The Bumble Has Flown Away

(Very) long-time readers here may recall that in May 2009, I reported that we had added a new member to our family, a polydactyl tabby cat. The shelter where we adopted her had named her “Izzabella,” but that just didn’t seem right to us. We initially dubbed her “Ladyjane,” as in Lady Jane Grey, given her color, and the fact that my sister had a cat named Earl Grey. But in that very first blog post about our new family member, I noted that:

She’s quite busy, and her feet are truly awe-inspiring in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not sort of way: she’s got five full toes on each back foot, five full toes on her left front foot, and five full toes plus a little dewclaw between the thumb and the fist on her right front foot, for a total of 20 full toes and a dewclaw, compared to the normal cat complement of 16 full toes plus two dewclaws. She also has a very odd voice, and talks to herself pretty much continually when she’s awake, sounding like a bumblebee as she chirps and buzzes around the house. So she could be Ladyjane the Busy Big-footed Bumblebee Cat, though that seems a smidge unwieldy.

It was indeed too unwieldy, and in a fairly short time, we shifted to calling her “The Bumble,” which fit her personality far better than either of the more-feminine names she’d already briefly possessed. She had a lot of personality, even by cat standards. There were adventures in the years ahead. And lots of strongly-expressed opinions.

Of the four cats that we had over the years as a family, three of them firmly imprinted on me as the leader of their clowder, but The Bumble always fixated on Katelin, preferring her company (and lap) to any other’s. When Marcia and I moved to Chicago, The Bumble stayed in Des Moines with Katelin, and she moved to Nevada this past summer with Katelin, John and Frank the Cat. For an Albany stray, she saw a lot of the country over the years.

Sadly, right before the move to Nevada, The Bumble became ill, and was eventually diagnosed with an aggressive tumor in her skull. Katelin and John just called to let us know know that she succumbed to her illness today, after some struggles, but also after some really good days of being loved and loving, appreciating their new home where she could be outdoors in a protected yard, or sit atop their massive and comfy Love Sac. They gave her a wonderful life. She was a lucky kitty.

Marcia and I got to see her one final time when we visited in September, so I am glad for that opportunity. A few weeks later, Katelin sent the photo below, of The Bumble chillin’. It’s a lovely shot of a lovely family member, who will be dearly missed.

If I Had The Time: Ken Hensley (1945-2020)

For the second time in as many months, I’m sad to report the passing and honor the work of a critical member of the English hard-rock group Uriah Heep, as yesterday Ken Hensley followed Lee Kerslake into the great hereafter. Hensley was the Heep’s keyboardist, guitarist, occasional lead vocalist and primary songwriter from 1970 to 1980, arguably the era when they achieved their most balanced mix of commercial, critical and creative successes. No cause of death has been reported, though his brother noted in announcing Ken’s death that his passing was sudden, and that Hensley’s wife, Monica, was by his side as he flew away.

I’ve written several times here over the years about my love for a genre I call “Heavy Organ Music,” and when I look at the gems of that pantheon, Ken Hensley’s imprimatur is widespread and deeply influential. While he achieved his greatest fame and acclaim with the Heep, he had developed that particular sound and attack earlier in his career, most especially with The Gods and Toe Fat, bands whose members in the late 1960s included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson, ELP), John Glascock (Carmen, Jethro Tull), Brian Glascock (The Motels), Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake (both Uriah Heep), Cliff Bennett (Rebel Rousers), Alan Kendall (The Bee Gees) and others. His connections with Newton led to Hensley’s invitation to join the group Spice just as it was morphing into Uriah Heep in time for their debut album …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble (1970). By the time of their sophomore album, Salisbury (1971), Hensley had emerged as the group’s primary songwriter, a role he would hold for a decade.

Lee Kerslake followed Hensley into the Heep for their 1972 album Demons and Wizards, often cited as their finest and most representative work, the first of four by the group’s “classic line-up.” The substance abuse-related illnesses of bassist Gary Thain (who left the band in 1974 and died in 1975) and singer David Byron (left 1976, died 1985) led to a period of constant membership churn and declining critical and commercial success, and Hensley finally threw in the towel and left the band himself in 1980. Many listeners and pundits wrote the Heep off with Hensley’s departure, but sole remaining founder Mick Box (guitar) retooled the group for 1982’s Abominog, which was a surprise hit, laying the groundwork for an ongoing Heep story that’s still producing stellar live shows and great studio albums; their most recent, Living The Dream (2018), is to these ears one of their most significant career highlights.

