"Fresh As A Daisy," for Emitt Rhodes (1950-2020) 

Many years ago I recorded a cover of Emitt Rhodes’ “Fresh As A Daisy,” for possible inclusion on my solo EP Senza. It didn’t make the cut, but this mix has been sitting on a hard drive since then and wondering if it would ever see the light of day. 

I wanted to post it in honor of Emitt, a true genius of pop music who passed away this weekend at age 70. But I also wanted to tell a short story about remembering what’s important, and following the thread. 

I won’t rehash Emitt’s story here. But I do hope that he knew just how many people truly loved his work, myself included. 

Be well 

JM

 

 

SUNSET GRILL: use it or lose it 

“Ready to be my personal Pino Palladino!!!??” 

That was the text from Steve Murphy - drummer, singer, one of the finest musicians on earth and my rhythm section road brother since we joined the Alan Parsons Live Project in 2003. We’ve rocked thousands of stages together around the world and elsewhere, and after spending endless days and nights in buses and vans and planes and rental cars and hotel rooms bonding over music we share an artistic shorthand and a common musical language.  So when Murphy asks me to “be” his “Pino Palladino” I immediately know what he means: he wants a fretless bass track from me. In this case, he was doing a “video collab” cover of Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill” to keep busy during the quarona lockdown. 

 

Now: I’m sort of familiar with the chorus to “Sunset Grill,” but that’s about it. I almost know some of the verse. I don’t know the bridge at all…is there even a bridge? I know there’s a section at the end with the key change and the horn parts, because I vaguely remember somebody doing an arrangement of this tune at Berklee after Miles Davis died and quoting the melody to “All Blues” during that section. But in all my years of learning tunes I somehow bypassed “Sunset Grill.” To be honest, it was never my favorite Don Henley song (“End Of The Innocence” is). 

I also haven’t played my fretless in weeks, and god knows what condition it’s in (or what condition my fretless chops are in). But I do know that Pino Palladino’s patented, high-register fretless countermelodies are always tricky and unforgiving: there’s nowhere to hide if you screw those up. Plus I have to film myself recording the track, which means no cheating with punch-ins or edits: it’s gotta be one continuous, flawless, on-camera performance of some very challenging parts on a difficult instrument, on a song that I barely know. 

My reply was obvious and inevitable: “I’m on it!” 

I downloaded the entire Building The Perfect Beast album and slapped on the headphones to get acquainted with the tune, and right away I was lost in unfamiliar territory. First I was startled by some unexpected harmony: the tune is in Ab major, and the pre-choruses start with a bold Pino lick over a B natural chord with A natural in the bass. (Non-musicians, take my word for it: this is some wacky shit.) The pre-chorus is also 5 bars long, and on the first listen the chorus seems to come out of nowhere. Then the bridge happens (turns out that yes, there is a bridge): it’s 10 goddamn bars long, with more unpredictable chord changes. 

Back in ’03, Murphy, guitarist Godfrey Townsend, keyboardist Manny Focarazzo and I worked up the entire APLP set list in just four days of rehearsal. “Happy Together” tours were prepped with two rehearsals: one marathon session with just us at Godfrey's house, and a quick run-through with the principal artistes on the empty stage of the first venue the day before the first show. The four of us became a powerhouse band that could quickly absorb any music thrown our way and deliver it flawlessly night after night. I should be able to smoke “Sunset Grill” for breakfast. But there I was, 48 years old and literally sweating at the sound of some chord changes, a few bass licks and an unusual form. I felt completely helpless, adrift in a stormy sea of 80s synths and reverbs, with Pino’s fretless lines circling around me like tiny sharks shouting “Catch us if you can, sucker!! Ha ha ha ha!!!”

I finally asked myself: “Why is this music making me so nervous?” 

“Because it’s been months since you’ve had to learn a song accurately from start to finish, that’s why,” I answered myself. “That part of your brain that processes music has been dormant since mid-March, not unlike all the live music venues that were shut down when your industry was decimated by COVID. Take a breath, make a cup of tea, and get to work.” 

