The Irreplaceable Charlie Watts
by Jeff McCord
Since Charlie Watts died, my mind keeps flashing back to a brief discussion I had with a friend a few weeks earlier, back when the news first broke that Charlie would not be joining the Rolling Stones on the latest leg of their tour. We were discussing their upcoming (rescheduled) Austin appearance, and I commented that I didn’t see how they would even sound like the Stones without Charlie. He strongly disagreed.
My friend is an experienced musician with many bands under his belt, so his reaction surprised me. For me, in a lifetime of listening, and taking an open-minded approach to all kinds of rhythm-based music, there has been one constant blocking the entrance. If the drummer isn’t locked-in, I just can’t go there.
Drummers occupy this weird netherworld in music. Many don’t know a C sharp from a B flat, or how to improvise (really, the less they do of that the better). In general, they’re not big on songwriting. And they’re the butt of countless jokes (“What kind of people hang around musicians?”). But they couldn’t be more vital.
Drummers (and, yes, even creatively programmed drum computers) are the foundation of everything else that happens, and while there are extraordinary players behind the kit in every genre, the best often barely get noticed. They’re not out front posturing, stealing the spotlight. But they’re the reason you’re feeling the music. Their glue is holding everything together and making your body move. They literally are making the music happen.
This is why so many great jazz drummers become bandleaders. Or why both Lennon and McCartney told the same story: sharing looks of wide-eyed amazement the first time they rehearsed with Ringo Starr, how he gave them something they didn’t know they were missing. Keith Richards repeated many times that he never had to think about the rhythm when he wrote. He knew Charlie would know just what to do.
Charlie Watts was a bit of an enigma. He didn’t consider himself a great musician and often talked about how he was limited because he never really learned to play properly. A fashion devotee and jazz fan, he seemed aloof at times, apart from the rest of the band. Yet at other times was right with them for their drugs and other excesses. He didn’t particularly like touring. But he loved to play. New Stones records have become scarce, to say the least. Yet in their decades of making music, it’s impossible to think of a single moment Charlie called undue attention to himself.
When you do pay attention to Charlie on the Stones recordings, though, there it is. The ever-so-slightly behind-the-beat syncopation, the rim shots, the skin-tight snare. At times he swings, at least within the confines of rock music, almost like a shuffle. Other times it’s a pounding blues beat. And often, it’s what he doesn’t play, the pauses and delayed entrances that create such drama and tension. He didn’t just accompany the Rolling Stones. He made them better.
A lot of recent obits have dredged up the story of a drunk Jagger calling Charlie’s hotel room to ask “Where’s my fucking drummer?”, and of Charlie showing up at Jagger’s door to punch him in the face. “Don’t ever call me your drummer,” said Watts. “You’re my fucking singer!”
I couldn’t agree more. Jagger and Richards are among the all-time greats in rock and roll. Their accomplishments are without peer. But they didn’t get there alone. The truth is that, long in the tooth and well into their career coda, the Stones haven’t sounded like their heyday for a couple of decades now. Still, I will likely be on hand one more time, if COVID allows, when and if they hit the Circuit of the Americas in November. I know the show will be a real spectacle. Top-notch players will be backing them up. But Charlie is gone. And, for me and so many others, the Rolling Stones will never be the same.
— The Rolling Stones (@RollingStones) August 27, 2021
photo by Eddie Gaspar for KUT
A Discussion With Producer Bill Bentley and His New Roky Erickson Tribute, “May The Circle Remain Unbroken”
By Jeff McCord
“I’ll never forget my twenty-ninth birthday.” Bill Bentley recalls his time with his band the Bizarros in Austin. “We were playing the second Soap Creek Saloon out on North Lamar. As I looked to my right, there was Doug Sahim and Spencer Perskin from Shivas Headband, and to my right was Roky Erickson, all sitting in with us. I thought like, ‘God, how did I get here? You hit the trifecta, man.’”
Though Bentley only lived in Austin for a decade or so in the 70s, the writer/publicist (and former KUT DJ) has spent a lifetime in devotion to the music created here. And there’s no doubt who set him on that path: Austin’s first true rock star, Roky Erickson.
