“It’s The Freakiest Show” . . : David Bowie’s Life On Mars?

I’m starting a project that (hopefully) will include fingerstyle guitar arrangements of classic rock songs. For some reason I thought I would have a go at David Bowie’s classic song “Life On Mars?”, a song that I had been listening to a great deal at the time. I very quickly realized that the song is a lot more complex that I thought and trying to arrange it for solo guitar would be significantly trickier that I first thought given my relative inexperience in such arranging. I hope to get back to it after getting a bunch more songs under my belt but for now it’s on the back burner list.

“Life On Mars?” was first released on Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory but it’s strange backstory started in 1968. Bowie was commissioned to write English lyrics for the Claude François French song “Comme d’habitude”. After his lyrics were rejected, songwriter Paul Anka rewrote it into “My Way”, which became a hit for Frank Sinatra in 1969. Annoyed at the success of “My Way”, Bowie used the song as a template and wrote “Life on Mars?” as a parody of Sinatra’s recording.

Other tidbits about the song: the amazing piano part of “Life On Mars?” initially was going to be played by actor, comedian, musician Dudley Moore. In the end, the piano was played by keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who at the time was a member of the Strawbs and who had played Mellotron on “Space Oddity”. Wakeman, of course, went on to become a prog-rock legend with Yes.

Besides Wakeman on piano, the band consisted of guitarist Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums. Ronson, who passed away in 1993, was one of the great journeymen of rock music. After Bowie, he co-produced Lou Reed’s “Transformer”, worked with Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter and others. It was Mick Ronson who wrote the song’s phenomenal string arrangement. The arrangement was the first that Ronson had ever done and was composed on the floor of the studio restroom.

One final oddity: the song was covered by Barbra Streisand on her 1974 album ButterFly. Bowie was not impressed, saying in 1976, “it was bloody awful. Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious.”

To give you an idea of the hornet’s nest I stepped into when I took this on for solo guitar, the video below (from the You Tuber 12 Tone) is a deep dive into the musical nuts and bolts of “Life On Mars?”

Understanding “Life On Mars?”

And of course, the song itself. Classic.

David Bowie – Life On Mars? (Official Video)

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Posted in Classic Rock, Music Appreciation and Analysis

“Want Some Garcia With Your Salsa?” . . . : Jerry Garcia with Carlos Santana and Ruben Blades

As a music nerd I always got a kick when a musician you love and admire plays with another one of your musical heroes. It’s especially cool when it actually sounds as good as you hoped it would. Such is the case with the videos below.

Below are excerpts from a performance on August 2nd, 1989, a day after Garcia’s 47th birthday and was filmed as part of a benefit for the National Hispanic Arts Education Media Institute which aired on SHOWTIME.

The first video has Garcia join Santana on a funky instrumental called “Get Uppa”. After a brief solo from Santana, Jerry comes in for his first solo at the 2:35 mark. His tone here has an almost fusion like distortion with a lot more “dirt” than we normally associate with Garcia. Next is a weird section with an accordion player with an eye patch (yes, I said eye patch) which is mercifully short. Garcia comes back at 5:10 with his more familiar auto wah sound for another solo before Santana closes out the song. You can’t help but see how much Jerry is enjoying himself. He absolutely beaming. and bopping along and his playing here has a very defined rhythmic quality that I love.

Carlos Santana & Jerry Garcia (Get Uppa) – Aug. 2nd 1989 – Biltmore Bowl (Los Angeles) pt1 of 2

Next is Jerry sitting in with Ruben Blades on “Muevetel” from the 1985 album Escenas with Garcia playing another ripping solo at 5:40.

Ruben Blades & Jerry Garcia (MueveteI) – Aug. 2nd 1989 – Biltmore Bowl (Los Angeles) pt2 of 2

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Posted in Grateful Dead, Improvisation, Jam Band, Music Appreciation and Analysis, Uncategorized

“Lucky Day” . . . : The Importance of the Thirteenth of May

This past thirteenth of May was my mother’s 95th birthday. While I admit to my lack of objectivity on the matter, she is one of the most amazing people . . ever. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1927, she has lived a life that has gone through changes that I’m sure would throw all but the very strongest for a loop. She is very much my hero.

