Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Electricity Came FROM Arkansas (Revised)


When I started this blog almost two years ago, the first official band tribute I ever did was for one of my all-time favorite groups, Black Oak Arkansas.  I re-read it the other day and didn’t like the “drive-by” quality of that post and felt like I’d shortchanged the band just a skosh, so I decided to flesh it out a bit more and elaborate…

Whenever you had a band that Rolling Stone magazine’s music critics hated, chances are pretty good that I liked them (to wit, Kiss, Grand Funk Railroad, Styx, Rush, Z.Z. Top, et al), and Black Oak Arkansas is a prime example.  One such critic derisively summed up BOA’s career by saying, "Black Oak’s distinguishing characteristic is that the band has three guitarists who collectively don’t even add up to one good one."  Funny line, yes, but not quite true, and this is precisely why I rarely listen to music critics!  And thankfully, neither does the paying public, because BOA sold a boatload of records in the early ‘70s and they were a major concert attraction as well, especially around these parts.

Originally called the Knowbody Else, BOA formed in the mid-‘60s in and around the Jonesboro area of northeast Arkansas, just a ways northwest of Memphis.  The band went through more personnel changes throughout its tenure than Sprint does following a layoff, but the one constant was lead singer Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, and the band was subsequently named after his hometown of Black Oak.  While hardly the most photogenic guy in the world, Dandy still had big-time sex appeal for the women-folk out there with his long blonde hair, skin-tight white pants (which showed off his well-endowed-ness!) and bare chestclearly the blueprint one young David Lee Roth of Van Halen followed later in the ‘70s.  JD was/is a colorful dude, too, growling and howling his vocals and playing a mean washboard to boot.  The band also included journeyman drummer Tommy Aldridge from 1972-76 and Mangrum’s longtime friend and cohort Rickie Lee Reynolds on rhythm guitar.
After recording one record for legendary Memphis R&B label Stax Records, the band landed a better deal with Atco and released their self-titled album in 1971, which my older sister bought (sort of on a lark) and that’s how I was introduced to the band.  Black Oak Arkansas is one of my favorite albums ever, featuring “Hot And Nasty” (which still gets a spin on Classic Rock radio now and then), “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul”, “Uncle Lijiah”, “When Electricity Came To Arkansas” and a hilarious cover version of Marty Robbins’ 1956 classic “Singin’ the Blues”.  Another humorous remake, LaVern Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, even cracked the Top 40 in early 1974, and throughout the early ‘70s, BOA was one of the hottest live acts in the country, and I wish I could have seen them in concert during their heyday, which is highlighted on their 30th anniversary DVD on Rhino.  Although the production value is a bit lacking on the DVD (there’s a graphic on it saying they played at London’s "Royal Alberts Hall"!), the vintage footage of the band in concert is excellent.

The band’s success enabled them to purchase a large residential compound in north central Arkansas near the town of Oakland in the Ozark Mountains where the band lived and recreated for a few years but by the time they fulfilled their contract on Atco in 1975, record sales started drying up.  Their three albums for MCA in ‘75 and ‘76 stiffed out, and then they panicked and dropped “Arkansas” from their name in 1977 in a failed attempt to de-Southernize the band.  Mangrum gave the band a complete overhaul and brought in a bunch of “real musicians” to impress the critics with, while he himself actually tried to sing instead of growling.  Didn’t work.  They wound up looking and sounding like an edgy Pablo Cruise or something.  The two just plain Black Oak albums they made for Capricorn Records (home of the Allman Bros.) were just plain flops, although 1977’s Race With The Devil had its moments, and by 1979, the band was history altogether.

Mangrum and Reynolds resurrected Black Oak Arkansas in the ‘90s and continue to tour today with an ever-changing lineup of younger musicians, and sadly, they don’t do the original band justice.  It’s also unfortunate that most people only know of “Hot And Nasty” and “Jim Dandy”, because there was so much more to this band, and it’s a shame they are so vastly overlooked.  Okay, even I will readily admit that musicianship-wise Black Oak Arkansas wasn’t a great band—good, yet hardly great—but being technically proficient isn’t always that important to me.  Emerson Lake & Palmer were technically very good musicians—but live in concert, ELP was about as exhilarating as watching “World Series of Poker”.  BOA’s music was just plain fun, and sometimes being fun and entertaining far outweighs being virtuosos, and I’ve found it’s damn near impossible to be in a bad mood while listening to a BOA record.  Thus, while the aging hippies over at Rolling Stone still spend all their waking hours dissecting those Pink Floyd and King Crimson records note-for-note, I’ll continue to boogie to Jim and the boys.  Jim Dandy to the rescue, indeed!