Others have sold more records (Stevie, Willie) and had statues built for them downtown (Stevie, Willie), but the impossibly charismatic Roky and his acid-drenched band the Thirteenth Floor Elevators galvanized what came to be known as the Austin music scene in the mid-sixties.
Bentley was only fifteen the first time he experienced the Elevators in his hometown Houston. “That sound of the jug and just the power of Roky screaming and singing and the guitars. Even having heard ‘You’re Going to Miss Me”, we were not even remotely prepared for how incredible the Elevators were that night. The rhythm section was just completely crazy. Stacy Sutherland’s guitar was so beautiful. And the electric jug, what the hell is that? And then Roky singing and screaming, he just had this sort of persona on stage where you really felt that he believed everything he was singing. He seemed possessed. He really did.”
Our conversation naturally turned to Roky in speaking with Bentley about his work producing and compiling May the Circle Remain Unbroken: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, a twelve-track posthumous tribute released on vinyl July 17th on Light in the Attic Records. The lineup is impressive, everyone from Billy Gibbons to Ty Segall, Margo Price to the Black Angels.
It’s not Bentley’s first rodeo, either. In 1990, he produced the Erickson tribute, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a collection jammed with 90s stars like R.E.M. and Primal Scream, all eager to pay homage. Proceeds were dedicated to helping the struggling musician. I asked Bentley what Roky thought of the release. “He liked it! He told me. ‘Oh you liked my title, huh?’” (reportedly Roky’s definition of psychedelic music).
Roky’s struggles began early and lasted throughout his life (he lived to age 71, and died in 2019). Bentley recalls early Elevator shows where Roky would be on stage with his back to the audience, singing a different song than the band was playing.
The Elevators were the brainchild of Tommy Hall, a UT philosophy major and early proponent of the consciousness-altering power of LSD. Hall wrote the Elevators lyrics like a manifesto, and it set them apart from every other band of the psychedelic era. The band took LSD every time they played, which took its toll. And the authorities, particularly in Texas, looked upon them as an existential threat. They focused their ire on the Elevators’ star, Roky.
Bentley recalls, after the busts began, how the Elevators just vanished. “It was just, you know, like 20 songs, 22 songs over the course of, what, two and a half albums that really count. I often say you could have about if they stayed in San Francisco in the fall of sixty-six instead of coming back to Texas at their label’s behest to record an album, I don’t think they would have got busted all that much. And there’s no telling what could have happened. Their producer [Lelan Rogers] told me the most incredible story. He said they had a call once from a man named Mike Jeffries and he said, ‘I’m taking this black guy over to England, to start him over there, I want to take the Elevators, too.’ Of course he was talking about Jimi Hendrix. So Lelan calls up Tommy Hall and says, you know, this guy wants to manage you and take you to England, and Tommy says, ‘We manage ourselves.’ Can you imagine the Elevators in England in the 60s with Hendrix?”
Instead, the persecution began, with Roky being institutionalized. “The authorities had really done a number on Roky. I look at it now and I can’t say it’s criminal, but it was really inhumane.”
Largely because of the Elevators (now absent from the scene), Bentley made his way to Austin. He would encounter Roky by chance walking down Congress Avenue in 1972, and again when interviewing Doug Sahm for the Austin Sun. Sahm, releasing a new single from Roky, brought him over to his house for Bentley to interview. They became friends.
Much of Roky’s post-Elevators music was dark, full of monsters, zombies, two-headed dogs. Other songs, like “Be and Bring Me Home”, written while Roky was institutionalized, are heartbreaking. All came from a person hard to reconcile with his image. In-person, he was kind, sweet. Talking with Roky was undeniably strange, but just when you thought you weren’t communicating, he would make a sly joke or comment to make you realize he was right there with you.
A few years ago, Bentley decided he wanted to honor Roky with another benefit album. But by the time he found the right label partner with Light in the Attic, Roky’s health was failing, and he knew the project would end up as a memorial.
