Friday, September 23, 2011

Charlie's Blues, Breezy Stories and Danny O'Keefe

One of this country's great singer-songwriters has lived in the Pacific Northwest most of his life, but a relative few northwesterners recognize Danny O'Keefe's name.   More will recognize at least two of his songs, however.  Jackson Browne covered O'Keefe's "The Road" for his Running On Empty album; what doubtlessly earns O'Keefe even more in royalties is a true American masterpiece called "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues."

Covered by everyone from Cab Calloway and Elvis to Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam, "Good Time" is one of those songs that sticks in your head the first time you hear it.  It's a lonely song about — among other things — loneliness.  O'Keefe's 1972 single was a huge hit, and it appeared on his eponymous sophomore album.

After spending the previous decade honing his craft, O"Keefe seemed to regurgitate all he had learned and observed in a series of 1970s albums for Atlantic Records.  In a period known for songs lamenting the loss of youth — and the loss of the Sixties — O'Keefe's background and signature was at least as authentic as any of his peers.  Indeed, O'Keefe had learned, observed and experienced lot: playing Minneapolis coffee houses a la Dylan (whom he later recorded with); surviving a motorcycle crash that left him seriously injured; performing and recording with Seattle psych-rockers Calliope, and briefly joining in a California migration of Seattle/NW musicians — a motley assortment of folk, rock and psychedelic-rock artists that included the Daily Flash and future members of Moby Grape.

What's always stumped me is why the masses haven't acknowledged O"Keefe's remarkable, distinctive voice.  Too many of his songs seemed to go straight from his amazing pipes to the likes of Ute Lemper (!) and Mel Torme (!), without mom 'n' pop America hearing the original version.  Sure, he hasn't been ultra-consistent with album output... however, from O'Keefe and Breezy Stories to So Long Harry Truman and The Day To Day — among others — this songwriter's songwriter has recorded a sizable catalog of compelling material.  He continues to do so; O'Keefe's In Time was released in 2008.

Merle Haggard once recorded a great "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," but I would hazard a guess that he — and even Elvis — would've insisted O'Keefe's original was the best.  It remains the singer's calling card, and for good reason.

Danny O'Keefe has started to accumulate some fascinating and moving memoirs, short stories and poems on his website.

My 2001 interview with O'Keefe about his career and his passion for promoting songbird-friendly coffee can be found in this website's Aural History archive.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous — The Rocket Interview

Honoring the anniversary of the release of Almost Famous this week, I've transcribed my 2000 interview with filmmaker Cameron Crowe for the highly influential, now-defunct Seattle music and arts magazine, The Rocket.

Inexplicably, the studio really hadn't reached out to the magazine for coverage of Almost Famous; I think a movie review is all we would have done.  I asked my editor about interviewing Crowe... after all, the man was enormously popular in Seattle after Say Anything, Singles... and of course, his marriage to Heart's Nancy Wilson (sadly, the couple divorced in 2010).   Up until then, my newbie work for The Rocket had been mostly album and concert reviews.  The assignment was given to me as a test, I felt, to see if my abilities matched my eagerness — could I track down Cameron Crowe without any help?  I pulled out my Day-Timer and started working my way up the ladder of contacts.

Within 36 hours, one of my heroes since a high-school read of Fast Times At Ridgemont High in Playboy was leaving me messages on my answering machine.  It turned out that Crowe was a fan of The Rocket, and had hoped someone would call him!  Needless to say, the resulting, wide-ranging interview was an enormous confidence builder, and remains one of my favorites.

Our chat was originally titled "That '70s Crowe" back in Sept. 2000.

The Rocket: How much of Almost Famous really happened, and how much of it is fiction?

Cameron Crowe: All of it's true, except the reconciliation between my mother and my sister, which we're still working on.  Everything else is true.... the movie is kind of a Cuisinart — put it in and hit "blend" — though a lot of it happened as it was.  Over the years, someone would ask what it was like to be on the road with Led Zeppelin, and I'd say, "Pull up a chair, and I'll tell you a story."  I've always been really proud of those experiences, they were things I've always wanted to get down — at least on paper.  The movie is sort of like a living novel that I don't know if I was comfortable directing until now... it's a novel on film, and it all happened.

