On a recent run across Nevada’s Highway 50, dubbed “The loneliest road in America,” it dawned on me that music just might be the best passenger one could have. Now don’t get me wrong, your significant other is fine, but many of us ride solo most of the time. Travelling across 287 miles of scenic beauty is inspiring, but sometimes the mind wanders and it’s good to have a little tune-age along.
The Survival Guide to Highway 50 describes the road as the former route of the Pony Express and Overland Stagecoach trails. For the most part the road runs straight and true, periodically climbing into hills and straightening out again. We encountered more motorcycles than cars. Another plus was that there’s none of that urban sprawl of fast food places or gas stations, for that matter.
It’s the perfect road to enjoy a full album. Though we usually play the hits or most familiar songs of an artist’s work in a never-ending shuffle program, when you have time, it’s good to get into an album’s deeper cuts. Applying a little listening effort yields maximum enjoyment as one discovers a certain line from a song or stray guitar riff never heard before. On Highway 50 with the engine throbbing along, it just doesn’t get any better…
Got a long stretch of road to navigate? How about a personal audience with the man in black: Mr. Johnny Cash? The story behind this two-CD, 49-song treasure trove is told in the set’s liner notes that begins: “Deep within the House of Cash, Johnny Cash’s recording studio, office suite, and museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee, behind the studio’s control room, was a small vault-like space in which many of his prized possessions were stored…” And in this space were plenty of tapes Johnny apparently recorded over the years, a running audio narrative of songs and commentary. Discovering these tapes must’ve been like coming across an old barn with a ’48 Vincent Black Shadow stored under a tarp.
Personal File was culled from all of these tapes Johnny began recording in 1973. It’s just Johnny and his guitar and offers up a unique, interesting, and extremely intimate portrait of Johnny Cash. Preceding most of the songs is Johnny telling an anecdote about his life or about the song itself. Very few artists have done this effectively—both Springsteen and Garth Brooks come to mind. Some are funny and some are sad. But Johnny just tells them straight, as though he’s sitting across from you late at night in a chair with his guitar resting in his lap. The material ranges from traditional favorites like “Missouri Waltz” to a few cover tunes like the Louvin Brothers “When I Stop Dreaming” and Rodney Crowell’s “Wildwood in the Pines.” And then there are more obscure jewels, such as “A Half A Mile A Day” which Johnny sets up nicely with a long story.
This is an amazing set to get into on a long Sunday morning ride, and the second CD feels more like going to church than to the roadhouse bar. One could almost have a religious experience out there on the road…all alone with Mr. Johnny Cash, his stories, and songs.
When Patti Smith’s first album, the John Cale-produced Horses, burst upon the scene in late 1975, the general public at first didn’t know what to make of her; like a biker band of misfits riding into town. Was it punk, art-rock, or musical poetry? Should anyone be afraid that this woman, a staple of the early New York CBGB scene, was suddenly letting it all hang out? She frightened many men because she never wore her gender on her sleeve. Yet she rocked out with the best of them, a testament to her induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Outside Society compiles 18 tracks from 1975 to 2007. Everything’s in chronological order, beginning with the punked-up cover version of “Gloria” through 2004’s “Trampin.” In between there’s “Pissing in a River,” “Because the Night” (her collaboration with Springsteen), “Dancing Barefoot” (probably her biggest “hit” single), “So You Want to Be A Rock and Roll Star,” “Summer Cannibals,” and lots of others.
Patti’s life story would make a great HBO mini-series. From her fondness for beat poetry to unplanned pregnancy to affairs with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and playwright Sam Shepard, her ultimate marriage to MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, etc.—her bio is as long and as varied as they get. And impressive. Even her book Just For Kids has racked up multiple awards. Outside Society makes for great road music waiting to be discovered on your next journey.
Big Brother & The Holding Company
For a brief period, Big Brother & The Holding Company sat atop the heap of the San Francisco music scene. In the ’60s, Frisco suffered an embarrassment of riches when it came to launching game-changing rock ’n’ roll bands. Of course, a young Port Arthur, Texas–native named Janis Joplin mainly fueled Big Brother’s popularity. Janis had visited SF earlier when the Haight-Ashbury scene was just kicking into gear. Then, she met up with future Jefferson Airplane member Jorma Kaukonen for a few collaborative sessions. But drugs interfered and Janis moved back to Texas for a few years later to attend school. Still she again found life in Port Arthur stifling and made frequent forays down to Austin for occasional gigs. She was eventually lured back to the Bay area by Big Brother & The Holding Company’s manager and soon found herself a full-fledged band member. The group eventually became a favorite among the local hippies and even members of the biker community. The turning point was a historic, legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival (along with Hendrix and others), and Big Brother soon found themselves a highly sought-after commodity by most of the major record labels, which descended upon the whole SF scene looking for bands to sign.
After stealing them away from the small indie label that had released their first album, Columbia Records released Cheap Thrills in late 1967. The album artwork was penned by R. (Robert) Crumb, he of Zapp Comics fame and even included the words, “Approved by Hell’s Angels Frisco,” surrounding the HA Death Head logo. The bluesy “Piece of My Heart” became the number-one single but FM stations regularly played every track on the album. Rock critics and even the mainstream press all hailed Janis as one of the greatest rock singers ever—male or female. Her gritty vocals introduced a new generation to artists like Big Mama Thornton, whose “Ball and Chain” was the album’s centerpiece. Even the Gershwins’ “Summertime” was given a special Janis reworking, who turned it into a bluesy rock jam. Janis had become the new queen of rock and her career was off to a fast, albeit too brief, start. Listening to Cheap Thrills today is like a trip back into time, though it stills sounds better than a lot of the junk on radio these days. If there was a Biker Music Hall of Fame, Cheap Thrills would easily be near the top.
Experience Hendrix/Sony Legacy
That Jimi Hendrix was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) rock guitarists of all time is unquestioned. Fortunately, the steady stream of Jimi Hendrix recordings is seemingly never-ending, with more projects released posthumously than when Jimi was alive. And this is all right, because it’s not the usual crappy outtakes and basement stuff recorded in a closet at some motel. Winterland features never-before-released music from six performances recorded over three days in October of 1968 at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience had been together just two years and was set to release the epochal Electric Ladyland. Winterland is an extraordinary showcase for Hendrix’s spectacular guitar work. Highlights include “Manic Depression,” “Are You Experienced?,” “Tax Free,” “Little Wing,” a classic cover of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” (joined by Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady and Jorma’s partner in Hot Tuna), as well his rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” There’s enough music here to get you from Sturgis and back, especially if you opt to purchase the four CD box set. There’s also a single disc highlights edition, plus eight LP albums for those of you still riding around on Panheads and have turntables at home.
The box set also comes with a 36-page booklet with plenty of notes and rare photos, just so you have something to do when you’re not riding. Put this one on your early holiday list!