Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Velvet Papers, Pt. 8

"When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."

Them facts:
We had ridiculous names for our "tours" which might just be one gig or dozens as was the case in later years.
Candle Light Tour (85-86): so named because of cheesy electric candles left over at the Cantina from the steak house days.
Take Care Babe Tour (86-87)
Just Say Yes (88-89). Greg True was added. We said yes to Nancy Reagan's "no." A ultra lounge tune by the same name was written. Years later, at my 50th birthday party, we played that song and our fill-in drummer said, "There are not enough cocktails on earth to make me that lounge." Well said, my friend.
The Casual Tour (89-90) Tito on the kit and "Velvis" makes his first appearance.
Totally Lounge Tour (90) The Veebs were in full swing, playing so many gigs that we could run hot one night or have zero mojo, but the music was well seasoned as well as the players.

Salsa: the ultimate cool Latino cat
Tito, aka Glenn, brought in Nelson or as we dubbed him, Salsa and he fit like a Velvet glove. Nelson hailed from Ponce, Puerto Rico and played just about everything: guitar, keyboards, loads of percussion, plus he sang. He was equally at home behind the keys as he was the congas. He is just a natural. Plus, he was a laid-back cat. He got the whole Caribbean vibe of the Veebs, but I don’t think he ever understood the lounge aspect. Tito got that message, but Nelson had to wonder what the hell we were doing sometimes with wacky covers of songs he’d probably never heard. This was no matter because I began to absorb the Latin lessons on guitar he was to teach.

Though I had been conservatory trained, my knowledge of how Latin music applied to the guitar was nil. The complex syncopations are not easy my friends and even when you finally understand them in basic terms, you have to play them in the right feel. It’s like the difference between real reggae and the British variety that began to emerge in the 80’s. The Brits may have the right notes in the right places, but there’s no flow, no groove. Listen to Sly and Robbie play versus Sting and Stewart Copeland and the difference is night and day. If it doesn’t groove, then it’s not music.

I remember when Nelson was teaching us La Paloma, a merengue that has simple straightforward chords for the verse and a V7-I jam session as a B section. Sounds easy, right? Nelson showed me this little riff that played off of the V7-I progression that took me at least a week or two to get right. If you took Nelson and me and asked us to play it, his would be the better of the two. He has the distinct advantage of growing up with these rhythms in his head, of course, but this stuff is not acquired through the intellect. It has to be absorbed through listening, playing and ultimately “feeling” the Latin groove which differs from Euro-American music in one huge way: the groove is on the off beat. It’s genius really.

His strumming was another thing that fried my brain cells. I couldn’t get the accents or the fluidity (Still true), so another shift in the old musical paradigm. I had to work on it. Despite how square we must have sounded, the Latinos must have heard something emerging that was close to authentic. They could have said privately to one another, “Look, these gringos aren’t getting this stuff. Let’s form our own band.” Our sincerity to do these songs justice was evident. We didn’t want to merely imitate the style, but truly breathe life into these pieces. Also, we didn’t try act Latino; this was no liberal hands-across-the-culture social experiment. This was about love of music that surpasses a passing political fancy. In short, we were for reals, baby.

At the same time, the Latinos in our group did not anchor the rock or blues numbers that we played. Glenn could swing and rock, but there were better rock drummers around. We never looked around for any other because we had the perfect guy behind the kit.  

Nelson was an easy and natural fit. We’d work the song up to a certain point and he always would say, “And we can just jam, man.” You mean know the basic structure of the song, but otherwise just casually improvise the rest? The Velvet way again. Organize? Only to a degree, buddy, after that it was seen as being a little too neurotic. Sometimes one of us would say, “Rehearsing is for cowards.”

Something else began to emerge: a new hybrid was forming. My breaking free, so to speak, of classical chains really started to happen when I began to incorporate Latin rhythms into original songs.

All I Know was a cute little merengue number that was one of the first to emerge and one that certainly we got a lot of mileage from over the Velvet years. It was an ode to indifference (my own) and continuous conflict that was on the news:

Well, they talk on having world peace
The liberals and Conservatives alike,
But I don’t see the reasoning
‘Cause we can’t agree on the simplest things in life.

So the Latin thing was becoming a way of writing originals. Oddly, it was originals that we became known for. Perhaps that and Santana were our trademarks. Plus, we did something that many musicians and bands never seem to understand: we entertained people. There are some musicians who are so into the idea of themselves as serious players that they never really get that aspect of public performance. It’s ok to sing a silly song, do something seriously daffy or laugh at yourself. It’s all about the entertainment. You can keep your reputation as a player intact and have a blast playing. I can name names the countless musicians I know who would feel it beneath themselves to ever do anything close to what we did on stage. Our secret weapon was simple: it’s called fun.

And boy the shit we did on stage.

Next: Life at the Levee

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