Rocket: So your mother (played by Frances McDormand in the film) really is a New Age, intellectual conservative?

Crowe:  Yeah, kind of a free-thinker and a fan of knowledge — and she's got a bullshit detector like nobody else.  My mom's a big rock fan now, but she's still that person, she's a college professor and everything.  Basically, she thought that rock was false advertising — "Don't pretend to be grand and literate when really, you're selling sex and drugs... so let's be honest here."   But, at the same time, she was bringing Dick Gregory and Cesar Chavez to the classes to speak.  At the same time she was telling me, "Don't listen to rock 'n' roll," she was saying, "I want you to meet Dick Gregory, he is a secular saint."  I'll never forget it — my mom introduced me to Dick Gregory.

Rocket: Did Gregory tell you any jokes?

Crowe: No!  Dick Gregory said, "Let's run in the park, I'm fasting over the end of the Vietnam War."  We went running with this guy in one of mom's classes, Bob Brown.  We ended up at Brown's house, listening to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."  It was the coolest.

Rocket: Your films have always been noted for their soundtracks.  Almost Famous seems like the collaboration that you and Nancy would've been waiting for.  Is "Fever Dog" one of those by-products of the film that you didn't expect?

Crowe: We've been preparing for this for years.  It used to be a different project with a different name, but always our little tribute to a very specific year in rock — 1973.  We started writing these songs on our honeymoon in 1986, but we continued, out of pure fun, to work on the Stillwater (Almost Famous' fictitious band) songs after that.  Nancy has given an intoxicating feel to everything I've done as a director, with the exception of Singles, which was me trying to get Paul Westerberg to be Nancy Wilson, in a way (laughs).  Which he was happy to go for, because he digs Nancy.  This is the movie where her stuff really shines.  (With) "Fever Dog," our goal was to do something that would've sounded good between "Money" and "Aqualung" on FM radio in '73.  We wanted to artfully rip off Led Zeppelin, and be real, instead of a parody.

Rocket: How important was it for you to include Led Zeppelin songs in the movie?

Crowe: Without Zeppelin, it wouldn't be real.  I never knew what kind of mood they would be in.  In fact, we'd heard they had loved Trainspotting, that they wished there was a movie like Trainspotting that was musical and visual to lend their songs to.  We'd also heard that they didn't want to be associated with the 70s.  When we flew to England to show it to them, we didn't know what sort of attitude was there waiting for us.  What was waiting for us were very open minds.... I think (Page and Plant) appreciated the sincerity of the movie, and they asked for more of their music to be included — which we were only too happy to accommodate.

Rocket: Apart from the movie, how did they react to your choice of their material?

Crowe: Jimmy Page said, "That's The Way" is the one that was used best.  The question became whether we could add more film to "The Rain Song."  The rest of the songs you get to hear at length.  "The Rain Song" was used least of all, and Plant said, "You know 'The Rain Song"' is a pretty full and textured song to be used quickly."  I said, "Hey, man, I'm looking for any excuse in the world to make that scene longer."  He replied, "Well, send me the tape."

Rocket: So you tried to flesh out a scene to include more of that song?

Crowe:  The movie wasn't finished when we took it to them.  It was almost finished... and there was a great shot of Fairuza Balk (who plays a groupie) that I always loved, which was Fairuza coming down a dark hallway into the light.  The scene sort of launches the end of the movie.  We had a four-hour cut of the film, and we kept cutting it down to the bone and building it back up — and that was the one thing I'd always missed.  So when I was talking to Plant, that scene came to mind.  Courtney Love was on the set the day we shot that scene, so I have a really good memory of that day.   I thought, "This was not meant to wind up on the cutting room floor."

Rocket: The soundtrack isn't your average 70s compilation — it's a bit adventurous, with some obscure numbers.  Did you choose all of them yourself?

