Friday, October 22, 2010

In defense of the Wilburys...

I have in my life, like anybody, some sacred cows, cultural endeavors that I've elevated to a degree of unassailability. Milton Caniff, if you read this blog, is the most obvious. For TV - "All in the Family"; for movies - "Superman". For music, it's Jeff Lynne, in general, and here specifically the Traveling Wilburys.

A recent book has assailed this beloved cow of mine. Biographer Clinton Heylin has completed an ambitious project. He's reviewed the songs of Bob Dylan, song-by-song, writing about the story behind each song. The first volume, "Revolution in the Air", covered the years 1957-73, from Dylan's self-titled debut to the soundtrack for 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid'. The second volume, "Still on the Road", picks up in 1974 and ends with 2006's 'Modern Times'. It's in this book where he reviews the Wilburys albums: 'Volume One' (1988) and 'Volume Three' (1990).

The Wilburys formed in 1988 after what Heylin aptly describes as "a series of serendipities." Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison joined together to create a band synonymous with the term "supergroup." The etymology of who wrote precisely what in the Wilburys is somewhat hard to discern. The album credited all the writing to the group. Interviews have provided us with who had the main ideas for which songs, bolstered by the sheet music book for 'Volume One'. Each song is credited to the group, yet administered by different publishers. The publisher for three of them - "Congratulations", "Dirty World" and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" - is Special Rider Music, Dylan's publishing company.

"There is certainly very little Dylanesque about the seven songs on Volume One where he contributes only backing vocals," Heylin writes. I disagree. Of those seven, he's counting "Margarita", on which Dylan has a lead vocal. The song's closing line - "she wrote a long letter/on a short piece of paper" - if not by Dylan, it's certainly worthy of him. And although not verified, it's clear that bits of "Handle With Care", the first Wilbury song, are his.

Heylin seems to have a grudge against the group, as if but for Dylan they'd have been a colossal failure. "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" is singled out for praise among, to Heylin, the also-rans. He calls it "the real heavyweight the album had been missing" and "the one truly significant outcome" from Dylan's involvement. As if the rest of it was so much chaff. He doesn't mention that this came after Dylan's string of '80s flops, that he rarely sounded better than under Harrison and Lynne's bright production, and that for some people, like me, it was their introduction to Dylan. Like my Lynne bias, Heylin clearly has a Dylan bias. After all, he calls Dylan the "preeminent talent" of the group. You can debate that with devotees of the other members, but I think you've got a solid group when even the sidemen (e.g., Jim Keltner) are legends.

Heylin also gets things wrong. He says the title to "Handle With Care" came from a guitar carrying case. George Harrison said it came from a box in Dylan's garage. That may be nitpicking, but when something is billed as authoritative, then fine-tooth combing the details is in order. Then comes his pronouncement that the song "should really be called "Handle Me With Care", because that is what Harrison actually sings." As if Heylin's come up with some great revelation. Next he should say, "You know, Captain Kirk never said "Beam me up, Scotty?"

Heylin does get one thing spot on. The reissue of both albums in 2007 gives us little more to go on, and the film portion of the Wilburys in action "is frustratingly brief."

Heylin can't make up his mind on Volume Three (which, by the way, was released twenty years ago this week). He criticizes it for not having enough Dylan and also for having too much Dylan. There are 11 songs on the album. Dylan has the lead or shares the lead on 9 of them. Yet he accuses Harrison and Lynne of removing Dylan vocals "with something approaching gusto." Basically, Heylin would have preferred a Bob Dylan solo album with the others as backing musicians. The removal of Dylan vocals was, according to Heylin, out of jealousy by Lynne, and that Harrison was "complicit", as if a crime's been committed. His complaint is that the other Wilburys relied too much on Dylan for lyrics, then took his vocals out. Vocals, by the way, that Heylin maligns as sounding "far worse that they did on the last leg on the Never Ending tour."

Let's look at the three songs he cites and who sings in the final version:
"Where Were You Last Night?" - Lead Dylan vocal, the other three harmonize a chorus
"Seven Deadly Sins" - Lead Dylan vocal, the other three doing calls to Dylan's answers.
"She's My Baby" - The four trade verses. Of the five verses, Dylan has lead on two.

