Thursday, June 25, 2009

When Michael Jackson sang with Joe "King" Carrasco

(click on the headline to read the story in Mojo)

Back in the fall of 1981, the band I managed Joe "King" Carrasco & The Crowns, signed a recording contract with MCA Records to make their second album, Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) We lived at the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Blvd., ate breakfast at Duke's and spend the rest of the time at Studio 55 at 5555 Melrose, right by the Paramount Studio gates. The studio was a tricked out facility with two rooms that was owned by Producer Richard Perry. The other room was booked by the Jackson family who were mixing down their live album. Over the course of the next two weeks, we got to know the Jacksons, hang with them in the rec room where the TV was, and even share some of the fried chicken their aunt had bought them.

Michael was already a star, having hit platinum with his Off The Wall album; the best selling album of all time, Thriller, would be issued in less than a year. Michael seemed like a nice guy for a twenty three year old. He was quiet, shy, and polite, not saying a whole lot except when asked. The only indication he was Michael Jackson was the Rolls Royce Bentley he drove to and from the studio. Once he had a flat about a block from the studio but summoned help by using his mobile phone, the first wireless cell phone I'd ever witnessed. Then again, there were those times I'd walk into the men's room and see MJ standing in front of the mirror, playing with his face, like he had a big zit problem, or was contemplating some alterations......

About a week and a half into the recording session, Joe "King" mused, "Wouldn't it be cool with Michael Jackson would come in and sing harmonies on 'Don't Let A Woman (Make A Fool Out of You)'?"

It was a reggae-fied tune Joe had written that sounded more than a little like "No Woman, No Cry."

Someone said to Joe, "Why don't you ask him?" So he did, and Michael said Yes.

So there he was, headphones covering his ears, trying to figure out just who was this Joe "King" character, while he professionally stepped up to a microphone facing Joe, nailing the high harmonies and making Joe sound good. Someone by the mixing board wisecracked that Joe's vocals should be mixed out of the recording so we could release a dub version of Micheal Jackson singing the song.

As it turned out, the song was mixed with both voices and released on the album and as a single which generated some airplay for a few weeks before dying (dirty little secret: MCA didn't give a shit about Joe "King" who was signed by the label as a favor from their president, a former accountant, to another accountant who was doing JKC's books; and you wonder why the music industry is dead).

I had to pay union scale for Michael on the session, and cut him a check for $100. which was cashed. The album came and went, although Joe and band did tour with the Police behind the record. Within the year, Michael would release the best selling album on all time, Thriller.

Say what you want about his music career, his personal life, his plastic surgery and his love of children and of childhood, which he didn't have much of because he was too busy working. At the heart of it all, he struck me as a nice person, cocooned in a not-so-nice business.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hacienda - Loud Is the Night (Alive Records)

The other day I asked my Facebook friends for their own local variations on the locally popular “Keep Austin Weird” bumpersticker after I spotted a “Keep Houston Ugly” sticker on a northbound pickup on the Southwest Freeway in H-Town, which reminded immediately me of Richard West’s report of “Keep Dallas Prentious” stickers on the back of a Mercedes blasting up the Bush Tollway doing 90 mph as if there were any good reason to want to hurry to get to Addison.

Then there was Keep San Antonio Lame.

That kept going through my head during the first listen to Hacienda.

Here were these four young Latino cats – the three hermanos Villanueva, and TK from Laredo - holed up in bedrooms, living rooms, and garages on the fringe of the metropolis, making recordings of themselves singing and playing songs they wrote themselves, anonymously churning out some of the most stirring, glistening pop music heard since the Sixties.

Put that together with the Krayolas post-Beatles obsessed home town rock with Augie Meyers along for the flavoring and Michael Corcoran’s current fave the deliciously punky Girl in A Coma, and you've got a scene, even if everything sounds and feels like it was created in their own private environments.

Mike Thompson, Alejandro Escovedo’s webmaster, turned me to Hacienda Loud Is The Night (Alive Records) after the band from San Antonio opened for Al in June at Antone’s in Austin and Floore’s Store in Helotes.

Never heard of them, I told Mike, which figures, since it’s San Antonio. It’s a big city full of different sounds and styles, but most of it is under the radar. Whether it’s too close to Austin or so far from everywhere else, SA is more of a vacuum than a scene.

Hacienda’s obvious references are the Beach Boys and the Beatles because harmonies, melodies, and a soaring bass line jump out from the get go, defining a simple sonic wash that sounds effortless to create. It's a fitting complement to their lyrics which mostly revolve around girls and love.

I checked out their website to search for clues and saw a pic of a black key Vox organ, a totally Sixties instrument that hinted of an Augie Meyer connection. The photos on the CD insert show guys sitting around in various stages of playing in anonymous bedrooms, garages and studios. No pretense, no audience.

