Monday, May 21, 2012

Can't Turn You Loose

Isaac Tigrett, "Duck" Dunn, Randy Haspel: Hard Rock Cafe, New York, 1988
Donald "Duck" Dunn used to say that Al Jackson, Jr. was the greatest drummer he'd ever heard. With the recent passing of both Andrew Love and Charles "Skip" Pitts, the guys have all the makings of a smokin' celestial soul combo. Add Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding to the mix, and they've got a full blown Stax/Volt Revue going on for the Heavenly Host. If you're inside the Memphis city limits and you've never heard of Duck Dunn, you must be a tourist. Dunn, who died last week in Tokyo at age 70, was one-fourth of Booker T. & the MGs, the house band during the glory days of Stax Records and among the greatest instrumental groups to ever record. Duck was in Tokyo for a series of gigs with his childhood friend, Steve Cropper, and Stax soul star Eddie Floyd. Cropper posted, "Today I lost my best friend and the world has lost the best guy and bass player to ever live." Booker T. Jones said, "I can't imagine not being able to hear Duck laugh and curse but I'm thankful I got to spend time and make music with him. His intensity was incomparable. Everyone loved him. None more than Otis Redding." Duck's passing essentially ends the 50 year phenomenon known as Booker T. & the MGs. The band recruited another drummer to replace the late Al Jackson, Jr. and played on for another 37 years, but nobody can replace Duck Dunn.

Listen to any track by Otis Redding or Sam & Dave. If Al Jackson, Jr. was the pulse, then Duck's bass was the propulsion. He once described himself as "a seat-of-the-pants bass player," but in reality he was more of a "kick you in your ass" bass player. He not only supplied the bottom, but also the energy, for some of the 20th century's most memorable recordings, like "Soul Man," "The Midnight Hour," and Otis' remarkable "Try a Little Tenderness." Watch those old, black and white videos of the Stax Revue in Europe, 1967, and you'll see Duck's characteristic neck-jerk in time with the music; increasing in fervor with the strength of the groove. Duck's biographical information is familiar to friends and fans; a graduate of Messick High where he and his friend Cropper had a band called the Royal Spades, who morphed into the Mar-Keys and had Stax's first monster hit with the instrumental, "Last Night." When Cropper moved on to fledgling label, he recruited his friend Duck to replace Lewie Steinberg in the MGs, and history was made. The MGs were Memphis' first inter-racial band, something unheard of in the early sixties. But those of us who were younger and aspired to a music career, took pride and inspiration from the group during those turbulent times. In segregated Memphis, an integrated group would most likely be denied the right to share the same bandstand, but in the recording studio, nothing could stop a group of teenagers who all grew up listening to Rufus Thomas and Dewey Phillips on the radio, and Willie Mitchell and the 4 Kings, Bowlegs Miller, and the 5 Royales in the clubs of West Memphis.

It's worth noting that in his fellow musicians' remarks, in the same breath that they praise Duck's musicianship, they note that he was an even better human being. That's what his friends recall first; that Duck was a humble man, unaffected by his worldwide fame, he loved to laugh, either at your jokes or his own, and he very well could have put a bumper sticker on his bass guitar that read, "I'd rather be golfing." Like most Memphians, I admired Duck from afar and regarded him as a soul  icon, until 1981, when we became acquainted. That was the year Huey's Restaurant made their first attempt at expansion with "Louie's," a converted eatery on Poplar Ave. in East Memphis, and had hired my band, the Radiants, to play on Sunday nights. While other local bands were covering Journey and Foreigner, we were still performing a venerable list of Rhythm & Blues classics, with a healthy dose of Stax songs. When Duck began to show up and we asked him to sit in, everyone so enjoyed themselves that we reserved a regular spot for him every Sunday. Our long-time bassist, Steve Spear, was leaving Memphis and I was in a bind to find a suitable replacement. I asked Duck if he knew anybody and he answered, "What about me," and the next day, he was in the band.

