Tag Archive | "Steve Winwood"

A Conversation with Taylor Hicks

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Most people fantasize about winning the lottery, kissing their jobs goodbye, and flying off to an island to romp carefree under the sun.  Not me.  For the past four and a half years, my fantasy has been to sit somewhere quietly with Taylor Hicks, the monumentally talented singer, songwriter, musician, and arranger. Just as Taylor was becoming American Idol’s most distinctive winner, I found his original music (most of which now appears as the re-mastered compilation, “Early Works”).  For five hours, I sat and played that music over and over and over, crying quietly, for it moved me like no other music ever had.  The more information I gobbled up about Taylor Hicks, the more I understood that — after wallowing in a desert of soulless music for too long and retreating back into my old music — I had finally found a new artist of talent and integrity.


Moreover, I’d found a real music geek, just like myself.  I knew the joy and relief that Stanley must have felt upon locating Dr. Livingston — because in my entire life, this was the first time I’d found another person who seemed to live and breathe music.  Taylor’s obvious devotion to his music is pure, in the way that so few things are pure now.  Every time I saw him perform live, he drove this home to me. So, I harbored the fantasy of talking music with him one day, really digging deep.  I fantasized about a little table in a quiet corner of a small club, where we might talk. What I got instead, and what I’m supremely grateful for, was a phone conversation.


Yesterday, July 22, 2010, God and the wonderful Judy Katz Public Relations team were good to me.  I was fortunate enough to speak with Taylor just before he embarks upon his latest tour, burning up stages across the nation once more.  That tour kicks off this Sunday, July 25th, at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, with his incredible band of friends and gifted fellow musicians.


Sean Katz facilitated the conversation, which, long story short, prompted Taylor to call me back from a landline in the airport as he prepared to wing off to my city (New York).  I have to say to you that, in addition to being a damned fine music man, Taylor Hicks is the most patient, most gracious soul, a true Southern gentleman.


The italics below indicate my words; the bold facing indicates Taylor’s. As our conversation began, Sean patched us in, saying, “Taylor, you’ve got Kathleen from Write On New Jersey.”


Oh you lucky man! (Laughing) 

 

Hey, Kathleen.  How you doin’?

 

Hi, Taylor; how you doin’?  Welcome back to the Big Apple!  Thank you so much for doing this; I know you’re jammed, so I really want to thank you so much for doing this.

 

Oh, no problem; thanks for doing this.

 

Oh, please —  you’re a sweetheart.  So now … I hear you’re going to go The Beatles and U2 one step better by “Taking it to the Streets,” instead of taking it to a rooftop, on Sunday (July 25th) via Fox & Friends.  [Readers can tune in to the Fox & Friends TV show that morning, to enjoy a live mini-concert outside the studio.]

 

Oh yes, yes I am.  I’m pretty excited about that.  I’m really a big fan of the show, Fox & Friends.  I’m excited about kicking off the national tour, and getting out and playing some great live music. 

 

Definitely.  Definitely!  I’m looking forward to it.  I’ll see you Sunday!  Okay, so here’s something for you now.  The first piece of music I remember hearing — I was three years old — it was Mario Lanza — opera —  with all the pain and the passion and the love. It just set the standard for me for every other piece of music afterward. What do you consciously remember as the first piece of music you heard and how did it hit you; how did it affect you?

 

I would have to say, the first piece of music I recall hearing … y’know, it was probably a 70s, AM, golden [oldie].  Late ’70’s.  I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, hearing really great music on the radio.  I was in my learning process of music.  It was just a really great time for the radio, to have all of that stuff, to just be able to soak all of that in.  Y’know?

  

Yeah. Very cool music, then.  Okay. Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.  Now, Neil is saying that this heart of gold is somewhere in some unmapped mine, and [he’s] digging for it.  When you wrote “Hell of a Day,” you actually penned the line — and it’s a brilliant line, Taylor — “I’ve been working with the heart’s metallurgy.”  That sort of intimates something else:  that you actually have to work at crafting a relationship. Did Neil Young’s song at all influence you in writing “Hell of a Day?”

 

You know, as much as I have to admit it, as much as I love that song, I really didn’t base it … I didn’t really pull from Neil Young’s material.  But I completely see how there could be comparisons between the two.  I’ve always enjoyed that word [metallurgy].  Obviously, you have to do some studying to get that word.

  

True.

  

But I’m very happy about that song.  I think it’s one of the better ones I’ve written.

  

Yeah, it’s a great song; you know, all your songs are, and some of them just hit you more than others.  Okay.  James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is a song about terrible loss and other things as well, that we don’t need to go into now.  When he tours, this is the song that most people want to hear.  And yet it’s that sad, sad song.  Do you think that if a song like that — or even that particular song — were released to radio today, do you think that audiences would embrace it? Or do you think that they’ve just become jaded to the shit — excuse me — that’s on the radio now?