So I got to thinking what musicians were also born on May thirteenth. My mom is in distinguished company or should I say, they are . .

Gil Evans, Canadian-American jazz pianist, composer and arranger (b 1912 d. 1988 Toronto Canada)

Miles Davis & Gil Evans 1959
Songs: “The Duke” and “Blues for Pablo”

Mary Wells, American pop singer (b. 1943 d. 1992 Detroit MI)

Mary Wells – You Beat Me to the Punch

Mary Wells – My Guy

Magic Dick [Richard Salwitz], American harmonica player and musician in the J Geils Band (b 19465 New London CT)

J. GEILS BAND – Whammer Jammer

Stevie Wonder [Stevland Hardaway Morris], American singer-songwriter born in Saginaw, Michigan

Stevie Wonder – Superstition Live on Sesame St 1973

Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life

Happy Birthday mom. Love you.

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Posted in Classic Rock, Jazz, Music Appreciation and Analysis

“Stick With It” . . . : Hector Otto and the Chapman Stick Guitar (SG-12)

I first became aware of Hector Otto, also known as Hectory, while I was looking at the website of Chapman Stick Enterprises. I had been fooling around with a Chapman Stick that I got off Ebay but I was feeling that the standard setup was not working for me. The classic Stick tuning is pretty convoluted compared with that of the guitar and I was having a hard time adjusting, Then I saw a video of Hectory playing the SG-12 Chapman Stick Guitar on the Stick Enterprises site. I immediately recognized the chord shapes he was using and unlike standard Stick technique, he was playing with his hands not crossing over each other, which made much more sense to me.

After a fairly long break, I picked up my Stick Guitar recently. It was good to know that I hasn’t lost what little technique I had on the instrument and for inspiration, I revisited the video that got me started.

Hector Otto – SG-12

I also saw that Hectory has been putting out other video of his playing the SG-12. These video are his covers of assorted pop tunes which show off the potential of the instrument by giving the listener some familiar context. These videos include a whole series of Beatles covers that are amazing.

Hector Otto – Blackbird

Hector Otto – The Long and Winding Road

Across the Universe

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

A final show stopper

Bohemian Rhapsody

I’m not sure if I’m going to go playing the SG-12 on a regular basis since I have other projects I’m working on (which I hope to begin putting out before the end of the year) but just watching what this instrument can do is inspiring to me and gives me something to shoot for.

Also, as a final note, Chapman Stick Enterprises refers to SG-12 as a “Stick Guitar’ so spare me any comments of “don’t call it a guitar, it’s a Chapman Stick”.

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Posted in Chapman Stick, Classic Rock

“You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do” . . : Changing Guitar Strings

If you’re a guitarist like me, you are not fond of having to change your strings. As a result, I sometimes keep the strings on a guitar longer than they should, usually till they are so worn out that they no longer stay in tune for any real length of time. As I was changing stings on my acoustic guitars and encountering the usual headaches such as the string tension slipping, it occurred to me that maybe I should see if I could do this better.

The video offers a clear simple explanation of the luthier’s knot and I have to say it really works.

Tech Tip: How to Tie a Luthier’s Knot When Changing Strings

Changing strings are a lot more complicated since nylon string guitars require knots on both ends of the string. The video below offers as good a tutorial on the subject as I have seen.

How to Change Classical Guitar Strings (step by step restring)

Oh, and if you haven’t done so, get a string winder. They’re cheap and make you life easier.

