Following my initial Facebook posting of my thoughts on Neil Young last night, which became the basis of today’s brief concert review, cdm picked up on my reference to Neil’s cover of the excellent Gordon Lightfoot song “If You Can Read My Mind” and said (offlist) something to the effect of,
I’m particularly glad to hear that Neil is a fan of the ‘foot.
If I were a normal person, I would have let that comment stay on the record without comment. That’s what nice, normal people do. I’m not at least one of those two things. Instead, I said something to the effect of,
It was helpful for me to be reminded that Gordon Lightfoot actually wrote a great song. I have not understood the Genius of Lightfoot cult that’s developed over the last 15 years. “Sundown” is kind of cool, but I also grew up chuckling at it and still do. That other hit of his, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” is Blood, Sweat & Tears/Billy Joel’s sea shanty bad. What am I missing?
This led to the type of back and forth we used to come to expect in the Halls of Rock, with cdm and other FB friends posting examples of other “great” Lightfoot songs and me shooting them down with statements like,
I don’t know, that Hokey Macho way he sings does nothing for me. It’s like the Brawny paper towels guy came to life as a singer-songwriter.
Our old friend saturnismine backed me up with a one-liner that topped anything I’d been able to articulate:
I’ve always thought classic REM sounded like Neil Diamond in a minor key with added twinkly guitar bits. Until the other night, I had not heard more than a single REM song at a time in a good 15 years. One of the friends we’re renting a place with in New Mexico played a half dozen or more REM songs from his or her iPod, and my old thoughts about REM and Diamond were revived.
Michael Stipe has similar phrasing and vocal tone to Diamond. He projects a similar “solitary manliness,” laying into the opening phrase of almost every line. The choruses of REM and Diamond have a lot in common too, sweeping upward and pouring on the solitary manliness established by the verses.
Listen to almost any classic REM song and see if you can’t sing the lyrics and melody of one of Diamond’s big hits. You may have to pause between verses now and then to allow Peter Buck to play one of those twinkly parts, but it’s not that hard to hear the similarities in songwriting and structure.
Like Diamond, Stipe and company abandoned their “forever in blue jeans” Look and gussied themselves up to project “larger than life.” For the last 20+ years Stipe has felt compelled to act out some larger drama for a loyal, aging audience. Diamond perfected this approach 20 years earlier.
I’m not holding this comparison against REM; in fact, I’ve always had the slightest of soft spots for Neil Diamond. Thinking of REM in this way helps me like them more than when I think of more common comparisons, like how they used to be compared to The Byrds because of the twinkly guitar parts and folky vibe. I think that comparison has always sold the band short.
Years ago, when my wife and I were first dating, we ran into one of my old musician friends on a street corner. His long hair and slacker Shaggy Rogers facade hid the fact that he was a gentle, thoughtful guy whose only vice was sweets. After continuing on our way, she said something like, “Band members have this reputation for being tough and cool, but whenever I meet them they’re usually the nicest people in the club.” From 1978 through the 1980s, Penny Rush-Valladares interacted with rock stars galore while running Backstage Cafe, a concert catering company in Kansas City, Missouri. In the process, Penny became a member of the Kansas City rock scene herself. From both the tales on her website, Rock and Roll Stories, and our conversations about her her experiences, it quickly became clear that Penny was among the many nice ones in the rock scene, super nice.
But this hard-working, rock ‘n roll-loving hippie (in the best sense of the term) isn’t beyond dishing more than her patented turkey dinners. In the course of our talk we gain some shocking insights about the likes of Roger Waters, Neil Diamond, and Bob Dylan – not to mention a story about Van Halen that’s more disgusting than I would have thought possible. A key detail about a diminutive purple presence in the ’80s rock scene explains so much, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the true spirit of the Halls of Rock, Penny brings a cheerful attitude, a bruised-but-not-beaten sense of idealism, and the willingness to let it all hang out. You won’t run into a Penny on any old street corner.
Penny’s website chronicles some of her earliest rock ‘n roll stories, including her night with The Beatles; we start with her entry into rock ‘n roll catering.
RTH: Can you summarize your work as a rock ‘n roll caterer? How did you get started as a caterer for touring musicians? You were initially based out of a certain venue, right?
Penny: Well, yes and no. I worked out of the Uptown Theatre in the beginning, helping another woman and learning the ropes. But it soon extended out into other venues. It was in its infant stages and we made it up as we went along. Basically we had to come up with a little dressing room food for the artists and some crew dinner for 20 or so guys. The reason I got involved was because I loved going to concerts and wanted to be backstage, so I soon realized there was a need for food and I knew that was something I could do.
It just kept evolving and demands from the artists kept getting more involved and official. A contract “rider” came along, which listed all the particular needs of each act and their food requirements were included. So it didn’t take long for me to start specializing in concert catering. I never wanted to do other kinds of catering, because I was only doing it to be backstage.