With my wife and daughter on the couch watching a movie, I retreated to the bedroom with my blue Spector Q4 Pro fretless, my Focusrite Scarlett 2-channel interface, my MacBook, a pencil and some staff paper. I started notating and erasing and hitting play-pause-rewind, and eventually I had a “road map” that made sense of everything. I picked up the fretless and plugged her into the Scarlett, and the old girl was in better shape than I expected: intonation good, neck straight so her high notes sang clean, piezo pickup in the bridge adding some sparkle. I hit record, and with Murphy’s guide track playing in the headphones I struggled through at least a dozen failed attempts to get this unorthodox part under my fingers and onto “tape,” all while filming myself with my iPhone. 

It was embarrassingly obvious that this bass line was kicking my ass. But I tried to ignore how humiliated and frustrated I was as I confronted my own limitations, and kept on.

“Hard to walk away with anything that feels like dignity…” 

My mind wandered to the LA studio where Pino and Don Henley and Danny Kortchmar and all the other musicians cut this track in the early 80s, back when full bands were still being hired to play on pop records. I thought about those cats thriving in a robust music industry, gathering and moving about freely between sessions without a deadly airborne virus to worry about, and I ignored how jealous I was of them and the easier times they lived in.

I ignored everything except the work at hand. Even though Pino cut this track in a big LA studio and I was running a MacBook in my bedroom in Brooklyn, our jobs were the same. But I finally hit the wall at 2am: my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night. 

The next day I moved the operation back to my studio area, reconnecting the Scarlett to my 27-inch iMac. I also plugged the fretless into my Aguilar TH500 head, which added some sweet color to her sound. After a good night’s sleep I’d also finally absorbed the tune, so I could focus on playing actual music without worrying about which chord or section comes next. I nailed it dead in the pocket after five takes, and sent the audio and video files off to Murphy who was thrilled and grateful. A little EQ and some chorusing got the track sitting perfectly in the mix, and the finished product can be enjoyed here: 

 

After a certain point in your life/career, there’s going to be people that you’ll almost always say “yes” to simply because you’ve known them for so long, and you trust them enough to guarantee your artistic safety. I could have easily copped out on Murphy with any number of excuses: too tired, too busy, don’t really know the song, whatever. But I’m thankful to him for the opportunity to get my gears turning again, and I’m glad I went through it to get to it. The joy and camaraderie of a great collaboration, and the satisfaction of finally getting it right, far outweighed any discomfort I confronted in the beginning. Sitting still in the safety of your “wheelhouse” can leave you with rusty wheels, and now more than ever it’s “use it or lose it” for me and my fellow musicians. 

Remember what’s important 

Be well 

JM

 

DON'T STOP THE MUSIC (quarona remix) 

I don’t always play “private event” gigs, but when I do it’s usually with these rock stars. 

I wanted our “isolation collab” video to look and feel like we’re in the same room.

So I had everyone film their performances in front of a blank background, and with a little Final Cut magic we got the band back together for your dancing and dining pleasure!

Please don't stop the music, indeed. 

Be well

JM

“Don't Stop the Music”

Written by Tor Erik Hermansen, Mikkel S. Eriksen,

Tawanna Dabney & Michael Jackson

© 2007 EMI MUSIC PUBLISHING LTD, SONY/ATV MUSIC PUBLISHING LLC,

DABNEY MUSIC PUBLISHING , SONY/ATV MUSIC PUBLISHING UK LTD, and MIJAC MUSIC
 

I Ain't Got You (but I got me!) 

First it was the cancellations. Fest For Beatles Fans…Concert For Bangladesh Revisited…Flower Power Cruise…all gone within 72 hours. Then it was the bars and restaurants closed, so no more of those mid-week “stacking” gigs I did for the hang and the grocery money. 

Then two days into the “shutdown” it was chills, body aches and fatigue, and fevers spiking to 100+ at night. Tylenol relieved my fever during the day, but my media-fueled paranoia was only relieved by a 2-day depressive episode. 

