Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Across the Great Divide

When I pulled up yesterday, like “Mr. Big Rock Star” in a long black limo, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There, on the field between the house and woods, were five guys, some in black jackets, or vests, most with one kind of hat or another, all with cowboy boots. They looked liked Jesse James and his gang, a band of outlaws, bearded and mustachioed. Was I having an acid flashback? No, it was real. The one with the bushy beard kicked an American football high and far to another wearing a cowboy hat with a flat topped crown.




Ever since I had been slipped the tape of The Band’s songs, I’d been hooked. It was a drug to me; I couldn’t stop listening to it. These songs pointed out to me everything that was wrong with Cream. Jack and Ginger would go off and do their own thing, and I would hole up listening to the tape over and over again. Every track was beautiful and grown up, not like the useless and pointless music I was playing. I adored the economy of their playing. It ran rings around our virtuosity. We were ridiculous in comparison. Levon Helm’s drumming did more in four minutes than Ginger Baker could do in a ten minute solo. I realized then that their music was what I wanted to play. They had it all – country, blues, rock – great songs.

I met Robbie Robertson out in L.A. and told him how much I dug what his group was doing and he invited me out to meet the guys in Woodstock. I finally managed to get out East. After meeting them all, we went inside the house. I had heard what Dylan had been laying down and now saw where Bob did his recording. It was a garage, not a basement – that’s what people had called the new songs, “The Basement Tapes” – with cinder block walls and a concrete floor, not nearly covered by a big rug. There was a steel furnace in the corner, piano, drums and recording equipment scattered around.

Robbie asked, “Hey Eric, want to play?” The whole group turned to face me, waiting for my answer.



“No, no, I just came to watch.” I wasn’t ready to play with them, not where my head was at. I didn’t think I could play with them, though I really wanted to. In fact, I had come hoping they would ask me to be in the group. Or I would ask them, if I had the guts.

The five of them sat in a circle, playing at a low, relaxed volume, like a conversation. I loved how they looked at each other. I thought about Cream. What a con we were! Here were these guys, totally into each other as a band. When we played we were three separate planets, each in our own orbit, far from each other and staring out to the audience. We hardly ever looked at each other. Jack and Ginger loved each other, I guess, but they couldn’t stand each other’s face. I tried to keep the peace, but that gets on your wick after a while. At least it did mine.

The Band was playing a song about the civil war. Beautiful, man, just beautiful. This is what I want to hear, this is what I want to play. Musically, these are my soul mates. No more maestro bullshit, no more “Clapton is God.” Please! Rolling Stone was right when they said my playing was boring and full of clichés, pointless jamming with no musical value. That review knocked me on my heels, man, but it was true, the Emperor had no clothes, you know?

It was so nice just sitting and listening to these mountain men, playing mountain music. They didn’t jam, they worked, liked serious musicians, perfecting their craft with joy and integrity. Cream’s psychedelic insanity was already passé and stale. The Band’s music was real.

"Dog eat dog, cat eat mouse.” That’s a great line Levon just sang. Like Cream itself. We’ll eat ourselves if it doesn’t end. These songs feel as old as the hills, timeless. They finished playing and Robbie motioned to head upstairs, so we did.

It was a great night. So comfortable, laying back in the overstuffed couch, feet up on the coffee table. No drugs, much booze. Everyone had a bottle for themselves. Richard Manuel and I plowed through gallons of Johnny Walker Red, or so it seemed. Levon talked about Sonny Boy Williamson. Turns out they were from the same place in Arkansas, West Helena.

"The Yardbirds played with Sonny Boy when he came to England,” I said, a bit of pride in my voice.

“He told me about that once,” said Robbie. “We were playing and he said, ‘I just played with some white motherfuckers over in England,’ you know how he talked. ‘Yeah, these white boys like to play blues real bad, and that’s how they play it, real bad.’”

Everyone laughed. I did too, but I was hurt. I wanted to be accepted by these guys, wanted to be seen as a serious musician who could add something to what they were doing.

That was yesterday. I heard the birds chirping as I looked out the window this morning, the trees already losing their leaves. There’s a workman outside already, covered in plaster from head to foot. No, wait, it’s Rick Danko.


It’s paradise here. It must be nice not dealing with band mates who are looneys. This is where I want to be, this is what I want to play.

A knock on the door.

“Yeah, come in.”

Robbie walked in. “Hey Eric, could you come downstairs? Me and the guys wanted to ask you about something important.”

Eric Clapton was introduced to the music of The Band when L.A. entrepreneur Alan Pariser gave him tapes of what would become Music from Big Pink, the group’s first album, released in July 1968. It had a profound effect on Clapton and he realized that the music of The Band was what he wanted, the proper place for a serious musician such as himself. He told his Cream band mates, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, that he couldn’t go on anymore with what they were doing. Clapton visited The Band in the fall of 1968 in the hopes of joining them, but he didn’t have the nerve to ask. Cream would break up in November. The following year, Blind Faith would become the first supergroup, Eric hooking up with Steve Winwood, who was available after his own band, Traffic, dissolved in January 1969.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Starting Over

Up on the tenth floor of The Record Plant, John, Yoko and producer Jack Douglas were putting a few finishing touches on “Walking on Thin Ice,” a new Yoko single, They’d been in the studio for over five hours, since 4:30, and the trio was getting tired.

Earlier, David Geffen had stopped by the studio to bring everyone the good news. Waving them into the control room, Geffen said with glee, “Well, congratulations, two weeks out and your album is gold and quickly headed to platinum.” John was relieved. He’d been nervous that, after a five year layoff, no one would buy a new album of his and Yoko’s. Now, Double Fantasy was a certified hit. Geffen was relieved as well. As President of the new Geffen Records, he wasn’t sure John Lennon would sell in 1980. Let alone an album that was half John, half Yoko. It’s not like Yoko records had ever sold, or ever been released without an accompanying torrent of scorn.

