Friday, October 7, 2016

#61 Muddy Waters Woodstock Album

McKinley Morganfield A.K.A. Muddy Waters is a member of a select group of artists who are responsible for so many important contributions to post-war American popular music that the books, periodicals, and personal testimonials should easily occupy its own section of a music library.  Most people are unaware that Waters music is often found embedded in the soundtrack of our lives by way of big budget movies, television soundtracks. In addition, his songs are regularly sampled to promote everything from jeans, and trucks, to soft drinks. It is surprising someone hasn't used to use his Mannish Boy to promote erectile disfunction medication.   

In addition, there are more subtle signs of his influence. Listen for the host of references to his memory in songs like Come Together by the Beatles to Led Zeppelin's borrowing of You Need Love to compose Whole Lotta Love, or Van Morrison's Cleaning Windows, and then Bob Dylan's adaptation of Rollin' and Tumblin'.  Even in 2016 there are many mainstream artists who employ a Waters song in their concert setlist.  One of the originators of the genre of music we now call Americana music, Robbie Robertson, calls Waters as a cornerstone in Rock and Roll History.

So, what is the attraction of Muddy Waters to so many people who create the soundtrack of our lives? When you dig deeper and listen to these artists describe their first experiences with Waters' music it is often like listening to someone tell you about their first fleeting glance of a naked woman, or a bloody automobile accident where there were too frightened to stare, but too transfixed to look away. Yes, the experience seems to be that powerful.

However, this type of legacy is never the product of just the artist. There is always a fraternity of the devoted who feel compelled to keep the memories active. While the facts of Waters contributions are documented, the people he is beholden to that are not always as obvious.    

Let's briefly look at the facts of Waters contributions. The most creative part of his more than three decade long career is the ten years starting in the late forties. During this period he writes, and performs a string of top ten blues hits that established him as the reigning king of postwar Chicago Blues. However, by the end of the fifties, the growth of his mostly African-American audience has stagnating, and the children of his fan base are rejecting the antiquated music of their parents in favor of young artists such as Ray Charles and Charles Brown. This dynamic should be a signal for Waters to exit centre stage, and accept a slow descent into obscurity, but it doesn't happen. Instead. there are a series of unforeseen events will keep his profile alive for the rest of his life. 

The first is the American Folk Revival of the 1950s. The revival begins during the second world war in Greenwich Village, and over the next ten years spreads throughout the United States, up into Canada, and across the Atlantic to Britain. In 1958, promoters attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the revival by hosting a tour of Britain with American blues artists, one of whom is Waters. Unfortunately, his set does not win many accolades by critics, or many fans who seem to have a limited knowledge of the progressive nature of Chicago blues. Many of them cling to an archaic, racist image of aging, undereducated, Negroes who wear dirty overalls, and strum a worn acoustic guitar while they sing their songs of hardship. (They can thank John Hammond sr. for that image) Now contrast this image with an immaculately dressed Muddy Waters, boasting carefully coiffed processed hair, and using only electric instrumentation. He is being sincere, but his audience doesn't want truth, they demand fiction. Consequently, many of his performances become like victims of a shallow cultural tourism cruise ruined because of a food poisoning outbreak. It is a devastating tour for the great bluesman and returns to Chicago feeling the pinch of frustration from the unfair rejection. 

However, the British tour isn't a complete failure. Ironically, even though his performances seem to annoy the stuffy older audiences, they do capture the imaginations of many young people. The new music of these people is the electric blues based Rock and Roll, which old people consider loud, unruly, just like Waters' music. Many of these young males are so transfixed by the music of the Muddy Waters that they begin to develop a life long relationship with his music.

Two members of this growing gang of young Waters converts are adolescents Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They are mesmerized with the back beat, the searing slide guitar, and primal vocal performances. In fact, during the late fifties, Jagger and Richards are becoming members of an exclusive brotherhood of British blues fans who fall in love Chicago blues produced on the Chess label, and their  favorite is
Muddy Waters. They collect imported blues records, congregate in each other's houses, and learn each song -  lick for lick. Then form a rock combo, christening with  a Muddy Waters song, Rollin' Stone. By the early sixties, their fresh faced brand of blues becomes so popular in Britain that record labels offer them contracts, albums are recorded, and promoters decide to export the new music back to the United States. It seems like an odd dynamic, but as Irish singer and actor Maureen O'Hara says... that's showbiz.

Then, The Rolling Stones make their first tour of the United States with throngs of screaming adolescent girls and rebellious boys greeting them at the airport. It is exciting for the young rock and rollers, but it will also be an opportunity for them to visit the birth place of the music they love so much. When they arrive in Chicago, they make a point of touring the Chess studios, and meeting some labels stars, many of whom are not familiar with the white foreigners with long hair. The music press pepper the group with questions about their musical influences, but they don't get answers they expect. Instead, they are shocked to hear the boys, lead by Jagger, passionately regale the influences of homegrown talent like Muddy Waters. It will be the first time that Muddy Waters' name and music are promoted to a young mainstream pop audience. However, there is a sad postscript to this development in the great bluesman's career. Years later, he will confide that attention by Jagger boosted the profile of his name into the mainstream, but did little to enhance his back account, He stole my music, but gave me my name.

There is an interesting irony in this corner of the Muddy Waters story. While many in middle class white America are surprised, maybe even a little bewildered that the main influence on this wild rock music that their children are listening to is rooted in African-American folk music, this fact it is not lost on a fraternity of young American folkies who have been listening to Waters for years.  Actually, there is a growing brotherhood of these young white American kids who love post war blues, and in particular Muddy Waters. In fact they are just as passionate Jagger and Richards, and liver right in the city of Chicago. It is a relatively small group of converts who not only know of Muddy Waters' records, they regularly attend his shows in local bars. 

The middle income, mostly white neighborhood of Hyde Park is an oddity in Chicago because it also rests in the middle of Chicago's south side ghetto neighborhoods where most of the postwar urban blues is born, nurtured and and is part of the fabric of the community. There are several artists who routinely hold court in these south side bars, but the king is Muddy Waters. Two of the first members of young coterie who cross over from Hyde Park into these dangerous ghetto blues bars is Nick Nick the Greek Gravenites, and his younger side kick Paul Butterfield. Like so many other young whites who have a front row seat, they too are transfixed by the grandmaster.

It is important to note here that the experiences Gravenites, and Butterfield and others in their circle have with blues, in particular, Muddy Waters, is distinct from blues converts like Jagger and Richards. While those Britons sit in the safety of their bedrooms, listening to professionally produced recording sessions of Waters, Butterfield and his gang are hearing and watching real blues in its natural habitat.

The now familiar story is that Gravenites takes Butterfield to see Muddy Waters for the first time at Smitty's Corner on 35th and Indiana. For 18 year old Butterfield, it's as though he is entering into the temple of carnal knowledge, and unwittingly locks eyes with the grand shaman as he stands on a stage unrepentantly boasting of his secret powers. It's an event which changes Butterfield's life forever, and will benefit Waters a decade later.  In November of '73, Butterfield remembers that night when he tells Rolling Stone's Josh Mills: The best blues singer I ever saw live was Muddy Waters, and he had 'em dancin' on the tables, he was doing Mannish Boy. I don't know why I remember that, but he knocked me out. He just killed me. It was all over..... the music really got to me, he said with a sigh. Butterfield's experience is similar to many other young men in Chicago who witness Waters live, but there is a difference. Butterfield is in fact a gifted musician and knows the value of a great teacher. After seeing Waters perform, he makes it his goal to learn to recreate the magic of the blues from some of the masters of the art form.  

Among the growing entourage of young men who are frequent the south side clubs to see Muddy is a gifted physics student from the University of Chicago. Like his new friend, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop has fallen under the spell of Muddy Waters too. He remembers some of those performances with Muddy life for their spectacle , ... you know sometimes before the show, he'd go back in the bench room, and stick a coke bottle down his pants... He would be up there and sweating profusely. and Spann was playing that great piano, and Pat Hare played guitar, and they would just get worked up to a pitch, and people would be crowded around the front.... it was mostly women, and they would be going nuts. He worked them into a lather.... For these young men in their sexual prime, it isn't just the music, but the performances that are so captivating too. Similar to Butterfield, Bishop's life will change after seeing Waters ply his craft in the local bars. He too will choose to become a bluesman,  and evolve into a very skilled composer of blues songs.  

As the sixties begin Butterfield is now frequenting several of the south side bars, networking with musicians, and soaking up the atmosphere the music generates. He regularly does face time with masters like Little Walter, Otis Rush, James Cotton, and the grandmaster Muddy Waters. On one of these nights a nervous, but determined Butterfield accepts a dare from friends, and asks Waters if he can sit in with his band. Always looking for new ways to keep his audience interested, he invites the young white boy up to share his stage. As Butterfield recalls, When I couldn't even play, y'know, I was just blowin' on the harp tryin' to hit things. I was singin' and having a good time doin' it, but I wasn't too good. Muddy use to let me come up and play when I was just 16 or 17 years old. He would let me  come up and play, just a really nice thing y'know. That'll really teach you, that'll really get you playin'. Keep in mind that Butterfield  has a few years of formal training on classical flute, something most bluesmen do not possess, so he isn't intimidated by the music. So, probably one of lessons that leaves the deepest impression Butterfield is the gracious generosity a teacher gives to his student, something he too will model later in his career.

Almost a decade after these nights Butterfield has become a respected bluesman with following larger than anything Waters ever experiences. As an act of gratitude toward Waters, he and guitar hero Mike Bloomfield approach Chess Records owner Marshall Chess with the idea of recording a concept album with Waters called Fathers and Sons. The album will be an attempt to recreate the excitement the two younger blues men remember from their first experiences with Muddy in the late fifties. The project idea is accepted, the album is recorded over a couple days in April of '69, then a promotional concert is performed. Chess releases the double album in August and Waters watches it catapult up the mainstream charts to peak at #70. The critically acclaimed album is Waters' biggest selling album to date, and exposes his music to an even wider audience than Jagger and Richards do in 1964. Keep in mind that Blues has not been a big seller since the early decade of the century and neither is Muddy Waters for that matter. So, the fact that two stars of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield's magnitude take time from their career to record with the bluesman is a testament to their respect for him.

You don't read too many negative opinions or anecdotes about Muddy Waters from any of the largely white musicians who get to know him. He is a frequently identified to as being regal, stately, intelligent, generous with his time, and generally a kind soul. His reputation is repeated enough times that even musicians who have never meet him want to get close to him.

One of these people is Levon Helm. His performances as a drummer and singer with the rock band, the Band earn him the love and respect of fans, as well as many of the greatest artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. Artists such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and so many more sing the praises of Helm. In the seventies,  Paul Butterfield counts him as a friend, and neighbor in Woodstock, and also points to him as the best drummer I have every played with. However, Helm is a humble about his talents, preferring to see himself as an artisan rather than artist. This attitude will serve him well when the Band begins to dissolve in 1975, and he is faced with the prospect of a grueling life on the road as a former rock star. Instead, he decides to go into the music production business with a former colleague, the successful songwriter, producer and record executive, Henry Glover.  

It is a good partnership coupling as both have skills which can complement each other's goal. Helm will contribute his knowledge and contacts in the music industry of the 1970s, and Glover will serve up his experience in studio and boardroom. During the 50s Glover writes, arranges, produces some of the biggest hits of the decade. Artists such as James Brown (I Love You, Yes I Do ) Merle Haggard (Blues Stay Away From Me) and Ray Charles' fourth number one hit, 1956s Drown in My Own Tears, owe much of their success to Henry Glover. (He will also  the first black record executives in the U.S.) Helm and Glover will call their production company RCO (Our Company), and on Glover's recommendation, their first project will be an attempt to recapture the excitement 1950s Muddy Waters era. They will call the album The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album.

There is an unforeseen hurdle though. Waters' label, Chess Records is in the process of going out of business, they also consider the 62 year old blues singer well past his better earning years, so they reluctantly offer RCO a very small advance for the project. Helm remembers, I got a 12 thousand dollar advance (about 50k in 2016 dollars) from the record company in early '75. which helped pay the plumbing bill for my barn. Muddy came to Woodstock in February. He brought along Pinetop Perkins and his regular guitarist Bob Margolin. Money is always a problem for recording artists, and it usually deepens as their career ages. The fact is that even if they make a lot of money for managers, and record labels in their heyday, once the audience begins to dwindle, so does the monetary support. By 1975, Muddy Waters commands a lot of respect from critics and artists alike, but very little from the industry. So, while the idea of an album with Muddy Waters might seem a sure bet to a 2016 reader, in 1975, it is a project most people are unwilling accept.  

Since the central goal of the album is to recreate the excitement Waters creates two decades earlier, they duplicate as much as possible. It will be a live-in-the studio experience found on the Chess recordings, but recorded inside the converted chestnut-timbered barn on the Turtle Creek Farm which has become Bearsville Studios. As Helm recalls, they even use a transistorized German mike. After we made sure he had a big Norman microphone to sing in, so we had his voice covered. Of, then there is the issue of the harmonica. Remember, every important blues harmonica player of the fifties and sixties comes out of a Waters band, so Butterfield using a Green Bullet microphone is the obvious choice for this role.

The personnel on the album will be special too. The studio band will be made up of a combination of the musicians who know Waters' music intimately such as his longtime friend and piano player Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins plus guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, andthen his touring guitarist Bob Margolin. However, there will also be some serious star power brought in with a very accomplished frontline made up of the best in Americana music. The Band's Garth Hudson will handle keyboards, saxophone & accordion, while Nashville's complete guitarist Fred Carter will there with Howard Johnson on saxophone. The principal soloist for these sessions is someone who knows Muddy's music intimately, and in 1975 is the reigning king of blues harmonica,  Paul Butterfield.

Excuse this minor digression here but, an often overlooked contribution of Muddy Waters to postwar urban blues is the electric harmonica. Many think his consistent use of the instrument is mainly because of the success Walter Jacobs earns in while in his band, but there is another reason too. He is an accomplished harmonica player himself so using the instrument as identifying feature of his music is understandable.  In addition, it should be noted that not only is Paul Butterfield an important member of the studio band, but he really does shine on every track. However, he does some really exceptional work on Goin' Down Main Street and the Let the Good Times Roll. You will hear Butterfield at his absolute best as a blues harmonica player. There is no other blues harp player who out shines him in the mid-seventies, and yes, that even includes Magic Dick. Do I sound biased?

Unlike the music of the Band or Better Days this set of tunes is The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album is not diverse enough to for a listener to consider it as roots music in its purest form. It is a collection of mostly Chicago blues with five songs composed by Waters, a couple of Louis Jordan R&B classics, Let the Good Times Roll, Caldonia and then a cover Wilbert Harrison's version of Kansas City. The only new song which fits into the roots genre is Bobby Charles' Why Do People Act Like That? (Butterfield will make it part of his concert set list in the 80s, and in '85 perform it on Late Night with David Letterman.)

The recording sessions only take two days which is unusual for blues album, (Sonny Boy Williamson often records a whole album in less than a day), but the town of Woodstock does not want visiting blues royalty to leave without some appropriate ceremony. Two hundred of the locals show up in the town square, on that Valentine's Day in 1975 to show their love for the visiting dignitary. Then the mayor pronounces it Muddy Waters Day, and the 62 year old bluesman, looking very dignified in his fashionable overcoat accepts the keys to the town. It is a memorable experience for everyone associated with the event.

In the end, the first RCO project is a success because it wins favorable reviews from most critics, and then a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, but it is not a financial success. There are few reasons for this unfortunate outcome, Muddy has given 27 years to Chess Records, but by the time the album is on store shelves, the label is collapsing, so the crucial promotional campaign is a failure. Another factor is that Waters cannot afford to sustain a tour with the high profile principals from the studio band. It would bring him much needed recognition and money, but they all have other commitments, and cannot afford to tour the smaller clubs.  

Probably the most high profile promotion that Waters receives for his album is when he is asked by Levon Helm to appear in the Band's rockumentary The Last Waltz. Concert producer Robbie Robertson asks Waters to perform his 1956 hit Forty Days, Forty Nights in addition to Caldonia, but Butterfield interjects, emphatically insisting that Muddy Waters performing Mannish Boy is an experience everyone will remember. The great bluesman does not disappoint either. He mesmerizes the crowd for an impressive six minutes with his one chord opus. It is still a highlight of the film.

There is a bright postscript to this story. While Waters is creating his magic at Chess during the fifties, there is young albino teen down in Texas who becomes transfixed by Waters music pouring out of his little radio. He goes to bed at night dreaming of playing the grandmaster in his future. The dream comes true for bluesman Johnny Winter when he negotiates a contract on behalf of Muddy with Steve Paul's label Blues Sky in the mid seventies. Like so many producers before him, Winter will attempt to recapture the Muddy Waters sound of the 1950s. When listening to the playback of the first album Winter produces, Hard Again  Waters announces to everyone that he likes it so much, it makes my pee-pee hard again. Winter will produce two more albums for the master, all of which win Grammys, bringing Muddy Waters his most financial success, and critical acclaim that the cornerstone of Rock and Roll deserves. 


Friday, September 30, 2016

# 60 Paul Butterfield's Darker Days Part 3

When Better Days returns from their successful tour they are tired, but energized. Their leader is an exception though, he is a noticeably changed man.  His mental health is faltering, he is complaining more, and even more cynical about the music industry than when he left Woodstock.  He is now questioning his career choices, and even his profile as an accomplished harmonica player. Butterfield just wants to sit, commiserate, get high, and write songs on the piano. He is also now practicing a daily regime of self-medication with tequila, cocaine, pot, beer and by some accounts, heroin.

There is an ongoing debate about what we as a society choose to blame for our addictions. One camp prefers to think of addiction as a genetically motivated disease. This seems to be the most popular explanation in 2016. Then there are those who believe that addictions are the result of external environmental triggers brought on by poor coping skills. Neither theory is supported with conclusive evidence, but to this writer, the later seem most probable. Consequently, it seems more likely that Butterfield's worsening addiction is a result of his inability to cope with career and lifestyle stress.

The social environment in Woodstock of the mid-seventies is changing too. While it isn't the primary cause of Butterfield's worsening addictions, it does seem to exasperate his condition. One contributing factor is the social dynamic of Grossman's stable of musicians which is becoming more openly dysfunctional with substance abuse as a growing issue. Another important contributor is the recent international media attention that the 1969 festival attracts. The success of the festival turns the little town, and its small colony of artists into a tourist destination, akin to a back to country Disneyland. People are no longer just pass through; they are now making picture taking pilgrimages to observe the hippies in their natural habitat. This new reality is so disruptive that it is quite possibly a cause for high profile artists like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to pack up, and relocate to quieter surroundings.  

Paul Butterfield's Woodstock is now an incestuous community of pop artists with varying degrees of success who hang out in the local bars, consume copious quantities of drugs which are supplied by a growing tribe of hangers on, and drug peddlers. Chris Parker remembers, By that time it (Bearsville Records)had too many kinds of artists, and not enough budget. There was also a lot of peer pressure among the artists, like who got the Mercedes, and was treated based on record sales, or was it based on who could manipulate Albert to their advantage. It is in the midst of this environment that the now emotionally vulnerable Butterfield is expected to maintain his band, compose new material, and then prepare to go back out on the road.  

Then there is the boredom. In spite of the rock star fantasy promoted by the industry advertising machine, musicians adhere to a fairly standard business model. They are basically traveling salespeople who spend most of their time out on the road in search of marketing opportunities. There are exceptions to the rules of the game i.e. The Beatles, but they are a rare exception, most slog it out on the circuit to earn their pay cheques. (This dynamic is even more common in the modern world of free downloading)  So, for many of the musicians coming back to the quiet town of 2500 in Catskills it is a nice retreat from the road, but can become like a secluded mining town where there is lots of money available, but the only way to dull the boredom is to spend all your cash on gambling, women, drugs.

Like so many other people in the sixties, Butterfield  experiments with psychedelics, but he is
primarily a beer, pot, and tobacco user. Remember, the bandleaders who Butterfield looks to for guidance in the early sixties are tough Southside bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. These leaders barked orders, and would often fine musicians for appearing on stage under the influence. Butterfield isn't that strict, but definitely discourages his members, and particularly young musicians like Chris Parker from getting involved with drugs. However, that was then, this is now. After the first Better Days tour, Butterfield doesn't seem to care anymore. Back in Woodstock, he teams up with other heavy substance abusers like Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Bobby Charles and  continues his self destruction. In the early 90s, that writer Bill Flanagan dubbs Danko, Manuel and Butterfield as the Chemical Roulette Trio with hyperactive, fidgety Danko as the leader.

It isn't all bad news for the Woodstock music scene though. Keep in mind, during the late sixties, and into the early seventies the best of Americana music, lead by both the Band and Paul Butterfield's Better Days is being created in Woodstock. (Ironically the Band is actually four fifths Canadian.) While Woodstock is still a cauldron of creative energy, it isn't nirvana. There are bloated egos, lots of money, power struggles, and their by-product, petty cliquishness. Many insiders consider the worst culprit to be substance abuse, which is escalating. Geoff Muldaur remembers, There were so many personal melodramas going in Woodstock. Here was this idyllic country setting and then evil naughty drugs got hold of it. Everyone used to smoke pot, but here was this nice white powder that supposedly helped you stay up longer so you could rehearse longer and do longer session. And pretty soon these happy, healthy people, who've composting and growing organic produce in their back yards and all, are offsetting that with large mixtures of blow and tequila every night. Woodstock devolved from a place where everyone was happy in the country living with their wives and having dinner parties, to a bad boys club. All the guys would say, "I'm off to rehearsal," and there was all this blow and hanging out at Deanies's and the Joyous Lake. But "I'm sure it wasn't any different  than what was going on everywhere else in America, just a microcosm of America's drug use. It is interesting to consider that only a couple of years earlier, Butterfield probably would be capable of participating in this environment, but still be able to maintain his composure. However, now, he is so vulnerable, it will almost consume him.  

It takes an fortified sense of self to stand up in front of crowds of thousands of people and expose
your deepest emotions, even if when you hide behind your instrument. So, to lose this important attribute is to become hollow and weak. During the first Better Days tour it becomes apparent to his band that he is even questioning his identity as a musician. Amos Garrett tells Butterfield chronicler Tom Ellis,  We talked about this many times, especially in the studio. Paul was getting away from the harmonica then something that didn't necessarily please any of us. He told me that he had just sort of hit a dead end with the harmonica. At the live gigs you'd never know it - he would still do his solo on Too Many Drivers and could always work a crowd into a frenzy with 15 minutes of playing, first unamplified then at the vocal mic., then through the twin reverb. But Paul was trying to get into more songwriting and playing the piano, into composition more than anything else. He told me once, 'I've got nowhere to go on the harmonica now - this is just as much as you can play on it,' Like a lot of harmonica players, he had an ego the size of a truck, but you know, he deserved it. At the times he was the best, bar none. But the harmonica didn't seem to excite him much.
  He loved Better Days because it was getting him away from the 12 bar thing. He especially loved the New Orleans stuff. He was very influenced by everyone in the band, especially because it was such an odd combination of musicians and brought so many new influences to him. But he wasn't picky about playing a solo on any particular song, and sometimes we had to urge him to play. This may be the tipping point for him. It is an important development because among his many skills on and off the stage, the excitement he can generates with his diatonic harmonica pivotal to his success. It is also his belief in the music that propels his reputation as the greatest blues harmonica player alive. Removing this sense of belief is as disastrous as pulling a cotter pin from a wheel axle.   

Many followers of Jungian psychology believe that the root of neurosis is an attempt to conceal a lie deep within yourself: avoidance of the truth generates all the negative behaviors that are bubbling on the surface. It is possible that many of the fundamental questions Butterfield is asking himself are bubbling up to the surface which are manifesting themselves in his public behavior. There are plenty of stories about him becoming both verbally and physically aggressive with people who dare approach him when he is intoxicated, but by the mid-seventies, these episodes are becoming more frequent and random. Paul Butterfield is now developing a reputation as angry drunk

His drinkin' buddies tend to be Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Bobby Charles. The four live in a adolescent fantasy world where the roles of their movie heroes are taken as reality, and no one is more devoted than Butterfield. They see themselves as tough guys in the tradition of  former Woodstock resident, and Hollywood tough guy legend Lee Marvin. As singer songwriter Robbie Dupree tells author Barney Hoskyns....... we were in the Espresso one night, and my bass player Greg Jackson, was awestruck. He told Butterfield  he's seen him play in Central Park but said the sound man hadn't done a good job. And for that he got a smack .... right in the face.... They were drunk and liked to think of themselves as tough guys, so I said, 'Go to Kingston- there's a whole town to fight down there. It is a typical behavior that alcoholics demonstrate in public. They are calm, likable people when sober, but when drunk they unleash an inner visceral anger. As his alcoholism becomes more obvious, similar outbursts are more frequent, and no its no solace for his family to know that he is also storing guns in the attic of his Wittenberg home.

As Better Days begins recording the karmic titled, It All Comes Back, Butterfield's quest for self destruction with drugs is worsening. He is feeling lost, isolated and frustrated. His long time friend and protégé Maria Muldaur remembers visiting him on a cold winter nights to find him sitting in his Wittenberg Road home alone, banging away on an out of tune piano. And Graham Blackburn remembers that The only thing that kept him together was his wife Kathy,; I don't know why he was out of control, other than that he was a basic inner-city Chicago kid. In modern parlance we might interpret Butterfield's behavior as a nervous breakdown, or at very least, behavior which demands professional attention, but most people seem to just turn their heads.

The recording of It All Comes Back is fraught with problems too. There are the drug issues, personnel problems, but the biggest problem is the mental health of the leader. He doesn't want to tour, he is using coke more often, and is regularly intoxicated, but his most severe handicap is his unwillingness to learn new material. As Ronnie Barron remembers, Paul had been spending more and more time with Bobby Charles,.... Paul learned these songs early, and without a lot of distractions; he didn't learn new songs real quickly ...., Paul had a lot of personal conflicts, and he didn't seem to want to sit down and work hard on new things. It was like he wanted to play around, and only do that he wanted to do.
Considering, it is only three years since he composes and performs quite innovative jazz/rock instrumentals harmonica, these are significant changes in a very brief period of time.

By the time It All Comes Back is being placed on store shelves in December of '73, a second tour is underway, but it isn't as successful as previous
one. Butterfield now has a full blown substance abuse problem, and it is showing in the performance reviews. He is showing up on stage drunk, audiences are yelling their disapproval at him, but he doesn't seem to care. He is also developing a suspicious streak as he shows in this interview with Laurel Dann of Circular magazine, Just what kind of information did you want? he'll ask politely, displaying almost imperceptible discomfort. He'll explain, You've  got to be careful with people, there are people that I look at, and know that I don't want anything to do with them. I can almost always tell when someone wants to take something from me but won't give anything back. No," he answers a question he's asking himself, "I don't feel that everyone who talks to me is looking for something, Some of the love you, but I never look for or expect that.   

Another example of the band's loss of direction is shown as they tour Canada. In early January of 1974, they are playing in the opera of Canada's National Arts Centre with the band personnel still intact, but Rod Hicks substituting for Billy Rich. They open up with an extended version of Too Many Drivers, Hicks performs one of his manic bass solos with Butterfield interjecting good natured jeering, and harmonica fills. The band is in good form, but their leader seems out of sync. He drinks beer, smokes incessantly throughout the performance, while constantly removing, and putting on his leather jacket, as he wobbles around the stage. Highlights of the show are the unexpected Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and then the master standing at the edge of the stage singing If You Live with no accompaniment. But the critics are not impressed with the once great Paul Butterfield. The review the headline in the entertainment section is Butterfield has had Better Days.