My all-time Black Oak Arkansas Top 21:
21) “I Could Love You” (1971)  One of BOA’s edgier tunes, featuring guitarist Harvey “Burley” Jett playing with his wah-wah (pedal).
20) “Rock ‘N’ Roll” (1976)  Not the famed Led Zep tune, but a BOA original, and one of the better songs from their uninspired three-album stint on MCA Records.  A little studio trickery was used here, as they overdubbed concert crowd noise that grows louder as the song goes along and builds to a climactic crescendo.
19) “Taxman” (1975)  Given George Harrison’s somewhat passive nature, he never really fit the part of a mean ol’ Taxman very well, but JD Mangrum sure did in this Dandy (sorry!) remake of GH’s Beatle classic.
18) “Up” (1973)  Never recorded in the studio and only available on Black Oak’s first live release, Raunch ‘N’ Roll, it features one of the bitchinest drum solos I’ve ever heard, courtesy of Tommy Aldridge.
17) “Son Of A Gun” (1974)  Love the attitude on this one from Street Party, which is about not worrying about other people’s expectations of you.
16) “Hey Y’all” (1974)  Also from Street Party, this one became a perennial concert opener during their later years.  The intro sounds a bit like Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City”.
15) “Memories At The Window” (1971)  Sounding almost Guess Who-like in places, this one from the first album also features some nifty steel guitar from Stanley “Goober Grin” Knight.
14) “Fever In My Mind” (1972)  Easily the best song off BOA’s rather weak second album Keep The Faith.  It sounds even better on 1975’s Live Mutha!.
13) “Singin’ The Blues” (1971)  BOA excelled at doing cover versions that improved upon their originals, and this remake of the Marty Robbins classic is a real stitch.
12) “Dixie” (1974)  A fun little instrumental re-working of Granny Clampett’s favorite song sandwiched between an √° capella intro and outro.
11) “Uncle Lijiah” (1971)  Opening track off the first album, ol’ Lijiah seemed like he was a relative of the Clampetts.  He’s still kickin’ at 105, too…
10) “Hot And Nasty” (1971)  As a kid and prepubescent listening to this song, I didn’t fully comprehend what all the “Ah…ah…oooh!” stuff Jim was doing at the end was about.  I got the full Monty years later when I saw Jim simulating the ol’ bump ‘n’ grind on stage on the DVD concert footage.
9) “Red Hot Lovin’” (1973)  With lines like “Flaming redheads have notorious fame to make a man do crazy things…” and "I've got my rail in the oven...", this was no doubt inspired by redheaded singer Ruby Starr, whose band Grey Ghost often toured in tandem with BOA.  Sadly, Ruby died of brain cancer in 1995.
8) “Jim Dandy” (1973)  BOA’s only sniff of the Top 40, climbing all the way to #25.  It rips LaVern Baker’s original to shreds.
7) “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul” (1971)  Strange irony that a mean old agnostic like me would embrace a song with pseudo-religious undertones, but I’ve always loved this little ditty about the "Halls of Karma".  The riff sounds kinda like the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” too.
6) “Let Life Be Good To You” (1975)  Ain’t Life Grand was easily BOA’s most underrated album, and on this track, Jim sings about living life to its fullest and doing stuff you enjoy.  I’m not much of an outdoorsy-type, but the way Jim sang about “campin’ out, cookin’ trout, under a sky of blue…” almost made me want to grab a fishin’ pole!
5) “Race With The Devil” (1977)  Respectable remake of a song by Adrian Gurvitz, this was easily the highlight of the just plain Black Oak period, but it was also the beginning of the end for BO(A).  Heavy metal chick band Girlschool did an even meaner remake of RWTD in 1981.
4) “Hot Rod” (1973)  Another fresh track introduced for the first time on the live Raunch ‘n’ Roll record.  Just to clarify, it ain’t necessarily about speedy motor vehicles!
3) “Cryin' Shame” (1975)  This song has a great riff and it’s very applicable for our current economic situation: “Any way you see it, the name’s the same/Can somebody tell me now, who’s to blame?...Livin’ like this is a cryin’ shame…”
2) “Rebel” (1975)  Another excellent song from Ain’t Life Grand, all about living life on the lam.  Should’ve been a staple on Classic Rock radio, but sadly, it wasn’t.
1) “When Electricity Came To Arkansas” (1971)  This one had all the fundamentalist Christian pinheads (you can’t spell fundamentalist without “mental”, btw) in a tizzy because they thought it contained Satanic messages via the process of backward-masking.  Funny how quickly they forgot all about “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul” played forwards, eh?  Anyway, “Electricity” is mostly an instrumental (with a riff that sounds a bit like the “Odd Couple” theme), augmented with some communal chanting led by Jim Dandy.  Utterly silly, but loads of fun, too.

