While waiting for the Trump Treason Express to pick up speed and crash, I yearn for distraction. I turn to my old friends: music, books, the Dodgers. And some actual people, too.
Just when we got back from vacation, we went to one of the happiest, most enjoyable concerts I’ve been to in a long time. It was a concert celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the release of the Byrds’ SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO album with Byrds’ co-founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman backed by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives at the Ace Hotel here in Los Angeles.
For many people, myself included, SWEETHEART was an important album. There might have been other “country rock” albums before, but this was the one that made it OK for rockers to listen to country music, use it, and embrace it. (And it was the world’s first wide exposure to the soulful brilliance of Gram Parsons.) I always had an ear for country music. Early on, I spent hours with a few Merle Haggard albums and a yellow “Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits” on my turntable. There was something basic about country music that I’ve always loved. Harlan Howard’s phrase “three chords and the truth” just about nails it.
Except for the Beatles, the Byrds were my favorite group. I saw them five times: once at the Fillmore East (opening acts: Tim Buckley and the Foundations), twice at Carnegie Hall (opening acts: the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Holy Modal Rounders, and then Redbone), once at the Capitol Theatre in Portchester, NY (opening act: Mother Earth with the fabulous Tracy Nelson), and once in Central Park (opening act: Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, with special guest King Curtis, two weeks before he was killed, knifed by a drug dealer in a fight outside his apartment building after the dealer refused to move from the entrance when Curtis was trying to carry an air conditioner inside.)
All were memorable shows. By the time I saw that first Fillmore East show, original members David Crosby and Gene Clark were gone. Gram Parsons played piano in the background. The last four shows were the Roger McGuinn-Plus-Some-Other-Guys Byrds. Fortunately, one of those other guys was Clarence White, one of the slickest, most talented guitarists ever, so the band was good and still had some relevance. And McGuinn was always the essential sound of the Byrds anyway: his reedy voice and his 12-string Rickenbacker.
The country rock sound that the Byrds pioneered – “The Byrds invented it; the Flying Burrito Brothers perfected it; and the Eagles cashed in on it.” (Chris Hillman) – formed the basis for much of the music I listened to in the decades after SWEETHEART, and even today. Emmylou Harris, the Jayhawks, Steve Earle, the Mavericks, Lucinda Willliams, etc., etc.
The concert was pure joy, a love fest, really. It was the first official show of the tour (they had done a tune-up show in Nashville) and the outpouring of emotion from the audience was undeniable. Everyone in that hall had listened to this music for a long, long time, and to hear it again – played so well!! – was thrilling. When the band played the refrain of the very first song, Dylan’s “My Back Pages” – “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” we knew that we were in good hands. McGuinn sounded like McGuinn, even if his voice weakened toward the end of the evening, Hillman’s tenor was strong, and Marty Stuart’s band was the perfect choice to back them up.
Toward the end, Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s guitarist, came onstage, and the show turned into a mini-Tom Petty tribute, almost hijacking the proceedings. But it made a kind of roundabout sense: the Heartbreakers were obviously influenced by the Byrds (“American Girl” always sounded like a Byrds’ outtake), and Tom Petty produced Chris Hillman’s most recent record. I was OK with it; any chance to see Mike Campbell play guitar is not to be missed.
Here’s the setlist –
-- My Back Pages
-- A Satisfied Mind
-- Mr. Spaceman
-- Time Between
-- Old John Robertson
-- Wasn’t Born To Follow
-- Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man
-- Mr. Tambourine Man
“SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO” SET
-- Country Boy Rock ‘N Roll
-- Time Don’t Wait
-- You Ain’t Going Nowhere
-- Pretty Boy Floyd
-- Hickory Wind
-- Life In Prison
-- One Hundred Years From Now
-- Nothing Was Delivered
-- Blue Canadian Rockies
-- The Christian Life
-- You’re Still On My Mind
-- You Don’t Miss Your Water
-- I Am A Pilgrim
-- You Ain’t Going Nowhere (again, as a sing-along)
-- So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
-- American Girl
-- Runnin’ Down A Dream
-- Turn! Turn! Turn!
It was a truly wonderful -- and for those of us who grew up on the Byrds -- satisfying show. The TG liked it. My very good friends liked it, especially my very good friend with whom I saw four out of five of those Byrds shows, almost fifty years ago.
I even bought the T-shirt.
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” – from the LA show we saw on July 24th – nice mezzanine shot
“You Don’t Miss Your Water” – from the Mountain Winery a few nights later
“My Back Pages” – from the second night in LA
And speaking of old friends, we’re going next month to see DON CARLO at the Los Angeles Opera. Some operas I’ve listened to hundreds of times, and this is one of them.
