Cover of the Week 12 (Bonus Inaugural Edition) The Campaigner

Seeing outgoing presidents leaving town on a helicopter will always remind us of Richard Nixon. It is almost never a glorious moment. And yet even George W. Bush, the American who I thought has done most damage to our country in my lifetime, somehow made me feel more sorry for him than anger at him. Like a bad relationship, I’m way past anger; just get the hell out of here and don’t let me see your pathetic face again. And, as he sat there absorbing not-so-veiled blows from his complete opposite — i.e. Barack Obama as the president who has so far been the most inspirational candidate and now office holder in my lifetime – Bush just seemed like a stupid but ultimately good-hearted guy who got in way over his head, an insolent adolescent getting reprimanded for totaling the car. As Neil Young sings in this week’s bonus Cover of the Week, “Campaigner,” “even Richard Nixon has got soul.” Neil has been doing versions of the song in the past year or so where he had been substituting W’s name for Nixon’s. Yeah, even Bush has got soul.

There have been three or four primary influences on my guitar playing. OK, let’s say five. No wait, let’s say 4.5. I knew I would never be Hendrix. So he was not a major influence to me, though certainly he was someone I tried to emulate, to take in some lessons from listening to repeatedly. But the major guys when I was a kid were Keith Richard and Mick Taylor for rhythm and lead playing, and Pete Townsend for somehow playing both at the same. Jimmy Page was also a guy I studied as well as tons of Southern rock cats. The guy I probably ended up most resembling, though, is Neil Young.

Decade, Live Rust, Comes a Time, Tonight’s the Night – these were and remain huge records for me, as almost all of Neil’s prime records (don’t get me going about Zuma) remain. But it was those four that I got as a kid, like 13 years old, and played early and often. And I could play guitar to a lot of those songs and have it sound reasonable close. Keith’s parts always sounded a bit off in my hands and the hands of other starting guitarists because almost all the classic Stones songs from 1969-onward were recorded in open-G tuning, which takes a bit of practice to master. Most people learn in a standard guitar tuning. Mick Taylor — well he was just one of the best English blues soloists around. I say he blows away Clapton, who never did much for me. And Pete was all about mastering loud and heavy open-chord rhythm and one needed a lot of room in a band to be able to play like him. So my first bands, which had another guitar player and pianist, would often damper the power-chord style just a little. However, when Buffalo Tom formed, a power trio, it was Pete and Neil time. Because Neil also played a wiry, sloppy, hairy style that veered between rhythm and out-of-control soloing. Control was never something of which I had in good measure; loud, sloppy, domineering, cacophonous, trying to rein it in – this was more my style even as a kid.

But before Buff Tom, the early-’80s came. Even Neil cut his hair and dipped into Trans for while. The hippy stuff and bloated arena rock were soundly and rightly rejected. However, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as a ton of people went all Roland Jazz Chorus on us, getting their Andy Summers, David Byrne, and Peter Buck on. Even the crazy guitar stuff was controlled. There was restraint even in Adrian Belew’s wacked-out playing. Of course, I’m generalizing and limiting the scope to what transpired as influences for my immediate circle. There were of course economically heavy dudes like Angus, the Clash, and other loose punk and rock & rollers. And we liked all that immensely, of course. And there were cartoon remnants and descendants of the bloviated-excess era, groups like Van Halen and Rush, which just made me laugh like Kiss did when I was a teenager. But the overall trends were toward newer (and sort of pre-distortion older, more traditional), cleaner styles. And it wasn’t until guys like the hardcore and post-hardcore guys like the Replacements, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, and – this brings me to my .5 – Dinosaur (late Dinosaur Jr.) came around was it safe to start wailing again.