Producer credits to Dan Auerbach, the keyboard half of the Black Keys, which explain the wide spaces in Hacienda’s sound. The Vox as a rhythm sticke hits a groove that approaches trance state on the ride out of “Sun” and cements a testifying gospel foundation to “Degree of a Murder” that shows los Hermanoss Villanueva con amigo are smarter than they let on.

The pleading blended vocals and Buddy Holly drumbeat on “Hear Me Cryin’” comes off so honest, Marshall Crenshaw wishes he'd of written it and the Ravonettes should start thinking about covering it. Sometimes, Hacienda almost steps over the line as being too poppy; “Little Girl” is so cloying peppy and upbeat it would fit in seamlessly on any Top 40 Morning Drive radio show if such a thing existed anymore.

By the time they come around the stretch with “Where the Waters Roam,” their angelic three part harmonies are triggering visions of Fleet Foxes and transcending decades past or present. OK, “Leave It That Way” dives into schmaltzy sincere territory in the trad of ol’ Toby Beau from San Anto, but every couple needs to dance to a bellyrubber sooner or later.

Redemption comes in the form of Hacienda’s one and only cover, Sonny & Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go,” an S. (“Is it dumb enough, Phil?”) Bono composition, with a harmonica-embellished rhythm that has held up so well over the years than it should that all of a sudden, “Laugh At Me” is worth reconsidering and listening to again. Brother Abe V's lead vocal is so faithful to the original all the way to crooning the line “you’re the best boy I ever had,” just like Cher did

Then closer, “Wishbone” with its sad fiddle/ accordion/ Appalachian funeral moan and stomp, and all that space between the notes again, gets me thinking all over again - Are they The Band? The Gourds? I don’t know who to compare them with, only that Hacienda are a group worth paying attention to. There’s something going on here.

Keep San Antonio Lame.

Turns out, the album came out last August, almost a year ago. Word travels slow, I guess. They’ve been touring with Auerbach to get some seasoning because they really hadn’t played in public as a band. Now they’re opening up for Alejandro, finishing writing their second album, and Al’s spreading the word too.

Mike Thompson emailed the band and got this response from Dante Schwebel:

“All the brothers were raised in San Antonio, Abraham (oldest) went to O'Connor High School, while the younger brothers Rene and Jaime went to Boerne High School. I was born and raised in Laredo, TX where I went to St. Augustine. After graduating I went to college at UTSA, and started spending time with those guys. Their mom and my mom are sisters, so we spent a lot of time together growing up. We played for a while, never as a band, but just as people. Abraham got a job and a recorder, and we began recording songs. We never played to other people, we just figured nobody would get it or like it.

“The band wasn't playing any more and Jaime and Rene met Dan Auerbach at a show, got him a demo, and then everything changed. We got an email within a month or so. He asked if he could show it to some people. Next thing we knew, some showbiz people put us on some showcase. They asked if we could play live, and we lied. We figured we had a week a so to figure it out. The show went well, and Dan invited us to play a show with the Black Keys in Austin later that year. We knew we did O.K when he contacted us about recording. He was building a studio in Akron and invited us. That’s where we recorded, and he's been part of the family ever since. People always say he's adopted us. I like to think that we've made him an honorary Texan. He's almost as big a part of our band as we are.

“Once the record came out we started touring and hustling to make a dent in the music world. We've been amazingly fortunate to run across people who have helped our band’s career. We just figure if you hustle those opportunities are more likely to keep presenting themselves.”

With that kind of backstory, you can't help but look forward to what's next.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Texas Accordion Kings and Queens

The 20th annual Texas Accordion Kings & Queens show in Houston, presented by Texas Folklife, may have been the best one yet. Santiago Jimenez, Jr. and Mark Halata and Texavia with Mark Rubin on tuba brought out the traditional sounds and the polka dancers in their bright red jackets (none of whom brought up the Grammys dropping the polka category because they were too busy dancing); Lady D and the Zydeco Tornadoes, Cedryl Ballou and the Zydeco Trendsetters featuring three generations of the Ballou family from guitarist Classie to hard-pounding drummer Camron, and Sunny Sauceda and his band put modern twists on classic sounds (Sunny's cover of ZZ Top's "Tush" was pretty Out There) ; and the Big Squeeze finalists (Gloria Jean Cantu, Juan Vasquez, winner Heri Rodriguez, and Anthony Ortiz Jr.) demonstrated exceptional chops.
It was a special treat getting to watch Big Squeeze finalist Anthony Ortiz Jr. from Austin back up his grandfather Shorty Ortiz, leader of the infamous Shorty y Los Corvettes, the first band my compadre Joe "King" Carrasco played in when he came to Austin. El Shorty sizzled on guitar and vocals on his old hit, El Troquero.
The range they covered through the night left me smiling with the knowledge the future of Texas accordion is as bright as its past and present. Vamos a get down,l laissez les bon ton roulet, and Jak Se Mas were rallying cries heard from the huge crowd sitting on the grassy hill under a full moon. "Viva Seguin" was performed at least three times. Too much was not enough.