Here are my DONs:
1. Verdi/DON CARLO – Cerquetti/Lo Forese/Barbieri/Bastianini/Siepi – cond. Votto (live Florence 1956)
2. Verdi/DON CARLO – Jurinac/Fernandi/Simionato/Bastianini/Siepi – cond. Karajan (live Salzburg 1958)
3. Verdi/DON CARLO – Brouwenstijn/Vickers/Gobbi/Barbieri/Christoff – cond. Giulini (live Covent Garden 1958)
4. Verdi/DON CARLO – Corelli/Kabaivanska/Quilico/Dominguez/Ghiaurov – cond. Guadagno (live Philadelphia – 1966)
5. Verdi/DON CARLO – Corelli/Janowitz/Verrett/Wachter/Ghiaurov – cond. Stein (live Vienna 1970)
6. Verdi/DON CARLO – Domingo/Caballe/Verrett/Milnes/Raimondi – cond. Giulini 1971
7. Verdi/DON CARLO – Corelli/Caballe/Bumbry/Milnes/Siepi – cond. Molinari-Pradelli (live Met 1972)
8. Verdi/DON CARLO – Domingo/Freni/Cappuccilli/Ghiaurov/Ludwig/Crasnaru – cond. Karajan (live Salzburg – 11 Aug 1975)
9. Verdi/DON CARLO – Carreras/Freni/Obratzova/Cappuccilli/Ghiaurov – cond. Abbado (live La Scala 1977)
10. Verdi/DON CARLO – Carreras/Freni/Cappuccilli/Baltsa/Ghiaurov – cond. van Karajan 1979
Even though the 1971 Giulini studio recording with Domingo and Caballe is the most “accepted” complete DON, I find myself listening more often to von Karajan’s heavily cut live DON from Salzburg in 1958 because it features some of my absolute favorite singers (Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Sena Jurinac, Cesare Siepi) in full vocal flight and Abbado’s fuller La Scala performance from 1977, even though its star cast (Jose Carreras and Mirella Freni) is kind of light-voiced for their roles.
DON CARLO is an endlessly listenable and explorable opera simply because there are so many different versions: French or Italian, four-act or five-act. With or without the Fountainbleu scene, and in what order. I wonder which cuts LA maestro James Conlon will take, what choices he will make.
The cast for LA looks good: Ramon Vargas at the end of his career as Don Carlo, LA Opera regular Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabeth, Italian master Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip, and Placido Domingo doing one of his dropped-down baritone roles as Posa. Funny, how he’s dropped down from a famous Don Carlo to a provincial Posa. I’d rather hear a real Verdi baritone in the role, but it’s what we’ve got.
DON CARLO may not have the one huge, instantly recognizable hit number like many other Verdi operas, and it doesn’t have much of an ending, but for the consistency of the music all the way through, it may be my favorite Verdi opera.
The entire Auto Da Fe scene from the 1983 Met production
“The Oath Duet” – with Placido Domingo and Louis Quilico – from the Met production, 1983
“The Oath Duet” – in concert – with Carlo Bergonzi and Piero Cappuccilli (superlative singing)
The Grand Inquisitor scene with Paul Plishka and Jerome Hines
Mirella Freni sings “Tu che la vanita” – from the 1983 Met production
Ferruccio Furlanetto sings “Ella giammai m’amo” – This is the King Philip we’re going to see. I can’t wait: it’s one of his specialties.
Dolora Zajack as Princess Eboli singing “The Veil Song” from La Scala, 2008
Fiorenza Cossotto singing Eboli’s other big aria, “O Don Fatale”
I’ve been reading a lot – books to escape, books to remember – about some of our vacation destinations. Besides reading through my art books on Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, the Hermitage, the history of the still life, etc., I’m deep into a wonderful book LAND OF THE FIREBIRD: The Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie, which my dear friend Susan Pile gave me years ago with a heartfelt recommendation. She was right.
And one of my favorite modern authors – V.S. NAIPAUL – died this week. “Favorite” is perhaps an odd word to ascribe to a man as reputedly unlikeable as Naipaul, but nonetheless, he is a favorite of mine.
Why? A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS (one of the few novels I’ve read twice since I’ve become an adult), IN A FREE STATE, A BEND IN THE RIVER, GUERILLAS, HALF A MAN, THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL, and a few other novels and countless essays. Naipaul writes with a clarity, intelligence, and dispassion that I find to be unique. I think that most writers want to be liked and/or admired by their readers. I don’t think that Naipaul cared what anybody thought about his writing; he just cared about the truth, his truth. A lot of what I know about Naipaul the Man isn’t very complimentary, to say the least (racist? reactionary colonialist? violent misogynist? bad friend? sourpuss? snob?), but the books are another matter entirely. He’s a classic “trust the art, not the artist” writer.
Naipaul’s Nobel lecture
A 2004 interview with V.S. Naipaul
A “Charlie Rose” show with Naipaul
Jonathan Raban interviewing Paul Theroux about his book SIR VIDIA’S SHADOW, his account of his tumultuous, tortured “friendship” with Naipaul
A short lecture on A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS
UK TV tribute to Naipaul
And we’ve been spending a lot of time, watching the Dodgers in an up-and-down season. The TG and I went to a game, the middle game in a three-game rematch against the Houston Astros, who beat the Dodgers in last year’s World Series, and it was definitely, almost comically, a “down” game for my team. The Dodgers lost 14-0, their largest shut-out at home since 1923(!) and got only three hits. Their biggest rally was two consecutive walks. It was pathetic, yet the TG and I still had a great time. I had a Dodger dog and a beer. We’ll go back.
Meanwhile, Kenley Jansen, our closer, is out for a few weeks with an irregular heartbeat. Different players are slumping, but we got Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. It’s a longshot for us to get back to the Series, but you never know. I’ll be watching the whole way.
And, last but certainly not least, my big brother and his lovely wife visited us for five days. Despite the LA heatwave, we had great fun: parties with friends, family dinners, lots of good talk, swimming, museums, music, and much time with Calder.
My brother is my oldest friend. He remembers things that even I can’t remember.