by Trevor Moore The world of rock music is littered with early deaths. Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Nick Drake, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon to name a few. The so-called 27 Club, populated by people like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, is a popular cultural phenomenon, although claims of a statistical spike for the death of musicians at that age has been pretty comprehensively disproved by research. Genius, perhaps, comes with a price. People dying in their 20s – musicians or not – is bad news but as one gets older one’s contemporaries obviously also get older. I’d like to think that Pete Townsend still plays the guitar like he did on My Generation, but the fact is that he doesn’t. He still writes good music: the recently released I Don’t Wanna Get Wise (released 22 November 2019) is a creditable effort but it lacks the punch of The Who that I saw in the 1960s playing complete with the late Keith Moon and the late John Entwhistle. But I digress.
I am scribbling these musings because I was arrested the other day by news of the death of Russell Smith of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. He was but 70 which I regard as young enough as it is as old as I am. The Amazing Rhythm Aces are one of rock’s most under-rated bands and Russell Smith was their principal songwriter. The band is described as a blend of rock, country, blues, R&B, folk, reggae and Latino; Russell Smith was a talented enough songwriter to be comfortable in any genre. His best-known song is Third Rate Romance. The first artist to cover this was Jesse Winchester on his 1974 album Learn To Love It. In spite of the UK’s Sounds Magazine awarding the album five stars (which occasioned me to race out and buy it) the Russell Smith track was the only track on the album I liked. Waste of £3.99. But for sheer and consistently high quality you cannot go past The Amazing Rhythm Aces brilliant 1976 album Too Stuffed To Jump. This features The End Is Not In Sight and Dancing The Night Away which latter was covered by Leo Sayer (and is not to be confused with the 1977 single by The Motors of the same name). So in memory of Russell Smith listen to Too Stuffed To Jump like we used to listen to an LP: no random tracks, no skipping. Play side 1, turn it over and play side 2. Then find that other great Russell Smith song Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favourite Song). As ABBA sang in 1983: thank you for the music.
Not all rock stars die young of course; Paul MacCartney is 77 and Charlie Watts is 78 and Mick Jagger at 75 just bounced back from a heart operation. We were lucky enough to see Leonard Cohen in Sydney just before he died at the age of 82. His death was a shock as he seemed fit as a lop when we saw him. I had been a fan on Cohen’s since 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen. Here was someone who could rival Dylan in his lyrics. Who else could write (in One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong): “I showed my heart to the doctor: he said I just have to quit. Then he wrote himself a prescription, and your name was mentioned in it”?
Cohen released the album You Want It Darker less than three weeks before he died, and he was still full of material. The end of 2018 saw the publication of The Flame which is a collection of poems and writings, selected by Cohen himself, and described by The Guardian as “the last word in love and despair”.
But you cannot keep a good man down – even one who died 3 years ago. Cohen’s son Adam, himself a songwriter, has done his old man justice with the recently released Thanks for the Dance.
There are only 9 songs lasting less than 30 minutes but it’s vintage Cohen. The first track Happens to the Heart opens with the lines “I was always working steady, I never called it art. I got my shit together, meeting Christ and reading Marx.” The album is brilliantly put together from unfinished home recordings. Cohen’s genius is well showcased by musicians such as Daniel Lanois and Jennifer Warnes. Nostalgia never sounded so good: I could have been back in 1968 as I listened to the songs with my eyes closed. Good art never dies.
And good artists never give up. I say this because our old friend Neil Young (he’s only 74) has just released his 39th album. We saw him the last time he was in Sydney and he didn’t disappoint letting rip with a stunning rendition of Powderfinger: “Look out, Mama, there's a white boat coming up the river, with a big red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail. I think you'd better call John because it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail.” He also didn’t disappoint because you never know what you are going to get with Neil Young. His output is brilliant and complete crap in roughly equal measure. But he always makes you think. He doesn’t compromise with age and his new album Colorado (October 2019) doesn’t disappoint either in the sense that it is equally good and bad. He’s backed by Crazy Horse which is a band that clearly can play great rock ’n’ roll but often tries to pretend that it can’t. One link to Leonard Cohen is that the last Young album of note was 2010’s Le Noise produced by Daniel Lanois.
Colorado comes accompanied by a film. This is enough to give one the heebie-jeebies as Young has constantly tried to produce movies with almost no success. Colorado’s accompanying movie is called Mountaintop and if you have the courage you can watch the trailer on YouTube. The trailer starts with Young saying, “I want it up as loud as it will go.” As to Colorado, well it’s pretty average. It’s as if Young, who has always been socially and politically engaged, is only in it with half a heart. There are some good tracks here: the opening track Think Of Me is classic Neil Young but then on track 2 he submits us to She Showed Me Love which at over 13 minutes takes a long time to say not a lot. It’s possible that Ralph Molina (Crazy Horse’s drummer) got bored partway through as he seems to stop drumming. Eternity bounces along nicely and the closing I Do is a pleasant little ballad but at the end of listening to the album I found myself looking forward the 40th album. You just never know – there must be another Sleeps With Angels or Zuma in him. We live in hope.
End note: I am dedicating this piece to my friend Macman who is currently recovering from a procedure so interesting that he is not allowed out lest he scare the horses. He would normally expect to scare horses, of course, but at present he would scare more horses than is comfortable for his fellow human beings. He will correct errors in this piece for he is a fount of rock ‘n’ roll knowledge. You can hear him and me discussing the Moody Blues here. He is the one with the sexy voice.