Our song list contained some complicated tunes that required rehearsal, but, considering his expertise, I was reluctant to ask Duck to practice. He beat me to it by opening up his home and inviting the band there to rehearse as often as we wished. When we began, Duck cautioned us in typical humility, "Look, I'm no Steve Spear. You're going to have to have a little patience with me." When I later told him, Spear was delighted with the comparison. Along with our Sunday gig, the Radiants began playing Tuesday nights downtown at Jefferson Square, and Duck propelled our band like he did the MGs. When our young saxophonist, Jim Spake, had to leave the band suddenly and I needed to replace him, Duck said, "I don't think Andrew Love is doing anything." The next week, one half of the Memphis Horns joined the band. Andrew stepped in seamlessly without need of rehearsal and I suddenly found myself fronting the best soul band I ever had. I got an offer from a brand-new combination Pizza Parlor/Disco in Dallas and booked the band there for a week. Neither Duck nor Andrew complained about the drive, but when we checked into one of the city's seedier motels to save on expenses, I felt a bit guilty about putting these two world famous musicians into such raunchy accomodations. Halfway through the gig, Andrew came to my room and said, "I think Duck's paralyzed." He had slept beneath an air conditioner and woke up to find half his face frozen into a Joker-like smirk. I thought, "My God. I've crippled this man in a rotten Dallas motel room." A doctor diagnosed Bell's Palsy, but by the evening, Duck was feeling well enough to play and stopped me from phoning Memphis for substitute bass players.

It couldn't last forever. Andrew and his Memphis Horns partner Wayne Jackson went on the road with Robert Cray, and Duck got the call from Eric Clapton. Shortly afterward, in a memorable night at the Orpheum Theatre, Clapton headlined with Duck on bass while the warm-up act was Ry Cooder, featuring Jim Dickinson on keyboard. Then there was the night a rejuvenated Booker T. & the MGs made their first homecoming appearance at B.B. King's on Beale Street. I was sardined into that packed house mainly to support my friends, but when the Hammond organ began a thunderous roiling noise that ultimately became the introduction to "Green Onions," and the band kicked in, I leapt to my feet cheering like the Tigers had won the national championship. Duck found a groove and was snapping his neck sideways, always to the left, and a roomful of lucky patrons got to see the show of a lifetime. Duck was a cancer survivor and lived the past few decades in Sarasota, where he moved for the golfing opportunities as much as for the nice weather. If Duck and Andrew had one thing in common aside from their music, it's that they both were supported by wonderful spouses. June Dunn and PeeWee Love are two of the kindest, yet strongest, women I know, and the love both couples shared made it a delight to be in their company. I'm proud to have known them. In Tokyo, Duck had just finished two shows at the Blue Note Nightclub, when he called home to say he wasn't feeling well. Later that night, he passed away in his sleep. Like the true, musical road-warrior that he was, Duck Dunn died with his boots on.

Monday, May 07, 2012

TV or Not TV

The original bargain struck between the television industry and its viewing audience was that if we plugged the magical picture box into the wall socket, the programming would be for free. In return, a program's sponsor could take four or so minutes per half hour to promote their products and services with commercial advertisements. That deal lasted nearly forty years until the advent of cable TV. So my question is, if we are now paying to watch television, why are there still commercials? We have become so accustomed to the commercial interruption that it has woven itself into the fabric of television's daily reality, at the exact same time that programming has become increasingly unreal. In fact, under the guise of "reality television," programming has become one continuous advertisement, seamlesly blending from TV show into paid commercial, and back again.

From toddler beauty-queens with insane mothers, to "celebrities" in re-hab, nothing is too extreme for exploitation by reality shows. This works out great for producers who no longer have to bother with hiring those troublesome actors with their desire to be paid, or those left-wing scriptwriters with their "human dramas," backed up by show-biz union thugs. Controversial FCC Chairman Newton B. Minow famously referred to television as a "vast wasteland" in 1961. How quaint that back during the Kennedy administration someone actually thought television's objective should be to entertain and inform. Today, the industry's raison d'etre is as an advertising medium, interspersed with the least expensive drivel that the public will tolerate. During an age of flat-screen, plasma, blu-ray, and other advances, I find it unnecessary to watch Hillbilly Handfishin' in high definition. At a time when television technology is at an all-time high, programming is at an all-time low. Who needs Norman Lear or Garry Marshall when we have Chef  Gordon Ramsey and Ryan Seacrest?