Crowe: Yeah, all of the soundtracks have been from "road tapes."  I work really closely with (music supervisor) Danny Bramson, one of my closest friends.  I was dying to get "I'm Waiting For The Man" on there, because there was a semi-bootleg version available in England for a minute.  There was a contract dispute with Bowie's former manager, and it was withdrawn pretty quickly.  But I had it, I had this good-quality version of the Santa Monica Civic show, and I loved that song.   I wrote the whole sequence of them going to Cleveland for the song... the beginning of "I'm Waiting For The Man" sounded like a bus trip.

Rocket: You've got to be a big Beach Boys fan to put "Feel Flows" into a movie. 

Crowe: Yes!  it's the one thing you can't get on CD — you can't get Surf's Up on CD.  We had this really scratchy record... we were lucky to get the master.

Rocket: Lester Bangs is an essential figure in the film.  Did a mentoring relationship develop past your initial meetings?

Crowe: It actually did develop; he was a very honest critic of my stuff.  He'd tell me when I'd written something he'd liked, and told me when I was buying into rock-star dogma.  The last conversation I had with him was a few months before he died, and we discussed the merits of Peter Frampton.  I've since talked to people who said he actually appreciated Frampton as a guitarist — privately, late at night, he would confess that.  He was really quite a guy.

Rocket: Was Phillip Seymour Hoffman in your mind for the role from the beginning?

Crowe: In my dreams!  He is the hardest-working guy in show business today, and we weren't sure we could get him.  We got him for about four days.

Rocket: Through Bangs, the film pokes fun at Ben Fong-Torres and magazine editors in general.  Was Jann Wenner aware of this when he agreed to a cameo?

Crowe: He was... he'd read the script, and had a good sense of humor about it.  The ironies were deep... he had a stormy relationship with Lester.   Lester left Rolling Stone shortly before I met him.  A lot of people don't know how close Jann has stayed with with all of his memories of the time.

Rocket: As a rock journalist, so many aspects of the movie hit home for me.  How do you feel those not associated with the music industry are going to interpret the film?

Crowe: (Sighs) I don't know... I don't know if anybody will show up.

Rocket: You're not serious, your name alone will sell tickets.

Crowe:  I'm completely serious.  I've certainly never made a movie to be successful — well, I actually hoped The Wild Life would be successful, and I got slapped down so hard that I never cared after that.  I felt, on some superstitious level, that if you worry about popularity it will never appear.  All of the stuff that I've loved the most could not have been made with a desire for commercial success.

Rocket: I spotted Pete Droge's and Peter Frampton's cameos, but where was Eric Stoltz?

Crowe:  Oooh, that hurts.  That's a sad, sad, story, my friend.  I'll tell you what happened: I tried to get him to play Bowie, because I thought it would be hilarious — people would ask, "Where's Stoltz?"  And I'd say, "He plays Bowie!"  (David Bowie's face does not appear in the film.) 

I've been surprised that it's become sort of a game - Spotting Stoltz!  I think I insulted Eric by offering him too small a part.  The way I was going to tip my hat to him, and come back with a bigger part on the next film, was a shot where the band was coming into Cleveland and they see the marquee.  It was a cool thing, I really loved the idea — the marquee was changing; there was a guy on a ladder in front of the Cleveland Arena changing the letters to "Stillwater — Tonight."  But, on the side, it was gonna say, "Upcoming Shows — July 9 — Miles Davis, July 10 — Gram Parsons and July 12 — The Eric Stoltz Experience."  That was how we were going to get Eric in... but we took too long filming the "Tiny Dancer" scene and two other scenes.  Everybody said, "You can come back and shoot the marquee later," but I could never get the dough to go back and shoot it. 

So, I've broken the streak, and I'm very depressed.

Rocket: Is Eric Stoltz depressed?

Crowe: I don't know, I got some e-mail from him last week that was... enigmatic.  It made me even sadder.  I feel like I have to do penance.  Telling you this story, I can see his point of view really well.  "I played a chicken for you (Say Anything); I played the lead in the worst thing you've ever written (The Wild Life) like a trooper; I played a mime (Singles), and I played the guy throwing a bachelor party for Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire).  Where's the love?" 