Hensley’s post-Heep career was productive and rewarding, if a bit more low-key than his earlier band days. He lived and worked in the United States for most of the ’80s and ’90s, appearing on albums by Blackfoot, W.A.S.P. and Cinderella, running a studio and working for an instrument manufacturer in St. Louis, and occasionally fronting his own solo bands. He relocated to Spain in the early 2000s, and remained active until his death, with a dozen live or studio solo albums to his credit across those years.

Hensley was an openly devout Christian for the final quarter-century of his life, citing his faith as a key tenet to re-establishing his life’s balance after he kicked a tenacious cocaine habit in the late ’80s. He has also long been effusive about the importance to his work and well-being of his partnership with his wife, Monica,  who he first met around 2000, and married in 2004. I always appreciate artists who are honest and open about such matters.

If you’re not familiar with Ken Hensley’s sound and work, I offer ten samples below, personal favorites all, from his Gods, Toe Fat, and Heep days. I even offer a cut from the infamous and pseudonymous 1970 album Orgasm, credited to Head Machine, but really just The Gods in transition to Toe Fat. Hensley’s songwriting, singing, guitar work and keyboard textures shine in various ways throughout these cuts. He left a great body of work for a lot of saddened fans to appreciate in the days ahead. May he rest in peace, and may his loved ones have comfort at the time of his passing.

Unchained: Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen died today at the age of 65, after battling throat cancer for several years. He was a stone cold genius who changed the way people looked at and listened to the electric guitar in popular rock music, with perhaps only Jimi Hendrix having had as deep a transformational impact on the instrument and how its players play it. Or at least want to play it, since virtually nobody can do what they did, as well as they did it.

Hearing “Eruption”/”You Really Got Me” on the radio for the first time circa 1978 at Mitchel Field (likely on WLIR 92.7 FM during its beautiful, educational heyday) was a classic “What the HELL was that?!? I MUST HAVE IT RIGHT NOW!!!” moment for me. Here’s a refresher, if you need it:

The self-titled debut album from which those tracks were culled did not disappoint when I acquired it soon thereafter. Big wows, then and now. And a lot of other big wows through the breakup of the original lineup around 1984. (Though their final album of the David Lee Roth era, 1984, didn’t thrill me as much as the five that came before it. Which meant, of course, that it ended up being their biggest commercial hit. Sigh). The debut LP went a long, long way in my Best of the Blockbusters music tournament some years back, and that’s probably where I’ve written the most about my appreciation for it, and them. Give it a skim, if interested.

But then be advised that the very best things I’ve ever read about Eddie, Alex, Mike and Dave (plus Sammy) were written by one of my all-time favorite wordsmiths, the persistently anonymous Mr Thoughts on the Dead. Click on the image below to read his utterly fantastic Van Halen reflections, in three links below the photo on the landing page. Then read this. TotD’s having a shitty 2020, even more than most of us, and this didn’t make it any better. I appreciate him deeply. Hope you will too.

The Time Will Come: Lee Kerslake (1947-2020)

English musician Lee Kerslake died today at the age of 73, after a years-long struggle with prostate cancer. He was a long-time favorite of mine, holding down the groove and delivering the beastly beats for decades with a variety of acts I appreciate. He was best known as the hard-hitting drummer (credited on occasion as “The Bear” for his physical stature, grizzly beard and thunderous paws) for Uriah Heep and a pair of seminal Ozzy Osbourne solo albums. But there’s a bit more breadth and depth to his catalog and creative contributions than that, including some mostly-forgotten gems that get a lot of spins about our household. Let me share a few of them with you in a spirit of tribute and respect.

I’ve written before about my love for what I call “heavy organ music,” which I described thusly in 2001:

You can generally describe it as mid-tempo, choogly rock (complete with appropriately widdly guitar and ram-a-lam drum solos), fortified with strong, typically baritone male vocals and cemented together with swirly, gurgly organ parts, usually played on classic Hammond B-3 or Vox Continental organs. Or other combo organs of the era, Farfisas and the like. You know the sound. Organy.