So let’s talk about J Mascis, who, to no one’s surprise, I feel is one of the greatest guitarists to emerge since 1984. He is the most talented and lyrical soloist I know. The people who ran places we used to play together in Northampton and Amherst hated him and hated us. These were little pathetic joints that were used to those JC-120s (which I started out with in BT, in full disclosure) and mediocre reggae and cheesy “blues” bands. Bassists played through those little fake bass amps. Drummers played friggin’ rototoms and piccolo snares. It was a bad time, a bad, bad time. Then Mascis came in, barely said a word to anyone, even when or especially when someone at the club told him to turn down, and cranked up these insanely loud old Marshall amps, causing (literally) pieces of the walls to fall off the clubs. But it was not just the volume; he was playing beautiful parts, heavy but pretty chords and 10-minute solos that would not repeat themselves, like great jazz solos, revelatory. People were ecstatic; at least the 50 of us that would go see Dino back then.

Prior to that, I felt like only a friend or two and I were the only ones still listening to Neil Young and stuff like that. In fact, we all had radio shows on low-watt stations out at UMass. One time some friends were sorting records to carry in crates over to the station and one guy joking asked the other, “Hey Bob, can you give me a hand taking Decade out of this box?” The joke being of course that the huge three-LP set was a symbol of the 1970s excesses that they were going to help beat down by playing Naked Raygun and This is Boston, Not LA on their radio show.

But to me, Mascis sounded like a punk rock Neil Young in both voice and as a guitar soloist. But he was his own guy as well, adding more Hendrix-type runs, and Thurston Moore experimental stuff in there. The reason I don’t add him as a full 5th primary influence in there is that I felt pretty flatlined as a guitarist by then. I felt more or less fully formed. I had played 20-minute versions of “Cortez the Killer” before I knew who J was. What J did for me and many others, was to make it safe again to want to be a big rock guitarist. And, yeah, I also learned a lot from J about tone, volume, and equipment. But, as with Hendrix, I knew I could never play so fluidly. Or, I never tried to. I was more interested in strumming rhythm and writing songs. I was never the lead guitarist as a kid. And for some reason, I feel like those older guys had more influence on me. I feel like I have actually made some breakthroughs in soloing even real recently. And I have never stopped learning. So maybe J is more of a full influence up there with those other guys and I just don’t include him because he came in so relatively late for me. I know more listeners hear J in Buffalo Tom’s playing, but while I always felt it was a valid comparison when people pointed out the similarities of us and Dino, I also felt that was a lazy point. Of course we were influenced by the band; we asked J to produce our first two records. Relatively few people went back to notice that we were, I felt, more influenced by the Replacements, Husker Du and those old guys. Like Neil Young. And I felt our songwriting was very different than Dino, more poppy, influenced by R.E.M, the Stones, all sorts of stuff. Maybe not.

We rarely took offense at the suggestion that we were Dinosaur Jr. Jr. Ha ha, very clever. The only time I recall reacting is in Iowa City early on. We had just finished at Gabe’s Oasis in the very early days (probably our second tour) when some annoying drunk dude kept horning in on a chat we were having outside our van with some kids we had met. He kept stumbling and leaning in, sloshing around, slurring out insults. When he finally got in my face and sloppily declared, “Dinosaur IMPOSTERS!” at me, I took my half cup of beer and threw it in his face, something I instantly regretted as he stood there blinking slowly and dramatically, mouth agape, wiping the beer from his eyes. Even as we were pulling out of the parking lot a few minutes later, he was chasing the van yelling that sort of belated “let me at ’em!”

Neil, like Stones and Led Zeppelin, was also a huge influence as an acoustic guitar player. Until the “Unplugged” days, the guitarists I knew did not make stark distinctions between acoustic and electric playing. We played guitar. But Keith Richards adds acoustic to his overall rhythmic texture while Neil tends to have a slightly different acoustic style than electric, albeit a difference less stark than all the amplification would lead one to believe; except for his wild soloing, his accompaniment all tends to be open, ringing chords on both electric and acoustic. This is perhaps the major influence on my style. I play relatively few bar chords. The open style allows for more space to be filled in a trio with one guitarist. But Neil tends to be all acoustic or all electric. He does not do a lot of overdubs. Page and Richards are quite often strumming acoustic on their most “rock” recordings. It is there as almost a percussion instrument.

