia fairly regularly. She’s good at it, I’m not. But during our first stint in Iowa, I just got really tired of not only doing something that I couldn’t excel at, but also of the truly obnoxious “golf bro” culture that was so prevalent on courses there, public and private alike. So I quit golfing at that point, for those and a variety of other reasons. Fast forward to this spring, when for a variety of other, other reasons, I’m going to take it up again. I played nine practice holes yesterday and another nine today. I’m still not good, but I was pleasantly surprised how much muscle memory I maintained from having done it all those years ago. We’ll see how it all plays out. I think the fact that we now live in a place where you can play year ’round, and the fact that there’s a course at the end of our road, and the fact that this is mostly a lower-key, bro-free, retiree-laden community, hopefully will mean it’s easier to go out and have a good experience without having to be rushed by or listen to a shouty gaggle of drunken, cigar-smoking, racist/sexist louts trying to channel their inner John Daly. And I’m always happy to have the extra time with Marcia, so that matters too, a lot.

3. Another back to the future note: when the first Roomba robot home vacuums came out, I had to have one. But we found that the size of our house, and the fact that we had three cats, and the buggy early versions of that particularly home technology meant that our first Roomba didn’t get much done before gagging on cat hair and then spending an hour desperately cleaning and re-cleaning one table-leg until its battery ran out. A few months back, though, Katelin and John told us they had gotten a new one, and that the newer technology version seemed to be working well for them. So we gave it another try with a second Roomba, and I have to say that it seems to be working well for us this time. I can send the helpful little robot out from my phone while we’re out of the house, and so far, it just does its thing, and then properly takes itself home to its little docking station once it’s finished being useful. When I set up the account for the new helpful beastie, I had to give the unit a name. It didn’t take me long to settle on Tarkus, and if you’ve been reading here for any amount of time, you’ll probably know why that is. I put a sticker of his eponymous armadillo-tank on Tarkus’ shell, so he’d know who is he, and when he does a particularly good job at his assignments, I’ve taken to giving him a little reward for his good work and service . . .

Clear the battlefields, and let me see . . .

4. I was sorry to read that Scottish guitarist Ricky Gardiner passed away this week. He was a core member of the interestingly odd Beggars Opera in the early 1970s, before a brief, but high-impact stint with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, appearing on the landmark “Berlin Era” albums Low and Lust for Life. His most lasting contribution to the core rock canon was his amazing riff and music for “The Passenger,” a critical, crucial song in the twinned journeys of Iggy and David at their most enigmatic and experimental. Iggy’s touring band in support of Lust for Life featured Bowie, Gardiner, and the Sales Brothers (Hunt and Tony) rhythm section, and those shows are arguably among the all-time most legendary live rock events, ever. Ricky Gardiner continued to write and record in a variety of genres until his failing health rendered him finally silent. He was a player, for sure, in the true and best sense of that word. Here’s a nice video for “The Passenger,” if you want to hear why that was the case . . .

I’ll Keep On Trying

While I continue whithering about various long-term strategies for my website, I do have some new and news-ish items to report, so figure it might be good to return to my old “so many ways to say ‘some stuff’” series for such matters, rather than trying to turn any of them into epic posts or series of their own. I’ll let you figure out what my naming convention for this 2022 update of the form might be . . .

