Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Trilogy of a Post

Still trying to figure out what I'm doing in this part of the blogosphere, and readership seems to be nil so I have a sand box to play in. Here's something I wrote a couple of years ago for the now defunct site complusivetruth.

When it comes to the now obsolete genre of alt-country one of the seminal bands of the movement was the 80's group Lone Justice. They were ahead of the curve in the movement along with the bands Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers and many others. Naturally, these bands all sat at their speakers when they were growing up, soaking in the music of Gram Parsons, the Carter Family, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, with a healthy amount of gospel thrown in to keep it holy.

The force behind the band was the voice and stage presence of its lead singer. Maria McKee had a very powerful voice and an image of a punk rocker who wore vintage dresses. At seventeen, she wrote a song, A Good Heart, that Feargal Sharkey had a massive hit with in the U.K. in the 1983. McKee's half-brother is the late Bryan MacLean, who was guitarist in the band Love.

Lone Justice was signed by Geffen Records in 1985.

They had a promotional slush fund that could budget a small country. Still, all that cash could not get them arrested. McKee was at one point in her career managed by Jimmy Iovine, the svengali of Stevie Nicks, who had no clue what do do with her abilities, so he threw top name talent such as Steven Van Zandt to work with her. Nothing happened. The records did not sell.

Their first video, Ways to Be Wicked, was written by Tom Petty. The video's quality was of a silent film from the 20's in dire need of a restoration. You could not see the band, or McKee's looks because the video had a a scratchy, over antiquated look. Not a good beginning. The record, while receiving good praise, never sold well.

After the first record, bassist Marvin Etzoni, guitarist Ryan Hedgecock and drummer Don Heffington left the group. After that, the lineup was a revolving cast of session players from other bands including Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

McKee also had a style that was noticed by director Martin Scorcese as he cast her to appear with Robbie Robertson in his video Somewhere Down the Crazy River. A video in which McKee and Robertson were in a coital embrace for virtually the whole song.

There rarely seemed to be any consistency or patience with the sound of the group or image of the band. As frontswoman, the pressure was on McKee to deliver. It seemed as if she never had control over her product, but a posse of handlers and producers all willing to spend David Geffen's money seemed to control her releases.

She broke away from Lone Justice and a self titled solo record was released in 1990. Few noticed.

In the 1993 she released a fine record called You Gotta Sin To Get Saved. Once again, it featured top talent from The Jayhawks, The Heartbreakers and other prominent session musicians from the west coast. It is a very soulful record with a solid R&B and country vibe. It contains a great cover of Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do." Once again, it failed to get noticed.

She then took over her career completely with her final release on Geffen in 1996. She wrote all the songs by herself and played all of the guitars, to mixed results. Life is Sweet is a record of passion and autobiography. The first song, Scarlover, tells of an affair with a prominent musician. The rest of the songs were unlike any of the Cosmic American Music she had previously release. Distorted guitars and howling vocals were up front as McKee bared her soul. Again, sales were dismal. It was to be her last major label release.



The late nineties and new millenium found McKee in Dublin, recording and releasing material every couple of years. Her cult following noticed, but the masses yawned and ignored her.

With her new record, Late December, McKee shows she still has it. Her voice soars, contains drama and borders close enough to the histrionic to keep the sound spicy. It reminds me of her work on Life Is Sweet. She also officially released her version of "A Good Heart", a song she wrote at seventeen.

I wonder if writing a musical for the London stage is in her future. Perhaps a story of a hyped up musician who should have been a major star, but, inexplicably, was not. Or, just as a personal pipe dream, working with producer Jim Steinman (Meatloaf) for at least one song, just so I can hear what that collaboration would bring.

McKee is also one of my favorite musicians that I have not seen play live. She tours infrequently in the states. When she does play here, she sticks to the coasts. The closest I've been was seeing Marvin Etzoni open for Sam Phillips. Marvin was doing his mandolin act and played for 45 minutes straight, and I mean that. he didn't break stride. He did play a cover of "You Are the Light."

I also happened to catch Lone Justice's original drummer, Don Heffington, when he was in Lucinda Williams' band.

Maria McKee has always been one of rock music's unrecognized talents. In this day of corporate control of the mainstream it's unlikely she ever get noticed, unless one of her songs shows up on Greys Anatomy or another television show. Heck, not even satellite radio is playing her new record, and that's a shame. She keeps plugging away, and offers us hope in her song "Starving Pretty" in which she tells us, "And stay with me/Starving pretty and high/Back and forth/Celebrate at such refine/Lean on me, baby/We're going to make it/We're paper thin/We’re gonna win."

She has always had the voice, the presence and the ability to write songs of relevance and passion, and has been doing so, virtually unnoticed, for almost a quarter of a century.

Today the blogger known as Last Year's Girl asked this question, and I'm replying.