We used to sit around as 14 year olds playing songs like “Needle and the Damage Done,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Campaigner.” Like the Stones, Waits, Dylan, Costello, Van the Man, an other major influences, I assume there will be more than a couple of Neil covers during this project. And don’t forget these bonus covers later on when I get busy and miss a week later in the year. The winter is dead in real estate (remind me to tell you some real estate stories some time — they might be more entertaining than my rock stories….maybe) and I don’t get out of the house as much so I have had some good momentum in the studio.

So here you go, new President, old one out on a helicopter to go clear some brush just as Nixon walked his beach. A melancholy wistful melody that totally suits the subject matter.

15 thoughts on “Cover of the Week 12 (Bonus Inaugural Edition) The Campaigner”

  1. Great choice of a cover Bill. I was thinking about this song Tuesday. (That was in between thoughts that I might get laid off because I work for a large, evil media company that laid off 1,850 people under the cover of the inauguration. Huzzah change!)

    I can say as a fan who came along at the time of the Birdbrain album, what attracted me most was the solo on the title track, which reminded me of a Neil solo. so it’s not surprising to see you cite him in this entry.

    This is a great project Bill, and I hope it keeps going even when the real estate market picks up in the spring. (And yes, I would like to hear some real estate stories.)

  2. You cover a lot of ground in this one, Bill, so I’ll just touch on one:

    You talk about Townshend’s electric playing and are spot on about it, but how about his acoustic playing? Who records have lots of acoustic, and I always found it interesting how differently he approaches his acoustic playing.

    He plays a pretty good mix of fast strumming, fingerstyle, and just plain old folk style that added a lot of great texture to those records.

  3. Thanks, guys. On “Birdbrain”, there are three soloists and Mascis is one of them. I believe I am the first, Chris is the second, and you can tell which one Mascis is.

    And yeah, Pete is a fantastic acoustic player and I should have mentioned him in the Page/Richards sentence about rocking acoustic. He is a huge influence on all my playing, including acoustic strumming.

  4. Thanks for the song and the detail. Reminds me of your breakdown of “Exile…” in the book. I never played guitar so have little context but now kind of get how style and tuning can contribute to the sound. I’m a half generation behind you. At 13 I was still into Hall and Oates but got my act together a couple years later. Today I find Bob Stinson to be one of the most influential and underrated guitarists of my wilder years. From what I read, though, his guitar was rarely tuned.

    Yesterday driving my home from a Blackhawks loss my buddy and I were listening to “Ink Falling” and he was wondering how things were in the Boston Market. Sorry to hear it and here’s to hoping things pick for all our sakes.

  5. As someone who attended the University of Iowa, I personally enjoyed the Gabe’s story. I never did see you folks there, but many others. That anecdote brought back some funny memories and I can easily visualize the location your experience that night.

  6. Bill…I just read the backstory on this one, and my mind is reeling, trying to determine from what entrance point to begin writing. Let me start here:

    I grew up in Winnipeg, actually in St Boniface, which at that time (until 1973) was its own city, one of six that surrounded Winnipeg, until Winnipeg became one BIG city and the others were dissolved. In the early 1960s, an older kid down the street on which I lived was in a band called The Devrons. I remember walking by the house, and seeing another member of the band playing an unplugged electric guitar on the front porch. I was too young to understand that even though the guitar was unplugged, it could still be heard by the guitarist. Anyway, the older kid (his name was Savoie) was, I believe, the drummer in The Devrons, a band that was fronted by Burton Cummings. Cummings went on to hook up with Randy Bachman, both kids from the North End of Winnipeg, to form The Guess Who. What I also didn’t know at the time, because I was way too young, was that Neil Young was gigging with his band in the west end of Winnipeg, a band called The Squires.

    I missed it all because I was just a little kid at the time, but I can only imagine how amazing it must have been to see these artists at that time. Winnipeg claims Neil as a hometown hero, of course, and like you, he influenced me as a guitar player.