(Laughing)  There was another scene that we ran out of time to shoot:  A scene where the kid walks in on Jeff Bebe (played by Jason Lee) doing cocaine.  He goes into a bathroom to write down some notes, and looks up and Bebe is being given some cocaine by the leather-clad local Topeka coke guy.  So the kid's busting Bebe, and Bebe's busting him for taking secret notes.  This was the dialogue:  The kids says, "Hey."  Bebe goes, "Hi."  The kid says, "Hi," and the coke guy says, "Hey." And that was the end of the scene (laughs). 

I'm bummed... I could've made the coke guy Eric Stoltz and I would've solved the problem!

Rocket: Stoltz has already played a dope dealer, in Pulp Fiction.

Crowe: Yeah, once again, all thankless parts for a guy that deserves so much more.

- Steve Stav

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Almost Famous, Indeed: A "Vault Interview" With Heart / Stillwater Drummer Ben Smith

In celebration of the anniversary of Cameron Crowe's masterpiece, Almost Famous, I've taken a 2001 interview with drummer Ben Smith out of the vaults.  Smith, at the time one of Seattle's top hired guns, had played in Ann and Nancy Wilson's Lovemongers prior to getting tapped for the Almost Famous soundtrack.  His thunderous, (dare I say) Bonham-like drums, along with Mike McCready, Peter Frampton, et al., provided the music for the fictitious, bombastic band Stillwater.  Smith followed up this feat with work on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack.

I knew Smith from some of his Jet City gigs, knew his reputation, knew him to be one of the most genuine souls in the business.  What I didn't know — until we sat down at a Ballard sidewalk cafe — is just how deep and fascinating his career had been up to that point.  42 at the time, he had been playing professionally for 27 years.

Of course, Smith's career became even more fascinating shortly after our talk - he's been Heart's drummer ever since. 

This article is slightly condensed from the original, which ran in the now-defunct Seattle music magazine, Rock Paper Scissors.
SS: What were your early experiences with Ann and Nancy Wilson like?

Smith: I knew they were great, but I had never listened to the music.  I saw them play a couple of shows when I was playing with another band.  I thought, ‘Wow! That’s cool.’  That was when I started trying to get some work with them - this was about 1995.  We recorded some tunes in Nancy’s basement...we played some shows in Seattle, and then I played about 30 gigs in the summer of ‘95, from the Midwest to the West Coast.  We did some TV gigs that fall - we played the Tonight Show, and the Rupaul Show.

SS: Did Rupaul give you a hard time, try to sit on your lap or anything?

Smith: I just met, um, her.  I was really surprised at what a professional show that was.  The clip from that show is still being played - on VH1’s Behind The Music.  I haven’t seen it, but friends keep telling me they’ve seen me on TV.

SS: I’ve heard that the Wilson sisters have a pretty tight circle.  Were they stand-offish when you began working with them?

Smith: No, they are always really sweet.  Like many professionals, if you’re a musician working with them and they like what you do, they recognize your work and respect you.

SS: Nancy really nailed that big mid-70’s sound when she produced the Stillwater music for Almost Famous.

Smith: Yeah!  In the studio, we modeled it after Bad Company’s Bad Co. record, which was released in ‘74.  So, we had to go for parts that, in our imaginations, that were something that might have gone down in those days.  The sounds couldn’t be too good, because of the technology that they had back then.  We would do passes that sounded pretty good, but not too good, because Stillwater was an opening band.  It was first passes on almost everything.  I’d listen to them and say, ‘I’ve got to do it again.’  Nancy, Peter Frampton, Mike McCready and some of the other guys would say, ‘Can’t be too good - I think you’re there!’

A classic thing about session recording is that by the time you get to the third or fourth take of a tune, you’re sometimes thinking about it too much and working too hard.  Not often do you go with the very first take, either; on this record — even if it wasn’t exactly right —  we kept it, because we knew it was the right vibe for the movie.

SS: When did you begin drumming?

Smith: I began drumming seriously when I was 14.  I went to Garfield High School...the music teacher there, Clarence Acox, was very inspiring.  He still teaches there.  When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a drummer - I thought I was a drummer.  Then, when I went to Garfield, I said, ‘Oh, I’m not a drummer. I’d better practice.’