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Posted in Equipment

‘It Tolls For Thee” . . . : Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells

I remember I was fifteen years old in my bedroom reading Rolling Stone magazine (I thought I was so cool . . . ha!) and I saw this ad for a new record called Tubular Bells. I was a precocious little sh*t who knew that tubular bells were a orchestral percussion instrument but my interest was piqued. I wasn’t actually able to hear the record until a fair time later and not before it gained notoriety as the opening theme to movie The Exorcist, of which it only uses the first few minutes.

The record was the first record by a then 19 year old Mike Oldfield who played almost all the instruments on the mostly instrumental album. Prior to Tubular Bells, Oldfield had been playing with musicians associated with the progressive rock scene in Canterbury, England. The album was seen at the time as progressive rock with it’s long song form and extended instrumental passages, distinguishing itself from other prog records of it’s time by it’s lack of lyrics.

Since the initial release of Tubular Bells, Oldfield has released numerous records including Hergest Ridge (1974), Ommadawn (1975), and Incantations (1978), all of which follow the longform, mostly instrumental structure of Tubular Bells. Mike Oldfield has also returned to Tubular Bells several times, recording a second and third installment, adapting the piece for piano and other instruments. The composition has also been transcribed and performed by an orchestra.

Mike Oldfield ‘Tubular Bells’ Live at the BBC 1973 (HQ remastered)

The next two videos are for the real music nerds out there. The first one is of Part One of Tubular Bells with the score of the piece to read along with. While I can read music, it’s not my strong suit but I find the experience of following the score with the music really gives me a new appreciation and understanding of the music.
To go further into music geekdom, the second video is a reaction/musical analysis of Tubular Bells by Doug Helvering, a classically trained composer who has a cool music reaction/analysis series called The Daily Doug. Definitely worth checking out.

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells, Part One1 (read along video)

Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield) Reaction & Analysis | The Daily Doug (Ep 278)

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Posted in Classic Rock, Music Appreciation and Analysis

“Crazy Fingers” . . . : Grateful Dead on Classical Guitar

I’ve been listening to a lot of classical guitar these past few months. Mostly Bach, some Vivaldi but I’ll leave that for another post.

Anyway, given my listening habits I guess that it was inevitable that the Great YouTube Algorithm would direct me to a You Tube playlist named “Jerry’s Smilin – A Guitar Tribute To The Grateful Dead’ by nylon string guitarist-composer Damia’ Timoner.

Side Note: I’m of two minds regarding You Tube’s recommendation of this channel. It’s creepy that it tracks my viewing habits so it knew that I would like this but on the other hand . . It was right, I do like it.

I don’t know much about Mr. Timoner. Beside his Grateful Dead covers. I’ve heard great fingerstyle guitar renditions of David Bowie’s Space Oddity and The Pogues’ Fairytale In New York but I want to talk specifically about “Jerry’s Smilin”.

First off, to me it’s apparent that he “gets it”. You can tell he’s a deadhead who plays classical guitar, not a classical guitarist that thinks an album of dead covers would be a good marketing hook. He knows the music and his attention to little things in the music show it. His quoting of Garcia’s opening guitar line in his version of Dark Star immediately made me take notice.

Dark Star (Grateful Dead cover) by Damià Timoner

Listening to the instrumental covers of these dead tunes once again reminds me that these are strong melodic songs. When you hear the vocal melody played by an instrument, you can appreciate how well these melodies hold up.

Cassidy -DeadCoversProject by Damià Timoner

#DeadCoversProject 2022 – Ramble on rose (Grateful Dead cover) by Damià Timoner

Most impressive is Timoner’s take on Terrapin Station, one of the Dead’s most elaborate compositions. Given that the song is very orchestral in itself, Timoner does a great job of adapting it all to solo classical guitar.

Lady with a fan / Terrapin station (Grateful Dead cover) by Damià Timoner

Listen to Damia’ Timoner’s album, “Jerry’s Smilin – A Guitar Tribute To The Grateful Dead” on Spotify here.

