Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mom Always Liked You Best! - The Smothers Brothers

As a kid, I would dig through my parent's records. I discovered a lot of bands that way, many of which I still enjoy today. Amongst the dusty sleeves I came upon a rather unusual one that seemed to be by a folk duo called The Smothers Brothers. Well, they turned out to be a hilarious mixture of music and comedy with argumentative banter between the two brothers, as straight-man Dick was always trying to subdue and educate the interrupting and slow-learning Tommy. They would play the comedy circuit throughout the early '60's releasing several albums, all of which I love. Sure, the humour is slightly dated and clean, but I find their style to be very original and clever.

In 1967 they premiered The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that apparently pushed the traditional boundaries of television comedy-variety shows with such to-be-famous writers as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Don Novello ("Father Guido Sarducci") on board. The series showcased many musical artists that rarely enjoyed airtime due to their radical styles and political affiliations. Such musical guests include The Doors, The Who, Steppenwolf, Jefferson Airplane, Donovan and Joan Baez. The show was canceled in 1969 due to controversy over the censorship of the program's politically-sensitive material.

Enjoy a clip from one of their earlier performances...

The Golfing Milkman

It's a sunny October morning in Manhattan's lower east side. On the corner of Prince and Elizabeth a man is busy working on his golf stroke. He places a row of milk cartons on the street in a very orderly fashion. He then proceeds to take a swing at each carton. He appears to be aiming either at a garbage can across the street or a large contractor's vehicle parked in the same area. He is polite as he waits for cars to pass, but he definitely is on a mission.

He takes his practicing seriously, but clearly enjoys it at the same time. All the locals know him, and give him high fives as they pass or honk a friendly horn at him. Nobody minds him doing this.

I ask him, "Why milk?"
He replies, "Because I can hit 'em easy. And they're free."

Thank you, golf milkman, for making my day.

click on picture for full size...

Tomorrow Is Here Today - the second Francis Friday album

click HERE to get to Francis Friday's "Tomorrow is Here Today" bandcamp page!

Tomorrow is Here Today was recorded right after a stressful breakup and as a result the album is of a more somber and serious tone than The Streets Are For Keeps preceding it. Actually, there were many other songs written before and during the same period that were perhaps 'off-topic' (i.e. happier) that didn't make the cut. Some friends that listened to the rough cut suggested I focus on a particular theme, and keep the whole album in a more moody vein. So the outtakes should make for a g
ood follow up album, as soon as I finish writing more songs to complete it. I plan on uploading those to this site eventually.

This album was recorded in the same
way I always record; at home on a mixture of Pro Tools and my Tascam Portastudio with me playing all the instruments. I like the control this gives me but I miss playing with other musicians and hope to do more collaborating in the future. This was the last time I had to play at my old apartment with the nasty landlord downstairs complaining. I haven't written much in my new apt, but I look forward to recording in the new, more relaxed atmosphere it affords (the neighbors are much more chill here).
This is the last CD I will ever make. I find it unecessary to continue to go through the time and expense of burning multiple discs and hand-making the artwork that winds up in so few people's hands. From now on I will post new songs on sites like this one for my friends and fans to upload for free. It'll be much easier and more immediate.

Here's the tracklist:

1) Midnight Era
2) Cast Iron Gates
3) Will We Laugh
4) End of the Line
5) Hold Your Thoughts
6) Bicycle Girls

7) Standing On Your Own Two Feet
8) Divided in the Rain (original)
9) Simple Lives
10) Black Tide Rising
11) Repentance
12) Suddenly a Feeling
13) In the Shadows
14) Goodbye My Friends

The entire album is available for free. Download the zip file below.

Or if you want the CD and packaging, just email me at and I'll send you one for free. Of, if you have an album (or anything else interesting), maybe we can trade.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Last words on Memphis

I love Memphis! And I wanna go back. First of all, it has one of the best radio stations I've ever heard....WEVL. Check it out. It also has one of the best music scenes I've seen around. Lots of venues and more than a few interesting bands. I stepped into Goner Records, which is a local record label and great record store, and asked what some of the better local bands were. He recommended The Barbaras, so I bought a couple 7"s and now they are my latest obsession. Just listen on their myspace page!