SS: You played in the jazz band there?

Smith: They didn’t really have a jazz band then - it was really hard funk.  The Gap Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power - whoever was hot back in the 70s.  By the time I was 15 1/2, I was gigging.  I practiced 3 hours a day the summer I turned 15.  By that fall, I was out playing gigs with a lot of the black horn bands that were working around Seattle at that time - this was probably about 1974. 

SS: That’s incredible.

Smith: Yeah, I was the anomaly - the white boy who could play funky and keep time and not destroy the groove.

SS: The club scene must have been pretty wild back in the ‘70’s.

Smith: In some ways it was.  The greatest thing that I ever saw, as far as craziness goes - was this club called the Jet Inn out by the airport that was run by this guy from Guam.  He booked all kinds of music, but what made the most money were these black bands or mixed-race bands that would draw tons of people - Acapulco Gold, Onyx...anyway, this Guamanian club manager was out of his mind.  There was a lot of drugs around, a lot of people were smoking herb.  One time, I went to work early one night, and saw this guy do this crazy thing - to inspire fear in his staff, he had a busboy lay on two chairs - his feet on one and his head on the other.  He then put a raw potato on this kid’s stomach and broke out this samurai sword, this blade was as sharp as one can be.  He then came down with all his strength and cut this potato in half, without cutting the busboy at all.  Who knows what kind of drugs this guy was on.  He had these little Samoan guys bouncing at the club, these guys could take anybody - I mean anybody - out, just like that.

SS: Things must have been pretty lax around here back then for you to be getting into clubs.

Smith: It was totally lax.  By the time I was 21, I had stopped playing clubs for awhile - I was tired.  I made more money between 15 and 21 than...I was 28 or so before I made that kind of money again.  There was a lot of gigs to be had back then, and the scene was so open.  Then, everything shut down, a lot of clubs closed in the Northwest by the time I was 18 or 19.  A lot of clubs that hired those great black horn bands, they stopped booking them.  It was a weird thing - it was partly due to the economy, partly due to the racism that sprang up.  Black bands from the Northwest traditionally had to go to Canada or Asia or the East Coast to get work, but from about 1972 to 1980, there was all this activity happening here.

SS: How did you talk your parents into letting you do all this?

Smith:As long as I stayed out of trouble, they were fine with it.  The guys in the band picked me up and took me to work. 

SS: That must have been a sight to see.  Who were some of your early drum heroes?

Smith: I had two grooves that I listened to when I was fifteen or sixteen.  Hard funk was one of them, so a lot of the funk drummers really knocked me out then, like Bernard Purdy, and also James Gadson, a session drummer who played on a lot of records.  I also liked fusion, so Billy Cobham was really big for me.  I didn’t even think about playing rock until I was 30 or 32.  I moved to New York when I was 24, and played mostly jazz and r&b.

SS: That must have been something, playing r&b in New York in the early ‘80s.

Smith: That was a gas, I loved it.  I was in this weird group of guys there.  Some of the guys that are in the Conan O’Brien and the Saturday Night Live bands are some of the guys that I played with back then.  We’d play these club gigs - some rock, some funk, some r&b.  A lot of those guys are still doing that.  Their TV gig would be over by 6, and then they’d go record or play clubs or weddings.  I’d do a recording during the day and go play a wedding that night with guys that were playing on Steely Dan records or something like that.  There was good money in private parties - better than playing clubs, most of the time.

SS: What was your first movie soundtrack?
Smith: My first soundtrack was probably Smoke Signals.  Sherman Alexie was there for the music recording. 

SS: I understand that he’s a very intense fellow.

Smith: I think he’s an intense guy, but he immediately picked up on the essence of working in the recording studio, and he was very sweet about it.  He saw how B.C. Smith and I were working together, and he made comments on things we could try.  Some things worked, and some things didn’t - you try different angles.  He was a great guy about it all.

SS: So are you tight with Cameron Crowe now?

Smith: (Chuckling) We know each other.  I’m honored to know the guy - what an amazing talent.

- Steve Stav

TOMORROW at Intermittent Signals - My 2000 "Almost Famous" interview with Cameron Crowe.