A telemedicine Dr said that since I wasn’t in any respiratory distress I should just monitor my symptoms at home. The next morning the fever went away permanently, and after another two weeks indoors my energy, focus, and the color in my face were fully restored. A second telemedicine Dr said that my wife and I “most likely had the virus or something like it,” whatever that means. 

Then Murray passed away. My stepfather had been hospitalized just before the shutdown with a severe, non-COVID illness. My mother, my sisters and I and our families gathered on Zoom with our rabbi and said prayers together, promising to celebrate his life with family and friends when gatherings are allowed again. 

It’s been almost six weeks since COVID-19 brought life as we know it to a screeching halt, and I know I’m not alone in feeling as if I’ve lived several lifetimes since then. The outside world brings both horrendous stories of infections and fatalities, and inspiring tales of brave essential workers putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good.

But the inner world of the performing artist has become a complete alternate universe, full of mind-bending existential questions and dilemmas: Who am I? What am I? What have I accomplished? Has any of it mattered? Will it ever matter again? What am I supposed to do when things get “back to normal?” 

That's the fog I was living in when my dear friend Rob Silverman texted me: “Not sure if I sent this to you before…” 

It was a video clip from last year's annual “Clapton Is Godfrey” show at the Space at Westbury, with the Godfrey Townsend Band (Godfrey, Steve Murphy and Manny Focarazzo, plus guitarist Mark Newman). Rob is a faithful GTB supporter and can always be counted on for good audience footage, and he sent me a few seconds of our rendering of The Yardbirds' "I Ain't Got You" (1965 album track). We attacked this tune with only one rehearsal at soundcheck, and I had just memorized the lyrics.   

This was a heavy gig, and a heavy season. My father-in-law had been diagnosed with leukemia a few stressful weeks earlier; I knew that making the big noise with my brothers-in-rock would be necessary therapy, and I showed up for this gig loaded for bear. My bandmates knew what was up with the family and had my back, and we hit the stage like a bomb (as we always do). I drove home that night feeling both invigorated and relaxed, a contentment that only comes after 2 hours of doing what you’re put on this earth to do. 

That was a little less than a year ago, and I’d completely forgotten about it. After six weeks of the quarantine I was convinced that I was only put on this earth to wash my hands, disinfect the groceries, wash my hands again, try to wear a mask without fogging up my glasses, and wash my hands again. 

But something magical happened as I looked at my 2019 self in the video clip: lean, strong, clean shaven with a fresh St Marks Place haircut, wielding my beloved Spector Rebop DLX 4-string and boldly fronting the mighty GTB in front of a packed house. Neural pathways that had been dormant for weeks started flowing again. The unprecedented confusion and uncertainty about my future gave way to a familiar sense of confidence and calm, and the blue monster ran off like a little bitch. 

Being a singing bassist gives you exponentially more power and control over a band, and this clip reminded me that it’s only when I’m up front with the 4-string that my brain is fully activated. I watched it several times, smiling to myself as I thought, That’s who I am. That’s who the fuck I am. 

How much longer will it be before we can raise the Goblet of Rock for a packed house again? Nobody really knows. If I had a dollar for every article I’ve read and free webinar I’ve attended since mid-March pertaining to “the music business in the age of COVID,” I’d have a hundred dollars but no answers. Nobody knows anything, and nobody should be expected to know anything because nothing like this has ever happened to us in our lifetime. 

All of us are making this shit up as we go along. And that’s okay.

But whatever you do, don’t forget who the fuck you are. 

Remember what’s important! 

Be well 

JM

Murray  

This is a blog I dreaded writing.  But it’s the most effective way that I know to organize my thoughts, so here we are.  My stepfather, Murray Becker, passed away on Sunday, April 5th from a brief but severe (non-COVID) illness.  He was less than a week shy of his 71st birthday. 

