The Train Is Coming

The minstrel warned us that the train is coming.

On an oppressively hot June night in Chicago, Robert Plant sang 13 songs of longing, joy, and carnality with a voice that has grown sweeter and softer over 69 years. His concert was mostly a joyous celebration of life. But if you listened closely as he dipped into his rich songbook, you could hear the minstrel conjuring narrators who contemplated aging, loss, and mortality. Midway through the evening, Plant assumed the voice of a man about to be executed, pleading for the hangman to give him a little more time in “Gallows Pole”:

Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile

I think I see my sister coming, riding many mile, mile, mile

Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand

Take him to some shady bower

Save me from the wrath of this man

On “The May Queen,” an aging celebrant sang of time’s passage:

A heart that never falters

A love that never dies

I linger in the shadows

The dimming of my light

An old blues man gazed at death in “Fixin’ to Die”:

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Well, I don’t mind dying

But I hate to leave my children crying

The older you get the more likely you will learn what it is to experience the effects of age, if not on yourself then on someone in your life. In his 69 years, Robert Plant has faced the loss of close family and friends, and nearly the loss of his muse when he almost quit singing after the death of his son, Karac, in 1977. But he is not one to dwell on the past. Since the break-up of Led Zeppelin in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham, Robert Plant has record 14 albums, six of them after he turned 50. He scoffs at those who would question how he stays inspired at an age when many have retired from their work, and he writes songs that celebrate living, not losing. Continue reading

5 Customer Experience Lessons from Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Acts Now

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If you want to improve your customer experience, read the recently published Rolling Stone overview of the 50 greatest live acts now. The best live acts do something all brands aspire to do: create an experience that make their fans want to come back for more. It’s a simple formula for building brand love — and yet many companies struggle to master the art of the customer experience. According to the annual Temkin Experience Ratings, only 37 percent of companies received “good” or “excellent” scores for their customer experience. Here’s what 50 great live acts (rated by musicians, critics, and industry executives) can teach brands about treating their customers right:

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1. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Number 1 on the list of greatest live acts now is a 63-year old legend who could coast on his reputation and still make this list. Yet, Bruce Springsteen plays with the urgency  of an unknown act trying to prove himself.  He continues to give everything he has onstage (in Finland, he played for 4 hours and 16 minutes, his longest show ever). He abandons his set list to play requests from the audience, which keeps his band from falling into a  rut. He commands the stage. After all these years, he’s not simply “doing well for an older rocker” — he’s setting the standard for excellence, period. Another well-established act, Radiohead, “refuse to rest on nostalgia,” in the words of Rolling Stone, with the band members challenging themselves to bring fresh material with each tour. But Bruce Springsteen is the one artist who exemplifies all five lessons on this list.

2. Create Audience Intimacy

The artists, critics, and industry types who selected the Top 50 laud Jay Z for making “personal connection with the audience at every show.” Similarly, U2 “have this ability to create intimacy” even in large arenas, according to Continue reading

Memorable Album Covers: The Sensual Soul of “Al Green’s Greatest Hits”

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Al Green oozes playful sensuality on the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits. The album was a popular summation of his career when it was released in April 1975, showcasing his sweet, aching voice on songs such as “Let’s Stay Together.” Most greatest hits packages are nothing more than blatant attempts to cash in on previously released material. But the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits turned a song collection into an artistic statement. For that reason, I have chosen Al Green’s Greatest Hits as the latest entry to highlight in my ongoing series about memorable album covers.

I remember buying Al Green’s Greatest Hits in 1975, when I was 12 years old. I had already owned several Al Green singles. I was drawn to that high-pitched, tender voice, so vulnerable on songs like “Call Me,” and emotional on “Tired of Being Alone.” I was fascinated by how he alternately cooed, shouted, and caressed the ear of the listener.

Producer Willie Mitchell complemented Green with lush arrangements, featuring the Memphis horns. Al Green and Willie Mitchell introduce me to love and romance long before I ever screwed up the courage to ask a girl out on a date.

Al Green was my artist. None of my friends where I lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, had ever heard of him. And I’m not sure their parents would have been happy if they had. Not only was his voice and manner sensual, his voice could sound downright effeminate to the uninitiated.

My older sister Cathy was of dating age, and the guys she occasionally brought home viewed my Al Green 45-records with scorn. One of her dates actually smashed all of my Al Green singles during an unauthorized house party while my parents were away.

Al Green’s Greatest Hits was a godsend. With one purchase, I could reclaim almost all the Al Green singles that some random cretin had destroyed. And on top of that, Al Green seemed to burst into my living room through that album cover. Here he was, smiling, full of movement, and (although I did not know the right word to use at the time), sensual. And in his tight, white leather pants and bare chest, he exuded a confidence that I hoped would rub off on me. The back cover featured not one but four Al Greens, this time fully clad in a white leather jacket, invited me to share some sort of emotional rapture.

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Technically, Al Green’s Greatest Hits was nothing new. I knew his songs and face already. But that cover was like a revelation: now I had the right image to go along the name.

Four years later, a gifted musician named Prince Rogers Nelson would update Green’s androgynous appeal by appearing bare chested himself on the cover of Prince (then donning stockings and underwear shortly thereafter on Dirty Mind).

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But whereas Prince was overtly sexual, Al Green was sensual. Nearly 40 years later, the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits still captures the essence of my Al Green.

