That’s our neighbors, Aron and Ben Levin, up on stage last night, doing their thing. Playing the blues.
Ben Levin is a piano prodigy. He’s only 21, but he’s been playing gigs since he was 13. (You can check out his chops here.) Pre-pandemic (“The Before Times”), Ben and Aron had quite a few gigs around town every week. When coronavirus hit, it shut down most of the venues they played. Then it hit a lot closer to home – Aron got COVID-19 last November. Playing live took a back seat to staying alive. Aron was in the hospital for a month… he came way too close to being yet another coronavirus fatality. Then he endured a long stint of in-patient rehab. He’s not 100%, but he’s working his way back.
I’ve always loved seeing live music. I’ve always admired the special bond that Aron and his son have. But I’ve never appreciated their gigs as much as I did when I saw them last night.
Blues a healer, all over the world
Blues a healer, healer, all over the world, all over the world
Jim Steinman passed away this week. This lede from American Songwriter sums up his oeuvre pretty well:
Jim Steinman, the songwriter famous for the super-charged operatic rock epics he created for Meat Loaf and other artists is dead at 73. He was a songwriter proud of his lack of restraint in his songs. Subtlety was not the aim. It’s how he proudly earned and owned his distinction as “The Richard Wagner of Rock. ” Like Wagner, his songs were epic, operatic and always with a dark grandiosity.
“If you don’t go over the top,” he said, “you can’t see what’s on the other side.”
Wagner, however, never wrote any hit songs. Steinman wrote many: The grand statement was the entire song cycle of Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell. He also wrote Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” and Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.”
Jim was over the top, but it took him to the top. He accomplished a real rock and roll rarity that I don’t think anyone else has matched: for a while in 1983, two songs written and produced by him, but recorded by different artists, held the top two positions on the Billboard singles chart, with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at number one, and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” in the number two slot.
Not many songwriters get credited on an album cover. But Jim’s contribution to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell album was so crucial that he got cover props.
That album is one of the best-selling releases of all time.
And it almost didn’t see the light of day. Here’s the album’s producer, Todd Rundgren, on the Sound Opinions podcast, talking about how many music biz “experts” passed on the album, and how it finally caught on.
Jim Steinman also worked in musical theater – his bombastic style was tailor-made for the stage. And he released a solo album back in 1981, called Bad for Good. One of the songs on that album was “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” (later sung by Meatloaf and released on Bat Out of Hell II):
We’d be listening to the radio so loud and so strong Every golden nugget coming like a gift of the gods Someone must have blessed us when he gave us those songs…
Keep on believing And you’ll discover baby: There’s always something magic There’s always something new And when you really Really need it the most That’s when rock and roll dreams come through The beat is yours forever The beat is always new And when you really Really need it the most That’s when rock and roll dreams come through For you
“Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” by Jim Steinman
Jim Steinman wasn’t a Dylan, he wasn’t a Springsteen, but that wasn’t his goal. And he deserves a lot of credit for having a unique vision and sticking to it, and making his rock and roll dreams come through.
It’s like, totally far out to get snow on 4/20, duude.
Global climate change is real.
“Last Night It Snowed” is a song by the Cincinnati band Ass Ponys. Their lead singer and main songwriter is Chuck Cleaver. He’s brilliant – right up there with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon. I love, love, loved the Ass Ponys – still do, in fact, even though they faded into the sunset back in the early aughts.
Chuck Cleaver’s lyrics can be twisted, sardonic, off-kilter… downright weird. His voice is an acquired taste. But spend some time with his songs and you’ll come to appreciate his brilliance. “Last Night It Snowed” is the lead track off the Ass Ponys final studio album, Lohio. That release is a good place to start your College of Chuck courses.
Chuck’s in a band called Wussy now. They’re as amazing as the Ass Ponys were. Chuck and Lisa Walker, the other lead singer/songwriter in the band, have done nearly 40 livestream shows on Facebook over the past year, on Friday nights. Combined with a few shows from bassist Mark Messerly, members of Wussy are approaching 50 free shows. Each one’s a gem… and a lifeline in this pandemic-cursed year.
Wussy can’t tour. They have a tip jar but they never mention it. They all have day jobs. If musical genius equated to cold hard cash, they would be billionaires. But it doesn’t work out that way. We could focus on the cold, cruel music biz that’s buried them and the Ass Ponys.
A blanket white
At least it was when it came down last night
The morning brings the rain
The blanket’s washed away
Now everything turns back to grey
But instead I focus on the inherent beauty of the music. And pray that someday the world will come to appreciate it as well.
My friend Keith Neltner was featured in yesterday’s Cincinnati Enquirer. The online version of the article is here. He created the artwork for a mural that will be in the green room of PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation, a new music venue in Northern Kentucky. Now he and his friends are bringing the mural to life.
The artwork pays tribute to three local musicians who first rose to fame via their work on the King Records label, which was based in Cincinnati. Philip Paul was a session drummer. Otis Williams was a doo-wop artist. Bootsy Collins got his start playing with James Brown, and is widely regarded as one of the best bass players in this or any universe.
“So many people were influenced by the music that these guys created, and they have no idea that there’s a vacant building on Brewster where it all happened.”
Keith Neltner, in the Cincinnati Enquirer article linked above
The fact that they are Black musicians is significant, because that’s a big part of the King Records legacy. In King Records’ heyday in the 50s and 60s, King had an integrated workforce – not just the recording artists on the label, but also the session musicians, the A&R folks, the engineers, the workers at the pressing plant, the office staff.
This M.O. of King Records owner Syd Nathan was driven less by noble intentions and more by capitalism: he didn’t see black and white, he only saw the color of money. But to his enduring credit, he created a mini-meritocracy and a bastion of diversity in an era when most were blinded by prejudice, and helped launch the careers of performers from marginalized communities – both African-American and “hillbilly.”
Sidebar: Check out the book King of the Queen City by John Hartley Fox for the full story about King Records, one of the most important, successful and influential record companies in the history of modern music, and one whose role is often overlooked.
I’m sure the mural artwork is fantastic (I’ve written about Keith Nelter’s artistic genius before – it’s on full display on his website.) And it’s great that it will drop some King Records knowledge on the touring artists who play the venue.
“King Records was a big deal back in the day. It’s going to be a great thing when artists come to town and they can learn about King Records.”
But because the mural is in the green room of a music venue that will hold 2,700 indoor fans, or 7,000 outdoors, the only way I’ll get to fully appreciate it is if I join a successful rock band… or become a groupie!
Jeff Tweedy, a songwriter and musician best known as the leader of the band Wilco , has written a ton of great songs. He’s also written a couple of books. His most recent is How To Write One Song.
If you aspire to be a songwriter, there’s plenty of useful info in the book. And if your goal is merely a single song, the same holds true. (Tweedy is wisely lowering the “barriers to entry” with his book’s title. Writing a single song seems much less daunting than becoming a songwriter.)
But even if you never want to put pen to paper and create a song, you’ll still find plenty of creative fodder in Tweedy’s breezy and engaging book.
It’s not really about songwriting, it’s about creativity, in all its forms. The songwriting angle is really just an interesting construct, a device to get us to embrace our inner creative kid and ignore the critics, both internal and external.
I love that advice. Seems like we’ve heard similar suggestions before, right? Ignore the haters. Do what you love. Do it out of love, not out of a search for approval or fame or fortune. Trust the process, don’t worry about the end result.
It seems so simple, yet it’s difficult to put in to practice. Because we’re scared to be vulnerable.
Here’s the money quote:
Check out Jeff’s book… then give yourself a little more permission. One song at a time.