As his mental state continues to deteriorate, the band dynamics are becoming strained as well. As Muldaur remembers that Butterfield could be a handful even before the concert, I finally had to stay away from him before a gig because he would complain about so many things that by the time I played, I'd be first of all half drunk and exhausted because of I was worrying about everything with him...... There was a musical; evolution, but also a character devolution, says Muldaur. That's the sadness of some of this era. The album had too much cocaine on it. There were people who seemed to be able to handle coke, but maybe they didn't do it the way we did it. Muldaur will be one of the first to leave the band while they are on tour, sighting band issues, but he is also preparing to leave Woodstock for Martha's Vineyard with Jim Rooney's wife in tow.

One of Butterfield's most powerful skills is his competitive cut throat spirit, but even that is taking on nasty overtones. Rather than attempting to outwit a stronger opponent he begins seeking out opportunities to dominate people who are less able to defend themselves. As Geoff Muldaur remembers, We went into a bar one time in Chicago when we were playing Chicago. I think when we were there to do this show B.B. King and, Paul and I went to this bar where uh, Sammy was playing with uh, Jimmy Rogers and uh. Cotton. So they asked Paul to sit in. So the first thing that Paul calls is a minor tune in a minor key. Well that means he plays third position on the harmonica to get all those great notes. And Cotton, can't do that very well. So right off the bat it's just like this.... Butterfield's mentor, Muddy Waters would probably not have been this uncharitable to a colleague. These are the events that sober people remember as, Well he was a great guy when he was sober, but with a few drinks into him,he becomes an asshole

However, not everything is a failure out on the road. Maria Muldaur is an a original member of the band, and does background vocals on the first album, but she leaves, partly to because her marriage to Geoff ends. As she contemplates a solo career, it is Butterfield who encourages her to develop her own blues voice, and seek the center stage. She will never forget his kind words of encouragement, and still displays a photo of him in her office. Her gamble on solo career proves to be a wise decision as by 1974, she is reaping the benefits of her success with the hit Midnight at Oasis.  (Amos Garrett composes and performs the now famous guitar solo.)  She will hire Butterfield to add his magic harmonica on two tracks for her 1974 release Waitress in a Donut Shop (If You Haven't Any Hay and the top ten hit I'm A Woman #12), and then while out on the California leg of his second tour, he and Garrett appear with her at the Hollywood Bowl on July 21st 1974. (This recording is available)

There are other accolades for the dying band too. The industry standard Rolling Stone endorses
Better Days as crack rock band. Then on January 18th '74 they play the Midnight Special again performing Take Your Pleasure Where Find It (hosted by Smokey Robinson); later in the year they appear again performing Meet Me Down at the Bottom with host is B.B. King watching them from side of the stage. There are California gigs like the KSAN, San Francisco simulcast, but when you listen to many of these performances, you can sense there is a flagging enthusiasm within the band. As Amos Garrett remembers, Near the tail end of the Better Days band Paul was beginning to develop a bad drug habit. It wasn't obvious the first year or so that we were together; he was real happy then, in good financial and physical shape....  Years later Graham Blackburn will remember, ... Butterfield himself was in the grips of a cocaine habit, and the rest of the band were hardly immune.... Things were getting pretty difficult for Paul. says Graham Blackburn. But as long as you could still stand up and play, everything was justified.

In the end, Paul Butterfield's Better Days unofficially breaks up during the making of It All Comes Back, but the band actually staggers well into 1974. Muldaur is leaving while on tour, then Billy Rich departs for a gig with Taj Mahal, and the final collapse comes when Chris Parker leaves. Recognizing the end, Ronnie Barron returns to his solo career in California, and finally Garrett embarks a critically acclaimed career as both a session player, and solo artist. 

It should be noted that the main reason for the end of Better Days isn't just because of Butterfield's substance addictions, but rather his unwillingness to tour.  As Geoff Muldaur points out, there is a reality for all musicians, Every time we went into the studio, Paul made money, especially  for the delivering a record. But the band members would only get session fees.... When we were on the road everyone got a reasonable portion of the take. - a per diem , salary and such, and we made good money. So I was always ready to hit the road. But I think Paul wanted to stay in Woodstock and basically make records and drink. And so, after only a couple of tumultuous years, and only two critically acclaimed albums, one of the most underrated roots bands of the 1970s ends. 

Years later Muldaur, a master musician in his own right, will reflect on those days, actually my appreciation for Paul grew over the years after Better Days. You know? Uh, the mastery of his hooks,
he just, he put hooks on everything man. 

(A sad footnote to this piece is that while I found plenty of comments about Butterfield's addictions, there is little on attempted interventions by friends.)

Over the past several decades many critics, biographers, and fans alike try to make sense of Paul Butterfield's decline. The tone of their discussion seems to resonate a disbelief about the trajectory of his career. It's almost as if they are shaking their heads and saying, Sad, very sad!, and then blurting out the question, Why did an artist with so much time left, so many supporters, and so much more music to give, choose to jump from the precipice rather than at least attempting drag out the plateau of his career? Many still hopelessly point to his relationship with Albert Grossman, the social environment of Woodstock or his victimization by drugs because of his disease, but all these answers seem almost too simple. 