  

Well, I think country music would embrace it.


You do?

  

Yeah.  But as far as popular radio, I don’t think they would have any idea about it.   Y’know, for me, I think that country music is where you can still find great songs.  And I think you can find great songs in popular music [commercial radio], but you gotta dig.  It’s about the package in pop music, and not really about the song itself.


Right.  Not so much about the artist.

  

Yeah.


So, you think country music because they still like to tell stories, because there’s still a lot of emotion there?

  

Yeah.  It’s very story-oriented and it’s just … it’s just that way.

  

Yeah. Cool.  Okay.  Well, you and I — and I don’t know if you remember this, but — in the wings of the Brooks Atkinson [the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway, where Taylor portrayed Teen Angel in Grease, summer of 2008], we started to have this conversation about Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver — the album, not the song [single].  You told me you thought it was his masterpiece and I didn’t really agree.  I think I know why you think that, but if you could just share with me, so I don’t make an assumption.

  

Well, you know, when you think of an artist’s masterpiece, you just think of everything that they do.  I think for the time, the 80s — the early ’80s — when you’re going from real, very organic instrumentation on recorded music to more synthesized music … I mean, this was the brink of the 80s music … and for him to be able to bridge the gap between the two, but do it in such a soulful way.  And not only that, but to have great songs!  I feel that was the height of his creativity.

 

And also, when you’re talking about creativity, you’re looking back on it.  Bridging a gap between synthesized music and traditional music, and I think that he did that with such grace.  And you know, I just think every song is great.  When I think of “City to City,” by Jerry Rafferty … to be able to pull that off on the brink of the 80s craze, the 80s music, which is more synthesized pop …

 

Techno-pop. 

 

Yeah, I think he did that well.

 

He did, he did.  And considering he also had that whole very traditional English music background, as well as all the island music, in him.  Okay, so … God forbid you find yourself ship wrecked on a desert island —

 

(Humorous snort.)

 

You’re all alone but you have your Ipod.  The moment that you realize there is no hope, ain’t nobody comin’ for ya, you’re all alone, what one song do you play to give you comfort and courage?

  

Ah … “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

 

Oh.  (I got a bit choked up.) That’s cool.  That’s cool.  Thank you.

 

I think you are a great songwriter, I really think you are.  Obviously, I am not alone!  You have the ability to capture very vivid imagery in just a handful of lyrics.  Like, “Who gets lost when the map is full?”  “Feel the heat in the cold; cut the air with a knife.”  When you write, do the lyrics come to you that way or do you have to kind of … because, I write for a living and I’m constantly manipulating and massaging and pounding.  Sometimes it just comes and it’s great, and I don’t touch it.  And other times I really need to do that.  How do the lyrics come to you?

 

Y’know, you have to really be practical about lyrics, in a way.  The more practical you can be about ’em, the better off that you are.  You have to be able to make sense.  But to a certain degree, y’know, tongue in cheek is not a bad idea as well.  I mean, people love that.  It’s not tongue in cheek, it’s more like words that are every day.  Y’know?

 

Yeah.  “Keepin’ it Real”, right?

 

Yeah!

 

What was the last artist or band that you saw perform live?

 

Widespread Panic.

 

Oh my God (laughing).  That was just a few weeks ago, right?

 

Yeah.

 

I just gave a friend of mine their “Choice Cuts” and she’s lovin’ it.  I just played  “Fishwater,” by the way, just before you called — you know, when you sat in with them.  Listen, my friend.   You could have melted the metal on that harp!!!

 

I appreciate that.

 

Oh, God, that was like … run me over and then come back and resurrect me.  You were amazing.  That, in particular, was just an amazing harp solo.  And the one you did in Millersville, Pennsylvania in October 2007 … the song where you learned to play harp to, you know, when you were playing to air conditioners [to mimic the sounds] … y’know, I’m gettin’ old!

 

“Take the Long Way Home.”  (by Supertramp)

 

Yeah, that was it! (Relieved). Thank you; thank you.  That was just exquisite. It just went right to the heart; it was exquisite, I have to tell you.  All right … well, I don’t know if you know this, but when you played Teen Angel on Broadway, you sold SROs [Standing Room Only tickets, in addition to the regular seats].  I’m a New Yorker from way back when and I’ve been the to the theater probably from the time that I was 17.  I’ve seen major actors — I mean major, major talent — and I have never seen anyone pay to stand in the aisles to see a play before!  So you broke new ground there.  Obviously, we love you. New York loves you.  When Grease went on the road for 18 months — I really feel because of you, I really feel that — what did you — here’s a trick question for ya (laughing) — what did you miss most about the city?

 

Um … [Long pause.]