Hunt for Red Blogtober

SWINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, JUST SWINGIN’ IN THE RAIN…
Much jaw-jacking has ensued since Monday night’s suspension of Game 5 of the World Series in Philadelphia amongst the talking heads on ESPN and local sports talk yakkers about whether the game should’ve even been started in the first place.  Some have supported Commish Bud Selig’s decision to try to get the game in, while others are calling for his head for the umpteenth time.  I tend to side with Selig on this one.  If nothing else, I say just be glad he isn’t threatening to move this game to Milwaukee’s Miller Park, too!  Meanwhile, the debate rages on about the wisdom of playing beisbol this late into October, to which local sports radio hack Soren Petro says there should be a rule requiring all Major League teams to build retractable-roof stadiums in order to avoid situations like this.  Riiiight.

Once again, please allow yours truly to be the voice of reason and offer a more sensible solution:  if MLB insists on playing three sets of postseason series, then either schedule doubleheaders during the regular season or start the friggin’ playoffs a week earlier!  Another thing—eliminate these pointless off-days during the postseason, except for when teams must travel cross-country.  Teams usually play three straight weeks (or more) without a day off during the regular season—why should that change in the playoffs?

Granted, rainouts can occur any time of year, but they could somewhat increase the chances of avoiding having to play baseball on frozen tundra in 20-degree wind chills (like tonight’s conditions in Philly) by finishing the World Series no later than, say, October 24th.  This could easily be accomplished by simply starting the regular season a week earlier during the last week of March.  Do we really need a whole month’s worth of Spring Training games anyway?  After about two weeks of exhibition games, the players are bored out of their skulls and ready to play for keeps.

Yes, I know it’ll be just as cold in late March as it is now in Philly and the other Northern cities, so to counteract that, I suggest opening every season in the warm-weather sites (So. California, Texas, Arizona, Florida) and stadiums with roofs (Toronto, Seattle, Milwaukee) for the first week-to-ten days.  It wouldn’t be that much of a disadvantage for teams like Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, the two New Yorks, the two Chicagos, et al, to open on the road every year—it all evens out with 81 home games and 81 road games in the long run.  Meantime, the old-school purist in me (and most assuredly Ernie Banks) would like to see the revival of the almighty doubleheader.  There was a time when it was tradition for all teams to schedule twin-bills on Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, but we’ll never see that again.  In any event, there’s no reason why the baseball postseason should drag on like a Presidential election campaign.

DON’T EAT AT JOE’S
Can we please put a stop to all the Joe-the-This and Joe-the-That crap already?  Just another lame clich√© the politicians and media grab onto and run with.  Freakin’ asinine…


LIMBO LITTLE LOWER NOW!
Man, I never thought I’d see this again—gas for under $2.00 a gallon!  I passed a place on the way home tonight selling gas for $1.93.  Let’s keep it that way for a while, shall we?

Now for the big question—since gas is now like half of what it cost us just three months ago, how come the price of meat and dairy products hasn’t decreased accordingly?  I thought the reason for the spike in meat and dairy prices was because it cost so much more to transport the cows and pigs and such, so why are t-bone steaks still $9.00 a pound?  Oh right, I forgot—gots ta keep dat profit margin up, right fellas?

HONOR THY FATHER?
Boy, what a loving Dad good ol’ Isiah Thomas must be, judging by the way he threw his own daughter under the bus by claiming she was the one who OD’ed on sleeping pills at his house last week, when indeed it was actually him passed out on the floor getting worked over by Morpheus.  I think this all goes a long way in explaining why he was such an inept coach and general manager with the New York Knicks (not to mention that sexual-harassment trial debacle).  Thomas was a great player, no doubt about it, but beyond that, he seems to be a real horse’s ass.

