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!


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