Any off-the-wall behavior or activity that you can imagine, there's a reality show about it: extreme hoarders, redneck tycoons, bounty hunters, repo men, pregnant teens, or the morbidly obese. In my house, I like to see the news/discussion programs. I tell my wife, Melody, that it's my job to watch them so I can write this rant. But every time I leave the room, the station has been changed to the Bravo Channel when I return. I finally put my foot down and told her that I refused to watch this mindless, soulless, dreck about self-absorbed women complaining about their privileged lives. So, as we were watching The Housewives of Orange County, I was commenting on how much better Tamra looked now that she's had her breast implants removed. But when I found myself concerned that the feud between Melissa and Teresa on the New Jersey housewives would rip their families apart, it occurred to me why we watch this stuff. In difficult times, if we can take a voyeuristic peek into the travails and troubles of the wealthy, or watch how Teresa's husband, Joe Giudice, faces ten years in prison for forgery, it makes us feel a little better about our own wretched lives. Or, as Joe Giudice is fond of philosophising, "It is what it is. What are you gonna' do?"

Nothing about this window peeking is new, however. It began in 1973 with the PBS series, An American Family, which documented the destruction of the Loud family, holding viewers entranced with weekly admissions of infidelity, drug use, and the coming out of a gay son. It all ended rather badly, however, and though it was ratings gold, no one seemed eager to repeat the experiment. Todays' shows just skip the family trauma entirely and go straight to drug re-hab, where burnt-out former reality show participants explain how they were pre-genetically disposed to alcoholism and addiction. After years of quiz, game, and talk shows that were ordinarily confined to daytime fare, the Big Bang of reality TV was The Real World, the show that took the "music" out of MTV. The success of The Real World spawned a hundred more shows where strangers are locked in a house and filmed over time; Big Brother, Last Comic Standing, Hell's Kitchen, The Apprentice. and the Frankenstinian Jersey Shore, which shamed a generation of young people. MTV, meanwhile, gave us celebrity home invasions like The Osbournes and Anna Nicole, the results of which were resolved in courts, clinics, and morgues. Another disaster was My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiance, where a prospective bride's family was led to believe she was marrying a disgusting buffoon up until the phony wedding day when she confessed her hilarious deceit to her traumatized family, who all promptly sought counselling. After the success of Survival, and the phrase, "voted off the island," entered the lexicon, "reality" replaced writing and we were left with Who Wants to be a Millionaire? seven days a week.

We've now seen all the Storage Wars episodes so that they are as quickly identifiable as old Seinfeld reruns. We agree that the people on Pawn Stars in Las Vegas are more likable than the combustible family in Detroit's Hard Core Pawn, where every negative stereotype about angry black people and heartless, Jewish pawnbrokers is played out for the cameras. Between the TruTV Network and the Bravo Channel alone, you can see; Bait Car, World's Dumbest, South Beach Tow, Top Chef, Pregnant in Heels, Next Top Model, Project Runway, and The Shah's of Sunset, which proves that rich Iranians can be just as obnoxious as privileged Americans. But nothing offends like the Kardashian family franchise. Begun as Keeping up With the Kardashians, the story of a family obsessed by surgery and celebrity, it has morphed into what seems a hundred spin-offs. Kim has her own following thanks to a public obsession with her gluteous maximus, with the emphasis on maximus, while her sisters document their marriages to athletes and basketball players, which seem to always end in heartache, as most reality unions do. Just ask Jon and Kate plus Eight. Choose your poison; American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, or Dancing With the Stars, someday this will all come to an end and there will be more drama shows to choose from than Law & Order, and CSI. Until then, if you're entertained by television, it's a coincidence. If you're informed, it's a miracle. Unless your trying to catch a catfish in a mudhole with your toes.