Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Saw An AMG Guy!

No, not Stephen Thomas Erlewine, but Richie Unterberger. If the name Richie Unterberger doesn't immediately ring a bell, let me just say that if you've spent a reasonable amount of time perusing the All Music Guide, you have most likely read something written by Richie Unterberger whether you've been aware of it or not. For example, the official AMG biographies for obscure cult bands such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd, Jim Hendrix, The Doors, The Velvet Underground and Simon & Garfunkel are his, as well as the official AMG reviews for some bargain bin albums named Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, Pet Sounds, Let It Bleed, Tommy, and Are You Experienced?, among others. His specialty appears to be '60s rock, pop, and soul. From what I've gathered, he is one of those hardcore '60s rock purists who thinks that popular music became significantly less worthwhile right around 1971. No progressive rock, singer-songwriter, punk or disco for Richie Unterberger, thank you. At times I feel like he takes '60s rock a bit too seriously, lamenting the subsequent turn to tackiness and tastelessness in the '70s the way a jazz obsessive might have lamented the turn to rock and roll. Yet within that early rock timeframe, Unterberger seems to hold no snobbish tendencies whatsoever. He appears to be just as fond of the Four Seasons as he is of the Beach Boys, just as fond of Lulu (clip featured above) as he is of Dusty Springfield. So I don't quite know what his deal is, but like Erlewine, he's a very informative and reasonable writer.

He also, so I've discovered, lives in San Francisco and gives monthly presentations of rare rock and roll film clips at the Park Branch library on Page St. - only seven or eight blocks from my apartment! Thus was the case last Wednesday, and after seeing the event listed in the Examiner, I knew I needed to attend. Well, Cosmic American friends, it was everything you might have hoped for and more. The crowd was a predictable cluster of anti-social rock geeks, grey-haired baby boomers and stoned hippie burnouts. A sleazy-looking guy behind me asked another slightly less sleazy-looking guy behind me for some pot, but I believe he was refused. Any mystique I imagined Richie to possess after years of reading his reviews dissipated in a short time. He was a slightly balding fellow with a beer belly wearing an Elvis '56 t-shirt. "My God," I thought. "This legendary AMG writer is...just some guy!"

Most of the clips were terrific. At one point he joked that we could probably find a lot of them on YouTube by now but that "you'd be missing out on the wonderful in-person commentary" (I've tried to link to the ones I could find). He showed footage of Alex Chilton performing "The Letter" live with the Box Tops, Linda Ronstadt doing a tune with the Stone Poneys (of "Different Drum" fame), Burt Bacharach leading his band in a solo "performance" (three coquettish blonde girls did the actual singing), Jimi Hendrix running through "Hey Joe" (stopping in mid-song and switching to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love"), and so on. Richie was particularly enthusiastic about two early rock and roll clips. One featured Bill Haley & The Comets in what looked like a theatrical short that had been filmed in 1954, before the idea of "rock and roll" even really existed. Although Haley has a (mostly fair I'd say) reputation for being square and cornball compared to Elvis and the other early rock and roll performers, in this clip the stand-up bass player began riding his bass around the stage like a horse while the saxophone player essentially humped him. The other was of Gene Vincent ("Be Bop A Lula") dressed head-to-toe in leather, prancing around a stage in France with his gimp leg, for the most part looking (and sounding) a lot like the Hamburg-era Beatles. Finally, we got some killer footage of the Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show doing "Time Is On My Side," The Kinks storming through "You Really Got Me," and the Yardbirds performing "Heart Full of Soul." During the Yardbirds clip a particularly spaced-out audience member proclaimed, "Wow, man...Jeff Beck..." Everyone ignored him.

It was a bit of a mind-meld watching these clips with Richie in the same room with me. For example, as I observed the Yardbirds singing "Heart Full of Soul," I thought, "This, of course, was one of the three famous Yardbirds hits written by songwriter Graham Gouldman, which is a piece of information I learned many years ago by reading...Richie Unterberger from the All Music Guide! Whoa."

Most of all, this was an excellent opportunity for me to feed my own music geek ego, as Richie often asked us questions in between clips and I was eager to shout out the answers. When he started playing a clip of The Move performing "Blackberry Way," I exclaimed "Hey, The Move!" to demonstrate to the people around me that, oh yes, I knew this was a clip of The Move. I received the ultimate opportunity to flaunt my knowledge when Richie showed a clip of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac performing "Oh Well." Yoggoth can attest to my recent discovery of the pre Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac, so I was well-armed for this moment. After the clip ended, I decided to ask a question, the answer to which I was relatively sure I knew anyway. While my hand was in the air, Richie explained that "we had a clip of the earlier and, in my opinion, much better line-up of Fleetwood Mac," to which a man sitting behind me muttered, "Yeah, God, really." OK, we get it guys, you're too cool for Rumours, just keep it to yourself, all right? At any rate, Richie pointed to me and I asked my question: "So was that Jeremy Spencer shaking the maracas and Danny Kirwan playing guitar in the middle?" Richie replied, "Yes" and began explaining the history of early Fleetwood Mac to those who might not have been aware. Which did not include me of course. But although a great deal of my motivation in asking the question was to show off my rock snobbery, I did genuinely want to confirm which band member was which.

So in the end, I can't say I met Richie but I did ask him a question. Besides, since I've learned that he gives these sorts of presentations once a month, I have to admit that there really is no rush and I may possibly meet him in the future.

In other words: rock journalism, here I come!


yoggoth said...

Yeah, once you meet Richie Unterberger you're a shoe-in.

PS: That's the best version of Shout I've ever heard.

Little Earl said...

Hey, have YOU met Richie Unterberger?

No. No I didn't think so.

And yes, how about Lulu's version of "Shout"? For a tiny little British girl she sounds pretty soulful. And, as Richie said, "the clip gets extra points for the dress."

Herr Zrbo said...

That's a cool story LE, though most of the bands and songs you referenced I have no idea who they are (Peter Green era what?).

Too bad the guy is 60s only, not that it wasn't a great decade for rock, but it sounds more like that's the era he grew up in and that's what he's nostalgic for. Like how I enjoy most 90s music from 90-96, anything after I left high school is obviously inferior.

Now you just need to hunt down Mr. Erlewine.

Little Earl said...

I think Erlewine lives in Michigan. Anybody up for a road trip?

Anyway, the weird thing about Richie Unterberger is that he's only about 45, so I don't think his affection for the '60s is necessarily rooted in Baby Boomer nostalgia. Maybe (like me) he possesses a loathing for the era he actually grew up in.

And as for the bands I referenced, well Zrbo, the clips are right there, so you better get watching!

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