I’ve always disliked the “step-“ prefix; I have simply been gifted with four beautiful parents who made such distinctions irrelevant by their love for my sister and I, as well as the respect and friendship among the four of them.  I was not expecting to lose one of them this year, much less during a pandemic-induced quarantine.  But in this isolation I’ve somehow been finding comfort in nearly four decades of memories of Murray, and understanding what a blessing his profound impact and influence on me has been. 

I remember the weekend he moved in with us, in the spring of 1981.  With each car trip the records kept piling up in our living room: more records than I had ever seen in one place outside of Sam Goody’s!  And a lot of it was this stuff I’d never heard before: no singing, just saxophones and trumpets making up melodies with a lot of piano and ride cymbal.  But my young ears adjusted quickly to the sound of jazz.  Within a few short months I would learn so many new names: Thelonius Monk, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis.  Blue Note, Impulse, Verve.  Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil’s, Bradley’s.  Murray opened my ears and my mind to an entire cultural universe, and provided me with an early education in America’s primary export. 

But it didn’t end with jazz; I never knew what would emerge from that veritable ocean of LPs and fill our home with sound.  Taj Mahal, Captain Beefheart, Louis Prima, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Boz Scaggs, Slim Gaillard, Frank Sinatra…and any one of an impressive number of Sammy Davis Jr. LPs.  (“I don’t care what anyone says,” he’d tell me.  “He’s great!”) 
(Murray with Felix Cavaliere at a 2007 Hippiefest show.  He was a huge Rascals fan, and I was thrilled to make this meeting happen.)

Murray’s expansive, refined tastes naturally influenced my own sensibilities as a musician and a listener.  (My “Ride Jams” web series and its credo of “listen to music listen to music listen to music it’s good for you!” owes its very existence to Murray.)  But I was also learning about the importance of having a passion, and how to make room in one’s life for the things that bring the most joy. 

That passion applied to his personal relationships as well.  Murray’s friendships ran deep and seemed to last forever, and he shared his love for his people unconditionally and whole-heartedly.  What you saw was what you got with Murray, and to engage with him in a conversation was always a treat.  He didn’t do small talk: any interactions with Murray cut straight to the heart of the matter, whatever that was.  I learned so much from him about how to have a good friend, how to be a good friend, and even how to relate to women - the fellowship of his “soul sisters,” a key group of women in my parents’ inner circle, were crucial to him. 

In 1988 Murray’s passion merged with his profession, when he took on the legendary drummer Art Blakey as a law client.  The initial call was for a simple legal issue, but once the Jazz Messengers’ leader discovered Murray’s deep passion and knowledge of jazz he knew he’d found not just a good lawyer, but a uniquely trustworthy ally and friend.  Soon Murray was handling performance contracts and other Jazz Messengers business, eventually serving as de facto manager for the man known reverentially in the jazz world as “Buhaina.” 

It was an exciting time, as Murray handled the delicate balance of being thoroughly professional but also allowing himself to enjoy the odd perks.  One early morning I was leaving for school, and ran into Murray as he was pulling into the driveway after a very late night out in the city with Buhaina!  Then there was the night my sister knocked on my door and said “Art Blakey’s in our living room.”  I ran downstairs and there he was: the drummer who made his bones with Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie, who launched the careers of Wayne Shorter and Wynton Marsalis, a living link to jazz’s past, present and future, seated comfortably on our couch.  We had a lovely visit, and when Buhaina eventually rose to make his exit he turned to me and said, “Man, your dad is sooooooo…FRESH!” 

After Buhaina’s passing in October of 1990 Murray had no interest in continuing to exploit the “Blakey brand,” and after tying up a few loose legal ends the Jazz Messengers work quietly went away.  Years later as I made my own way through the music business, I would encounter hangers-on, parasites and wanna-be’s strutting around backstage at gigs expecting VIP treatment because of their long-ago flimsy connection to some big name.  But Murray never once sought any privilege or status from his work with Bu, and rarely even discussed their time together outside of the family and a few trusted friends.  I admired him greatly for this demonstration of integrity and humility, and I’m so grateful that I did not wait too long to tell him so.  He could have leveraged that gig into a lifetime of comp tickets and free drinks for himself and my mother, but that wasn’t Murray.  Attorney-client privilege notwithstanding, he simply rejected that kind of superficial attention for himself, and he despised it in others as well. 