Such changes, Heylin writes, "drew Dylan's ire. To Gilmore he stated, "That was when I found I'd really had it" (with making records)." Here, Heylin is citing Dylan's 2001 Rolling Stone interview with Mikal Gilmore. But in the context of the interview, he was talking about being burned out after recording "Volume 3" and his own solo album, "Under the Red Sky", nearly simultaneously. He revisited a decision he made after 1988's "Oh Mercy" to not record anymore. "I'd rather play on the road," he told Gilmore. "It was clear to me I had more than enough songs to play. Forever."1 Dylan does not say anything about changes made by the other Wilburys to his material. In fact, Dylan expressed the opposite opinion"[O]utside of writing with the Traveling Wilburys, my shared experience writing a song with other songwriters is not that great."2 This also contradicts another Heylin assertion, that Dylan "must have felt the whole exercise to be unrewarding." His only evidence is that Dylan has not performed any of the Wilburys songs live. This speculation is also contradictory, since Dylan hasn't performed "Tweeter and the Monkeyman" live and Heylin spends three pages praising it.

1Interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone, December 22, 2001
2Interview with Paul Zollo for Songtalk, 1991

Monday, October 11, 2010


Some more interesting Milton Caniff art on eBay lately. First up, a couple of works from his college days at the Ohio State University. Below was a bookmark from the college yearbook, the Makio, of 1928. Caniff had illustrations in the yearbook as well. "Ex libris" translates to "from the books of" or "from the library of" and there's a space to write your name at the bottom. Kudos to this books owner who never wrote his name, thereby leaving this now historical object unspoiled.

Next up is the cover to the 1928 football program from the October 6, Wittenberg Vs. Ohio State football game. This is a rare find, and I'm not sure if he did other programs or not. The game itself was a milestone for OSU. It was their 200th win, a 41-0 shutout against the Tigers, opening the final season for Coach John Wilce. Wilce left coaching to practice and teach medicine, and is credited with coining the phrase "intestinal fortitude."

The seller listed this as an original ink drawing which he thought was used for WWII nosecone art. Though Caniff art popped up on many a warbird, the character Delta was in the "Steve Canyon" strip and debuted in 1947.

Original strips come up fairly often on eBay. Thanks to those sellers who provide decent scans! Something usually missing from many "Terry" reprints are the little tag lines Caniff gives each strip (handwritten here in the upper right). Caniff's wit was such an essential element of the strip and in this case the one-liner adds humor to the melodrama.

"Terry & the Pirates", January 15, 1941

Finally, we have the original art for a strip the week Big Stoop was introduced. Stoop was an overly tall, mute Chinese man who quickly turned the trio of Terry Lee, Pat Ryan and Connie into an adventuring foursome. The nickname Pat Ryan gave him is based on the phrase "He stoops to conquer." I'm not sure of the origin of the phrase, but I'm guessing the Bible.

"Terry & the Pirates", July 19th, 1937

The above items sold for over $1200. Since I can't afford 'em, at least I can post 'em!


Let me be clear from the outset. Of the several John Lennon projects released last week, I only bought one of them. So, for the most part, in reviewing them I can only speak to content and not how they actually sound. October 9th, 2010 marked what would have been the 70th birthday of John Lennon. To commemorate this event, Yoko Ono has reissued and repackaged his solo catalogue in various forms. I felt the need to break them down for you:

Signature Box - The Signature Box is 11-discs. It is comprised of John Lennon's eight solo albums (one of which was a double album), a disc of hits and a disc of home demos. The box is a hard sell, even for the Lennon completist. The studio albums have all been remastered and reissued in the past ten years, most of them with bonus cuts. Most of the home demos we've seen before in the 1998 4-disc 'Anthology' box set and the 2004 'Acoustic' compilation (which itself was dominated by cuts from the 'Anthology').

Individual Albums - As I said above, the studio albums have all been re-released fairly recently. Of those, only 'Imagine' was released without any bonus content. The contents of the others varies. Rock & Roll has four bonus cuts, previously only available on the 1986 'Menlove Ave' compilation. The posthumous 'Milk & Honey' has a 22-minute interview done hours before Lennon was killed. The box and the new issues don't have anything like that. 'Some Time in New York City', however, was cut down to one disc with its '05 reissue, and here is restored to two discs for the first time since its original CD release in 1990. On the down side, it's one of the least respected of Lennon's solo works. So, of the lot, pick up Imagine if you don't already have it.