1. I was sad to learn this morning of the death of Ian McDonald, one of the founding members of King Crimson. He and his then-partner Judy Dyble (later the original female lead vocalist for Fairport Convention) were latter-day additions to the line-up of Giles, Giles and Fripp, the immediate precursor band to the Crim. On Crimson’s ground-breaking debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, McDonald was the most prominently featured songwriter, with sole music composition credit (supplemented by Peter Sinfield’s lyrics) on key tracks “The Court of the Crimson King” and “I Talk to the Wind,” along with essential contributions as a songwriter on the album’s other three tracks, and as a brilliant performer throughout the entire album. After the first American tour by the then-skyrocketing Crims, McDonald and drummer Michael Giles left the group, releasing one studio album under their McDonald and Giles banner, supported by Michael’s brother Peter Giles (a fellow Giles, Giles and Fripp alumnus), Peter Sinfield, and Steve Winwood, among others. Their sole record is a mostly-forgotten period gem, but delightful and well worth your investigation. McDonald briefly returned to the King Crimson fold as a guest on Red, the final album of the group’s original 1970s run, playing a superb sax part on their epic song “Starless.” He then went on to found ’70s pop-rock titans Foreigner, appearing on their first three albums. While contemporary critical consensus sort of damns Foreigner to the dust-bin of cheesy ’70s music, I must note that at the time when their first album came out, it was very exciting in my musical circles, and the group seemed like an absolutely possible future of accessible and smart rock and roll, with McDonald’s contributions standing as a key to that sense and assessment. I still love that first Foreigner record, a lot, and like the second one, no matter what other members of the critoisie might think about them retrospectively. I’m sorry to hear that Ian McDonald has flown away too soon, at bottom line, and I deeply appreciate his brilliant contributions to a lot of music from way back when that I did, have, and always will love.

2. Ooo, goody, there’s a new Buggy Jive jam out! I’ve written often here about the artist formerly known as Bryan Thomas over the years, with this piece probably standing as the most representative introduction to his work. His latest release is a five-song EP called I Don’t Understand How the World Works; more information about where and how to nab it available at the Buggy website, here. I’ve spun it half-a-dozen times already this morning, and it’s yet another gem in his crown, soulful, smart, sophisticated and so, so, so well played, sung, and recorded. I highly commend it to you!

3. So the Oscar nominations came out this week, and my core reaction is “meh”-to-“grr” for the most part. I don’t really know why I still care about those awards, honestly, but for whatever reason, the Oscar broadcast and the Super Bowl are the two big cultural television thingies that I still always make a point of watching every year, even though I am almost always disappointed by the experience. As noted in this post, I watched a lot of movies in 2021, many of them truly, truly great. But most of the films that I would consider to be the best of the best of 2021 were ignored by the Academy, which filled its nominations rosters with a lot of hyper-hyped mediocrities and late-release niche films that no one will ever watch, in lieu of various brilliant works, popular and arty alike, out there for the plucking. I won’t dig too deeply into it, but I will note what I consider to be the four most heinous inclusions/exclusions in this year’s roster:

  • No “Best Original Song” nomination for anything from Ron and Russell Mael’s Annette, while the annoying and deeply-distracting Van Morrison score for Belfast resulted in that over-rated, herniated, horrible, little anti-vaxxer, right wing, fake soul troll (who I’ve always loathed, for the record) earning an Oscar nod in this category;
  • Dame Judi Dench receiving a “Best Supporting Actress” nomination for Belfast, while Ruth Negga’s mind-blowing turn in Passing was ignored; I like Dame Judi and I liked Belfast (except for that Van Morrison bullshit), but this was a role that The Dame could play in her sleep, and she doesn’t really need to suck up another Oscar nomination in a category that’s one of the best conduits for emergent talent, does she?;
  • The complete absence of any nominations for The Killing of Two Lovers, which I think was the best film that I saw in 2021, anchored by Clayne Crawford’s exceptional and major award-worthy lead performance; and
  • Dune getting nominated for anything beyond the technical awards, since I think it was a pretty enough thing to look at on a big screen, but a complete failure in terms of casting (e.g. Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides??? Good God, no, no, NO!), screenplay adaptation, editing (three hours to get through half of the book?), and actually being a movie worth caring about or remembering, at all.