Nowhere but Houston.

El Gran Jam

Sunny and bajo player Leroy Esparza mixing it up

Cedryl Ballou on squeeze box, Camron Ballou on drums, Classie Ballou on guitar

Santiago Jimenez, Jr. playing songs for his father

Mark Halata mixing it up with Bruce Brosch and Texavia

Anthony Ortiz Jr. and his grandfather El Shorty

Gloria Jean Cantu

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New York street life

Everything looks vaguely familiar, but nothing else quite compares to the streets of New York. (with a tip of the Hatlo Hat to Gary Winograd)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Blaze Foley from a Georgia perspective

My friend Scott Freeman, who wrote the definitive Allman Brothers biography, sent a note recently, having read my No Depression story about Blaze Foley, one of the greatest unsung singer-songwriters to have ever rambled around Austin. Scott sent me a note explaining he knew Blaze from a completely different perspective when he was living in Georgia and known as Dept'y Dawg. That version of Blaze is well told by his former girlfriend Sybil Rosen in her heartfelt book published by University of North Texas Press this year. I asked Scott to flesh out his memories, and here's what he wrote:

I have the rather dubious distinction of having been Blaze Foley's bartender.

In Carrollton, Ga., there’s a restaurant/bar called the Maple Street Mansion. It’s inside an old Victorian mansion that was rumored to be haunted by a ghost. There was a stylish restaurant in the front but back in the bar, back in the day, that was where the local hipsters hung out.

The guy who became my best friend in college took me there not long after I’d moved to Carrollton, with the promise that he was going to play me the best cry-in-your-beer song ever written.

I probably told him that was impossible. I’d grown up on Hank and George Jones and Jim Reeves and those were some pretty serious cry-in-your-beer singers. But after we’d drank a couple, he dramatically and confidently announced that it was time. He walked over to the jukebox, plopped in a quarter, punched 117-A and sat back down. And that was how I first became acquainted with a song that I have held dear for my entire adult life: Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly.”

As he played the song for a third time, my friend told me the back story: The song was written for maybe the most gorgeous of all the Mansion waitresses (working at the Mansion was high social status in the hipster scene). That was why it was put on the Mansion’s jukebox, and why it had remained there for years. Of course, all that turned out not to be so true, but it still made for a great story. And having that song on the jukebox was one of the things that defined why the Mansion was cool.

The Mansion became my hang-out, and I don’t think there was a time I went there without at least once playing that song and the B-side, the hilarious “Let Me Ride (In Your Big Cadillac)". I wasn’t the only one; some nights, “If I Could Only Fly” would play four or five times.

Around the Mansion, Blaze Foley was this mysterious character that you weren’t even sure really existed. Except for the record on the jukebox, he seemed like another ghost that haunted the place. Everyone seemed to have heard of him, a few claimed to have talked to him but it seemed like hardly anyone had ever actually seen him.

The basic information was that he’d grown up near Carrollton and he’d used the moniker of Deputy Dawg before he morphed into Blaze Foley. A few years back, he’d left town and moved out in Texas somewhere to find his fortunes. His single wasn’t ever really released, but the reasons were vague. And at some point word came that he was recording an album in Muscle Shoals.

At the time, I was working my first newspaper job and eventually burned out and quit. That’s when I found myself working as a bartender at the Mansion. By then, I’d met one of Blaze’s friends, Jim Bob Shaw. And Jim Bob walked in one night with a big smile and bearing the most improbable news, “Blaze is coming to town.”

None of us really knew that Blaze had become a fairly big deal in Austin, or that he was hanging out with Townes. Hell, Townes was barely known himself at that point. We just knew Blaze was a local guy with a great 45 on the jukebox who aspired to play country music.

I worked mostly afternoons at the Mansion and Blaze was crashing at Jim Bob’s apartment, conveniently located next door. So we got to know each other fairly well. I was known for giving starving musicians free food and free beer, and I fed Blaze more than once. The Duct-taped shoes gave him away.

As Townes has pointed out, there were two Blaze Foleys. There was the quiet, soft-spoken and thoughtful guy with a wicked sense of humor. Just a beautiful soul. And then there was the drunk Blaze, who could suddenly transform into the kind of asshole that you went out of your way to avoid.