Geffen also gave a listen to the day’s work. Impressed, he offered to take out ads promoting it. John was elated. “Fantastic, Mother,” he said to Yoko, “you’re getting ads!” John jumped up and down, clapping his hands like a spastic child. “I’m telling you, the ‘80’s are gonna be great.” Then, dropping his voice into a deep serious tone, “Brothers and sisters, everything will be fine if we all pull together.” John glanced again at the Soho News on the chair next to him. Inside was an article, “Yoko Only,” that praised Ono the artist. “Even the critics love you now, Mother.”

At 10:00, as the session was winding down, John talked giddily about writing a new song for Ringo, and getting some of the extra tracks from August out as a second John and Yoko record. As “Walking on Thin Ice” played over and over again in the background, John and Yoko got up to leave.

“I’m famished. Perhaps a stopover at the Stage Deli before we get home. Are you ready Jack?” asked John. Douglas, who lived two blocks from the Lennons’ Dakota apartments, always got a ride back with them at the end of a hard day’s work.

“Can’t do it John,” Douglas said slowly, running his hand through his hair and shaking the cobwebs out of his head. “I have another session to do.”

“Really?” John turned to Ono, her coat already on to ward off the December weather. “Yoko, love, mind if I stay with Jack for a few hours more?”

“That’s fine John. I’ll see you later.” She leaned over to permit John a peck on her cheek and left.

“So, let’s get down to work, Jack,” proclaimed John arms outstretched, hands intertwined, knuckles cracking. “First things first. What should we get to eat?”



***********************************************************************************


At 10:00, as the session was winding down. John talked giddily about writing a new song for Ringo, and getting some of the extra tracks from August out as a second John and Yoko record. As “Walking on Thin Ice” played over and over again in the background, John and Yoko got up to leave.

“I’m famished. Perhaps a stop over at the Stage Deli before we get home. Are you ready Jack?” asked John. Douglas, who lived two blocks from the Lennons’ Dakota apartments, always got a ride back with them at the end of a hard day’s work.

“Can’t do it John,” Douglas said slowly, running his hand through his hair and shaking the cobwebs out of his head. “I have another session to do.”

“Too bad. Walk us to the elevators, then.”

As they strolled, John talked about mastering Yoko’s song the next day, December 9. The doors slid open and, before entering, John said “See you tomorrow morning, bright and early.” With a cheerful smile, and a silly wave, they were gone.

In the limo home, John changed his mind about stopping for dinner and, suddenly completely exhausted, wanted to get home to bed. The car pulled up in front of the 72nd Street entrance to their building. Yoko got out first. As usual, there was a small coterie of fans hoping for a glimpse of Beatle John. A short, dumpy man, behind rose tinted glasses, said hello to Yoko. John got out and, upon hearing someone speak to his wife, turned to face the greeter.

“Oh, hello, again. Still here?” John had signed a copy of Double Fantasy for this same person earlier in the day. Mark Chapman mumbled a muffled “hi” in return. He couldn’t believe that John Lennon, John Lennon! had not forgotten him. John and Yoko entered the building.


John hailed the night man as they walked past the office. “Bon soir, Jay. How are you tonight?”

The hefty bearded Jay smiled as the couple made their way to the elevators.It was the best part of being the night desk man, exchanging pleasantries with John Lennon.

Outside, Mark Chapman turned and headed back to his lonely room at the Sheraton Centre, a twenty block walk.


*********************************************************************************

In the limo home, John changed his mind about stopping at the Stage Deli and, suddenly completely exhausted, wanted to get home to bed. The couple talked about Jack Douglas, how they’d met him, way back in 1971 when he was the remix engineer for Imagine and how Jack had always understood Yoko’s work. John went on about the morning photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz and how happy he’d been with the Polaroids she’d shown him. It was a very good day.


The car pulled up in front of the 72nd Street entrance to the Dakota. Yoko got out first. As usual, there was a small coterie of fans hoping for a glimpse of Beatle John. A short, dumpy man, behind rose tinted glasses, said hello to Yoko. John got out and, hearing someone speak to his wife, turned to face the greeter.

“Oh, hello, again. Still here?” John had signed a copy of Double Fantasy for this same person earlier in the day. Mark Chapman mumbled a muffled “hi” in return. He couldn’t believe that John Lennon, John Lennon! had not forgotten him.

As John and Yoko headed toward the building, Chapman snapped out of his trance, remembering why he’d come to New York, his mission. Stepping towards the arched carriageway, Chapman pulled a snub nose .38 from his pocket and, with no warning, shakily opened fire on the couple. Yoko was hit on the shoulder and knocked to the ground.

“What the fuck?” screamed John as he grabbed his right arm, ablaze with pain. He’d been shot as well.

Two blasts were fired before Chapman was wrestled to the pavement by Jose the doorman. John, blood washing over the sleeve of his leather jacket kneeled over Yoko, who was crying in agony, “No No No!” Her shrieks blended with the wailing sirens of the police cars descending on the scene.

“Hang on love, you’ll be fine,” John whispered as he held Yoko, both of the trembling.


*******************************************************************************

As John and Yoko headed toward the building, Chapman snapped out of his trance, remembering why he’d come to New York, his mission. Stepping towards the arched carriageway, Chapman pulled a snub nose .38 from his pocket and assumed a combat position. Knees bent, one hand holding the gun, the other supporting his wrist, Chapman called out calmly.

“Mr. Lennon?”



On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman.