Sunday, December 18, 2016

#64 Paul Butterfield's North South

It is a testament to an entrepreneur's talent when he no longer needs to seek out customers because they are coming to him. This is the enviable position Albert Grossman achieves during his career as the manager of several very successful artists. His greatest strengths are the ability to sense artistic talent, and then sell it. Many businessmen of his stature might choose to stay in the city to show off symbols of their success, but he decides to move to rural New York instead. It is here that he settles in the hamlet Bearsville, and begins building a comparatively modest, yet impressive empire.
Similar to Chess Records in Chicago, or Motown in Detroit, Grossman designs his Bearsville Records empire to be a one stop shop for the 1970s music industry. It is replete with temporary housing for his growing collection of employees, restaurants, a recording studio, a support staff who skillfully attend to every need of his growing stable of artists, and a head office for publishing.  All of this points a man with a well developed business acumen fueled with raw ambition. If he were less sophisticated, he might hang a shingle outside his office that says, It you aren't growing, you're dying.

More specifically, his most obvious strength is boardroom negotiating, but then there is his often overlooked talent of refraining from micromanaging the careers of his artists. The unwritten bargain he has seems to have with his artists is they are free to create music and he sells it. It is a powerful combination, but it is also his greatest weakness. Of all the careers he manages, Paul Butterfield's is a good example of everything that is both good and bad about Albert Grossman's management style.

Remember, in 1965 he agrees to manager Butterfield's career
because he hears something visceral in the twenty three year olds brand of blues. Then, in spite of the fact that Butterfield never becomes a comparatively strong commercial success, he remains loyal to him, always treating him as an artist of remarkable distinction. The fact is Paul Butterfield probably would never have sustained success if it were not for Albert Grossman.  As Danny Goldberg remembers, On the few occasions I saw him with Butterfield,  Albert treated him with the greatest respect,  as someone who, regardless of whether he was making money from him or not, was to be regarded as a major figure.  However, their relationship must come under intense questioning between 1975 and 1980, as Butterfield stops living up to his end of the manager/artist bargain.  

Butterfield's downward spiral seems to begin during the collapse of his second band Better Days. It is here that the young blues man begins to fall prey to his own demons. The solace he seeks through self medication with alcohol and street narcotics strips away most of his self confidence, and then slowly chips away at both his personal and professional life. His first solo project, Put It In Your Ear, shows fans what happens when one of the century's greatest bandleaders abandons his role to outsiders. After that failure, the only two projects that seem to keep his career floating are his impassioned performance at The Last Waltz, and then his brief, yet high profile position in Levon Helm's RCO All stars.  

Then there is the failed attempt to resurrect  his solo career with an appearance in September of '78, on
the very successful Germany television show Rockpalast, but that too is failure. Former Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Buzzy Feiten agrees to act as band leader, leaving Butterfield to just show up,  but he can't seem to muster the courage to make more than a minimal contribution. He arrives at rehearsals in New York with no material, and a reluctance to even participate in the project.  Later, Grossman plans to resurrect Butterfield's career by releasing the concert recording as new blues rock album similar to his original Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but he deems it inferior Butterfield, and the project is shelved. 
When Butterfield returns stateside, he forms the Danko/Butterfield Band with friend and fellow addict Rick Danko. They turn in some adequate shows but mostly, the short barroom tours are a manipulation of the system to support their alcohol and narcotic fueled lifestyle. It isn't long before rumors and eye witness accounts of personality conflicts cause their performances to become unreliable. At one gig, Danko plays only harmonica and Butterfield strums guitar, enraging the fans. Eventually, every show becomes a potential powder keg of unpleasant surprises for promoters, bar owners and fans. In the tightly knit music industry the two former rock stars become known as the dangerous duo.  

It is this pattern of self-destruction that Butterfield tries to address when he confesses to Rolling StoneI
did go through periods of drugs during the seventies. I was doing coke, drinking tequila , some heroin. Right down to the nitty-gritty. Unfortunately, his confession is too little, too late as his marriage has disintegrated, and his career is not far behind. 