This also taught me another life lesson, again through example: shut up and do your work to the best of your ability, and don’t believe your own hype.  Murray had no tolerance for bullshit, self-aggrandizement or unnecessary drama of any kind; he held himself, and all of us, to that high standard.  Whenever I got irrational and started to panic over something (“He’s gonna evict us!”), Murray could instantly defuse the situation: “Time out…he’s NOT going to evict you, alright? Just think for a minute.”  His steely composure, born in the streets of 1950s Brooklyn and galvanized in the lower Manhattan courtrooms of the 80s and 90s, always gave me the wherewithal to clear my head and find my own solution. 

When my mother gave me the final, grave update on Murray’s illness, I completely fell apart.  For two days I was an empty emotional shell.  I was looking for an answer.  At one point I realized that Murray was always the one to talk me down from the ledge, and I asked myself: what would he tell me right now? 

And then I heard his voice. 

“Yeah, I know this sucks…but what are you gonna do, man?  You gotta figure out how you’re gonna deal with this!  You’re a grown man, you have people depending on you…you can’t just lie there in bed crying all day!  C’mon…you’re a smart guy, you’ll figure it out.” 

From that moment forward I have been buoyed by his immovable presence, and I’m rising to meet each new day knowing that he’s still looking after me in his own way.  I am still in the early stages of my grief, and the preceding words only scratch the surface of what Murray means to me.  But my wish for all of you is to be blessed with at least one relationship in your life like this. 

If you can, call your parents right now and tell them you love them. 

And LISTEN TO MUSIC LISTEN TO MUSIC LISTEN TO MUSIC, it’s good for you! 

 

 

Be well 

JM

Radio 418 podcast: Better Days with JOEY MOLLAND  

The Liverpool-bred guitarist, singer and songwriter brought his tough, rock and roll edge when he joined Badfinger in 1969. But that legendary group is only a part of Joey Molland’s story.  He has survived the ups and downs of this business always coming up swinging and smiling, and with a new solo album in the works it was finally time to chat with my frequent tour mate (and a personal musical hero)! 

Click here to support Joey’s new solo album, produced by Mark Hudson!

Radio 418 podcast: Mark Lindsay ON the UMG Warehouse Fire 

The story of a massive 2008 fire that destroyed untold thousands of irreplaceable master tapes owned by Universal Music Group has only fully come to light this year.  As a musician AND a music lover I'm compelled to weigh in on this catastrophic blow to our culture, but not without seeking the counsel of friends and colleagues in the business.  On this episode I'm joined by Mark Lindsay, legendary vocalist from Paul Revere and the Raiders (and my frequent tour mate), who shares his unique perspective on asset management in the recording industry. 

Keep up with Mark at www.marklindsay.com

Do I Have To Do This All Over Again? (RIP Peter Tork)  

The news of Peter Tork’s passing broke yesterday afternoon, and within minutes there were tributes spreading across social media: links to Monkees songs he wrote and/or sang, photos, stories of personal encounters.  The remembrances of his colleagues paint a portrait of a kind, compassionate man with a good heart, a dedicated musician who was deeply committed to the “peace and love” ideals of the 60s. His music with The Monkees will no doubt receive some extra play in the next few days, but it’s my considered opinion that the quintessential Peter Tork moment happened in the band’s surrealistic, satirical 1968 feature film, “Head.” 

A box office bomb in its time, “Head” is now revered as one of the most innovative marriages of rock music and cinema.  The group conspired with series creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to make a film that would shatter the squeaky-clean “Monkees” image, and in doing so created a stunning visual commentary on pop culture circa 1968.  There are multiple references to the war in Vietnam, mass media, Hollywood and automation, and the cinematic rules of narrative structure are disregarded in favor of a dreamlike series of vignettes that overlap into each other. 

