J. D. Blackfoot – The Song of Crazy Horse

The title track to J. D. Blackfoot’s 1973 album “The Song of Crazy Horse”, is an epic 14 minute American history lesson about the life and times of the Lakota (Sioux) American Indian leader, Crazy Horse. It’s a powerful song that speaks of the savage injustice done to the native Americans in the 19th century; how Crazy Horse led his people to fight back, ultimately wiping out the U. S. Army’s 7th Cavalry at Custer’s Last Stand, and wrapping up with Crazy Horse’s arrest and controversial death while in custody of U.S. officials the following year. With a combination of country and psychedelic rock, the song makes a powerful statement to the mistreatment of native Americans in the 19th century; a time in American history that is seldom spoken of.

The remainder of “The Song of Crazy Horse” is not nearly as lyrically intense or musically dispersed as its namesake song. “Ride Away” closes out side one as a folksy epilogue to the epic that preceded it. Side two is filled with blues rooted rockers and ballads with one oddity thrown in. The contrast in the offbeat humor of “Flushed You from the Toilets of My Heart” can’t help but stand out from the rest of this album. It serves as a reminder from J. D. Blackfoot that amongst all this seriousness, he can still have some fun. After that diversion, the album closes out with the somberly beautiful “Comin’ Down”.

“The Song of Crazy Horse” was J. D. Blackfoot’s second album. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, he moved to New Zealand before recording this album. Although it was very successful in his adoptive country, it failed to dent the charts in the his country of origin.

Cat Stevens – Teaser and the Firecat

Cat Stevens was all about introspective and inspirational lyrics along with beautifully moving acoustic music. His fifth album, “Teaser and the Firecat” was a bit more. It was also a collection of songs that coincided with the a children’s storybook that Stevens also wrote. The album came out in 1971; the book about a year later.

The story was a fantasy tale about a young boy named Teaser and his pet Firecat who set out on a journey to find the moon, which had fallen out of the sky, and put it back in the sky, where it belonged. In addition to writing the story and accompanying songs, Cat Stevens also did all of the book’s illustrations and the cover art for the album.

I have my sister to thank for my discovering this album. She owned Cat Stevens’ previous album “Tea for the Tillerman”. At eight years old, I was enthralled by it. I got a copy of “Teaser and the Firecat” (on 8-track tape) the following year. It may well have been the first tapes or records I ever owned. I played it so much, it eventually wore out.

Right now “Teaser and the Firecat” is the only Cat Stevens album I have in my record collection. Listening to it now, I’m thinking I need to change. Maybe keep an eye (and ear) out for “Tea for the Tillerman”.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ‘n Roll

I knew I had heard Joan Jett somewhere before when “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” became her breakthrough single and album. The Internet wasn’t around back in 1981, so it took me a while to realize that along with metal rocker, Lita Ford, she was previously in the all female punk band The Runaways, best known for their minor hit “Cherry Bomb”.

Joan Jett took the punk rock edge from The Runaways and gave it just enough polish to make one of greatest albums from the ’80s. With its perfect blend of of amped up covers and power chord originals, “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” was an album that really couldn’t miss. It also has one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Perfectly capturing Joan Jett’s slicked back bad and reputation sides, photographer Mick Rock said he had set out to capture something memorable, in the vein of a female Elvis. Well done Mick.

Gentle Giant – Three Friends

The story of three childhood friends and the very different paths their lives take after going their separate ways; falling out of touch with each other in adulthood. That’s the concept behind Gentle Giants eclectic 1972 progressive rock showcase.

One becomes part of the blue-collar working class. He feels trapped in a dead-end job living paycheck to paycheck. Another becomes a starving artist. Answering to no one but himself and expressing the good and hidden evil he sees in the world through his paintbrush. The third becomes a successful businessman. With his trophy wife and materialistic lifestyle he looks uses people to his own ends and looks down on the on the lazy working class and unambitious artists.

It’s not a deep concept, but it’s one that can be easily combined with different musical themes that make for a diverse combination of intricately complex arrangements which is what Gentle Giant’s music is all about.

Alice Cooper – Zipper Catches Skin

The early 80s were kind of a rough time for Alice Cooper. Even though flashy hair metal had become a popular sound, so had new wave music. The former would have been the path of least resistance for the theatrical shock rocker, but Cooper chose the more drastic transition. “Zipper Catches Skin” was the third album of four in Alice Cooper’s new wave era. Unfortunately, long time fans weren’t buying into his new sound and image and he didn’t gain many new ones from the new wave crowd. Consequently, Alice Cooper’s popularity took a big hit during the early and mid ’80s.

Alice Cooper was also battling a very personal issue during the early 1980s – addiction. Cooper had spent time in a sanitarium in the mid ’70s for treatment of alcoholism. The experience became the inspiration for his 1978 album, “From the Inside“. Tragically, he fell off the wagon a few years after recording that album. In the new decade, his addiction took over with a vengeance as he dove into heavy cocaine use combined with alcohol. He went into treatment a second time after the disease nearly killed him. Today, the long-time sober Alice refers to “Zipper Catches Skin” and his other records from the early ’80s as his “blackout” albums because he has little to no memory of writing or recording them.

Like many, I totally wrote off Alice Cooper’s new wave era; at least at first. I actually didn’t realize how good his music was from this era until I happened to hear a couple of songs from it a decade or so later. Today, these albums are some of my favorites by Alice, partly because they are so different from anything he did before or since, yet they are still, unquestionably Alice.

