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It was my good fortune to spend Memorial Day weekend 2013 in Los Angeles with family and close friends.  They are beautiful and brilliant people, kindred spirits in their collective passion for music, art and writing.  As always, our discussions turned to movies, a subject on which my knowledge is nowadays painfully and transparently deficient.  During the course of our conversations I learned that a recent favorite of theirs was a documentary titled “Searching for Sugar Man.”  The story from the film as they described it was implausible.  It was the history of an obscure American singer and songwriter who produced two albums in the early 1970’s and then completely vanished from public view.  Through a series of coincidences bordering on the miraculous, the singer, one Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit, completely unknown in America, became wildly popular in South Africa.  Rodriguez remained ignorant of his South African fame through the decades and never reaped a penny for the sale of his music in that country.  The royalties were indeed funneled to his parent recording label, but none of the cash ever found its way to the luckless artist.

The South Africans were enthralled with this performer for a number of reasons.  His tunes were powerful … haunting work wrenched from the heart of a deeply caring man with a profound sense of social justice.  His lyrics sang the story of his times, elegantly reflecting the unrest that was such a critical component of the American landscape in those days.  As much as his songs captured the spirit of the United States during that tumultuous decade, they resonated even more in South Africa.  Apartheid remained a reality there, but the cracks were beginning to show, and the South African government actively shielded the public from ideas that might potentially subvert the stability of the status quo.  Rodriquez’ music was accordingly forbidden, which made it all the more popular with the nation’s underground social activists.  Musically, Rodriguez’ work was imaginative and vibrant, to the extent that his failure to reach national fame in America remains an enduring mystery.  Legend had it that this remarkable artist disappeared precipitously from the public eye because he’d committed suicide shortly after the release of his last album.  Rumors about the specifics ranged from a bullet to the head to self-immolation onstage in mid-performance.

Finally, a dedicated music aficionado from Cape Town – the owner of the Mabu Vinyl record shop – launched a search mission for the mythical singer.  The investigator was one Stephen Segerman  … nicknamed “Sugar” not only for his synchronous name … but also by his connection with Rodriguez’ popular tune “Sugar Man,” which described the daily business of an urban drug dealer.  Sugar’s detective work not only located the legendary Rodriguez, it found him alive and in good health, still living in Detroit and working as a day laborer in the construction business.  After communications were established, Rodriguez was invited to South Africa, where he performed for thousands of fans who showered him with the respect and adulation he’d been denied over the course of the last few decades.

As coincidence would have it, I would leave the very next weekend for my first real visit to South Africa.  On the flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town I stayed awake long enough to watch “Searching for Sugar Man” on the TV screen in the seatback in front of me.  I was moved by the sequence of events – inauspiciously inaugurated by the record shop owner – that ultimately delivered this sublimely humble man to prominence in the later years of his life.  My South African friends confirmed that the tales of Rodriguez’ fame were in no way apocryphal … he was indeed on a par with Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones in their country.

Since our itinerary had us in Cape Town for three full days prior to departing for the bush, my compadre Grant and I felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to the record store that instigated the resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez.  We located the modest shop early on a cool morning.  We held no expectation of seeing the now renowned owner, “Sugar” Segerman,  but Sugar’s face was the first we saw upon entry, and a more gracious and interesting man you’ll never find.  He was kind enough to take a few minutes to educate us on the nuances of Rodriguez’ work and then he posed for a few photographs with us.   We thanked him for caring enough to be the mechanism by which a measure of respect was at last delivered to Sixto Rodriguez, and for being kind enough to welcome us so warmly to his shop.

It was impossible to walk out the door to the winter sidewalk breeze and not be cognizant that we were exiting the place where justice long deferred was at last rendered into reality.  Miracles apparently do happen from time to time … and there can be no more deserving beneficiary than Sixto Rodriguez.

Stephen Segerman ... locater of the elusive Sixto Rodriguez

Stephen Segerman … locater of the elusive Sixto Rodriguez

 

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William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

Back in the early 1980s I read a fascinating book called Blue Highways by a writer named William Least Heat Moon. It seems this pretentiously named gent’s wife had dumped him, and he’d done the only thing a person can do under those most trying circumstances. He’d hit the road in a lovelorn state in a Ford cargo van with a name as ostentatious as his own — Ghost Dancing. Blue Highways was a lovely tribute to the small towns and byways of America, but it was also a powerful and moving study of the human spirit. And it validated with the written word what music had been telling me since I was old enough to listen.

There’s no real cure that I know of for an utterly devastated heart. It’s almost as crushing as the death of a loved one, and only time can really take the edge off its misery. But I can imagine no better treatment for the pain than an extended, unplanned and meandering road trip. And based on the music I listen to, I’d say I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Over the past four or so decades there have been several tunes wrapped around this theme. I love Delaney Bramlett’s “Living On the Open Road,” … not just because Duane Allman does the guitar work on it. It’s an upbeat and compelling tribute to spiritual and physical freedom, and it retains a place of honor on my IPOD playlist. Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” is a touching and poignant ballad, certainly one of the best of the genre. Janis Joplin set the bar … and she was fortunate indeed that the subject name in the song worked equally well for a male or female singer. But there are three road songs that move me more than all the others … and they will always and forever occupy a special corner of my heart.

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

There’s something about a lost love that seems to inspire beautiful music and haunting, heartfelt, and visually powerful lyrics. Such is the case with John Hartford’s gorgeous tune “Gentle On My Mind,” most popularly delivered by Glen Campbell in 1967. The lost soul speaks to the woman he loves almost apologetically, because he can’t seem to abandon his drifting existence long enough to commit …

“It’s knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled

By forgotten words and bonds

And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

That keeps you in the backroads

By the rivers of my memory

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind”

As with so many road songs, the visuals are overwhelming. The listener can almost feel the scorching sun and feel the blowing grass along the highway.

“Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us

And some other woman crying to her mother

‘Cause she turned and I was gone

I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me ’til I’m blind

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads

By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind”

And taking time the time in a trainyard (Chicago in my mind’s eye) to feel the wrenching consequences of choosing a life without strings:

“I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’

Cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard

My beard a roughening coal pile and

A dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can

I pretend I hold you to my breast and find

That you’re waving from the backroads

By the rivers of my mem’ry

Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind”

Gentle On My Mind is an up tempo song, with a beat and chord progression that would logically form in the mind of a banjo player, which its creator, John Hartford, was and is. It is lovely, with the minor chords placed perfectly for full impact. It is a bittersweet tune, simultaneously a toe-tapper and tear jerker.

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

One of the Allman Brothers Band’s most popular tunes, Melissa, was written by Gregg Allman while he was still in his teens. The story in this song closely parallels the plot in Gentle On My Mind, with the wandering singer basking in the full glory of itinerant freedom.

“Freight trains … each car looks the same

And no one knows the gypsy’s name

No one hears his lonely sigh

There are no blankets where he lies”

But there is again a deep and pained regret, elegantly understated with a heartfelt wisdom and world-weary voice that one would not normally associate with a teen-aged songwriter:

“Crossroads … will you ever let him go?

Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?

Or will he lie beneath the clay?

And will his spirit float away?

But I know that he won’t stay …

Without Melissa”

Melissa is a classic tune that still rates frequent airtime on the oldies stations. This is entirely appropriate. Both music and message are timeless. My deep regret is that brother Duane didn’t live long enough to do the guitar work on the Eat a Peach album version. Melissa was Duane’s favorite of all his brother’s musical creations, and I can’t help but think he would have delivered a typically beautiful and majestic backing lead on it.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years.  Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years. Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia has been sung by a number of artists, and I’ve never heard it done poorly. That’s because it’s a perfect blend of haunting melody and brooding lyrics. The standard, of course, is Brook Benton’s rendition from 1970. This ballad, which is delivered in a downpour from a rail car in an unnamed Georgia town (in my mind it’s Macon), fills the head of the listener with street scenes, raindrops and loneliness.

“Neon lights flashing

Taxi cabs and buses passing through the night

A distant moaning of a train

Seems to play a sad refrain

To the night”

In the closing verse, in lines similar to those in Gentle on My Mind, Benton’s voice breaks as he remembers his love …

“Late at night

When it’s hard to rest

I hold your picture to my chest

And I feel fine”

Of all the music discussed in this essay, this version of this song is my favorite. It is in every way impeccable. The musicianship is extraordinary, the unknown guitarist simulates the descending raindrops without interfering with the soul and emotion of this incomparable singer. And Tony Joe White has penned many extraordinary tunes, but this one must surely be his finest.

For me, these songs beautifully capture heartache, loss and the eternal conflict between love and freedom of the human spirit … and they deliver an unforgettable message from the depths of the tortured soul. And they gracefully illustrate the natural, painful and undeniable connection between the heart and the highway.

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It was my privilege to catch the Derek Trucks Band concert at the National in Richmond last evening. Those two hours confirmed my opinion that Derek is a once-in-a-generation talent. The Band played several of my favorite tunes, including “I’ll Find My Way,” “Greensleeves,” “Key to the Highway” and the one that far and away gets the most hits on my IPOD, “Mahjoun.” The DTB has great chemistry and many influences … not only American blues and jazz, but there are also strong hints of West Africa and even India from time to time.

Derek’s craftsmanship is impeccable. He seems to play slide about 70% of the time now. It must be difficult for those who’ve never tried it to comprehend how challenging this style can be. Playing the usual way, as long as the finger depresses the string anywhere within the confines of the fret, the note will ring true. This is different than playing with the slide bottle, which must be placed very precisely on the string above the fret to ensure an accurate sound. This is increasingly tough as you work your way up the neck where the frets get progressively closer together. Even more difficult is what I refer to as “string management.” On a Gibson guitar with hot pickups and a cranked amplifier, it’s so easy for miscellaneous string noise to creep through. The bottle is almost always touching strings that the guitarist isn’t actually “playing” with the right hand. The challenge is to deaden those strings to prevent them from getting in the way of the music. Not easy.

Describing Derek Trucks, I once heard a music critic on National Public Radio say that as you listen, “you don’t have to be an expert to know that something striking is happening.” That’s for damn sure. Before I left for the concert I found a youtube interview clip with Dickey Betts (formerly with the Allman Brothers Band) responding to a sacrilegious quote from Butch Trucks (ABB percussionist and uncle of Derek Trucks), who said that “technically, Derek Trucks is a better guitarist than Duane Allman.” Dickey noted that the comparison was “apples and oranges,” because both were great players and innovators … they just come from different eras and origins. And besides, he says, music is not a competition, certainly not in this instance … if it were, everyone would be a well-deserved winner.

I suspect that both Butch and Dickey were correct in their respective analyses. I think Derek spent many hours as a budding musician listening to Duane, who passed away a decade or so before Derek was even born. I further deduce that he is as indebted to Duane as any musician has ever been to a mentor or role model. But Derek Trucks is about as original as a musician can be in this day and time. He is a product of his influences, to be sure, but nobody has ever come close to generating the sounds that Derek extracts from the instrument. The operative word in Butch’s comment was “technically.” By that I think he meant that Derek can physically play notes, chords, etc. that Duane could not play. I think this is irrefutably true … but let’s allow for the fact that Derek had more hours on slide by the time he was 15 years old than Duane had at his death.

Duane’s magic is harder to define. Although he only lived to age 24, he played with great taste, spirit and maturity. He didn’t fall into the trap of self-indulgence that so many young guitarists fall prey to. A few years back, Rolling Stone listed the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (ignoring the jazz greats through history, but including all other genres … typically idiotic Rolling Stone logic), and they placed Jimi Hendrix at the top with Duane Allman in the number two position. This is not unreasonable, but it is arguable … and I’ll argue it right now. Hendrix was a great innovator and a great player, and could have been the premier blues player of all time had he lived and focused. But while he was setting his Stratocaster on fire and waving his feather boa, Duane Allman was making music … with fire, soul and intensity. In my estimation, Duane was the better player. (For perspective, I should mention that the whole Rolling Stone list is absurd … Derek Trucks is ranked 81st behind virtuosos like John Fogerty, Joni Mitchell and Jerry Miller of Moby Grape.)

Duane Allman died in October of 1971 and I ain’t over it yet. I never saw him play live and I’ve always regretted that very deeply. But Derek represents the here and now. I’m thankful for it, and won’t miss a show if it’s within a half-day’s drive.

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