Double Fantasy: Stripped Down - I picked this one up because it offered something different. It has two discs, one of them being a remastered version of the original album. The other disc is a remixed version of the album where some of the backing vocals and tracks are removed and Lennon's voice is brought to the fore. The result is startlingly inconsequential. Maybe I'm not a qualified audiophile, but I couldn't tell that much of a difference. The original album sounds amazing, and Lennon's vocals don't sound "buried", as Yoko attests. This seems to have been a pointless exercise and a needless edition to Lennon's oeuvre. So, you're kind of getting ripped off two ways, one because you're buying a disc you don't really need and two because it's half Yoko. Also, the Stripped Down version is not available with the Signature Box! I recommend downloading the original mix versions of the Lennon tracks on iTunes and make your own EP.

Gimme Some Truth - This is a four-disc box set that compiles Lennon's songs under four separate themes: political statements, love songs, aging and musical influences. At 72 tracks, it's a hefty dose of Lennon, but who is it for? We can quibble about song choice and what fits what theme, but really, if you like Lennon this much, you're going to want all of the albums. If you want them shuffled about you can do that on your iPod. If you don't like Lennon this much, you'll just want the hits collection, which brings us to...

Power to the People: the Hits - All the Lennon hits compilations are pretty good. The first, 'Shaved Fish' (1975), was the only one released during Lennon's life. Of course, it's incomplete as it lacks the songs between 1976-81. I'm actually surprised it's still in print. 'The John Lennon Collection' from 1982 was the standard bearer for 15 years until it was replaced by 'Lennon Legend' in 1997. Both are about the same and contain the essential Lennon hits. He didn't get the two-disc treatment until 2005 with 'Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon'. It works as a career overview, but if you're just looking for the hits, this 2-disc is too long. This latest effort is equal to what has gone before, so if you don't have any Lennon or want a good compilation, this will do fine. If it were me, I would have added in "Beautiful Boy". It wasn't a hit, but it's become one of his better known compositions.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Like esteemed entertainment blogger Mark Evanier, I don't want my blog to turn into an obit a week. But, I've actually met the late Stephen Cannell, so it's natural for me to write about it here. Without Evanier, by the way, many in the comics world would pass anonymously, so kudos to him.

From 2001-2005 I worked for ICN6, a local origination (L.O.) cable television station. L.O. stations create programs of local interest produced by the cable operator. They are often mistaken for Public Access channels, where cable operators provide facilities for the public citizens to produce their own shows. ICN6 was operated by Insight Communications in Northern Kentucky and our longest-running show was "Northern Kentucky Magazine." It was a chat show, mostly with local guests, with the occasional celebrity who was in town on a book, music or theater tour.

One of the nicest of these celebrities was Stephen Cannell, who I recollect visited twice while I was there, and had been before. He had a nice rapport with the host, Dick Von Hoene, as evidenced in this video. Cannell posed for the picture above with me after his segment, and signed an A-Team toy that I had brought in.

I was never a big Cannell watcher. I've only seen one episode apiece of his biggest hits - "The Rockford Files" and "The A-Team." Maybe I was too young to even show interest in shows like "Hardcastle & McCormick" and "Hunter", neither of which I've ever seen. He did have two shows I was a prime target for - "The Greatest American Hero" and "21 Jump Street." "Greatest American Hero" hit my nascent comic collecting buttons. But was it the tales of a teacher turned superhero that grabbed me, or my crush on Connie Sellecca? "21 Jump Street" debuted when I was high school age. It was a fresh show on a brand new network, and definitely delivered on the hype and buzz. Most of the public remembers it, of course, because it debuted breakout star Peter DeLuise.

So, a fond farewell to Stephen J Cannell, a classy, charming and amiable guy. You can read more about his life and accomplishments at his own site, including his second successful career as a novelist. Though I didn't watch many of his shows, I always liked his production company tag (presented here in the 1981 and 1999 versions):