There was one night I’ll never forget. It was a Saturday night and Blaze had obviously spent his afternoon pounding back the Budweisers. He was sitting at the bar, and trying hard to inspire someone, anyone, to fight him. Just saying anything nasty and insulting that came to mind. It was uncomfortable and unbearable. People were getting up and leaving. Both me and the other barkeep kept warning him to chill. Finally, I ordered Blaze to leave the bar. If he wanted to stay, he had to go find an out-of-the-way booth and stop picking on people. That seemed to calm him down.

As it happened, the other barkeep’s parents came in that night. They were standing at the bar, this lovely old couple, talking to their son. And Blaze walked up to get a re-fill. He turned to them and snarled, “Your son’s a fucking asshole.”

Enough was enough. I told Blaze to leave and, instead, he went back to his booth. Finally, I picked up the phone to call the cops. That’s what we did with the occasional unruly customer. And I was pissed, disappointed in Blaze. I dialed the first six numbers, but couldn’t bear to hit the last number. I hung up the phone. How could I call the cops on a guy who’d written one of my favorite songs in the world? I just didn’t have the heart. Instead, I walked over to him. “Blaze, I just almost called the cops on you,” I said very calmly. “And I don’t want to do that. You are going to have to chill out, and you’re going to have to leave.”

Amazingly enough, he did. The next day, he came in to apologize, and to thank me for not calling the police.

He was in and out of town every few months to come see his family. And he’d always hang out at the bar. Blaze always had a free beer with me. And a meal. That fact alone qualified me as one of his best friends.

At one point, I’d put together a band, and Blaze and I played a house party together. My band played a set, then his make-shift band played a set. We traded off until the wee hours. Blaze didn’t have a guitar, so I let him use my Strat. That guitar has never sounded sweeter. I remember I was surprised by the blues influence in his music because “If I Could Only Fly” was my only frame of reference. I’m glad I have that night to remember. I’m glad I got to see him perform. I’m glad I have a guitar that Blaze Foley once played.

During one of his visits, Blaze came armed with 20 or 30 copies of an album he’d recorded in Muscle Shoals. I watched him carry them into Jim Bob’s apartment. Of course, it was Blaze so there was going to be some strange cloud of catastrophe hanging over it. This time, there was some story about how the record label president had been arrested by the DEA, who promptly seized all the copies of Blaze’s album except for this batch that he somehow spirited away.

Not long after he left town, Jim Bob came in and mentioned that Blaze had left the albums in his safekeeping. He must have noticed my face light up. “Do you want one?” he asked, hesitantly, almost as if he was afraid I’d say no. “There aren’t many copies left, but Blaze would want you to have it.”

Oh, I burned to hear that album. I couldn’t get home quickly enough. It was no big-budget production, but the songs … “Picture Cards” and “My Reasons Why” and “Oval Room.” I now know them all by heart. Plus, the deliciously lewd “Girl Scout Cookies.” I played it so often that I decided to record it onto a cassette so I wouldn’t wear out the album. I knew I’d never see another copy.

I eventually moved to Macon to take another newspaper job. On one of my trips home, I ran into Jim Bob and he told me the news. Blaze had been killed in Austin.

When Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded “If I Could Only Fly,” I was filled with pride for the memory of Blaze. And I began to realize that Blaze was a bigger deal than any of us knew. Townes Van Zandt, who had written the liner notes for the Muscle Shoals album, immortalized him in a song. And I also read a Lucinda Williams interview where she mentioned that she’d known Blaze.

I was a big Lucinda fan long before “Car Wheels.” I’m pretty sure I bought my first Lucinda album because she looked so hot in the cover photo, but it was her voice that seduced me. And those great songs.

So I eagerly picked up “Car Wheels” the first day it was released. One of the songs was called “Drunken Angel” and by the third line, I knew the song was about Blaze. Had to be. Then she sang the line about the Duct-tape shoes. That was Blaze. No doubt. And the tears just swelled up in my eyes.

Not long after I moved, I came home and swung by the Mansion. When I walked over to the jukebox and it was like being hit by an electric jolt: 117 was no longer Blaze Foley. The soul of the Mansion had just been taken away.

The manager walked in a couple of hours later, and we sat and talked. After a while, he said, “I’ve been holding something for you.” He got up, walked behind the bar, reached behind the cash register and pulled out a 45 record. “I thought you’d want to have this,” he said.

That single is on my iTunes now and though I cleaned the record the best I could, I could never get all the grit out of its grooves that had accumulated from its years on the Mansion jukebox. But I like it better that way. I still hear it now the same way I heard it then: That deep, otherworldly voice with a lonesome-sounding harmonica blowing behind it. The trembling first line seemed to summon every drop of sadness ever known in the world. And the great kicker: A man who wants to fly but happens to be too drunk and wasted to even stand up.

A record like that should rise out of the static and pop from years spent on a barroom jukebox. That’s only apropos. After all, like my friend said, it does happen to be the greatest cry-in-your-beer song ever written.