Lee Kerslake played on a lot of Heavy Organ Music classics over the years. He began his recording career with The Gods, whose various lineups between 1965 and 1969 included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson, ELP), Ken Hensley and Paul Newton (both Uriah Heep), Brian Glascock (The Motels) and John Glascock (Carmen, Jethro Tull). Kerslake joined the group in 1967 as drummer and vocalist, part of the briefly stable quartet lineup with Hensley, John Glascock, and guitarist Joe Konas who recorded the group’s two official album releases (Genesis in 1968 and To Samuel A Son in 1969), along with the notoriously raunchy 1970 Orgasm, which was pseudonymously credited to Head Machine. Here’s a classic cut from The Gods, co-written by Kerslake and Konas:

R&B singer Cliff Bennett (ex-Rebel Rousers) joined The Gods near the end of their run under that name. A re-tooled ensemble called Toe Fat emerged in 1970, featuring Bennett, Hensley (primarily on guitar, rather than his usual keyboards), John Glascock and Kerslake. Their eponymous first album is an utter stormer, with some truly bizarre early Hipgnosis art work on its cover. Here’s its opening cut:

Kerslake and Hensley left Toe Fat before the group’s less exciting second (and final) album, Hensley heading directly into Uriah Heep, and Kerslake joining the woefully under-appreciated National Head Band, whose sole album, Albert 1, is a lost near-prog classic, filled with unusual styles and structures, and ballsy playing and singing throughout. Kerslake contributed on keyboards, vocals, drums and composition. Their best cut, to these ears, was this one:

After Uriah Heep had chewed through four drummers over the course of making their first three albums, Hensley recruited his former bandmate for Heep duty, soon cementing what most would consider to be their “classic” lineup: Hensley, Kerslake, Mick Box (guitar), Gary Thain (bass) and David Byron (vocals). That quintet released four studio LPs and one live album over three years, during which time the group scored their highest sales and spins figures in the UK and USA. There are many classic cuts in that great creative period, but I’d cite this one as my perpetual favorite of the era:

That stable run ended after Thain’s onstage electrocution, followed by his untimely death of a drug overdose. He was replaced by my much-admired (and missed) John Wetton for a pair of albums, which most Heep fans don’t particularly dig, but I think are under-rated. I picked the fitting title of this post from a song of that era, co-composed by Kerslake and found on the B-side of the “Return To Fantasy” single. (I appreciate that the current most-recent comment on the Youtube page linked below praises the complexity of Kerslake’s drum work).

The late ’70s found Uriah Heep in a state of churn and devolution following the departures of Wetton, Byron, Hensley and Kerslake, leaving Mick Box as the sole founder and still standard-bearer for the group. Lest that sound negative over the long-haul, please note that I am most fond of much Heep work since that time, grateful that they never stopped growing, and thankful that they never ossified into a stale vintage rock tribute show to their earlier glories. I saw their current line-up a couple of years ago in a Chicago-area venue, and would cite that show as one of the best I saw during my four years of living there. I also consider their latest album, 2018’s Living The Dream, to be one of their all-time career highlights; see entry #15 at this link for more on that.

But back to 1979: following his Heep exit, Kerslake went on to join a super-group originally dubbed Blizzard of Ozz, featuring Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Bob Daisley and guitarist Randy Rhodes. By the time their debut album came out, however, things had morphed into Ozzy receiving top billing as a solo artist, with Blizzard of Ozz being repurposed as the title of the 1980 disc that ended up selling in quintuple-platinum quantities. How many times have you heard this choice Kerslake drum opening in sporting events and other “gotta pump up the crowd” moments, live and on television?

