Seeing outgoing presidents leaving town on a helicopter will always remind us of Richard Nixon. It is almost never a glorious moment. And yet even George W. Bush, the American who I thought has done most damage to our country in my lifetime, somehow made me feel more sorry for him than anger at him. Like a bad relationship, I’m way past anger; just get the hell out of here and don’t let me see your pathetic face again. And, as he sat there absorbing not-so-veiled blows from his complete opposite -- i.e. Barak Obama as the president who has so far been the most inspirational candidate and now office holder in my lifetime – Bush just seemed like a stupid but ultimately good-hearted guy who got in way over his head, an insolent adolescent getting reprimanded for totaling the car. As Neil Young sings in this week’s bonus Cover of the Week, “Campaigner,” “even Richard Nixon has got soul.” Neil has been doing versions of the song in the past year or so where he had been substituting W’s name for Nixon’s. Yeah, even Bush has got soul.
There have been three or four primary influences on my guitar playing. OK, let’s say five. No wait, let’s say 4.5. I knew I would never be Hendrix. So he was not a major influence to me, though certainly he was someone I tried to emulate, to take in some lessons from listening to repeatedly. But the major guys when I was a kid were Keith Richard and Mick Taylor for rhythm and lead playing, and Pete Townsend for somehow playing both at the same. Jimmy Page was also a guy I studied as well as tons of Southern rock cats. The guy I probably ended up most resembling, though, is Neil Young. I will get to the .5 influence in a paragraph or two, so hang in there, tough guy.
Decade, Live Rust, Comes a Time, Tonight’s the Night – these were and remain huge records for me, as almost all of Neil’s prime records (don’t get me going about Zuma) remain. But it was those four that I got as a kid, like 13 years old, and played early and often. And I could play guitar to a lot of those songs and have it sound reasonable close. Keith’s parts always sounded a bit off in my hands and the hands of other starting guitarists because almost all the classic Stones songs from 1969-onward were recorded in open-G tuning, which takes a bit of practice to master. Most people learn in a standard guitar tuning. Mick Taylor -- well he was just one of the best English blues soloists around. I say he blows away Clapton, who never did much for me, I have to admit. And Pete was all about mastering loud and heavy open-chord rhythm and one needed a lot of room in a band to be able to play like him. So my first bands, which had another guitar player and pianist, would often damper the power-chord style just a little. However, when Buffalo Tom formed, a power trio, it was Pete and Neil time. Because Neil also played a wiry, sloppy, hairy style that veered between rhythm and out-of-control soloing. Control was never something of which I had in good measure; loud, sloppy, domineering, cacophonous, trying to rein it in – this was more my style even as a kid.
But before Buff Tom, the early-‘80s came. Even Neil cut his hair and dipped into Trans for while. The hippy stuff and bloated arena rock were soundly and rightly rejected. However, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as a ton of people went all Roland Jazz Chorus on us, getting their Andy Summers, David Byrne, and Peter Buck on. Even the crazy guitar stuff was controlled. There was restraint even in Adrian Belew’s wacked-out playing. Of course, I’m generalizing and limiting the scope to what transpired as influences for my immediate circle. There were of course economically heavy dudes like Angus, the Clash, and other loose punk and rock and rollers. And we liked all that immensely, of course. And there were cartoon remnants and descendants of the bloviated-excess era, groups like Van Halen and Rush, which just made me laugh like Kiss did when I was a teenager. But the overall trends were toward newer (and sort of pre-distortion older, more traditional), cleaner styles. And it wasn’t until guys like the hardcore and post-hardcore guys like the Replacements, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, and – this brings me to my .5 – Dinosaur (late Dinosaur Jr.) came around was it safe to start wailing again.
So let’s talk about J Mascis, who, to no one’s surprise, I feel is one of the greatest guitarists to emerge since 1984. He is the most talented and lyrical soloist I know. The people who ran places we used to play together in Northampton and Amherst hated him and hated us. These were little pathetic joints that were used to those JC-120s (which I started out with in BT, in full disclosure) and mediocre reggae and cheesy "blues" bands. Bassists played through those little fake bass amps. Drummers played friggin’ rototoms and piccolo snares. It was a bad time, a bad, bad time. Then Mascis came in, barely said a word to anyone, even when or especially when someone at the club told him to turn down, and cranked up these insanely loud old Marshall amps, causing (literally) pieces of the walls to fall off the clubs. But it was not just the volume; he was playing beautiful parts, heavy but pretty chords and 10-minute solos that would not repeat themselves, like great jazz solos, revelatory. People were ecstatic; at least the 25 of us that would go see Dino back then.
