From Out Of The Blue Came Hoyt Axton

Photo (c) MGM.
Photo (c) MGM.

Hoyt Axton? Am I really writing about Hoyt Axton? Why, prior to 12:30 PM of last week’s Tuesday I hadn’t thought about this gentleman in so long it might as well have been forever. And although I’m certain that I used to know a few bits about him, I couldn’t in a million years have told you more than one-tenth of an iota of what I used to knew. Was he once a presence on TV and in movies? Did he write some songs that made it into the mainstream? I’d have guessed yes to both queries, but any specifics would have been beyond my reach. My memories of Hoyt were nothing but the dimmest and vaguest, buried in the dark and dusty recesses of what passes for my mind.

I’ve done some research on Hoyt since then, as any good reporter would. A few hours delving into the vaults of Wikipedia and its brethren have helped bring him to life for me. And what I’ve learned tells me that a lot of people knew about him in his heyday, which took up much of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I should have remembered that. Hoyt, who died in 1999 at age 61, was a fairly big star. He was an occasional actor on the small and big screens, popping up in I Dream Of Jeannie and McCloud, for example, on the former, and in The Black Stallion on the latter. But, more than anything, Hoyt was a music man, a singer-songwriter mostly in the folkie/country/pop veins, who recorded around 25 albums filled with many of his own compositions and who toured all over the place for years. He often imbued his lyrics with wry or idiosyncratic slants and visions. And though he never exactly set the Billboard music charts afire with his own waxings, some of his songs found fine and enduring success in the hands of others. How many millions of people have heard Three Dog Night’s version of Joy To The World (click here to listen)? Too many to count. And though there are some who haven’t encountered Ringo Starr’s irresistibly bouncy immersion in The No No Song (click here), or Steppenwolf’s grinding take on The Pusher (click here) . . . well, that’s their loss.

But you know what, I’ve digressed as far as I need to. Just a little bit to my left, and I can see it clearly, is the bottomless rabbit hole that an extensive investigation of Hoyt, or of just about anybody for that matter, would ensnare me in. Help! I’m a muser, not a biographer. Rabbit holes and I don’t get along! This story, you see, isn’t meant to be so much about Hoyt as it is about getting jazzed by the simple things in life, good things that show up from out of the blue and make you say wowza. Such as hearing a song you’ve never heard before that sets you flying.

There I was, then, at 12:30 PM a week ago Tuesday, driving home from who knows where, when I flipped the car radio to WPRB, Princeton University’s radio station whose programming is unpredictable, wild and sometimes wooly. A song was in progress, and immediately I liked what I heard. The song moved at a languid pace, buoyed by spare, shimmering keyboard notes, quiet yet urgent vocals and delicate percussion work. It floated, it drifted and it took me aboard. Spacey and wispy, it made me wish that I was 30 or 40 years younger, toking up to enjoy the journey even more. Potless though I was, the song put me in a most excellent frame of mind: Calm, open. Yeah, man . . . a superb way to be.

What song was I listening to? Undoubtedly something by a modern day neo-psychedelic conjurer, I figured. But noooooo. A few minutes later the song ended and the DJ started talking. You could have knocked me over with a magic mushroom when he said that the track, Kingswood Manor (click here), was performed by Hoyt Axton, he whose name, as I mentioned, I hadn’t thought about in eons. I couldn’t recall ever hearing Hoyt sing a song before.

griffin-hoyt-515djbjzfl__sx425_Well, my mini high lasted for a decent spell beyond the song’s end. And I’ve since revisited Kingswood Manor a number of times, diligent and conscientious blogger that I am. It comes from Hoyt’s obscure 1969 album My Griffin Is Gone. Hoyt solely wrote or co-wrote all of its tunes. I’ve listened to it from start to finish on YouTube. MGIG, I imagine, isn’t a conventional Hoyt album, dressed up as many of its songs are with strings and baroque strokes. I also gave a listen online to his 1977 album Road Songs, a country and honky-tonk workout that probably is more typically Hoyt. And I have to say that overall I prefer Road Songs to Griffin. Road Songs’ songwriting seems more focused and stronger. But Kingswood Manor? Sure, lyrically it’s unsettling, what with its trippy looks into a troubled mind. At song’s finish, has the protagonist escaped from madness, finding bliss? I believe you can argue the puzzle either way. Whatever the case, I find the words fascinating. It’s the sonics and mood, though, that I concentrate on, because for me that’s where Kingswood Manor’s power is at. To me the song is magnifique, the type of creation that rings my astral bells just right. I don’t know how the Princeton DJ ever came across Kingswood Manor. It’s one of those tunes that only relative handfuls of folks are familiar with. But glad I am that he did.

