Movie Review: “The Wrecking Crew,” by Denny Tedesco

The Wrecking CrewOn Monday night I went to see a screening of a really good documentary called “The Wrecking Crew,” about a group of little-known Los Angeles studio musicians who played on hundreds of hit records in the 1960s.

In a sense, The Wrecking Crew were never supposed to be the subject of a documentary, or of a book by Ken Hartman that came out this year. They were union musicians, hired to lay down tracks, and their work was never credited on singles or albums.

Which, to the record labels, made a certain kind of sense. They probably feared what the public would think if they learned that the same few dozen musicians recorded songs for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Mamas and Papas, Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers, and comprised Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew in studio. Hal Blaine is on the drums. Carol Kaye is on the left, wearing white glasses and holding a bass.

Back in the early 1960s, a lot of groups became famous before they could actually play. Wikipedia says that members of the Wrecking Crew played on the first Byrds single recording, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, because Columbia Records didn’t trust the skills of Byrd musicians except for Roger McGuinn.

At the time, no one outside of other musicians probably cared about who played what (unlike jazz stations, which often credit every musician on a track). But now it’s a great story: These guys (and Carol Kaye, a bassist) were the core of a hit factory that included scores of number-one songs, and songs that won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. (Here’s a list of the songs.)

How good were they? A New York Times review of Ken Hartman’s book has two anecdotes: Once, with only three minutes’ worth of studio time available, “they played a first-take, no-glitch version of ‘The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.’ As Roy Halee, Simon and Garfunkel’s engineer and co-producer, once said of a top Wrecking Crew bassist: ‘You never have to stop the tape because of a mistake by Joe Osborn. There just aren’t any.’”

The movie’s director, Denny Tedesco (son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco), made the movie to tell his dad’s story — Guitar Player magazine once called him the most recorded guitarist in history — and to shed a little light on the other members, such as Carol Kaye, whose credits are staggering, and drummer Hal Blaine, who played on 32 songs that reached #1.

It’s nice to see these musicians get credit for their body of work, even if it’s belated. In a sense, the movie does for The Wrecking Crew what a documentary and book did for The Funk Brothers, the nickname for a group of session musicians in Detroit, Mich. who played on many of the hit Motown records from 1959 until 1972.

Though the movie’s been well-reviewed at film festivals, the record labels want money for the songs, and that cost has delayed the movie’s release. The screenings are fundraisers, pushing the movie closer to its revenue goal. (There are upcoming screenings in Washington and California.)

I’d like to say that I heard about this documentary on an oldies radio station, or in the newspaper, or somewhere prominent. Instead, I heard about it from a fellow musician. I’m glad he told me, and now it’s my turn to pass it along.

Because this movie and these musicians are excellent, and they deserve to be well-known.

The Hot New Real Estate Trend? Guitars

Although I am a paragon of virtue 99.9% of the time, I will admit to occasional procrastination. One way I do it is looking at real estate. If I were seriously in the market for a house that would be a different story; but my material of choice is things like “Real Estate for $760,000” and similar slide shows in the New York Times.

In other words, fluff city.

This morning I happily drooled my way through a two-bedroom one-bath cabin on over five acres of rolling hills and forest in Carmel Valley, Calif., and was somewhere in the bedrooms of a three-bedroom midcentury modern house in midtown Atlanta, when I saw this:

Since I’m a musician, my first thought was, Cool! Nice guitar! But the longer I looked at it, the less sense it made. There are broke musicians whose guitars live in their bedrooms, but electric guitars require cables and tuners and picks and amps. Which is why my bass and its attendant junk live in the den.

I’m just taking a wild guess here, but I’m guessing none of those are in this bedroom (especially since the article mentions that the home owner is an architect, not a guitarist for Bon Jovi).

But hey, maybe they just pulled the guitar from another room and dropped it on the bed. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Otherwise, the bedspread in the center of the photo is pretty darned plain. Plus, all things being equal, if the owner has a cool hobby I’m more inclined to like him.

That thought lasted until the very next picture:

See the guitar on the couch? Here’s a pro tip: The one thing you never, ever want to do with a string instrument is bend its neck, since a bent neck is basically a death sentence for the instrument. Guitarist don’t put their instruments down that way. I wouldn’t even put my guitar or bass down that way to go get a cup of coffee. It’s just too easy to have someone accidentally put weight on it. I have a guitar stand next to the couch. If you have a $760,000 house and a $500 guitar, I suggest coughing up an extra $10 for a stand.

So the guitars may belong to the home owner, but what’s more likely is that the photographer (probably not a musician) is putting them in for visual interest.

All of which wouldn’t even rate a blog post, except that I hadn’t been looking at real-estate porn in a while, so I was a few slideshows behind. After I finished touring the the bargain homes, I moved on up to the ones for $1.6 million.