The original four members of Blizzard of Ozz co-wrote and recorded a second album, Diary of a Madman, for a 1981 release, but relationships had soured between Ozzy and his manager-wife Sharon on one side, and Daisley and Kerslake on the other, leading to Diary‘s original release crediting a replacement rhythm section for the work done by the original members. It got worse a few years later, after Daisley and Kerslake sued the Osbournes to receive their due creative credit on that pair of immensely successful commercial releases, only to see Ozzy and Sharon literally re-record and re-release the records with yet another rhythm section, completing erasing Kerslake and Daisley’s contributions from what they apparently hoped would become the permanent record. Kerslake later reported that the related legal proceedings bankrupted him. Eventually, saner heads prevailed and the original recordings have become commercially available again. During his final illness, Kerslake cited a dying wish to receive his due credit for his work on those famous discs, a request that Ozzy honored, finally providing him with the platinum disc awards that he’d certainly earned all those years before. A small gesture, sure, but meaningful, and better late than never, I suppose.

As it turned out, Kerslake’s departure from Ozzy World aligned timing-wise with a complete retrofit and relaunch on the Uriah Heep front. Kerslake re-joined his former band, bringing Daisley with him, for their first post-Hensley release, 1982’s Abominog, which opened with this cut:

That record was a surprising commercial and critical success, and after another few years of personnel churn, the band’s longest-stable lineup emerged in 1986, with Box and Kerslake joined by singer Bernie Shaw, keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and bassist Trevor Bolder, once of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, and also a veteran of the late ’70s Heep era. Kerslake’s last songwriting credit with his long-time band appeared on this cut, from 1998’s Sonic Origami.

Lee Kerslake continued to play with Uriah Heep until early 2007, when his health had declined to the point that he was no longer able to serve as the engine that drove the high-powered outfit he’d anchored for so long. He was active in other capacities as he was able in the years that followed, with some live work, some studio work, some writing, and some nice tributes to and interviews with him peppering web and radio spaces in and around the Heep community.

I return to Kerslake’s early career with The Gods to end this post, offering a closing track below that my music-nerd statistics tell me was the seventh most-played song around our household over the period from May 2008 to December 2019. Lee Kerslake plays drums on “Lovely Anita,” as per usual, but he also wrote it and sings lead vocals on it, and it’s an extraordinary little pop-rock gem, ably displaying a sensitive facet of his creative work that’s not often celebrated. But I love it dearly, and I applaud its creator, for this and so many other works. Lee Kerslake may not be the most famous musician we’ve lost in recent years, but he was well-loved among Heepsters, and someone whose name always made me pay attention when I saw it and/or heard his work. I hope you’ll join me in lifting a glass (real or virtual) in his direction upon the time of his flying away. May Lee rest in well-deserved peace.

Setting That Solidest of Picks: Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.

I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.

I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.

So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.

Don’t mess with Wes. It’s his key, and your job is just to watch for the outlet pass.

The Voice of Energy: Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947-2020)

Electronic music pioneer Florian Schneider-Esleben has died, after a short battle with cancer. He was the co-founder, with Ralf Hütter, of Germany’s legendary Kraftwerk, and he played on, penned and/or produced an extraordinary series of songs, albums and concerts between 1970 and 2008 that truly changed the ways in which we make, hear and understand music. Labeling Kraftwerk as influential is like labeling water as wet, or winter as cold. It’s a statement of the obvious, even if you don’t actively think about it very often. It just is.

Schneider (Florian dropped the “Esleben” in his public music credits) and Hütter met and began collaborating as university students in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s. Their early works featured an evolving cast of co-collaborators, and reliance on a mix of organic, taped and electronic instrumentation. For a brief period in 1971, Hütter (the group’s primary vocalist, though Florian also sang) left Kraftwerk, leaving Schneider as the keeper of the flame. Here’s what that period looked and sounded like, with Florian deploying the treated flute that was his hallmark through their early years. The other two members of the group at this point were Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who went on to form the similarly influential Neu!.

Following Dinger and Rother’s departure and Hütter’s return, the duo issued a pair of low-key albums (one simply called Ralf und Florian, with a pleasant picture of the pair on its sleeve belying its inner weirdness) before unleashing Autobahn on the world in 1974. Its 22-minute title track was designed to capture the experience of rocketing about Deutschland on its high-speed highways, and a single edit of that monumental piece became a global pop hit, even cracking the American Top 40 charts. Of course, the fact that many English-speakers heard its lyrics as “The fun, fun, fun of the Autobahn” probably had something to do with its multi-national appeal, even though the words are actually “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.” (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn.”) No matter. It was brilliant whatever you thought it meant.