Just walk down midtown, along Madison or Poplar or Central Ave and you'll see what I mean. Stop by Flashback and see all their funky vintage treasure. Walk into Xanadu and meet the wildly eccentric Johnny Lowebow and his incredible one-man band, featuring his homemade guitars. Stumble in late-night at the Lamplighters and talk to the bartender about the Elvis matador above the jukebox. Wake up on Sunday to the Full Gospel Tabernacle at the end of Hale Road, ministered by none other than soul-crooner Al Green. He wasn't there the day I went, but I heard some amazing gospel and experienced a musical epiphany. Touch the water of the Mississippi along the shores of Mud Island or stand in the Levitt Shell at Overton Park and sing That's All Right Mama, just as Elvis did in his first concert since being signed to Sun Records.

Oh yeah, and Memphis has some of the prettiest darn girls in the world.

Clarkesdale's Got the Blues

Clarksdale is a small town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, on the crossroads of Highways 61 & 49. This area was full of prosperous cotton plantations in the early half of the 20th century, generating work for thousands of migrant workers and fieldhands that toiled the lands during the day while sitting around their old cedar porches at night, playing the blues. Thus, Clarksdale and its surrounding areas became the home of the delta blues spawning such legends as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Son House. Other local residents included WC Handy (sometimes dubbed Father of the Blues, for publishing the first blues song, called Memphis Blues in 1911), Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. Other notable people from the Clarksdale area include Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Jimmie Rogers and Tennessee Williams. Fertile land indeed!

Today, most of the work is gone, and the whole area I observed to be quite poverty stricken. Although music still plays a big part in the lives of the delta residents, which I'm told you can see on any given weekend in the ramshackle juke-joints that dot the landscape. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see any such music, or night life of any sort, since I was only touring through the area from Monday to Thursday. When I arrived in Clarksdale on Monday night, I strolled through downtown Clarksdale. I was literally the only person in town. Nothing was open, and the streets were ghostly quiet and dark. I was a little spooked actually and wondered if walking around at night was such a safe thing to do. There were no dinner options in Clarksdale or any of the other towns I explored (there actually are, but none are open on Mondays or Tuesdays) so I subsisted on groceries I'd buy at the Kroger supermarket. I caught a cold in Memphis, so after a long day of driving around I would pass out asleep at 9 o'clock every night. It was the most sleep I've gotten in years.

The Pinetop Shack, where I stayed.

The best part of my trip was the place where I stayed, The Shack-Up Inn. Located on the Hopson Plantation, the owners have relocated and renovated several shotgun shacks to make up the living quarters on the premises. They rest quietly amongst an old Cotton Gin, Comissary and rusting farm equipment. When I arrived I met Guy in the lobby, which is in a beautiful old structure, standing 30 feet high made up of various corrugated tin panels that are patchworked together. Guy was a laid back fellow in his 50's, with a pleasant southern drawl who helped run the place. The Inn is a real artists and musicians retreat with such celebrity guests as Robert Plant and Elvis Costello, so as soon as I walked in Guy asked me if I wanted to borrow a guitar. I grabbed the Stella and checked into my room, which also had an upright piano (I stayed at the Pinetop Shack, named after local blues legend Pinetop Perkins).

I highly recommend traveling to Clarksdale and staying at The Shack-Up Inn, just go on the weekend. Try the BBQ at Abe's!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sun Studios & Graceland

Sam Phillips opened the doors to the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Ave in 1949. In that small, 3 room studio next to Taylor's Restaurant musical history was made several times over. Sam Phillips had the ingenuity, confidence and receptiveness to become one of the most important producers in popular music. He started out recording the blues and rhythm and blues, tapping into the vast talent pool of the local area. Memphis was strategically located and got its rock 'n roll roots from the jazz of New Orleans, the delta blues of the Mississippi, country from Nashville and the folk heritage of the deep south. Musicians like Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf and BB King walked through the door of Memphis Recording Service to cut their original tunes, many of which for the first time.

My particular favorite story is that of Ike Turner with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Legend has it he wrote the song in Clarksdale, Mississippi and as he and his band drove up Highway 61 to record at Sam Phillips' studio the guitar amp fell off the roof of the car, breaking the speaker cone. Not having time to fix the amp, Sam Phillips stuffed newspaper into the cracks to make it functional. However, he liked the new distorted sound it produced and wound up leaving it high in the mix creating what some people call the first rock 'n roll song ever.

Elvis Presley came to the studio in 1953 (when only 18) to meet Sam Phillips and record a demo on acetate. However, Sam wasn't there and Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like, from which he replied, "I don't sound like nobody." He recorded two songs, but nothing came of it. Elvis was persistant, and returned to the studio several times over the next year, until he was finally able to persuade Mr. Phillips to give him a chance with some studio time. The song that culminated from that July '54 recording session was 'That's All Right Mama', made with the help of guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. The Elvis legend pretty much started there, and continued to explode until he was an international star by 1956 on RCA Victor records.