I was in one of the four bedrooms on the second floor of an eight-bedroom Federal-style mansion built in 1827 in Salem, Mass., when I ran across this:

Another guitar! And it has a practice amp, like someone actually plays it!

Except that again, there’s no cable. And the guitar doesn’t have whammy bar, even though it has a hole for one. And it’s sitting in the chair like a favorite teddy bear.

In other words, it’s just a prop. And a badly used one at that. So let this be a lesson to you, real estate stagers: Once I win the lottery, I am not buying a house if I see an improperly treated guitar in it.

So there.

Superman Teaches Ethics, Through Music

Let’s throw together some highly unlikely elements for a song: We’ll take a male singer with a startlingly deep voice. We’ll have him sing lyrics over a funeral dirge, complete with  lachrymose cellos. But he won’t sing about blues or heartbreak, which would sort of make sense. Instead, he’ll sing an ethical lament.

About superheroes.

As odd as that premise is, that’s the gist of “Superman’s Song” from the Crash Test Dummies. Odder still, the song works. I realize I was a philosophy major, and there’s no accounting for taste, but the song charted in the US and Canada. And its video has been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube.

Go ahead and listen while you read. It’ll be a multimedia experience!

I like the song for all its improbability, and that it uses characters from comic books and crafts something wise and moving. Instead of the Superman with the giant, gleaming pectorals and impeccable jaw naively fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way, we get this:

Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phone booths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home

In other words, it’s not always a highlight reel; it’s often a series of small, unglamorous, almost forgotten decisions to do the right thing.

A few months back I played the song for my cousin … and then time passed, events occurred, and I forgot about my Canadian-artist evangelism.

A few days ago, he sent me an email telling me he played the song for his fifth-grade class, and asked them what they thought the song’s message was. Here’s what one boy wrote:

The lesson is to live your life helping people even if you don’t get anything back. One piece of evidence is that “Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy,” but he still continued helping people and that is what you should do even if you don’t get anything for it. “And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.” But I think a lot of people can be like him even if they don’t have super powers.

If you ever wanted to know whether a song works, you can’t ask for a much clearer testament than that.

Saturday in Austin, Texas: Frosty and the Amazing One-Handed Drum Solo

Last Saturday I was in Austin, and my friend and I went to Antone’s to see a few bands. One of them was Mike Flanigin, who was groovin’ on a Hammond B-3 organ. Since I play the drums, so I sidled up close to watch Mike’s drummer, a veteran session musician named Barry “Frosty” Smith.

Frosty can play, which might explain why his discography is two pages long and includes names like Delbert McClinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Frosty also plays with his eyes closed.

Barry "Frosty" Smith playing the drums

Barry “Frosty” Smith playing the drums. My cell phone takes such bad photos, they look like they’re printed on cheap t-shirts.

So, Mike and their rhythm guitarist (I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t catch his name) do their thing, and their thing is goodly. While they power through their set, I was content to watch Frosty put on his drumming master-class from about 10 feet away.

My sometimes drum teacher Justin Matz suggests going to see drummers who are a bit better than you, because you’ll see how they fit things together. Justin’s advice didn’t really apply, because Frosty is a bit better than a bit better than me. He was doing some pretty slick things on his kit, such as playing a polyrhythm by alternating between the surface and the bell of his ride cymbal, and keeping time with both feet. But that was part of the fun.

Then came the last song of the night. Mike or the guitarist (I forget which) played the first few bars of the intro, and then Frosty was going to join in. Only just as he was about to get going, Frosty dropped a stick.

This happens when you play the drums. Unlike Animal in “The Muppets,” to be any sort of drummer you can’t clamp your sticks in a death-grip and swing your arms like windmills. To play with speed and finesse you need to hold the sticks lightly, so that they bounce off drum heads and cymbals. When you hold them lightly and your hands are moving quickly, sometimes you drop ‘em. Sometimes you drop more than one, as one of Justin’s cute young students demonstrates:

Anyhow, since drummers drop drum sticks from time to time, they have a little stick bag that they typically attach to their floor tom. Frosty, his eyes open for a change, quickly pulled out a stick, and away he went…

… Until the end of the song. When he somehow he dropped another stick.

And this is where it got really interesting. Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note — it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”

So how did Frosty cope? For some reason either didn’t have a backup stick, or couldn’t reach it because it was in the middle of the song. At this point, as the song was reaching its crescendo, Frosty’s eyes were open really wide.

He was managing to keep the beat with the stick in his left hand, but he was clearly having to rethink how he did everything. Then he switched  his one stick to his right hand to play crash, ride and hi-hat, played the snare with his left hand … and finished the drum solo.

And Mike Flanigin, his band leader, never even noticed.