Following Autobahn‘s release, the “classic” lineup of Kraftwerk cohered, with Schneider and Hütter being joined by electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flür (who had already appeared on Autobahn and Ralf und Florian) and Karl Bartos. The quartet’s next five albums — Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man Machine (1978), Computer World (1981) and Electric Café/Techno-Pop (1986) — were all masterpieces, musically, visually, and conceptually. Florian Schneider continued to serve as a primary songwriter (with Hütter, Bartos and lyricist Emil Schult) and performer, but his particular area of expertise and interest shifted over the years into voice synthesis, and he played a key role in the development of the group’s design ethos as well.

The birth of Electric Café/Techno-Pop (the title has varied over the years and across national lines with various reissues) was a long and difficult one. As Schneider and Hütter grew more meticulous and focused on recording technology (transitioning from analog to digital) and cycling, Bartos and Flür drifted away, and were replaced by Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, longtime engineers and technicians at the group’s Düsseldorf headquarters, Kling Klang Studios. The group only produced one more studio album, Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), which built upon a 1983 single (“Tour de France”) to create an album-length audio guide to the experience of cycling, much in the spirit of Autobahn‘s ode to the magic of driving.

Schneider retired from Kraftwerk in 2008, leaving Hütter, Schmitz and Hilpert to soldier on, with the fourth spot on the stage now being occupied by a dedicated video technician, since visuals are such a key component of the Kraftwerk live experience. A couple of years before Florian left the group, they issued Minimum-Maximum, an utterly essential live album with brilliantly bright and bold interpretations of a career’s worth of exceptional songs. On a personal front, I actually listen to that album more than any of the studio ones at this point. Here’s a sample of one of its best tracks. Florian is at the right as you view the video; keep in mind the key role he played in developing the group’s vocal synthetics as you listen to it, and also compare/contrast with the 1970 clip above.

Kraftwerk were a great, original act, unlike any other at each stage in their development, but then immediately mimicked, sampled and/or invoked following each and every creative artifact that emerged from Kling Klang’s secretive confines. I discovered the group somewhere in the Trans-Europe Express to The Man Machine era, and they’ve never left my regular playlists for very long in all of the years that have passed since then. I would especially cite the first time I heard their 1982 song “Numbers” (from Computer World) as one of the greatest “my mind is now well and fully blown” listening moments of my entire music-loving life. Here’s that song too, also in its Minimum-Maximum version:

When my wife and I visited Düsseldorf in 2014, I actually made a pilgrimage to the original site of Kling Klang Studios, though it was no longer there at that point, having moved elsewhere after Schneider’s departure from the group. I was somewhat awed and amused in equal measure to consider how works so titanic had been unleashed upon the world from such a humble setting. Here’s what it looked like when I visited; the studio had been behind the metal roll-down door at center.

While few beyond the Kraftwerk inner circle knew or know exactly what the working dynamic and relationships within the group really entailed over the years, there was always a sense from the outside that Ralf was the serious one of the pair, and Florian the one who just maintained a serious facade, which cracked sometimes. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in Germany during their “Berlin Albums” period, the pairs met and actually wrote about each other: Bowie’s “Heroes” album features a cut called “V-2 Schneider,” and Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” contains the lyric “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf city /Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.” There’s some hilarious documentary footage with Iggy describing his adventures with Florian. Here. Watch.

At bottom line, Florian Schneider did things, created images, and made music that moved me. I was most sorry to learn of his passing today. His death is one of so, so many in these tragic times, obviously, but I still feel compelled to write in his honor and memory, and with gratitude for the gift of his music. Perhaps some of you, my readers, may discover his work if you haven’t already by reading this memorial piece, or for those in the know, perhaps you will now be moved to slap some familiar robot tunes onto the stereo and dance mechanically to them, as one does.

In closing, I chose the title for this post from the opening track of Radio-Activity. Its lyrics felt apt to me, given Florian’s work in turning speech to signal, and vice versa.

This is the voice of energy.
I am a giant electric generator.
I deliver you light and power.
And I enable you language, music and art.
Through the ether to look and receive.
I am your servant and lord at the same time.
Therefore guard me well.
Me, the genius of energy.

Rest in peace, Herr Schneider-Esleben. You were a genius of energy indeed, and I adored your work.