    Randy Bachman knew Young was special early on, and having a businessman’s mind even as a teenager in Winnipeg, he kept pristine copies of the 45s released by The Squires that he bought at the time. They remain close friends to this day. I keep hoping to meet Bachman one day – my Dad’s sister is married to Randy’s cousin Bill, but do far it hasn’t happened yet!

    I’ve been playing guitar since October 1966, and your post is nagging away at me, making me wonder, who influenced me? I was exposed to a lot of pop AM radio in the 60s, and by the time I started taking guitar lessons in October 66, I was listening to a lot of British invasion bands, especially The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five. But by the time I was old enough to begin making sense of it all, I realized that while I couldn’t play like him, Hendrix really appealed to me in a big way. A couple years into guitar lessons, I found I had the ability to hear a tune and figure out what chords were being played (as long as it wasn’t too weird…), and tried learning every song on Abbey Road (it worked, sorta).

    But acoustically, Neil and James Taylor were BIG influences. When I read your line about playing “Needle” and “Sugar”, my head started nodding in the affirmative almost automatically like my head was on autopilot. I did the same thing as you and your friends. I still play Needle, and those songs on After The Goldrush and Harvest and so on, Don’t Let It Bring You Down, The Loner, Down By The River.

    I was asked to learn the lead part in Down By The River, and was told, “it’s so simple, the first part is the same note over and over”. True, I thought, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a simple lead. It was a single note made to sound snarly and angry and wanting to bust loose from its cage.

    In 1972-73, I was in a band called Conversation – me and two hot chicks (both older!). They sang, I played acoustic guitar, that was it. And we covered some Neil and James and Carly and Carole K and Cat and others of that ilk.

    I have to ask this question, now that you’ve told us about Mick Taylor’s influence alongside Keith’s: in Summer, when you sing:

    “Where`ve my heroes gone today?
    Mick and Keith and Willie Mays”

    …are you singing about Mick Taylor or Mick Jagger?

    I confess that I used a lot of jazz chorus when I started back in bands in the early 90s. Guilty as charged.

    The influences of Hüsker Dü, the ‘Mats, and Dinosaur Jr are clearly evident in the early Buff T records for sure. The opening to Birdbrain always feels to me like I’m being bowled over by those chords, and I love that. I think I confessed in a previous comment that I didn’t really discover Hüsker Dü or The Replacements until the early 90s, which was when the ‘mats dissolved and was four years after HD broke up.

    I also agree with you very much that Buff Tom songwriting was/is more poppy and upbeat than J’s.

    There are so many players whose styles have moved me considerably, and made me wish I could play more like them. In addition to those you mentioned, they include: Justin Hayward, Jamie West-Oram, Randy Bachman, John Martyn, Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias from Steely Dan, Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, Phil Manzanera, George Harrison, Steve Howe, Richard Thompson…the list goes on. Oh, and a guy named Bill Janovitz has influenced me as well.

  7. Thanks for doing these covers. Enjoying them very much. Surprised you didn’t include the “extra verse” on Campaigner.. (the promo version of Decade included a version of Campaigner with an additional verse)

  8. Your own acumen and of course the inspiratons/influences you mention here are why songs like “Shoulder”, “Think of All”, and “The Way Back” are some of my favorites. The leaning in to the rythms and other notes that are played around and between chords realy stand out.

    I might have missed it but I don’t think any of those have crept in to the Toad or Lizard shows when you do a few numbers by yourself between sets.

    Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

    Somehow I don’t think I will be reading or hearing any lefties shouting Obama down as fasict who wants to take away our civil liberties. So in that sense I too was deeply releived to see Bush leave on Marine One for the last time. Wistful also. A little angry too that the rich man’s son was at times (or far too often) helpless and fell pray to the same fatal arrogant flaws that unravled his father’s presidency.