Prior to that, I felt like only a friend or two and I were the only ones still listening to Neil Young and stuff like that. In fact, we all had radio shows on low-watt stations out at UMass. One time some friends were sorting records to carry in crates over to the station and one guy joking asked the other, “Hey Bob, can you give me a hand taking Decade out of this box?” The joke being of course that the huge three-LP set was a symbol of the 1970s excesses that they were going to help beat down by playing Naked Raygun and This is Boston, Not LA on their radio show.
But to me, Mascis sounded like a punk rock Neil Young in both voice and as a guitar soloist. But he was his own guy as well, adding more Hendrix-type runs, and Thurston Moore experimental stuff in there. The reason I don’t add him as a full 5th primary influence in there is that I felt pretty flatlined as a guitarist by then. I felt more or less fully formed. I had played 20-minute versions of “Cortez the Killer” before I knew who J was. What J did for me and many others, was to make it safe again to want to be a big rock guitarist. And, yeah, I also learned a lot from J about tone, volume, and equipment. But, as with Hendrix, I knew I could never play so fluidly. Or, I never tried to. I was more interested in strumming rhythm and writing songs. I was never the lead guitarist as a kid. And for some reason, I feel like those older guys had more influence on me. I feel like I have actually made some breakthroughs in soloing even real recently. And I have never stopped learning. So maybe J is more of a full influence up there with those other guys and I just don’t include him because he came in so relatively late for me. I know more listeners hear J in Buffalo Tom’s playing, but while I always felt it was a valid comparison when people pointed out the similarities of us and Dino, I also felt that was a lazy point. Of course we were influenced by the band, we asked J to produce our first two records. Relatively few people went back to notice that we were, I felt, more influenced by the Replacements, Husker Du and those old guys. Like Neil Young. And I felt our songwriting was very different than Dino, more poppy, influenced by REM, the Stones, all sorts of stuff. Maybe not.
We rarely took offense at the suggestion that we were Dinosaur Jr. Jr. Ha ha, very clever. The only time I recall reacting is in Iowa City early on. We had just finished at Gabe’s Oasis in the very early days (probably our second tour) when some annoying drunk dude kept horning in on a chat we were having outside our van with some kids we had met. He kept stumbling and leaning in, sloshing around, slurring out insults. When he finally got in my face and sloppily declared, “Dinosaur IMPOSTERS!” at me, I took my half cup of beer and threw it in his face, something I instantly regretted as he stood there blinking slowly and dramatically, mouth agape, wiping the beer from his eyes. Even as we were pulling out of the parking lot a few minutes later, he was chasing the van yelling that sort of belated “let me at ‘em!”
Neil, like Stones and Led Zeppelin, was also a huge influence as an acoustic guitar player. Until the “Unplugged” days, the guitarists I knew did not make stark distinctions between acoustic and electric playing. We played guitar. But Keith Richards adds acoustic to his overall rhythmic texture while Neil tends to have a slightly different acoustic style than electric, albeit a difference less stark than all the amplification would lead one to believe; except for his wild soloing, his accompaniment all tends to be open, ringing chords on both electric and acoustic. This is perhaps the major influence on my style. I play relatively few bar chords. The open style allows for more space to be filled in a trio with one guitarist. But Neil tends to be all acoustic or all electric. He does not do a lot of overdubs. Page and Richards are quite often strumming acoustic on their most “rock” recordings. It is there as almost a percussion instrument.
We used to sit around as 14 year olds playing songs like “Needle and the Damage Done,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Campaigner.” Like the Stones, Waits, Dylan, Costello, Van the Man, an other major influences, I assume there will be more than a couple of Neil covers during this project. And don't forget these bonus covers later on when I get busy and miss a week later in the year. The winter is dead in real estate (remind me to tell you some real estate stories some time -- they might be more entertaining than my rock stories....maybe) and I don't get out of the house as much so I have had some good momentum in the studio.
So here you go, new President, old one out on a helicopter to go clear some brush just as Nixon walked his beach. A melancholy wistful melody that totally suits the subject matter.