“I started out with like six or seven people, you know, obviously with Billy Gibbons, because we went together back then [in Houston] to see the Elevators when we were young. I knew Jeff Tweedy like Roky a lot. We had talked about him. My son, Brogan, I raised him on the Elevators. I had tried to get Brian Eno to do ‘May the Circle Remain Unbroken’ on the first tribute record. But he was busy. I thought, like, you know, he can do this. He loved that song. So there’s just some gimmes.”
Other artists proved a bit more challenging. “I read something that Neko Case had written about Roky after he died, I could just tell that emotionally, she was very, very hurt and upset. It’s hard getting to her because she was busy doing all this other stuff. But I think she finally realized you just have to do it if you love Roky.”
“Charlie Sexton knew Roky really well because he kind of stayed at their house in the 70s. I was thinking like, well, I’ll get Charlie and Dylan. Back in the 60s, Dylan said how much he liked ‘Slip Inside This House”. And he used a couple of lines from that song on “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, I don’t know if he realized it. So yeah, we’ll get Charlie and Dylan. I got nowhere with that, with Dylan’s management. But Charlie, he was friends with Alison Mosshart [the Kills, the Dead Weather]. They took [Starry Eyes] in an incredible direction.”
“On a couple of tracks, somebody raised their hand and wanted to do it. Lucinda surprised me. She was around Roky in the 70s. The Black Angels just did an incredible version of ‘Don’t Fall Down’. Beautiful, almost like Nico singing it. I asked Margo Price, I didn’t really see anything in print that she was a big fan. I just knew her wild spirit. She got back to me and said ‘I want to do ‘Two-Headed Dog’. And I’m like, whoa.”
Bentley has assembled another worthy tribute to Roky’s talent, and kept his legacy alive and present for a new generation. “When I talk to younger people, they know some of his music. And they definitely know he was a major figure in rock and roll in the 60s, continuing a very strange pattern of life. If you think of some of the other mentally challenged people, like Syd Barrett and Skip Spence and a few others, they didn’t last as long, you know, Roky really stayed at it. Because if he had quit, he wouldn’t have lasted anywhere near as long as he did. Music was his life.”
It’s been Bentley’s as well. “I have to pay honor and tribute to Roky because I really don’t know if I’d gotten into music like I would have if it hadn’t been for the Elevators.Rock and roll – I was just set up for it by the Elevators. I never got over it. I’m still completely mesmerized.”
By Jeff McCord
The music is so embedded in our consciousness that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when it didn’t exist. Yet What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece that turned fifty years old on May 21st, almost never came to life.
Gaye was already an extraordinarily successful singer, crooning one two-and-a-half-minute hit of love and heartbreak after another. His matinee looks and clean-cut appearance made him the quintessential Motown star. The girls swooned; the boys all wanted to be Marvin.
Despite all this, Gaye was in a dark place. He had married Anna Gordy, a woman seventeen years his senior with no shortage of opinions on how he should manage his career. Anna’s younger brother Berry was lord of the Motown empire, and his dictates held fast. Berry had no patience for a song that didn’t grab his attention in the first few seconds. Motown hits got down to business quickly, and Gordy’s stable of talented artists and songwriters stuck to universal themes. It was a formula that had rewarded him time and again, and Gordy saw no reason to divert just because some artist suddenly wanted to follow their own muse.
And that’s exactly what Gaye yearned to do. He was hounded by self-doubt and insecurity, his string of top ten records – even those he had written himself – so micromanaged that he felt undeserving of all the acclaim.
Gaye had witnessed the slow decline and death of his longtime singing partner Tami Terrell, a victim of brain cancer. He was struggling with tax problems and an increasing dependency on cocaine. His long-strained relationship with his father was as bad as ever. His marriage to Anna was starting to unravel. And unrest and social upheaval were swirling around him. His brother Frankie had returned from Vietnam a changed man. He watched Curtis Mayfield release his powerful “People Get Ready” and longed for such relevance. All he needed was a little inspiration.