Friday in Austin, Texas: Pool, Country Music, and Chicken Shit Bingo

I happened to be in Austin, Texas last weekend, which bills itself as the “Live music capital of the world.” I was visiting my friend Rob, who took me out to a local honky-tonk to hear some. We went to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.

Ginny’s is  a simple rectangle of a building with an assortment of castoff decor. The pavement under the pool table had potholes. The paint on the ceiling was pockmarked and peeling. The door to the beer closet had no lock on it. You could call it run down, beat up or dingy. It was my kinda place.

Here’s my cruddy cell phone pic of Ginny’s. Those are some genuine Beautiful People (what other kind of man wears a pink shirt?) standing near the bar. Better still, that’s an elderly couple dancing in front of the band.

We bought a couple of beers, my friend asked for quarters for the pool table. We could play for free, the bartender told us. The coin-op part was broken.

The table was tucked into a corner between the excess chairs, and a spare stage riser. For certain shots near the rail, there was no other way to get behind the ball than to park your ass on the chairs.

The table’s felt was stained, one rail was warped, and one side pocket had a hole in it wide enough to let the ball fall out the side. At one point I sunk a shot in that pocket, and my friend ran out the front door like the joint had caught fire. He returned holding the ball.

The game paused when a large bug landed on the 8 ball.

But you know, the quirks were part of the fun. We shot pool and drank beer and listened to the band.  “Peewee Moore is a self proclaimed Honkytonk/Outlaw Country Singer/Songwriter in the same vein as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and Hank Williams. He has been barnstorming around the country with his trio dubbed “Peewee Moore & The Awful Dreadful Snakes” doing an endless string of one night stands from Austin TX to you name it. “

Deep into the band’s second set, Rob said that at some point, all the trucks, hard times, whiskey and women become interchangeable components of some greater country ür-song. “Freightliner woman, you jack-knifed my heart.” “I would drown myself in whiskey but my wife used it to bathe the dog” … But I digress.

Rob also mentioned that the table we were playing on was mildly famous. It turns out that one night a week, Ginny’s puts a board over the table, and a cage of chicken wire over the board. The board is a grid, and each grid has a number. Contestants pay money to stake claim to one of the numbers.

Then the chicken comes goes in the cage and cruises around does some version of the Poultry Strut. Sooner or later, the chicken takes a shit. Whoever owns the chicken shit-besmirched square is the lucky winner of Chicken Shit Bingo. Yee haw!

(You can skip the first three minutes or so, if all you really want to see is the, um, money shot.)

The Best Thing I Overheard Today

It’s somewhat ironic how often I struggle to get out the front door to walk the dog, because there are plenty of days that that walk is the highlight of the day. Last week I saw a blue heron in the woods (you might have seen my failed attempt to take a photo of him).

This morning’s highlight wasn’t visual, though. It was auditory.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by kenschneiderusa via Flickr.

As dog and I returned to the corner near our street, a little boy with short blond hair was standing there waiting for the school bus. Walking toward him was a girl about his age.

“Hey!” he called out to her. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” she answered.

The boy pointed to some Douglas Fir trees behind a nearby home. “The birds! They’ve returned from migration.”

The girl stopped, looked in the trees, and listened to the birdsong. She said, “Cool!”

“Know why they’re so chatty today?” he said. “It’s because it’s sunny.”

I have no idea if those were actually birds freshly returned from migration, or whether they actually sing more in the sunshine. Doesn’t matter. The boy was outdoors, he noticed the birds singing, and he knew that many of them migrate, and they often come back in the spring. He shared what he knew with the girl, who appreciated it.

Damn, that made me happy.

Son of Sasquatch in the Suburbs

For a couple of years I’ve been walking my dog through a path in the woods. There’s a creek in there too, and where the path wends through it’s flat, so the creek flattens out. It’s more like a wetland, really, and it’s popular with ducks. There’s also a blue heron that comes by, when things are quiet.

I’ve been trying to get a photo of that heron for almost a year. Last May, I managed a grainy shot of the heron that’s only visible with either 1) a magnifying glass, or 2) a hearty imagination. (See “Sasquatch in the Suburbs” for previous middling photographic attempts.)

But last week on a quiet weekday morning, there he was again! But my standard-issue dog-walking equipment includes my cheap old cell phone,  not a camera with a zoom lens. So, I snapped a photo:

To assist with definitive identification, I even circled the blob heron this time. Can’t you see he’s facing to the right? Can’t you admire his noble profile? Can’t you tell I need to start bringing a better camera?

To answer your question: No, National Geographic has not called about the photo rights. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

[Insert Your Tuba Player Pickup Line Here]

These things always start kind of innocently. Today it started during the afternoon dog walk, when dog and I strolled past a home and heard the unmistakable blatting of a tuba.