 

Pushy New Yorkers like me??? (Laughing)

 

It’s so funny, y’know.  I could tell ya something … okay, the food, the atmosphere.  But here’s the thing, y’know?  I think the one thing that I see eye-to-eye with New Yorkers with is, we have the same pride in our State as New Yorkers do in their city.

 

Yes!

 

Y’know?

 

Yes, yes!

 

It’s like this unbridled pride that you have for your city.  And I think that’s why I connected, because I feel that, I can tell that.  I think really being able to hang out in the city and be a part of it, you know, you feel that.  And also, being from Alabama, it’s a very prideful place, a prideful State, and I think that’s something that I can connect with.

 

At this point, Sean called on my cell phone to alert me that we had to wrap it up, so that Taylor could conduct his next interview.  I apologized to Taylor, asking him to hang on while I answered Sean’s call.  But in doing so, I couldn’t pick Sean up in time.

 

I just missed Sean. I think he wants me off the phone. Unless, y’know, ya wanna talk.

 

I wish I could.  It’s … I’m in the middle of the airport —

 

You poor guy!

 

But we can do one more question.  Ya got one?

 

Yeah!!!!  I was wanting to know about “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness.”  The first five times I heard that, I sobbed, I mean, I sobbed.  It was your delivery.  I never heard Foy Vance’s version.  I didn’t want to, after I heard yours.  It is exquisite.  How did you come to find this song?

 

(A little knowing laugh.) Well, y’know, my friend, good friend [noted songwriter] Gary Nicholson …

 

Oh yeah!

 

He helped me, helped me in the process of writing.  And honestly, we found some great music, and he turned me on to it.  And then Simon Climie had recorded “Hallelujah” with Jeff Buckley and Michael McDonald.   I said, “Let’s try to record this in the same time signature as “Hallelujah,” as done by Jeff Buckley and Michael McDonald: 3-4 time.”  And so, that’s what we did “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness” in, 3-4 time.  It really works well.  [Mr. Climie was Taylor’s celebrated producer on his most current DC, “The Distance,” and has produced work for Eric Clapton, BB King, Santana, Faith Hill, and other renowned artists.]

 

It’s just beautiful.  It’s astoundingly beautiful. 

 

Oh, that’s what I wanna hear.  Well, I think we’re movin’ on.  Hey, I hope ta see ya at the Highline!

 

I’m goin’, I’m goin’!!! 

 

Oh, good.  Hey, thank you so much for your time.

 

Oh, you too, you too!  Thank you so much; you’re an angel.  Fly safe!! Bye-bye.

 

That old game we all played as teens, “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” was nothin’ compared to my 22 minutes in heaven yesterday when Taylor Hicks was good enough to speak with me.  Many thanks go to Judy Katz and Sean Katz for this wonderful opportunity, and to “anothertayfan” for the use of her great shot accompanying this article from a Syracuse, New York concert.


One last and vital note, please.  Our readers can find Taylor’s music online, at iTunes and Amazon.com, as well as major retailers such as Target and WalMart.  Please note that “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness,” on “The Distance,” is a bonus track that appears solely for the version created for Target.


Also, our intention is to post the complete audio of this interview on the Website at a future date.  It will be a separate posting and likely the “Featured Story” of that day.  So, check Write On New Jersey daily for that update.

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

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Woodstock

Highways and byways clogged with streaming throngs, personnel and equipment “air-vac’d” via helicopter, emergency plans slapped into place.  A scene from disaster movie?  Breaking news of a natural or manmade catastrophe?  Neither.  This was Woodstock, a free (in more ways than one), three-day fete spanning the weekend of August 15th to August 18th, 1969 and celebrating the rock n’ roll, pop rock, and folk-rock music as well as the very spirit of its generation.

 

Held in Sullivan County in upstate New York at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm and surrounding open areas, the event was originally conceived as a business venture, the brainchild of two young, ambitious men joined by two others.  To shorten a long story, this brainchild sprang up practically overnight to give birth to a child of its own that bore little resemblance to its parent.   Attracting nearly half a million attendees exclusive of the thirty-two musical acts that performed that weekend, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, a.k.a. The Woodstock Festival, served as the turning point in the careers of previously obscure talents as well as the catalyst that widened the chasm of the Generation Gap and an experience that enriched those fortunate enough to have been on the scene.  “On the scene” included two infants who made their entrance into the world during the festival, and three souls who quit the earth: two as a result of a drug overdoses, the other the victim of a freak vehicular accident.

 

That historic rainy weekend became a good-natured free-for-all splashing and cavorting merrily in the mud.  A view from the stage revealed a swelling sea of humanity in tie-dyed garb, bathing suits, and birthday suits.  Of both sexes, of all ages (most of them under the dreaded three-decade mark), from different races, cheery either by disposition, the natural camaraderie, or recreational drugs, everyone seemed high on the music.  In a nation torn asunder by racial strife, the conflict in Vietnam, and the assassination of our brightest and best leaders, brave, outspoken music united and healed.  Woodstock’s arena became the actual and symbolic outcry of a generation: a great chorus blending the voices of artists with activists and plain ol’ lovers of great music.