It came by way of a song. Everyone has their own story of how finished a song it was, and what form it took, but the basic facts are these: Four Tops member “Obie” Benson witnessed a brutal police beating of anti-war demonstrators while on tour with his band. He relayed his disbelief to songwriter Al Cleveland. Yet the Four Tops wanted no part of Cleveland’s work, which they deemed a protest song. So Benson took the song to Gaye. Initially, Marvin thought the song would be suited for another Motown group, the Originals, but he was persuaded to record it himself when he was given permission to rework it and add his personal touches. That song became “What’s Going On”.
The Hitsville recording session for the song differed from Motown’s usual assembly-line approach. Gaye brought in additional musicians to supplement the Motown regulars, among them saxophonist Eli Fontaine, and rounded up bassist James Jamerson in a bar playing with a local band. Alcohol and pot fueled, or rather, loosened the vibe. Gaye himself, inspired by the subtle and unforced beauty of a Lester Young recording, tried a quieter, more natural vocal approach, double and triple-tracking harmonies to give it depth. The lyrics -more plaintive than indignant- pleaded a message of quiet despair. Nearly four minutes in length, strings, sax, a Spectorish wall of sound mix, prominent percussion, and a relaxed tempo all added to the magic.
Yet when Gordy was presented with the song, he hated it, calling it one of the worst things he had ever heard. (According to Gaye. These days, Berry denies such vehement opposition). Nonetheless, by all accounts, Gaye had to threaten never to record for the label again to get the single released. He had nothing to lose and was determined not to go back to the way things were.
Released in January 1971, the single was an immediate hit, so Berry gave the green light to an album, provided Gaye could complete it in thirty days. It took significantly less. Gaye reassembled the band and captured the same lightning in a bottle, armed with an array of like-minded compositions, touching on everything from environmental ruination (“Mercy Mercy Me”) and urban decay (“Inner City Blues”) to apocalyptic imagery (“Save the Children”) and drug addiction (“Flying High”), all told without preaching or dogma, every song framed by the album’s titular question. It’s doubtful any of this was a happy accident. It’s an album too conceptually designed, beautifully bookended by the title track and “Inner City”, to be the result of anything other than careful conceptual mapping.
Appearing May 21st, 1971, What’s Going On was unlike any Motown release to come before it. Songs flowed into one another, backing musicians were credited, a photo of a serious and bearded Gaye adorned the cover. Yet acclaim was universal and immediate. Critics and fans alike adored the record. Despite the worries of Motown’s ‘quality control’ team, the album spawned three top ten singles (the title track, “Mercy” and “Inner City”), and publications as diverse as UK’s NME and Rolling Stone have named it the best album of all time.
Normally, you’d regard such hyperbole with a healthy degree of cynicism, but in this case, I’m not so sure they’re wrong. Gaye would never return to social commentary, though he’d keep the softer vocal approach and turn up the heat on the sexuality in future releases. What’s Going On was his outlier, a concept album that casts its own spell. I get chills to this day when I hear the downbeat of “Inner City” or the gliding sax intro to the title track. It’s not just that the album captured a near-perfect time snapshot of the times. Fifty years on, it asks questions that still need to be answered.
Photos by Todd V. Wolfson
by Jeff McCord
Ed Ward, one of the pioneers of rock journalism, was found dead in his Austin home May 3rd. Ward grew up in New York, where he met editor Paul Williams and began writing for the trail-blazing Crawdaddy magazine in the mid-sixties. He soon joined the staff of Rolling Stone, moving to San Francisco to become their reviews editor in 1970. He wouldn’t last long in that position, but he continued to write for the magazine and for Creem throughout the seventies, where his passion and blunt, hard-edged criticism quickly made him a known quantity.
So when Ed moved to Austin in 1979 and became the music critic for the Austin American-Statesman, it added a swift kick of legitimacy to the city’s established and blooming punk and indie rock scenes. Pre-internet and social media, getting a mention from Ward in his columns was a big deal to developing Austin acts. He applied the same exacting standards to Austin he had with his national coverage. Ed was never ambivalent; he would champion the acts he admired and offer little mercy to those he didn’t. It wasn’t long before ‘Dump Ed Ward’ bumper stickers began appearing around town. It did nothing to deter him.