THEY DON’T KNOW ME VERY WELL, DO THEY?
I love Netflix to death because they carry all the old-school TV shows on DVD that I love to watch, but their computer-generated movie recommendations leave a bit to be desired.  Because of my interest in ‘70s fare like "Sanford & Son", "Happy Days" and "Cannon", Netflix thinks I will also enjoy the likes of "I, Claudius", "Eleanor & Franklin" and "Upstairs, Downstairs".  This is precisely what happens when we let computers do our thinking for us.  Uhhh, I think I’ll pass…

BE STILL MY BEATING HEART!
Speaking of Netflix videos that I enjoyed, last weekend I rented an old HBO concert featuring Pat Benatar from the 1983 Get Nervous tour, in which she "looked good enough to take to Chinatown", to use Fred Sanford’s yardstick.  Pat still looks pretty good today, but I’d almost forgotten how truly sexy she was back then, as she helped this growing boy get through puberty!

Two things I noticed during this video:  1) Pat's guitarist/husband Neil Giraldo bore an eerie resemblance to actor Patrick Swayze during that time, and 2) to her credit, Benatar didn’t resort to disappearing backstage after every fourth song to change into another outfit, which is SOP for the likes of Madonna, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and even Stevie Nicks.  Thankfully, Pat saw no need to turn her concerts into runway fashion shows, thus she merely relied on her own natural talent as a singer to put on a great show.  Besides, that little cocktail dress, evening gloves, black hose and high heels looked just dandy on her—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Based on my interest in this video, I’m sure Netflix will probably recommend "Mantovanni In Concert", or worse, maybe the fictional "Helen Reddy—the Las Vegas Years" mentioned on a Cheech & Chong record way back when…

RADIO, SOMEONE STILL LOVES YOU…
Listening to over-the-air radio is becoming more and more excruciating as time wears on.  Every station on FM (regardless of musical format) sounds the same anymore, and you’re lucky to even hear live DJs in this day and age.  The Rock stations around here might as well all be automated, especially after the latest round of firings of popular on-air personalities at the Scumulus (er uh, Cumulus) conglomerate.  The once-promising new Boulevard station has been rendered almost unlistenable by the constant hawking of their "No Repeat Workday", which they make sure to remind us about every ten minutes.  I’d just as soon they repeat a song or two every day just to avoid the constant harangue.

A quick scan across the AM dial during my lunch break today was just as depressing.  All we get around here on AM are syndicated hacks like Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura on the ultra-conservative news/talk stations, Dickey Dick-Brain Jim Rome over on the sports station, a couple of Jesus stations telling us we’re all going to hell next week (but please send us some money first) and three Spanish stations that have seemingly materialized out of nowhere in the last couple months.  About the only thing worth listening to at lunchtime was financial guru Dave Ramsey, and even he got rather tedious after only a few minutes.  I’m unable to listen to AM throughout the day at work because our MR magnet kills any AM signal, but it would appear I ain’t missing much.  Pretty damn sad…

AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSORS…
As AC/DC sings, "Let’s get it up!"  Special thanks to Greg (aka "Fork") for sending me this one!

Monday, October 27, 2008

"They Died Old"--Volume VII

"The Corner"

It was one of my favorite ballparks to watch games (both baseball and football) from on TV over the years, and it’s been a while since I did a stadium tribute, so here’s to one of the most venerable ballparks in Major League history, Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.  Located at the corner of Michigan Ave. and Trumbull St. (or just plain “The Corner” as the locals call it there) on the southwest side of downtown Motown, it opened the same day as Boston’s Fenway Park in 1912, and was originally known as Navin Field.  The stadium was expanded several times over the years, and was known for a time as Briggs Stadium before settling on the name Tiger Stadium in 1961.  With a capacity of over 50,000, it still managed to be a rather intimate ballpark, with a press box that practically hovered over home plate, and seating that made you feel right on top of the action.