Shortly after Butterfield's his death 1987, the co-owner of the Lone Star Cafe in New York where Butterfield so often played in the early 1980s, Mort Cooperman said,  Butterfield was a man with a hole in his soulSomehow despite all the recognition, I think he went to bed every night thinking he wasn't good enough. And so a possible simple answer to the complex question, Paul Butterfield let it all slip away because he simply didn't feel he didn't deserved success he earned.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

# 59 Paul Butterfield's Darker Days Part 2

The catastrophic developments in Butterfield's career come with some perks though. While he loses his innovative big band, he gains a new healthier lifestyle. He is now off the grueling road tours for the first time since early '65, and living with his wife and young son in a very quiet rural environment. The Butterfields and their young son , Lee, have a comfortable home on eleven acres of land just outside Woodstock on Wittenberg Road. It is a eleven acre property, replete with a barn, two horses, dogs, cats, a new Jeep, and an active social life. Most people within his inner circle notice that he it is happiest he has been in his 30 plus years. If he chooses to take stock of his situation, he will realize that all of it is the product of his years of hard work on the road as a successful recording artist. Life in Woodstock is good for Paul Butterfield, - almost too good.

In addition, to the rich domestic life he is enjoying in Woodstock, he is also reaping the other benefits
of his success. There are still royalty checks for album sales, as well as a growing demand him as session musician. His name alone is capable of selling albums for any artist willing to pay for his time, and with the possible exception of Nashville's Charlie McCoy, the Paul Butterfield sound is the most recognizable harmonica in the world. Looking at the names of the artists he is recording with during the seventies, you can see he is contributing to projects by some of the Young Turks of the roots movement: Jesse Winchester, Stella Parton (yes Dolly's sister), Hungry Chuck, the Fabulous Rhinestones, Nick Jameson, Hoyt Axton, Happy and Artie Traum,  Peter Yarrow, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Eric Von Schmidt, Tim Hardin, Bobby Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Shel Silverstein to name a few. However, session work alone will not pay for his new lifestyle, and Grossman's business is dependent on his artists generating revenue. So, in spite of his resentment toward Grossman, he knows that building a new band, and getting back on the road will be essential to his survival.

Grossman knows this too. One night when Butterfield is hanging around the local diner Deanie's, with the Muldaurs, and Amos Garrett, he walks in, and according to Garrett, He took one look at us, and he said, Well, there's a band. At this point Butterfield is still reeling from the confrontation, and he does not like authority figures telling him what to do, so, while he is reluctant to take the comment seriously, it does spark an idea.

Grossman may be feeling guilty at the debacle over the loss of Butterfield's big band or he may just be looking to reassert his prowess in the business area, but he negotiates a contract with Warner on behalf of Butterfield for a whopping $250k (1.5m in 2016 funds), the highest advance of any blues singer before Butterfield. The offer helps to sooth the friction between the two, but this time there will be new demands from both the sides, leading to deeper conflicts.  

Butterfield wants a more egalitarian band this time, one which does not place the spotlight on him, so
he demands that his name is not given mention in the name of his new band. Geoff Muldaur comes up the band name Successand with Butterfield's approval they even have his Kathy Butterfield do the promotional stills, but Grossman scuttles the idea. He and his assistant manager Paul Fishkin insist the name must change. They see the Butterfield name as marketing tool, and naturally want to capitalize on this fact. Grossman then asserts his authority, by informing Butterfield that in addition to the band name change, there is a stipulation of his own regarding the quarter million advance from Warner. He tells him that under no circumstances can he divide the money between his band members. Grossman's position is that he does not represent the band, he represents Paul Butterfield. It is yet another confrontation with his manager that Butterfield loses. He doesn't take instruction easily, and is now being told, not asked, by his boss to buckle under, and adapt to company policy. So, in the end, the new band will include the Butterfield name, he will not share his advance, and he will do as requested. It is another possible trigger that sets Butterfield in different more self destructive direction.

Adding to the seething tensions growing within Butterfield are more cold realities of the music business. Ideally, an artist wants to release their album a month or two before Christmas to capitalize on seasonal sales, but deadlines missed, and the album Better Days is not on store shelves until January of '73. This means the band will need to work harder to catch up with the missed promotional opportunity. They will need to get out on the road in the dead of winter, and crisscross the country for a busy tour.

As the friction between Butterfield and his manager continues to escalate, Grossman seems to
become strategically withdrawn from the front lines. He assigns the Butterfield account to his young business associate, Paul Fishkin which irks Butterfield even more. What happens next can be interpreted as an act of inexperience on Fishkin's part, or an indirect assertion of authority from the boss, either way, what happens next will serve as yet another possible trigger for Butterfield to choose a more self-destructive path,  With the album finished, the group embarked on a punishing sixty-date tour of the states that confused many promoters: Was this the Paul Butterfield they knew or a totally new entity? Or What? That whole thing was the worst of Albert, says Paul Fishkin. He managed them, but he wanted to show Butter that he could be Albert. So he did his classic thing of forcing the promoters to pay high guarantees. He pissed off everybody, and he did it because was Albert. Regardless who is at fault back at head office, the decision to put Better Days out on a grueling tour not respectful treatment of an artist with Butterfield's age and profile. However, he will reluctantly rise to the occasion, proving to his boss that he can still be an earner.

In spite of the power struggles, explicit or implied, Paul Butterfield's Better Days turns in an excellent first tour. Concert reviews are generally excellent, and the single New Walkin' Blues/Please Send Me Someone to Love is continuing to receive air time on the FM stations, so the tour has expanding purpose. They play most of the new album plus a few of the Butterfield standards that audiences have come to expect. As Garrett remembers,  The show was a little more aggressive than the album, .... and we didn't do a few of the ballads.

All of Butterfield's music sits comfortably on the cusp of a few genres of American music, so it
naturally appeals to listeners with big ears. Geoff Muldaur recalls the first tour , it was a real different crowd for me, we had a bit of the Dylan problem in that I'd always played for the folkies, and Paul's group was the wine and reds set. And we played  for a lot more of Paul's crowd, and sometimes the music was little confusing to them. It was the only time in my life a chick in the audience would get up and take her clothes off! Butterfield loves to perform on stage, so the tour is an opportunity for him to temporarily forget about his pent up resentments toward Grossman, and the industry in general, but he is growing tired of the expectations on him.