“The idea, is to jot down ten most bestest songs ever and find out what other people like so you can see if you like it yourself. Apparently this exercise builds understanding of other people."

It's hard to pick a top ten of anything. Let alone music. Moods shift. What is chosen today will not necessarily be the same an hour from now. But, here they are, in no particular order.

The Beatles - I'm Looking Through You
The Who - I'm One
The Kinks - Shangrila
The Ronettes - Be My Baby
Arcade Fire - Wake Up
Buddy Holly - Peggy Sue
Wilco - At My Window Sad and Lonely
Emmy Lou Harris - Wrecking Ball
Liz Phair - Shitloads of Money
George Harrison - Run of the Mill

So many are missing from that list. I can pick eight more tomorrow, and the day after.

Not going to talk about work here much but this book came across my desk today. Have not paid that much attention to a book at work since the Pink Box.

Here's a picture of Emmanuelle Beart that is work safe.



Forgive me, my girlfriend is 3,600 miles away

4 comments:

last year's girl said...

Your readership is now one, and she will catch up soon ;)

If you're posting pictures of French women, may I request Eva Green?

The Guy You Thought Was Rude said...

Welcome and take your time.

Does Eva have a book of photographs of her nude in a Cuban hotel room?

I'll volunteer to take those pictures :)

Marc Nichol said...

"Why isn't Maria McKee a Superstar?" A question for the rock and roll ages for sure SS and I don't think there's an easy answer. Somebody with all the tools, all the raw ability and yet little popular acclaim.

You touched on a lot of key things in your well-written and informative post and I'd love to hear more of your thoughts a few years later, and anything else your aunt may have told you.

I have been through the wringer myself thinking about this lately after getting back into Maria's music this past summer after a long time away and can't quite put my finger on it. I end up questioning my own ability to recognize talent and it gets weird. Of course maybe I was just blind at the time of a possible breakthrough because I was in love with the woman and overestimated the actual product.

Check out "Maria McKee on the dramatic demise of her band Lone Justice" on YouTube if you get the chance. I received this Dutch television special with Maria on a bootleg dvd this past summer and was enthralled. It was filmed while promoting Life is Sweet and I struck up an online relationship with the director Bram and that's why he/we put it up.
Apparently it caused a big stir on her facebook page. I really believe an updated biography or video retrospective of her life is in order at some point. You may know she's now gotten into film work with her husband. Who knows, that may end up being her medium. She said recently at a memorial for her late high school music studies teacher that he may have been right about her going into acting and plays and musicals instead of rock and roll. Maria has certainly admitted to a lack of desire at times but that was years after LJ. She has also spoken of mental illness which is another matter.

I always felt the timing was a little off with her work for the times, either ahead of or behind..or maybe her originality wasn't so original so to speak. I've heard people actually didn't like the voice which sounds insane because it gave me goosebumps..throw in the pretty face and expressiveness and it seemed like a winning package. IDK. Strange. Her mom said she wasn't a "sexpot" and that cost her.

Like you I missed her live right here in Ohio. Both LJ shows in Cleveland in 85 and 86 (Peabodys in the Flats then and Fantasy Theater in Lakewood). Could kick myself for that. Honestly don't recall them being advertised but I'm down in Youngstown and the media then certainly wasn't like it is today.

Well, maybe I'll add a few other thoughts if you're interested, but good luck with your blog..see you do some sports too. Didn't really follow the Buckeyes this year but I'll probably check out the NCAA games.

Take Care,

Marc

Youngstown

p.s. Prince apparently has just announced he's going to do some kind of tribute album for Love. I have tried to get into them but can't, but Maria is understandably happy about this.

p.p.s. You know I was reading a facebook post of hers as to why she didn't sing Show Me Heaven for years and it was fascinating as to how she kind of split up her "album" and "singles" fans in her mind and I'm not sure helpful to her. I mean this was her big hit but she kind of disowned it for years so what exactly does success mean to her or how bad does she want it? One fan asked her for Show me Heaven at a show and she said "you got the wrong girl". Thing is, that song didn't hit here but elsewhere so that may have left her confused too.

Someone Said said...

Marc,
Thank you for your comment here. I will never know why Maria never hit big commercially when so many lesser talents did not. Have not seen any of her recent film work, and I see she’s working on another and doing the soundtrack – so there will be new music from her in the next, um, year or two I hope! I also found a grainy clip on youtube of a duet of A Good Heart she did Sharleen of the Scottish band Texas during the Big Day in Glasgow back in 1990. The same day Sheena Easton had stuff thrown at her during her performance. Always suspected she battled depression with the “The bitch is quick” line in Absolutely Barking Stars. The Prince/Love tribute I’ll believe when I hear it. Not much else to add, except what you may already suspect, the Somewhere Down the Crazy River video went off screen. Thanks again for reading - Ed