Those beefs all noted, here’s how I’d vote right now for the films that were actually nominated this year:

  • Best Feature Film: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Film Editing: Peter Scibberas, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Production Design: Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
  • Best Make-Up and Hair Design: Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Best International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Original Song: NO VOTE (protesting the exclusion of Ron and Russell Mael for contributing several brilliant songs to their Annette, and also protesting the inclusion of five pieces of musical crap, most especially a nomination for that herniated little over-rated right-wing anti-vaxxer gnome Van Morrison for his totally-distracting contributions to Belfast)
  • Best Original Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Any Other Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Pretty-Pretty Technical Awards Given to Over-Long Films With No Heart: Dune

I end this post with a link to the unquestionably greatest song to appear in a film in 2021, ignored by the Academy as it was, damn them. Seeing it as it was actually used to advance plot within the film (the opening sequence of Annette featuring the song is not available on Youtube at this point, alas) made it all the greater; it wasn’t just a piece of pop crap purchased and stuck on at the end of film as the credits ran, as is too often the case in the Best Original Song category. Grumble.

Take It From the Top: Chris Graf (1966-2022)

I was deeply saddened to learn this week of the death of a long-time Albany-era friend, Chris Graf. We were about the same age, making his passing seem all the more too shocking and too soon than it might have otherwise.

Chris was a founder and long-time core member of The Weasels, one of my very favorite musical groups. I did a deep dig review of their brilliant latest album, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, nearly a quarter century after I had ranked their sophomore album, Leon’s Mystical Head, in the silver medal spot of my Top Ten Albums of 1995 list. And there are a lot of other great albums and songs between those poles, one featuring some of my lyrics, and one featuring me making wobbly noises on my theremin. I was proud to contribute to their musical projects in my own small way.

In 1998, I interviewed Chris, his brother Ray (a radio personality of some renown in public broadcasting circles, married to another dear friend, Miss Nicole), and Weasel-singer/lyricist/sax-man Dr. Fun (one of the most delightfully acerbic and insightful writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, and a fine legal mind to boot) for a feature article in Metroland. You can read that complete interview here. Or, for an even fuller telling of their story, you can check out The Weasels’ Wikipedia Page, which I’ve been curating since I first established it on February 10, 2006.

Chris, Ray and I worked closely together for a few years on the Sounding Board television program (a Youtube-quality sample here), initially with Chris and I taking to the backstreets of Albany to film my “As You Were” free-form rants, then in the studio after I began hosting and co-booking the show. Lots of hard work, lots of great music, lots of laughs, and lots of Hot Pockets, throughout that rewarding creative project. Around that same time, I was also fortunate enough to catch what is, to date, the very last live Weasels performance, on October 28, 2000, at Valentine’s Music Hall in Albany. Chris manned the mixing board and added off-stage samples for that gig, which was a great one.

Chris stopped working with The Weasels for a few years, but thankfully he returned for one last, great album with the group, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (that’s the one reviewed above). He and his brother Ray and various other members of the long-time core Weasels instrumental team also rolled out a new project last year, earning a spot on my “Best Albums of 2021” report, with the High Fidelity Virtue Signaling LP credited to The Flying Bobs. Chris co-produced, arranged, and mixed the album, wrote about half of its tracks, worked on its cover design, played guitar, keys, and trumpet, and sang on every track, in either lead or backing vocal capacities. It’s a choice recording. You need it. It’s a fantastic tribute to his talents.

Ray tells me there’s a second Flying Bobs album in the can, yet to be released, so I’ll look forward to getting another dose of that Brothers Graf Thang in the months to come. I’ll toast Chris with a Hot Pocket (I think I’m gonna go with a sausage one) when it arrives, and I’ll miss him and celebrate his life, at that moment and beyond. He was a good dude, in the best senses of that phrase, and I’ll fondly remember a lot of laughs together, along with a lot of rambling conversations about the types of books and music and films that “normal people” don’t normally like.

In closing, I send all of my love today to Ray, Miss Nicole, their brood, the extended Weasels family, and to Chris’ delightful and talented wife, Rena (who added killer vocals on my favorite Flying Bobs song, “Kinkade“) through the difficult times they’re living through. Too young. Too soon. Too heart-breaking.

Action shots from the back cover of The Flying Bobs debut album, recorded in Chris’ Big Saucy Sound studio.