Jerry’s Smilin – A Guitar Tribute To The Grateful Dead on Spotify

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Posted in Classic Rock, Classical, Jam Band, Music Appreciation and Analysis

“Ease My Worried Mind” . . : The Sad Tale Of Jim Gordon

Rock music has more than it’s share of weird and tragic stories but this one is one it’s weirder and more tragic ones.

At one time, Jim Gordon was one of rock music’s most admired and in demand drummers. During the sixties became the protégé of studio drumming legend Hal Baine and played on everything coming out of Los Angeles, from The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds to Mason Williams’ Classical Gas.

He toured with Delaney & Bonnie where he met Eric Clapton, and subsequently joined Derek and The Dominos’, playing on the classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and also playing with the band on their U.S. and UK tours. He was also part of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Dave Mason‘s album Alone Together, Traffic’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, most of Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, including the single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. . . .

You get the picture.

Oh, and he is also credited with writing the piano coda for the song “Layla” but that claim has been disputed by the Dominos’ Bobby Whitlock who claimed that the piano melody was actually written by Gordon’s girlfriend Rita Coolidge.

But underneath all this success, Gordon was also dealing with very serious mental health issues. Gordon developed schizophrenia and began to hear voices (including his mother’s) which compelled him to starve himself and prevented him from sleeping, relaxing and eventually from playing drums. His physicians misdiagnosed the problems and instead treated him for alcohol abuse. It was during his tour with Joe Cocker in the early 1970s, that Gordon reportedly punched his then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge in a hotel hallway, ending their relationship.

It all came to a tragic head when on June 3, 1983, Gordon attacked his 72-year-old mother, Osa Marie Gordon, with a hammer before fatally stabbing her with a butcher knife; he claimed that a voice told him to kill her. It was only after his arrest that Gordon was properly diagnosed with schizophrenia. At his trial, the court accepted that he had acute schizophrenia, but he was not allowed to use an insanity defense because of changes to California law due to the Insanity Defense Reform Act.

The Sad Tale of Jim Gordon

As of 2021, he remains incarcerated at the California Medical Facility.

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Posted in Blues, Classic Rock, Music Appreciation and Analysis

“I’m Just Trying To Break Your Heart” . . : Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Teaches You To Write One Song

“If you want to think of yourself as a songwriter, write songs.” – Jeff Tweedy

For a long time I would read about the band Wilco (and it’s predecessor, Uncle Tupalo) but never really listened to them. That changed when one of the guitarists of the band I was in at the time suggested we do the song Jesus, Etc. from the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Yeah, color me impressed.

So I found out recently that Jeff Tweedy, the songwriting force behind Wilco, wrote a book called How To Write One Song (order it direct from the Wilco website here: https://wilcostore.com/products/jeff-tweedy-how-to-write-one-song-book). In it, Tweedy tries to demystify the creative process from one in which only the certain few can tap into to the realty that it’s more a matter of developing your craft and being persistent in that pursuit. Tweedy provides several different exercises to help the budding songwriter develop ideas. The first two videos below go into two such exercises, the Word Ladder and the time honored tradition of taking a phrase from a book (the line “Mediocre artists borrow, great ones steal” comes to mind).

The third video below come from an interesting YouTube called The Songwriter’s Workshop in which the YouTuber (is that a word?) tries to write a song using the techniques and process of other songwriters, in this case, Jeff Tweedy. Watching someone go through the process and then hearing the results is a interesting watch, especially if, like me, you find the creative process itself to be fascinating.

Jeff Tweedy Songwriting Exercise #1 – Word Ladder (from his book How To Write One Song)

Jeff Tweedy Songwriting Exercise #2 – Stealing from a Book (from his book How To Write One Song)

How to write one song (according to Jeff Tweedy)

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Posted in Classic Rock, Music Appreciation and Analysis

Holiday Haiku 2021

We Bid You Goodnight
A Song A Deadhead Knows Well
Happy Holidays

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Posted in Classic Rock, Country/Bluegrass, Grateful Dead, Jam Band, Uncategorized
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