Even bands that claim they are democratic organizations usually defer the role of leader to one member, (the Band does this with Robertson). Butterfield tells everyone, including Grossman that Better Days to be a more egalitarian group, but he is the obvious leader. As Chris Parker tells Butterfield chronicler Tom Ellis in '95 We would talk about the feel of songs endlessly. On a lot the trips the band would fly, but Paul and I would drive, sometimes with Geoff, and 'the feel' of a song was always the topic of conversation or the backdrop to our conversations. Getting to the real feel, the heart of the song, the groove of the song. Paul used to say, 'You've got to take it to the bottom with it.' He was always playing things for me, at his house or mine, too. He was looking the emotional essence of a song, the point it really went to your heart, picked you up by the throat and grabbed you. Geoff was like this too.
'But what Paul wanted to do was get to the bottom of a new tune, find out what was going to unlock the tune emotionally for him, what was going to give him a way in  - the temp, feel key - so he could open up his heart and communicate the song with his singing and his harp the way he wanted to. Paul was as soulful as Ray Charles in the way he looked for the heart of a tune. That was a huge asset in my opinion. And if he didn't think he could get to that spot, he wasn't interested in doing the tune, no matter what it was. Paul didn't have problems with tempo or changes - Paul could play over 'Giant Steps' it he wanted to. It was never a question of the arrangement or the structure. But a song had to mean something to him. This was part of the man, a musician at his best. Paul was after something elusive and it was hard to find. He'd played with all those great blues guys and he knew when the feel was right as opposed to when someone was just 'doing a show'  This is very a kind endorsement from a former colleague, and an excellent example of what a leader must do, lead with words, follow by actions. It is one of the qualities which makes Paul Butterfield one of the most important band leaders of the twentieth century.

By 1973, Butterfield is a very seasoned bandleader, not just because of his experience in the studio,
but also because of his stage experience.  Remember, at the Woodstock festival, he performs in front of half million people, no one in Better Days has this kind of experience. The larger audiences and more focused media attention requires a public calm which Butterfield has earned, but for everyone else in the band each show is a learning experience.

In spite of the intentional or unintentional promotional missteps Grossman's management makes at the beginning of the tour, the popularity of Better Days is exceeding expectations. As they tour the U.S. and Canada, audiences are growing, but nowhere is this more evident than in California. Butterfield has always been a headliner on the college circuit, but on this tour, he is playing larger venues too. Better Days is popular enough that even their opening acts are mainstream pop bands with coveted hit records. Acts like: The Doobie Brothers,(Long Train Runnin') Weather Report, (Boogie Woogie Waltz) Bonnie Raitt,(Takin' My Time) Carly Simon,(You're So Vain) Linda Ronstadt, (Love Has No Pride) and  Dr. John (Right Place Wrong Time) are working as opening acts for Better Days concerts, and lesser known bands are trying to secure a place on the bill.

An excellent example of the kind of energy Better Days generates on this tour is when they headline at Winterland in San Francisco. On February 23rd 1973, Bill Graham puts on a concert billed as The Three B's, featuring individual sets with bands fronted by Bloomfield and Friends, the Bishop Group, then Better Days, and finally a jam session with all three. The live album Paul Butterfield's Better Days Live at Winterland is from this concert.  The album opens up with Bill Graham announcing: If it weren't for Paul a lot of us wouldn't be here,.... he is making reference to Bloomfield, and Bishop. (As of 2016, no recording of the final set has surfaced.)

It is also noteworthy to mention here that by 1973, New York City is no longer the centre of the
American entertainment industry, that position is rapidly shifting to California, and more specifically, Los Angeles. So, the fact that the industry is embracing Better Days is quite an endorsement. Also, judging by the local reviews of the day, California audiences really do love Paul Butterfield's Better Days! The band is popular enough that they appear on the new internationally syndicated musical variety television show Burt Sugarman's: the Midnight Special. The September 28th 1973 episode is hosted by pop artists Seals and Crofts (Summer Breeze), and Better Days performs New Walkin' Blues/ Broke My Baby's Heart. Then they appear on multiple Emmy Award winning Merv Griffin Show. Finally, the crowning achievement for any artist, and in particular a blues band, is to have your own television special. In the spring of '73 the PBS affiliate in L.A. hires, young producer/director Taylor Hackford to present The Paul Butterfield / Bonnie Raitt Show on KCET. These gigs can be interpreted as Paul Butterfield's unofficial arrival in mainstream pop music.

The increasing popularity of Better Days means, bigger pay cheques for everyone, but it comes with great pressure to measure up to demands. Remember, Butterfield tends to be comparatively humble within rock star standards, and shies away from he perceives as too much focus on himself. So, in this respect his new wider popularity in the mainstream arena quite possibly acts as yet another trigger contributing to his downfall.

Back at the Bearsville head office in Woodstock, the success of Paul Butterfield's Better Days screams MONEY at Grossman, and he wants to quickly capitalize on the opportunity that this presents. So, before the band returns from the tour, there are demands for a new album, studio time is booked, and there are already negotiations for a second tour in the works. However, as the band is enjoying the fruits of their labors, they are also working harder, and partying with more intensity. All these pressures demand more energy from the body, so the medication of choice becomes cocaine. It provides the illusion of being able to stay up longer, but it really is just that, an illusion. Butterfield is known primarily as a beer and pot user, but he is falling under the spell of cocaine, tequila, and many other party favors. By the end of the first tour his use of drugs and alcohol is quickly transitioning from use to abuse, and many in the band start to notice his change in personality. It is here, after the first album, and its tour that Butterfield begins his nasty descent. 

Stay tuned for part three....