 

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The Sweet Spot (Musically Speaking)

It was a typical Sunday evening in the Scheinin home. There we were, my wife Sandy and I, sitting on the living room couch, twiddling our thumbs in unison and waiting for the tea kettle to come to a boil. I know that this picture sounds bland, but you’d be surprised how strongly it, and many similar moments in my life and Sandy’s life, resonate with a group of media honchos who for now will go unnamed. Let me just say that Sandy and I have been tabbed to star in a reality TV series projected to air beginning in early 2017. It’s tentative title is Action Is Overrated: Flying Low With The Scheinins. Stay tuned to this website for updates.

Earlier in the day, though, I had gone against grain and been an energetic person. In the aftermath of January’s Blizzard Jonas, which had dumped two feet of snow in my suburban Philadelphia region the previous day, I had spent three hours shoveling. Incredibly, my back hadn’t stiffened like a log. In fact it felt pretty good as, the kettle finally having tooted,  Sandy and I settled back with our cuppas and I started paying attention to the tunes emanating from the radio. On most Sunday nights we flip between three stations which, at those hours, keep things on the non-bombastic side. We didn’t feel the need to scramble our brains with punk rock or heavy funk or avant garde jazz. Not that I would have minded, to tell you the truth, but I wasn’t in the mood to provoke divorce proceedings.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons

And at around 8 PM something wonderful happened. WPRB, Princeton University’s eclectic-minded station, played a song that changed my tunings. The song not only caught my attention, it caused me to melt and then to float. I liked that. “Oh wow,” I said to myself. “I wouldn’t mind a joint right now.” But those really high days are so far behind me I’d need Daniel Boone to help me find the trail leading back to them. Instead, I settled for present-day reality. Closing my eyes I began to vibrate in a most splendid way. I followed the music as it traveled, gently swirling in and around the sounds. Gram Parsons’ countrified version of The Streets Of Baltimore (click here to listen) had gone straight to my sweet spot.

Sweet spot? I’m definitely at a loss to say exactly what this is. In nearly 60 years as a music imbiber I hadn’t given it much thought till Gram came on the radio the other night, although I’d been its beneficiary thousands of times before. I suppose that my sweet spot is a magical kind of place whose gatekeepers, when awakened by just-right combinations of tones and rhythms, send me on a calm yet mysteriously exciting journey. It’s all very cool.

But you know, music can bypass my sweet spot and still make me feel great. For instance, there’s nothing better than straight-ahead Stonesy rock when pumping up my internal volume is a priority. And Sinatra singing I’m A Fool To Want You or some other such brooding song is my ticket to a deep and contemplative experience. At times though, such as on the post-Jonas night, I realize that I want nothing more than allowing my sweet spot to be opened. Stringed instruments often, yet hardly always, hold the key.

The Waterboys
The Waterboys

Soon after WPRB’s disc jockey spun The Streets Of Baltimore he threw another transporter at me, and it got to me even more than the Parsons number. It was Fisherman’s Blues (click here to listen), a Celtic-rocker by The Waterboys. The Streets Of Baltimore’s gorgeous pedal steel guitar and fiddle lines, trancelike clip-clop beat and Gram’s quietly potent singing had sent me to the upper atmosphere. Fisherman’s mandolin and fiddle work took me even higher. Man, those two instruments intertwined like perfect friends, hard and steady drumming allowing them to soar. And Mike Scott’s gruff vocals and exuberant whoops?  Spine-tingling.

The Robins
The Robins

After Fisherman’s Blues ended I wanted another sweet ride. Turning thumbs-down on the next few songs that WPRB aired, I flipped over to University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN, but came up empty there too. Another channel switch brought me to the low wattage operation based a few miles from where I live, the all-volunteer WRDV. I’m crazy about this station. Five or so years ago it reignited my love for R&B, soul and doo wop. And minutes after I tuned in on that recent Sunday night they played a song that took me away: My Heart’s The Biggest Fool, recorded and released in early 1953 by The Robins, a pretty popular R&B vocal group during that era. I tip my hat to WRDV for knowing about this obscurity. I’d never heard of the song before (click here to listen). As it played I went with the flow and swam for the third time that evening through the ethers. Simple instrumentation, vocals that swell and bubble majestically, understated electric guitar work that subtly pushes things along. Magnificent.