Elvis with Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker

My experience at Sun Studios started off somewhat flustered. I had just flown into Memphis and it was getting late. I really wanted to see the birthplace of rock 'n roll that day and I thought it closed at 5pm, and it was already 4. As I left my hotel I realized I couldn't find my rental car keys. I panicked, calling the rental office, searching around the sidewalk, looking inside the car. Not knowing how far the studio was I started walking, practically running down Union Ave toward the studio. It was cold and my ears were ringing. As I was feeling around my winter coat I found them, buried deep inside a hidden pocket that I had forgotten the coat even had. I turned and ran back to the car and drove off. To my relief, I discovered the studio-turned-museum didn't close until 6:30. I had plenty of time! Although it was super crowded which made it difficult to see inside the cramped studios where Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins recorded. The guide, Lydia, was awfully cute and let me go back into the studio after everyone left to better appreciate the vibe.

There, in the asbestos tile covered room where Elvis made history, I saw a guitar with my name on it. Literally. This beautiful red Gretsch had the name "James" printed on its body. I've been wanting to buy an electric hollow bodied Gretsch for a few years now, and it was pretty remarkeable to stumble upon this at Sun Studios. I grabbed it and bolted out of there; rocketing down Union Ave, not looking back. Just kidding. But I am thinking more seriously about buying that Gretsch, once I have the money.

I went to Graceland the next day with my friend Sara, who popped up from Jackson the night before to hang out. We were in our Sunday best, just back from the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, lead by the Bishop Al Green (yes, the Al Green). More on that experience later. The house was preserved just as it was in the mid-'70's, which means tacky textiles and colors all over. Carpeting everywere (including walls & ceilings in some rooms), mirrored walls, eye-crossing paisley patterns, and tiki furniture abound. Of course the state of the art kitchen was not so state of the art anymore, and reminded me of the crappy one I had when I lived in Williamsburg. However, it was great for me to see the place that Elvis loved so dearly and occupied his entire adult life.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

From Memphis with Love

Just returned from my road trip through Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. It was an amazing experience with just me and my maps and notes to guide me. Just like the mighty river I followed, I let the tides take me along unknown routes at times, discovering diamonds lurking in the shadows.

One of the new things I learned on this trip was how much the Mississippi River has changed course over the centuries. When visiting the Vicksburg battle ground site I was shocked to see how much the river had moved since 1863. I think this has been controlled more by man with giant earth mound levees, but I can't imagine that it can ever be fully corralled. I drove along the top of one of these levees, in Greenville, at night with the moon casting long, blue shadows. I was driving along a windy two-lane paved road with the disheveled, half-empty town to my left and the mighty river and it's steam boat casinos to my right. Many of the towns along the Mississippi build giant casinos in the river to bring in revenue, while their streets continue to rot next door. Kinda sad.

I ate a lot of bbq, fried chicken and coleslaw while down there.....washing it down with sweet tea. I would drop by a Kroger in the morning to pick up an apple or two to get some vitamin C into my system so I didn't die of scurvey. Mississippi is one of the unhealthiest states in the US, and I can see the main reason is not only the food, but the extreme poverty I saw all around me. Whereas the urban and rural decay looks cool to a photographers eye, one has to remember that this is it for a lot of these folks, and there's no easy way out.

Everyone's real curious about the new tourist in town, and I was constantly stopped to ask where I was from. When I replied "New York" most would state the obvious, "That's real far from here." I would reply, "and well worth the trip!"

Memphis is the so-called birthplace of rock n roll, and while that's way too simplified to be true, it certainly carries much of the title. This is largely thanks to Sam Phillips, one of my heroes. He helped discover Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Howlin Wolf, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and BB King. But predating even Mr. Phillips one must tip their hat to Beale Street and all the bands and influence that spawned from that prolific route from the turn of the century through the 1950's. Unfortunately, Beale Street is pretty much gone now. Most of the buildings were torn down in the '70's and '80's and what's in their place is a disney theme park with the tackiest bars imagineable and low lifes tugging on your sleeve looking for a handout.

Beale Street aside, I loved Memphis and it's eccentric residents! I definitely plan to go back, and would even hope to play a gig at one of its many inspiring venues. Memphis, I shall return!!!