These situations often prompt questions from outsiders about the behavior of the bystanders who seem to simply watch catastrophe unfold, so it is fair to wonder about Grossman's role during these years.  It is possible that he is demonstrating a blind loyalty, or looking for opportunities for a final payday. After all, it is common knowledge that he does purchase a life insurance policy on Janis Joplin shortly before she dies of a drug overdose. Maybe he was plotting ways to posthumously capitalize on Butterfield's decline  too- we will never know.

However,  in Grossman's defense, Danny Goldberg remembers,  Albert Grossman stayed loyal. He really loved Paul, and it broke his heart to see him fall apart the way he did. But Albert never presumed to tell people  how to live their lives. His philosophy was self-reliance. It is easy, to smugly look back at the seventies, and wonder why the common error of bystanders to addiction catastrophes justify their lack of intervention by professing loyalty, but the 70s is a different time. It seems that in his own way, Grossman thinks the best remedy for Butterfield decline is to encourage him to get back in the studio, and solve his problems through hard work.

Contrary to Butterfield's career prognosis, Grossman's career is still on a steady ascent. In the late seventies he is expanding his business into new markets. Similar to Woodstock, the music scene in Memphis is also a melting pot of great American music, only with a richer history that easily dates back into the 19th century. The success of postwar labels like Sun, Stax, and Hi are a testament to the vibrancy of the Memphis scene, but as the industry fragments to other urban centres during the seventies, the Memphis labels become vulnerable to corporate takeover.   

It is during this period of decline that Grossman negotiates a deal with Willie Mitchell, and his label Hi Records. The agreement comes with the option to employ the talents of the famed singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, and businessman, and in the process help the Bearsville artists. Mitchell has an impressive production resume that includes luminaries such as Ann Peeples, and of course his star achievement, Al Green, so the transaction is a coup for Grossman. While the deal to expand into Memphis does serve several Bearsville's artists well, for Butterfield it spells disaster.  

One of Mitchell's first Bearsville projects is with Butterfield's girlfriend Elizabeth Barraclough, who in 1979, records her second album Hi with Mitchell in Memphis. She is happy enough with the results of the project that she returns to Woodstock, and suggests to Butterfield that he and Mitchell might be a good fit. It has been five years since he has released any product, so he goes to Memphis with Barraclough, and according to Joe Perry,  ...the Hodges brothers and Memphis horns would come around, and Paul knew of them. He fit right in with these guys. The Butterfield/Mitchell team should be a winning combination, but in spite of Mitchell's pedigree, the project will become yet another Butterfield disappointment.   

Similar to the Germany project, Butterfield has no sustainable ideas, and again recoils from his responsibilities as a leader, deferring decisions to Mitchell. Unfortunately, Mitchell is not familiar enough with Butterfield's music or public persona, and so, he erroneously decides to record  an album of what is suppose to be Memphis funk , soul and R & B album, but the idea is doomed.  As Barraclough remembers, It would have been nice to say to Paul and Albert, 'Let's wait a year and get some good tunes together, 'Albert was always ready to go with an artist if he said he had songs together, so he let Paul. I would later learn from other A&R guys that stopping projects for lack of material wasn't uncommon..... And I would do it myself with some projects at Bearsville. But Albert's word final word was often, 'I don't care - let them make the record.' We'd had a few disasters with Paul that we had to shut down, but the Memphis thing got made anyway.  At this point, most might conclude that problems are the material, lack of involvement by Butterfield, and apparent neglect from the people at Bearsville Records, but they will be pale in comparison to what happens next.  

Butterfield's relentless abuse with alcohol, various narcotics, combined with poor dietary habits take a toll on his body. In 1979 he develops an inflammation in his lower intestine called diverticulitis, which he does not address properly, and it develops into a more serious infection. The untreated inflammation causes a perforation of his intestine, which then allows puss and waste to enter the abdominal cavity. This damages the membrane which protects the internal organs known as the peritoneum, creating the condition known as peritonitis

If his condition sounds dire, that's because it is. Peritonitis is painful, and if not addressed quickly, will lead to certain death. While in the Memphis studio, he collapses, and is rushed to the hospital. He later will reflect that at the time, he thinks the pain is the result of too much barbeque, but he is running out of that kind of good fortune. Once a doctor diagnoses his peritonitis,  he is hospitalized undergoes immediate surgery where his colon is severed, and a colostomy bag connected, allowing the damaged intestine area to heal. Then,  the recovery advice by the doctors is that he remain stationary, discontinue his abusive lifestyle, and alter his diet, but these sound instructions are lost on someone armed with Butterfield's almost childish sense of invincibility. It will not be long before a returns his old lifestyle.  

A couple of years later he will confide in Don Snowdon of the L.A. Times, To make a long story short, my
intestines burst...... I ended up having four operations and you don't realize  what it takes out of you, energy wise., he said, You think you can come right back , so I went back to work and herniated  the scar tissue in my stomach. I had three hernias from playing the harmonica, so it was a vicious circle. Sure it occurred to me that might not be able to play anymore, but I got that Irish ornery thing going and said, I'm going to make it through this and I did with a lot of help from God. I came through the wars there. Most rational people will interpret these events as a dire warning from the body to the mind that it is time for a lifestyle change, but just because people have the ability to reason does not preclude that they use that ability.  

In spite of the health tragedy, the album is completed, and Bearville releases in January of 1981. It will prove to be a tough sell to fans of the once great blues man though. This writer can't help but wonder if at some point, the marketing department at Bearsville is at a loss for what to do with the album. Then in a desperate attempt to put a positive spin on it, conjure up the idea of masking its obvious weakness by comparing it to his ground breaking album East West by calling it North South.  It is a nice try, but no one is fooled by the marketing shell game.

Firstly, the album has none of the gutsy boldness of East West, or as one critic laments, Butterfield's 1980 album North-South was neither bold or brash, just sterile and irrelevant. Only the slow closer Baby Blue sounded like authentic Butterfield.  Then there are other critics who dwell on its use of strings, synthesizers, and pale funk arrangements, or use words like fluff to describe the contents of North South.

In an effort to bring some context to the next criticism, it might be useful for readers who are not familiar with 70s pop to take this short digression. By 1981, the dance music trend known Disco has run its course in U.S.. Part of the reason for its demise is because of a nationally run campaign by radio stations, and trade magazines which often pokes fun at the pop music as being too artificial. It isn't long before kids are wearing t-shirts emblazoned with loud insult such as Disco Sucks. So, by 1980, the word Disco is a word millions use to insult, not compliment, an artist's music. This relates to North South  because there are critics who hurl the ultimate insult at it. They take it one step further than just calling it Disco pushing it to next level calling it Bad Disco. For an artist of  Butterfield's caliber, such criticisms must be devastating. Histrionics aside, North South  is technically excellent, and actually boasts some great grooves like Get Some Fun Out of Life. 
There are not many positive reviews of North South, and some critics seem more disappointed with the audacity of Butterfield's willingness to deviate so far from his established persona as a blues man of great distinction.  The final nail in the coffin for his new album is when David Fricke pens this one star review for Rolling Stone, Considering that East West is the title of one of the best albums Paul Butterfield ever made, it's ironic that North South should be the title of his worst.
The combination of Butterfield's blues savvy and former Al Green producer Willie Mitchell's once magic R&B touch undoubtedly looked good on paper. But Butterfield's  singing is barely a smoky shadow of  its old husky roar. Though the artist can still blow blues harp with the same spirit and soul he displayed he displayed in his Butterfield Blues Band days,  there simply isn't enough harmonica playing on North South to make wading through Mitchell's anemic production, the spineless  arrangements  and hopelessly lame material.
Catch a Train, Slow Down, and the nonsensical Footprints on the Windshield Upside Down are lukewarm funk, with Butterfield and his harp fighting a losing battle against  an army of clichéd horns and strings. The star's one harmonica showcase turns out to be a syrupy instrumental ballad , Bread and Butterfield. And his token  blues workout is - of all things - a Neil Sedaka number, Baby Blue, which closes the record. It's a sorry ending to a truly sad LP. The problem with album is that, it is the right material, just recorded by the wrong artist at an inappropriate time.

In an effort to promote album sales Bearsville releases Living in Memphis/Footprints on the Windshield Upside Down in the U.S., and they even attempt to crack the European market with I Get Excited (Me Excito) and Bread and Butterfield, but nothing gains traction. Sadly, in the minds of critics  Paul Butterfield is no longer seen as a trailblazer in American music, only an opportunistic follower of passé trends.

In spite of his doctor's advice, Butterfield does mount a tour with a five piece band, often with his girlfriend on keyboards, even sporting matching black t-shirts that advertize My Father's Place eatery in New York, but even those shows are hit and miss. Similar to so many other artists from the 60s who survive into the 80s, Butterfield is starting to feel the financial pinch of dwindling audiences. He puts  together a tightly planned one hour show that promoters milk by taking in two audiences in one night. It is grueling way to make a living any artist, but especially for a ill musician without a critically acclaimed album to promote.   

It is a testament to an artist's talent when people constantly reach out to them with support for their art, but that encouragement is futile when the artist rejects it. The chronology of Paul Butterfield's mental and physical decline seems to begin around the middle of the 70s when he loses his artistic vision.  Even the business acumen of Albert Grossman can't seem to penetrate Butterfield's desire to self-destruct. The obvious question is Why? Possibly, the New York's Lone Star Cafe owner Mort Cooperman shows some insight when says, Paul had the charm of a child,  but he was always fighting these demons.... A lot of people worked hard for him, because he was their hero, but he was on a self-destructive bent. It is a frustrating and emotionally draining dynamic that millions of families and friends experience every day.  Fortunately, Butterfield's his health and career will take a turn for the better, but unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. Stay tuned!


Saturday, December 3, 2016

# 63 Paul Butterfield @ The Last Waltz

  The disadvantage of living inside a culture is that it's next to impossible to fully appreciate it without some outside help. It's one of the reasons we often seek the insights of professional outlanders like comedians, artists, and tunesmiths.  More specifically, a skilled songwriter can create a two or three minute vignette which can be captivating enough that it becomes the soundtrack of our lives.

For example, during the sixties and seventies, those great pioneers of Americana music, The Band, compose songs which not only become a backdrop for a whole generation, but they also change the direction of American popular music forever. 

It is too easy to simply conclude that their music is just a synthesis of country, blues, gospel, presented in a rock format; their songs are more than just a sonic mosaic. Actually, their artistry is the product of the more complex feat of creating images of American culture which are insightful enough to transcend cultures, and generations. One of the secrets of their success is the fact that they have the outsider's advantage, four fifths of The Band are actually Canadian with only one member coming from the culture they sing about.  

Another interesting thing about The Band is that they don't achieve success the same way most artists of the day do. They're actually a reclusive unit. They  hunker down like monks in a remote house on the outskirts of the tiny New York state town of Woodstock where they carefully craft near mystical tales of life outside the mainstream. When you listen to many of their songs they seem almost part historical document, and yet are also current enough to capture the imagination of millions of young people in several countries. As American scholar Greil Marcus notes, they have a magic feel for history. They came out of Canada, but had a love affair with the American south, minstrel shows and blues singers.  
This self-imposed reclusive profile also serves as a marketing campaign concocted by their label when they hire the brilliant American photographer Elliot Landy to photograph them in Woodstock. At a time when color film is all the rage, he photographs them in black and white, crafting an image of young men who may have just walked out of a civil war painting, or some other period in ancient American history. Then there is their name, The Band, simple, yet distinct, and boasting both notoriety, and humility.  

Unfortunately, their magic doesn't last long.  Most of their best work grows out of a five year period before they begin to repeat themselves, and finally fizzle like an evening bonfire in late November. By the mid-seventies three members are preoccupied with debilitating heroin and alcohol addictions. The frustration with this social dynamic pushes their clear thinking principal songwriter to look at options outside the group. It is Robbie Robertson who proposes a halt to the self destruction, and then offers a very public celebratory wake for The Band.  

An ardent film buff with ambitions to merge his hobby with his career, Robertson tables the idea of inviting twenty one of the artists who play an important role in their career to join them in   a final performance at San Francisco's Winterland auditorium, and then filming the event for posterity. The idea will become The Last Waltz and like so many of their songs, it will become a historical document about the creators of the soundtrack for a whole generation. One of these key performers will be an important historical figure in his own right, Paul Butterfield

Similar to his colleagues in the The Band, Butterfield too earns much of his notoriety because of his time as a cultural outsider. Remember, he is the white middle class kid who penetrates the social fabric of Chicago's south side, charms the locals into teaching him their craft, and then emerges a journeyman bluesman. It may seem an uneventful feat now, but in the early sixties, it is quite an accomplishment for a young white man from Hyde Park.
In spite of the fact that most historians agree on Butterfield's contributions to post-war blues, it is probably a remote reason for him being invited to perform at The Last Waltz. Firstly, every member of The Band shares a similar opinion of him that Levon Helm confides, Paul was there for any blues based thing we wanted to do. Boy, he could really make it go. I really loved playing with him anytime. He was a good bandleader: He loved being the harmonica player; especially with Muddy. Just like all of us, I'd rather drummer, and would rather be the harmonica player. Those aren't just crass marketing blandishments either, almost every member of The Band works with him in the studio, or in live concerts. (See blog # 61) 

Of all the musicians who appear on stage with The Band at The Last Waltz, Butterfield shares the closest social bond with all the members. Robertson remembers, We knew him from Woodstock. He actually had taken us around Chicago. We had a long relationship with him up until this point. However, as Butterfield's social relationship with members of The Band deepens it also becomes darker. By the seventies there are people in Woodstock who refer Butterfield, Manuel, and Danko as the chemical trio for their excessive abuse of hard drugs.  

However, it is Butterfield's talent as a blues singer and historian that should be remembered the most. Firstly, as producer of the concert Robertson chooses Muddy Waters' 1956 hit Forty Days and Forty Nights for the great blues man's performance, but Butterfield interjects, insisting that Waters performing Mannish Boy will be most memorable. It proves to be wise advice, and a testament to Robertson's respect for Butterfield's opinion. As Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin remembers, Muddy loved the way Butterfield played on that song, setting up a warble that "holds up my voice" rather than just playing the song's signature lick. Decades later and Muddy Waters' performance still remains a highlight of the concert.

(As a side note, Robertson identifies Butterfield's harmonica on Mannish Boy incorrectly. He says Butterfield is using circular breathing during the song, but it is probably best described as extraordinary breath control. He is playing the three hole blow, the four hole blow, and then drawing on the two and the five hole, using the tongue blocking method. Circular breathing is the ability to hold a single endlessly, Butterfield is not using this technique.) 

The song chosen for Butterfield's performance is a song which both he and The Band share a history, but it comes with an intimidating lineage. Mystery Train is an old folk song which has been traced back to the Celtic tradition, then reworked by the Carter Family to earn them their biggest selling record of 1930. In the early 1953, Memphis bluesman Junior Parker reworks the song into a more urban interpretation and then two years later, twenty two year old Elvis Presley explodes into the young country market with Mystery Train as the B side of his 1955 hit,  I Forgot to Remember to Forget. Twelve years after Presley records it, Butterfield offers his own version of the Parker hit, only this time turning up the volume, and tempo to capture a whole new audience. Eight years later, The Band will attempt to mold the song into their own interpretation when they record in on their 1973 album Moondog Matinee. So, Mystery Train is logical choice for Butterfield to sing as a duet with Helm. 

Another interesting point about the version of Mystery Train from The Last Waltz is that it includes additional lyrics for which Robertson had to secure clearance from the publisher in 1973. As great chronicler of American popular music, Geil Marcus says,  It's a song that goes all the way back. Nobody knows where it began. Of Course it's a song that Elvis recorded in 1955, at the Sun Label, maybe his greatest recording there. A couple of year before Junior Parker did it a blues singer at Sun. Before that it a song called Brain Cloudy Blues by Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys, before that it was a song called Worried Man Blues by the Carter Family. When Paul Butterfield sang the song in '65 he followed the Junior Parker version which is kind of defeated, well so what, whatever, it's all fatalism. Elvis Presley completely changed that song. When he sang it, ''That train took my baby and I'm getting her back'  Well, that's how they do it tonight. I didn't see every show Paul Butterfield ever played, I only saw a couple of 'em.... I don't believe he ever played or sang this song with anymore fervor, with half the fervor that he did this night. One of the things you see in the Last Waltz is the absolute joy of performing, of people saying everything that's in their minds, hearts and bodies. It's putting everything out, leaving nothing behind, leaving not a word unsaid, and that's what you get in this performance. It's impossible to believe that there's anything more that Paul Butterfield could give this song or that there is anything more that this song could give him or the song and the performer could give to the audience. This is one of the absolute highlights of the Last Waltz. It is important to remember that a song with such a rich pedigree also demands respect, so the pressure to perform it flawlessly must have been intense, and as Marcus suggests, they nailed it!

Indeed, the performance of Mystery Train at The Last Waltz should not disappoint any of the artists who have recorded it in the past, and this version will serve as a benchmark for all twenty artists who will attempt it in the coming decades.  Fortunately, the audio portion performance is not jeopardy during the concert, but the video comes very close to ending up on the cutting room floor.

One of the unique technical features of The Last Waltz is that director Martin Scorsese chooses to document the concert with 35mm film, (a gusty choice for 1975), but he doesn't anticipate the strain the format places on the cameras. During the filming, there are constant shut downs due to overheating, and so when Butterfield begins Mystery Train, all but one camera is not operating properly. Fortunately, the unintended consequences of this catastrophe will actually serve to enhance the visual atmosphere of the performance, and catapult it into what many critics call a highlight of the concert.  

When The Last Waltz is released to movie theaters in April of 1978, it injects new life into the careers of most of the performers, including Butterfield's. In spite of the fact the early reviews are mixed, the film gains respect, and is generally regarded as the best music documentary ever made. Some calling it an important time capsule, or the greatest rock concert film ever. Even the cornerstone of Rock journalism, Rolling Stone, says of all the coffee-table albums to date, The Last Waltz is in many respects the most impressive... These accolades make the end of The Band as a creative force in popular music a tragic loss for fans. When the group leaves the stage that Thanksgiving night, even the future attempts to regroup in later years will be overshadowed by their past triumphs as creators a small, but important body of work.   

There is another sad postscript to the concert and film. The Last Waltz is also a signal from the stage wings to the artists standing in the spotlight that they should prepare to move from the center stage so a new generation can move into position. By 1978, there are new forms of music capturing the imaginations of young people the same way The Band does a decade earlier. In only a couple of years, the eighties will begin; Punk, then New Wave will invade the airwaves, and eventually, so will a new urban folk music, Rap. Similar to so many songwriters before them, these fresh artists will act as outlanders, composing their own two or three minute vignettes which will become the soundtrack of a new generation.