Ed would stay at the Statesman until 1984. He began moving into books around that time, starting with his bio, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, and a few years later he co-authored Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. He became the music editor at the Austin Chronicle, and it was there that I first met Ed, who gave me and many others some of their first Austin writing assignments.
He continued to call attention to the burgeoning Austin scene, and played a hand in bringing the MTV Cutting Edge show here in 1985. Suddenly our local heroes – Biscuit, Daniel Johnston, and all the bands of the exploding ‘New Sincerity’ scene – were on national TV. Ed was also among those instrumental in getting South by Southwest launched in 1987.
Sharing his voracious appetites for, well, most everything, you always walked away from Ed with some new discovery. Greil Marcus, who Ed succeeded at Rolling Stone, told the magazine, “If you sat down with him, flowers of knowledge would open up. Whether it was Sausalito or Berlin, he knew stories about this building or the scandal behind this restaurant. He was a wonderful storyteller. The world was richer when you were around Ed.”
But he was also a study in contradictions. His copy was clean and fastidious, yet his personal habits were anything but. Ed was as passionate about food as he was about music. He was also a very good cook. The one time he had me and a friend over to his Clarksville home for a meal, the food was excellent. But there was really no place to eat. We balanced plates in our laps in dusty armchairs, watching Ed’s dog Pete run back and forth, deftly navigating the skyscrapers of books and CDs that populated his living room.
Ed loved holding court and was loyal and generous to his friends. Yet he was cantankerous. He held tight to his grievances – often editors he felt had wronged him – and would fall on his sword over the most trivial points of contention. He could be exhausting.
Leaving a lot of bridges burned, Ed would move to Berlin in 1994, and later to southern France. He would stay in Europe until 2013, his only steady gig was as a music reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air. He wrote about art, food, scraped by. And stayed in touch with Austin.
While attending the Berlin Independence Days festival, Ed organized a trip to a newly-liberated Prague for a large group of us, and his morning tour of the city was better than that of any professional guide. I always consulted Ed when traveling overseas. He would unerringly steer me in the right direction. Just a few years ago, he sent me and my family to this out-of-the-way Paris cafe that was half as expensive and twice as good a meal as any we had in the city.
On returning to Austin, Ed picked up where he left off, writing The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1, which was published in 2016. Volume 2 came out in 2019.
I wasn’t among Ed’s close circle of friends. Years would go by without us seeing each other, particularly when he was in Europe. It had been some time since we had spoken when rumors began circulating that Ed was back in town. I was in the Apple store when I suddenly heard his voice, in an animated discussion with an employee. I walked over to him. “Welcome back, Ed,”, I said. “How are you?”
“Well, Apple is really fucking me around,” he angrily replied.
This was Ed, tirelessly fighting the world’s battles, exposing the wrongs, and celebrating all that was exceptional in the world, especially in his adopted home. We’re all better off because of him.
Photo By Kate Blaising
Calliope Musicals Build Something New
Their new EP ‘Between Us’ is out 4/23
by Jeff McCord
Austin’s Calliope Musicals often call their music psychedelic, but don’t expect fuzz drones and sitars. They’re psychedelic only to the extent that their wild technicolor pop feels mind-expanding. Over the years their songs have exploded with ideas, pushing the limits of what three minutes could constrain. Yet on their new EP Between US, out April 23 on Spaceflight Records, something new takes over – call it rhythmic purpose.
“Moonchaser” is a hooky pop-rocker that sticks to a hard driving blueprint. And the single, “Can You Tell Me”, beats an incessant pulse to a joyous finish. Production is still crazy, but everything feels more in service to the songs. Frontwoman Carrie Fussell says her favorite thing about the band is that “it never gets too hung up on staying within the boxes we have built in the past. Describing the new EP (four new songs and a remix of Color/Sweat’s “Fear This Body”), Fussell describes it as “filled with features from so many people we love and played with over the years. It’s really an amalgamation of a couple of time periods and that’s a new thing for us.” It’s also resulted in some of their most powerful music to date.
KUTX Artist of the Month April 2021