Sweet spots. We’re lucky we have ’em.

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Missing David Bowie

On January 11, a Monday, I heard about David Bowie’s passing. He had shuffled off this mortal coil the prior day. I was shocked by the news, though I’d hardly have described myself as a devout Bowie fan. As that Monday morning segued into afternoon, I couldn’t get Bowie out of my mind. Neither could my wife Sandy, who is far less of a Bowie devotee than I am. We were drawn, as if by an invisible force, to WXPN, the Philadelphia area’s most astute music radio station. In tribute to the great man they were playing Bowie music exclusively for much of the day. We listened for two or three hours, and when XPN turned to other programming at 7 PM Sandy and I put on WPRB, the Princeton University station, to see if Bowie reigned there. He did, and we listened to his songs for several hours more. I can’t think of many artists who, following their deaths, would receive radio homages of this sort. And of course the Bowie outpourings weren’t limited to radio. Media coverage of his life and death has been enormous and heartfelt worldwide.

David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)
David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)

Naively I suppose, I’ve been amazed by the degree of attention that Bowie, in death, has attracted. I’ve been very glad to learn that countless journalists and media commentators held him in really high esteem, not to mention legions of fans. On January 11 Bowie was a top global story, probably the top story, in newspapers, on television and throughout cyberspace.

And I’m struck by the extent that Bowie’s death has touched me. My reaction took me by surprise, wasn’t something I’d have predicted. I don’t know the last time a celebrity’s demise hit me so strongly. Maybe it was in 1980, when John Lennon left us. Lennon was one of my heroes. Though Bowie wasn’t, I admired the heck out of him during a swath of the 1970s and always have considered him to be a cultural giant. That accounts for part of my sadness, but not for all. So, what else was it about Bowie’s death that got to me? I’ve thought about this for awhile and have come up with two main reasons.

David Bowie recorded 26 studio albums. His final work, Blackstar, entered the marketplace on his 69th birthday, two days before he died. I own six of his albums. All of them are from the 1970s except for 2002’s Heathen. I love my six from the 70s. Each I believe is great, and the greatest to me is 1976’s head-spinning and majestic Station To Station. I don’t know why I stopped buying Bowie’s releases after Station To Station. I read about them, heard some tunes on the radio, but didn’t lay down any dollars again till 26 years later. Nothing new, I was just plain stupid. Here was a guy with a brilliant track record, whose albums I once had spun over and over, and nonchalantly I had abandoned his singular musical journey. It wasn’t till a few nights ago that I realized what I had missed. WXPN and WPRB played tracks from Low, Lodger, The Next Day and other albums I barely, if at all, was familiar with. The music, as I might have guessed, was fantastic. And I played Heathen on my CD player. I hadn’t listened to it in so long I didn’t recall a single number. David, I only partly knew ya’. I should have kept up. Mea culpa.

Still, missing out on a lot of David Bowie’s music isn’t the end of the world. But it’s an example of not paying attention to life, of letting life pass on by without proper appreciation. And that’s a big deal. I try fairly hard to savor the moment and to do the right thing, but there’s mucho room for improvement. Bowie’s death somehow made me look at myself and my underachieving approach. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

And Bowie’s passing did more than that. In the recesses of my mind I discovered some connective tissues that bonded me with him. You see, David Bowie was only a smattering of months older than I, and because of that I subconsciously had felt a kinship with him. And so when he died an internal link to my younger self broke and I started to contemplate the big picture even more deeply. I mulled over the kinds of thoughts that aren’t reassuring. Such as: Even if I make it for another 25 years I’m a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. Man, that’s a bummer. My excellent friend Jeff recently asked me if I believe that human life goes on in a spirit mode after the flesh fails. He’s a believer. I’m not. My take is that each person’s trip is confined to Planet Earth and that the trip is one-and-done.

That said, on with the party. I plan to buy a bunch of David Bowie albums soon, to catch up with someone, now-departed, whom I miss.

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