In one memorable sequence the group is in a canteen spouting non-sequitur dialog with a waitress; suddenly the action cuts to a boxing match between Davy Jones and Sonny Liston, followed by a dramatic scene between Davy and Annette Funicello, then more drama at the boxing match, then back to Peter and the waitress in the canteen.  (Don’t ask me to explain; just see the movie.)  After a brief exchange Peter suddenly, and without provocation, jumps up and punches the waitress and knocks her out. She stumbles backward and lands in a chair, and then we hear a voice from off screen yell “Okay, CUT!"  The waitress removes her wig, revealing herself to be a male actor in drag, and the entire sequence having been staged on a film set. 

The POV then shifts to a handheld documentary camera, capturing the chaos as the “crew” surrounds and follows Peter to prepare him for the “next scene” in the film-within-a-film.  In an exchange that seems expertly improvised, Peter confronts producer Rafelson (portraying himself) about the end of the previous scene, with palpable frustration. 

“Hey Bob, that’s not right, man.  I mean, about hitting a woman and everything.  Man, it’s about the image, it’s not right!  Bob, it’s a movie for kids, they’re not gonna dig it, man!  Think of it: the kids aren’t gonna dig it…me hitting a girl.  Especially the way I feel about violence and all that stuff, y’know?” 

As the crew scurries around him, mostly oblivious to his crisis of conscience, Rafelson dismissively tries to placate Peter and assure him that the scene will be taken out “if it doesn’t work.”  Peter snaps at Rafelson reflexively: “Well, you TELL me that, man, and it never happens!” 

This scene knocked me out the first time I saw the film (on VHS in 1988, when I was 16); I thought it was so cool the way they broke the fourth wall, and presented “behind the scenes” Monkees drama (even if it was staged).  But yesterday afternoon I watched that scene again with tears in my eyes.  The depth of the sadness, vulnerability and righteous anger that Peter conveyed in that scene was profoundly moving.  But the sentiment itself - Peter protesting the mere portrayal of violence against a woman - offered a unique window into the soul of this peaceful, principled man.  The “Peter Tork” character in the film seems to be the only one grounded with any sort of moral compass, and there was clearly some truth pervading the “acting” in that scene. 

Whether or not they were assembled by an NBC casting director, the joy and happiness that The Monkees and their music brought to millions of lives worldwide is real, alive and well.  I sincerely hope that Peter, before he left this earthly existence, knew and understood just how deeply his work and his very being touched so many people.  We were born to love one another; this is something we all need.  Thank you Peter Halsten Thorkelson, for leaving this world just a bit nicer than you found it. 

Be well 

JM

That Was Me.....?

It's the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one!

In 2004, one year after joining the Alan Parsons Live Project, I launched the first version of johnmontagna.com.  This was before the social media explosion; YouTube and Twitter were still a year away, and Facebook had only just launched.  Among my peers, I was "Future Boy" with my fancy website!  I shared photos and audio clips, blogged about my experiences on the road (and at home in NYC), sent out email blasts, and generally enjoyed the ability to "maintain a presence" with an audience beyond the bandstand.

Fast forward 12 years, and the world is a much different place.  We're all connected, all the time, thanks to multiple platforms that mostly co-exist and feed off of one another.  To quote The Guess Who: seasons change, and so did I.  And so it was time to re-boot johnmontagna.com for the times we're in now, versus a decade ago.  I welcome you to the new version of the site, and I hope you enjoy what you find here.  Check out the photos, listen to some music (and make a purchase if you're feeling generous), watch the videos, and keep up with where I'll be performing and when and with whom.

I'm as eager as ever to stay connected to you all as I enter this newest phase of my life and career.  But as I look forward, I also am looking back on the 12 years since I first launched my "online presence" with a mixture of wonder and nostalgia.  Is that really me in Tokyo with Denny Laine?  Or in Atlantic City with Todd Rundgren?  The "WTF With Marc Maron" theme song...that was ME?  

Enjoy, and thank you all for your continued support and enthusiasm.  
Be well
JM 



     
Sept. 22, 2016 TALKING BEATLES: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years ______________________________________________________________