 

With the New York Thruway jammed for miles and scheduled acts stranded in the gridlock, the concert’s organizers pressed first into service the acoustic performers (their equipment was not stuck on the highway or hovering overhead in helicopters).   Richie Havens opened strumming an acoustic guitar and unveiling his gravely-folksy voice, eventually finding himself facing the equivalent of the “dead air monster” that lurks in wait for every radio DJ: he had run out of material.  Confronting a live, music-hungry crowd of half a million, Richie improvised with Freedom, thus keeping the peace until his replacement arrived.  (The incomparable Ray Charles would one day find himself in the same sticky situation.  Flying by the seat of his pants, Brother Ray spontaneously combusted the catchy What’d I Say, which became one of his most memorable songs.)

 

Richie Havens and his mates presented a kaleidoscope of genres and styles, showcasing the talents of established and budding musical luminaries.  These ranged from the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar, discovered by the Beatles during their journey to India, to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s blistering Southern rock political manifestos, to the folk-activist ballads of Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, to Janis Joplin, a brave Texan who challenged racial bigots in her high school corridors and far beyond, and whose keening pipes channeled old Delta blues men.  John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful was also on hand as a spectator but got shoved up on stage to perform, as did Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, who was contemplating a solo career and who launched said career, unplanned, as he too was Russian-volunteered as one of the acts.  The gritty poet voice of Bob Dylan was blowin’ in the wind, and Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and the other members of The Band were hefting The Weight.  Santana, an unknown, tremendous talent, was leaving mouths hanging open and causing tears to flow with their achingly beautiful, bluesy-Latin fusion.  Before exploding onto the scene in the wake of Woodstock, Santana played free of charge in the streets of San Francisco, where that city’s residents dug their sounds, including my own dear cousin who early on pegged Carlos and his fellows as rising stars.

 

The closing act was Jimi Hendrix, an electric guitarist whose hard rock chops and black skin did not mesh well with the myopic suits Stateside.  Hendrix, who went on to set fire to the rock world as well as his famous guitar, only gained the full respect due him professionally after he migrated to England, which was a lot less color blind.

 

Forty years after this musical love-in galvanized a generation of free thinkers, we can track the careers and personal lives of the musicians who jammed during that three-day fest.  What we cannot track so easily are the lives of the latter-day hippies who frolicked in the rain.  What happened to those two children born during Woodstock?  Did they grow up political activists or perhaps attorneys defending the disenfranchised by way of the Legal Aide Society?  Did they grow up musicians, having heard some of the most incredible music of the day in the moment that they first saw sunlight refracted in the raindrops?  Did they mature into aficionados of soul music that knows no color but recognizes a common bond in the human spirit, or do they prefer the commercial drivel that has infested our airwaves for far too long?

 

Are they farmers, having taken their inspiration from the earth that received them as they made their way into the world?  Are they cops or soldiers, driven to maintain law and order and defend the masses in an ironic “up yours” to their anti-military parents?

 

And what became of those parents after Jimi’s last guitar chord lingered on the moist air and the crowd dispersed to go their separate ways?  Did they develop new technologies or medical breakthroughs?  Did they become teachers, social workers, or psychiatrists?  Construction workers, CDL drivers, or marketing mavens?  Did some of them migrate to Israel to live on a kibbutz, work the land, and share their resources with their fellows?  Or did they remain a lot closer to home and join forces in communes?   Did they pull a 180 and bow to The Man?  Did they trade in their sandals and headbands for suits and ties, melting away into office buildings, towing the company line, and buying into the American Dream like the character in Jackson Browne’s chilling song, The Pretender:

 

I’m going to be a happy idiot,
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender.
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy,
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer
For the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.

 

If those who attended Woodstock entered the halls of huge corporations, what exactly were their roles there?  Were some of them engineers of the Enron scam or more recently, the $700 billion bilking of American public?  Did they pervert their love of music by signing and robbing new artists blind under the guise of legal sanctions?  Did they fade into the woodwork?

 

Are they living next door to you?  Did they marry your sister or brother?  Do they stare back at you when you gaze into the mirror?  And if so, does the restless, hopeful spirit that once bound your generation still beat in your breast and uplift you and compel you to do the things you do?  Do you remember, to steal a lyric from Steve Winwood, “the bigness and the mud?”  Do your memories of that storied weekend and the tenets unpinning it determine how you vote, how you have raised your children, and the nature of the organizations that you support?  Or are you just slugging away, day after day, like a drone in a hive?   Do you still dream?  And mostly importantly, can you?

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