I came home and immediately made some inane wise-ass remark on Twitter:

“Walked the dog past a house where someone was practicing the tuba. I didn’t know people took vows of chastity like that nowadays.”

But the Twitter hive-mind was having none of my japery. “Tubas are so hot right now!” said @janedonuts. As incontrovertible proof, she steered me to America’s foremost authority on cultural/tuba trends, The New York Times, which is reporting that ‘Tuba Raids’ Plague Schools in California.

At this very moment I can almost hear you starting to utter “What the …” so here’s the gist:

In the last few months, dozens of brass sousaphones — tubas often used in marching bands — were taken from schools in Southern California. Though the police have not made any arrests, music teachers say the thefts are motivated by the growing popularity of banda, a traditional Mexican music form in which tubas play a dominant role.

The story quotes a music teacher who says that banda used to be uncool, but now it’s cool to have a live band with a tuba, or to be a tuba player. Not only that,

As a result, sousaphones have made work in bandas more lucrative. A banda can make at least $3,000 for a night’s work at a wedding or quinceañera, said J. D. Salas, who teaches tuba at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. And the tuba player, who is often the leader of the group, usually gets the largest share.

Gimme all your lovin'

Big money! For tuba playing! (Who says it’s impossible to make a living as a musician?) Since I’m already playing three instruments that are not the tuba, I sadly admit I don’t have time or oompa-power to hoist a fourth. A shame, really, since I could have been the next version, of … well, this guy.

And two women on Twitter leapt to the sousaphone’s defense. One said, “Do not diss the tuba! Tubas are awesome!” And when I teasingly asked Jane Donuts if she’s dating a tuba player, her response was, “Not yet.”

Hmm, eh? Hmm.

But wait — in a third shockingly unforeseen event, it turns out there are tuba player pickup lines:

  1. How deep do you want me to go?
  2. In my section of the orchestra pit, we all have big brass
    ones.
  3. It’s not every day you meet a guy with a huge instrument and
    great tonguing.
  4. Wanna play Baby Elephant Walk?
  5. You’re so fine, I’d drink outta your spit valve.
  6. Stand back, I’m not sure how big this thing gets!
  7. Your lips say “oom,” but your eyes say “pah.”

[It's a good thing I don't have to try and use any of those. I just can't see the elephant one ending well. ]

Still, I’m not persuaded that tubists are now the hawtest musicians on stage. When the nation’s other revered arbiter of culture, The Onion, updates their story “Area Bass Player Fellated” to something involving a sex act and a tuba, maybe I’ll change my tune.

Facebook Outrage of the Week, etc.

For the past few months I’ve been writing for a fine literary-type site called The Nervous Breakdown. I write essays and humor and whatnot. To help share what I’ve written, I also post links to pieces on all the usual social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

But this week there’s been a catch: When I tried to post a link to my latest piece on Facebook, I got this:

Obviously this is insane. Everyone in my Facebook feed shares stuff. I’ve shared the last three things I’ve written. And The Nervous Breakdown has its own FB page … though lately it isn’t sharing stories from its site on its page either.

Yes, I think I am seeing that pop-up by mistake: Facebook’s mistake. I hope they fix it soon.

How Low Can You Go?

I had a chest cold last week, and for a day or two it gave me a deeeep voice. When I wasn’t coughing or having those lousy viral out-of-body experiences, I felt a little like Barry White, with a low rumble coming from my chest. Here’s Barry White doing his secksy voice thing. (Warning: the song lyrics are suggestive — worse, the graphics are deeply cheesy.)

As I was coughing out the remnants of my cold, I had one of those instances of news-coverage-imitating -life-imitating-art. I heard an NPR story about Decca Records, who are on the lookout for someone who can sing a low E, nearly three octaves below middle C. “The note is featured in a new piece called De Profundis (Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord — Psalm) by the Welsh composer Paul Mealor,” sez NPR.

To give you some perspective, that’s almost to the left edge of the piano keyboard, down where all the notes sound like a pissed-off T Rex. NPR even added the score, on the off-off-off chance that would help you sing it:

Just in case you’re musically inept and can’t figure out which note they’re referring to, they even circle it. As much as this amuses me, I really wish they’d added a little “Sing This” note and an arrow.

Know that we know the note is waaay the hell down there, can anyone sing it? To prove it was possible, NPR did something cool. They got back in touch with Roger Menees, the record holder for the lowest note ever sung (NPR profiled him in 2010). For him, singing that note is not even an issue — his record is and F-sharp that’s actually lower than that low E.

How low? “When Menees sang “A Little Talk With Jesus” at a church in Canada, he hit a note so low that it shattered an Electro-Voice speaker.”

Doesn’t matter if I have a cold or not. Compared to him, I sound like Mike Tyson.