My first memories of Tiger Stadium on TV are actually of the Detroit Lions playing football there in the early ‘70s, especially on their annual Thanksgiving Day games.  It seemed like whenever the Lions were on TV, it was always rainy and/or snowy, and the field was total wreck, which suited me just fine—I love watching football played in the muck!  The original opening title sequence of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” featured Tiger Stadium in Lions mode, with the massive bank of arc lights towering overhead, and whenever I see that old video, it takes me back to when I was seven and just obsessed with football in general.  I was so very disappointed to learn during their final Turkey Day game at TS in 1974 that the Lions would be moving to the sterile Silverdome in Pontiac the following year.  At least it snowed during that game—one more for the road…

Baseball, of course, was the main course at The Corner, and Detroit certainly has had its fair share of Hall of Famers and superstars on the diamond, with the likes of Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Mickey Cochrane, Mickey Lolich, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris, along with the ever-wacky Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and a guy who I think had one of the coolest names in sports history, third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez.  And everyone remembers Reggie Jackson’s mammoth home run that damn near left the stadium (but for the light tower on the right field roof) in the 1971 All-Star Game.  The Tigers’ 1968 championship season helped to ease at least some of the racial tension caused by the riots that summer, while their 1984 World Series victory over San Diego actually caused riots in the city!  Through it all, Tiger Stadium stood tall.

Like most old parks, TS had lots of goofy quirks, like the right field upper deck that actually hung over the warning track, causing some would-be fly-outs to be home runs. Dead center field was 440 feet from home plate, so if anyone hit a home run in that direction, they earned it.  There was the flagpole that was in-play in left center field, and I also loved the old-school scoreboard imbedded in the short left field wall.  Screw these new high-tech, multi-color video screens that nearly every stadium has in its outfield wall now, I say—they got no soul at all!  Another feature I always thought as cool was the bunker-like bullpen dugouts along the foul lines.  The players didn’t think quite so highly of them, though, as evidently they were beastly hot during the summer, so most of the pitchers sat around on folding chairs outside of the dugouts.  And then there were the gangplank-like concrete walkways that led to the upper deck.  Old Municipal Stadium here in K.C. had them too, as does Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and I loved looking down over the people downstairs while walking across.  Sadly, they don’t make ballparks like these anymore…

I paid my only visit to Tiger Stadium on a frigid May night (that’s right, frigid May night!) in 1991, and enjoyed what I saw.  While the concourses were a tad on the dirty side, I was surprised at how immaculate the seating areas were and impressed with the overall condition of the stadium for its age.  My thought is if they had acted then, they may well have been able to do a full-fledged renovation and preserve Tiger Stadium instead of building their fancy new (yet totally soulless) ballpark, even if it meant playing a season or two somehow in the putrid Silverdome in the interim.  One of Tiger Stadium’s final hurrahs came when it hosted the opening night of the Kiss Reunion Tour on June 28, 1996.  TS was an odd choice of venue, given that it hadn’t hosted a concert in ages, and that Kiss could’ve easily packed in twice as many people up in Pontiac, but it wound up being a smashing success and a great time was had by all.  TS closed down for good on September 26, 1999 as the Tigers beat the Royals, who also helped close down Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium in 1981.

Not long after it closed, Tiger Stadium even did a little acting, standing in for the original Yankee Stadium right field corner and dugouts in Billy Crystal’s fine film 61* about the late Roger Maris.  Workers went through and painted the seats green to resemble the old ones at the House That Ruth Built, then actually went back and restored them to their original orange and blue after filming was completed, even though they’d never be used again anyway.  The ball diamond at Tiger Stadium has also been continuously maintained since the park closed, even during its recent partial demolition.

There have been a few preservation efforts, including one called the Cochrane Plan back in the ‘90s that was fairly ambitious, except for when it came to actually financing it.  There was even talk of incorporating part of the Tiger Stadium stands into a new hockey arena for the Red Wings and developing the rest of the stadium into an office complex, but I think that’s about all it was—talk.  Sadly, what ultimately killed Tiger Stadium (besides its age) is the neighborhood it resides in, which is not exactly rife for development in the area surrounding the ballpark.  I don’t mean to prolong the stereotype that ALL of Detroit is a hell-hole—I’ve been there many times and it’s not as bad as people make it out to be—but it just didn’t make any sense to pour zillions of dollars into refurbishing a stadium that sits in an area similar to downtown Baghdad, thus we now have Comerica Park a mile away in a much more user-friendly entertainment district.

The stadium stood vacant and time ravaged it mercilessly (see above pic) until this past summer when demolition began on the left field stands.  Yet another last-ditch preservation attempt led by legendary Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell has resulted in a compromise of sorts, as the grandstand from first base to third base remains standing with the hope that it can be put back into use as either a museum or possibly even as minor league ballpark, thus we’re left with what you see in this pic.  I guess half a ballpark is better than none at all, but it sure looks weird to me.  Nevertheless, the “Field of Dreams” at The Corner was a true classic.