“Zipper Catches Skin” is the sound of Alice Cooper trying to find a creative outlet in a rapidly changing musical landscape. It may have been a commercial misstep, but it was also an adventurous musical expression of a true artist. I just wish he could remember doing it.

Johnny Cash – Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous

Although it may sound like the title of a greatest hits record, “Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous” is not. It is only the second album by Johnny Cash, released in 1958. “Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous” is a collection of the songs Johnny Cash was famous for performing live; the songs that got him signed to the infamous Sun record label. Johnny Cash went on to become a legend in country music and a huge influence in both country and rock and roll. His songs are still revered today as some of the greatest songs ever recorded.

A biopic movie of Cash’s early life “Walk the Line” was released in 2005. Although the movie portrays the song “I Walk the Line” – Cash’s biggest hit off of this album – to have been written about his future wife of 35 years (until his death in 2003) it was actually written as an ode to his first wife, Vivian.

Boston – Third Stage

I remember waiting such a long time for Boston’s third album to come out. In between when “Don’t Look Back” and “Third Stage” were released, I had graduated from high school, moved to Tennessee, served in the US Army as an air traffic controller, moved back home, met and lost who I thought was the girl of my dreams, enrolled in college, worked as a Zamboni driver, janitor, and courier, got hired by General Motors as a factory rat, and moved into an upper flat on Detroit’s east side.

Okay, that’s a lot to have going on in six years. Even so, six years is a long time between albums – especially for a band as popular as Boston. Apparently a flood and several power failures in Tom Scholz’s home studio had something to do with the delay. I’m sure his perfectionist attitude toward Boston’s sound had something to do with it as well.

Tom Scholz’s attention to the finest of details is what made “Third Stage” totally worth the wait though. That, and it being a collection of great songs. In Scholz’s own words, each individual song “relates a human experience” and collectively they “tell the story of a journey into life’s Third Stage”.

Of those songs, Amanda is perhaps the most beautiful arrangement Boston ever did. “Cool the Engines” is possibly the most rocking. But best of all, all the songs on “Third Stage” are unmistakably Boston.

Yeah, a lot had happened and a lot of time had passed in between Boston’s second and third album. But all things considered, it was well worth the wait.

John Cougar – American Fool

American Fool was the album that really sold me big time on John Cougar’s music. The thing is, I almost didn’t buy it because of the crappy two star review Rolling Stone magazine gave it in 1982. Had it not been for an Army buddy of mine who, like John Cougar, was from Indiana, I probably would have totally written this album off. Then again, it was also at number one on the album charts for more than two months, had three hit singles and was all over the radio. I guess there was no way I was going to miss it, really.

“American Fool” was the final straw for me as far as reading negative reviews of albums. If it didn’t get at least three and a half stars or a seven out of ten mark I didn’t read it anymore. Tell me what’s good about record, not what you don’t like. That’s kind of my philosophy here. I mean, why would I keep or add an album to my collection if I didn’t like it?

Is “American Fool” a perfect album? No. But it’s damn good, and cor me, that’s close enough for rock and roll.

The Doobie Brothers – Best of the Doobies

When Michael McDonald joined The Doobie Brothers in 1975, after the departure of Tom Johnston, it significantly changed their sound. Their more straight forward R&B infused rock style was replaced by a more soul based rock sound. This was in part because of the difference in Johnston’s and McDonald’s vocal and songwriting styles and in part because McDonald played keyboards. The Doobies hardly ever used keyboards on their first five albums.

The Doobie Brothers never intended to use that name permanently. Based on one of their activities in addition to making music, they adopted it after a friend jokingly suggested it. The band thought it was a stupid name, but could never agree on anything else. When you consider that before recording their first album, they once performed under the name Pud, it’s probably a good thing they stuck with The Doobie Brothers.

A Child’s Garden of Grass (a pre-legalization comedy)

“A Child’s Garden of Grass” was a comedy album that was nearly 50 years ahead of its time. Subtitled “A Pre-legalization Comedy” it foresaw the day that occurred in my home state of Michigan this past election day and all across Canada not too long before that: the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use.

I’ll admit it. I used to smoke pot. I haven’t in decades, but I did pretty regularly back in the late ’70s (not too bright for a kid still in high school, but hey, I still got good grades). The thing is, I never saw marijuana use as any different from drinking alcohol – with one exception – it was illegal. I never felt it should be. Well, it’s not any more. This record knew that day would eventually come. Way back in 1971, it knew.

When I ran across this record a couple of weeks ago, I had to pick it up. It brought back memories relating to a book of the same name that I read back in the day (The book was subtitled “The Official Handbook for Marijuana Users”) This album is based on that book which was published a year earlier. I found the book in my high school library during my junior year. (Disclaimer: It wasn’t a book that actually belonged to the school library. I always guessed that somebody put it on the shelves as a joke, for someone to find…and guess what!) I decided to use it later as the subject for an English class book report assignment. Now that might seem a little brazen, but you see, the whole school knew I had smoked pot anyway. Students, teachers, the administration, even the janitors. (Let’s just say there was an incident during my sophomore year and leave it at that.) So I figured what the hell, let’s have some fun.

I think my general synopsis of the book was that I found it to be factually accurate but at the same time, absolutely hilarious. The same goes for this album. The one thing I will say is that I remember the book being more detailed. “A Child’s Garden of Grass”, the album, is a somewhat quirky collection of the more humorous parts of the book of the same name. But right now, it’s mostly a great trip down memory lane.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I got a ‘C’ on the book report. The teacher told me I would have gotten an ‘A’ but they marked it down because of the poor choice of subject matter.

I didn’t care. It was so worth it.