    I am even more relieved my visions of Obama as Jimmy Carter riding in to power by filling the huge vaccum in the wake of massive polictical blowback were unfounded. Obama is far far more than just the right man at the right time.

    I do have to wonder though how long the honeymoon is going to last with him from the people who falsely beleive that he owes them because they believe they are responsible for putting him in office. I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama didn’t do anything to help Harry Reid in what looks to be a tough election for him next year.

  9. hi all…

    Jr. — Market in my neck of the woods is not bad, actually. Just winter is always dead.

    Randy — Cool to hear about all that. Read all about Neil’s early days in Shakey, the bio. “Mick and Keith” refers to Jagger/Richards. One of my highlights in band-dom was meeting JT and him teaching me/us the chords to “Steamroller” (more complicated than you would guess, perhaps) before a Hot Stove gig. Great, secretly accomplished guitarist.

    Mark — I had seen that verse online somewhere and wondered where it came from. In my humble opinion, the song is better off without it. Kind of a mediocre bit of alliterative gymnastics. By the way, we just saw Neil recently. Great set until midway through when the set came to a dead stop of horrible new songs. Like, so bad they might have seemed like jokes.

  10. its odd but whenever I see the Vibrators I always think of J Mascis – I’m not exactly sure if its the mix of noise and melody in the solos or the hat and the hair and the guitar but its definately all there, I’ve never actually seen J and Knox in the same room at the same time – are they the same person ?

  11. Thanks for the additional details, Bill. I will definitely add Neil’s autobiography to my list of must-reads, especially since I’ve already read Randy Bachman’s. I saw Neil when he toured with Sonic Youth about 18 years ago, and Taylor last year, when he came to Edmonton with his Band of Legends.

    BTW, J is coming to Edmonton in March with his band, Witch. I understand he plays drums in that band. What’s the word on this project?

  12. Sorry, never got to this weeks story; couldn’t get past the first paragraph (what a shock!). Why am I always shocked at the elitism shown by some on this board? Silly me!
    I do have to admit one thing when comparing Bush and the Bama; Bush is nowhere near as cool as ol’ Barry. I mean how cool is it that this guy is giving out fist bumps? He is so cool! Fist bumps! Cool! So damn Presidential!

  13. Bill,
    I always thought BT comparisons to Dinosaur were a bit unfair, BT have more melodic tunes anyway.
    Just picked up on your comment about the solo’s on Birdbrain and the fact that Chris plays one. Does Chris play much guitar on the records, I always assumed all the guitars I was hearing were yours?
    I also wanted to say how much I’m enjoying these covers.

  14. My favorite musicians have a common thread I just figured out – respect for the art and sounding like there’s no filter between the soul and the mic. Artists like J. Buckley, Chet Baker,Westerberg,Otis Redding, R. Wainright, Vic Chesnutt,even Daniel Johnston share this trait. I recently stumbled into your blog, and I think you belong in that fine company. Thanks for the music and viewpoints: it’s a nice diversion that feeds the soul as the stresses of life work to deplete it.

  15. I usually confine my comments, tangential though they may be, to simple emails, but willing to chime in here on Week 12. Mascis is indeed underrated for his proficiency but while J may never actually confess to this, the genius of his playing really came out in his production choices – the layers of guitar tracks, the abrupt shifts in volume. From the first time I heard Forget the Swan on the first record to about 6 tracks on You’re Living All Over Me, to The Post, I was taken by his ability to draw you in and then hit you with a big guitar part. I could say the same thing about Neil but in a different way. I never really got into the esoteric Neil stuff and I’m not the student Bill is but the special part about songs like Down by the River is the arrangement of the two guitar parts and the complete inimitable digressions and crescendos. You kind of live inside that song for a while and not just because it’s long. I feel the same way, and Bill knows this, about players like Wayne Coyne who in mostly earlier Flaming Lips songs sculpted some amazing epics such as One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning – ubelievable building rhthymns with great timing on explosive breaks and solos. And don’t get me started on some of the lesser known James Gang songs.

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