PS: 36 years after I bought Al Green’s Greatest Hits, I paid a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Without question the highlight of my visit was coming across an exhibit containing the actual leather trousers Green wore on the cover of Greatest Hits. I had had no idea the trousers were on display. I felt like I had just discovered Superman’s cape. Also, for more album covers in my series, see:

A Band of Brothers “Born to Run”

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We remember Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons as being both kindred spirits and successful band mates. And the album cover of Born to Run captures the essence of their story as we’ve learned it. Born to Run, profiled here for my series on memorable album covers, endures because the cover expresses the personality of an artist and his band.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band famously developed a reputation for being a rollicking, adventurous band of brothers, especially during the group’s marathon concerts that exuded energy and joy. The E Street Band was never a democracy. It was the Boss’s group to run and, later in his career, to disband and regroup depending on his personal musical needs and vision. But especially in the early going, the E Street was essential to Springsteen’s identity — so much so that he wrote about his band mates in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

And no one in the seven-person band touched him like saxophonist Clemons. The story of their meeting has been told several times. As Clemons told a fan website:

A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band was on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, “I want to play with your band,” and he said, “Sure, you do anything you want.” The first song we did was an early version of “Spirit in the Night“. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.

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As reported in Peter Ames Carlin’s recently published biography of Springsteen, Clemons became an integral part of the band’s sound and a musical soul mate, as well. When Clemons died of a stroke in 2011, Springsteen was at his side with a guitar. Later Springsteen said of Clemons, “He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.

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That relationship is perfectly expressed on the cover of Born to Run, which consists of a photo taken by Eric Meola (the image is one of 900 he took). The body English says it all: Springsteen, a Fender Esquire in one hand, leans on Clemons, smiling affectionately at his band mate instead of looking at you. Clemons gives the Boss a sideways glance, his expressive body leaning back comfortable into Springsteen’s as he plays his beloved saxophone. The clean design, consisting of a plain white background and simple lettering, keep your eyes focused on the two men Interestingly, Springsteen has set aside his guitar to admire his band made, whereas Clemons looks like he’s working on Take 37 of a saxophone solo for “Jungleland” — an observation that might be fairly true.

In fact, making the album was anything but a carefree experience. Carlin reports that the recording of the album was “slow, grim, and tortuous.” Clemons “spent 16 hours playing and replaying every not of his ‘Jungleland’ solo in order to satisfy Bruce’s bat-eared attention to sonic detail.” After stripping his songs down and rebuilding them to achieve different sounds he was looking for, and after pushing his band to the extreme, Springsteen was still unhappy with the finished product of “unplayable parts, unfixable mistakes, and unmixable recordings.”

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Of course, history remembers Born to Run differently. Rolling Stone magazine ranks Born to Run as one of the Top 20 albums of all time — “timeless record about the labors and glories of aspiring to greatness.” The album is also listed the Library of Congress National Recording Registry of historic recordings.

The cover itself has become beloved, too, for expressing the passion and joy of Springsteen and his most famous of all E Street band members. (In a case of both art and life imitating art, Springsteen and Clemons were known to duplicate the album cover pose onstage during their concerts.) Here’s how Carlin describes it: “For in this picture, Bruce knew, resided the heart of the band: unity, brotherhood, a small fulfillment of the American ideals of strength, equality, and community.”

Well said.

5 Marketing Lessons from the 121212 Concert for Sandy Relief

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Rock concerts for causes have come a long way since George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and raised $250,000 to help refugees in war-torn Bangladesh. The Concert for Bangladesh was an untelevised rock show (actually two of them) witnessed by 40,000 people in Madison Square Garden. By contrast, last week’s 121212 Concert for Sandy Relief was a multimedia experience accessible to 2 billion people globally, earning $35 million in one night (with millions more to come). Here are five marketing lessons from the 121212 Concert:

1. Extend Your Reach

The 121212 Concert, which supported Robin Hood Relief (a highly regarded organization assisting Hurricane Sandy victims), made it virtually impossible for you to miss the show.  The concert was broadcast on 39 television stations, streamed to 25 websites, and aired on 50 radio stations, creating “the most widely distributed live musical event in history,” according to Nielsen. By contrast, even the highly successful 2001 Concert for New York City (which also benefited Robin Hood Relief) was broadcast on VH1 exclusively. If you wanted to watch the concert, they gave you no reason to miss it.

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Continue reading

Old bands, great brands shine in 2010

There seems to be no end to the merchandising of so-called legacy rock stars, and 2010 was no exception:

  • Elder rockers ranging from Robert Plant to Roger Waters made headlines with new music (in Plant’s case) and an updating of a rock classic via a stunning tour (Waters).

As I’ve blogged before, legacy rockers (sometimes from the grave) provide a relatively young art form (rock) the gift of perspective as they come to terms with their past and chart a course for the future. What did they say about themselves in 2010? Here’s my take:

  • “The king is dead. Long live the king.” God bless Robert Plant. After re-uniting with three quarters of Led Zeppelin to perform at London’s O2 arena in 2007, Plant endured tremendous pressure to tour again with his old band mates under the Led Zeppelin banner. But Plant would have none of that. Instead in 2008 he toured with Alison Krauss to promote their celebrated Raising Sand. In 2010, Plant continued to firmly keep Led Zeppelin in his rear-view mirror by releasing his latest solo album, Band of Joy (the name is a reference to one of his bands prior to Zeppelin). Anyone hoping for a Zeppelin reincarnation was disappointed. He chose a quirky mix of Americana covers spanning folk and rock (recorded with lesser known musicians) and embarked on a modest tour in places like the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was rewarded with some of the best reviews of his career.

  • “Remember us.” The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones kept their names in the public eye without releasing any new music. Amid much hoopla, including a weeklong celebration on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Rolling Stones unveiled the remastered Exile on Main St. Months later, Keith Richards, surprising fans with a still-intact and lucid memory, published his 565-page autobiography, Life. In August, Elvis Presley’s entire catalog was released via a massive 30-CD box set retailing for more than $700 — and in an era in which CDs are supposed to be dead, the first-edition limited release sold out. In October, Sony released mono CD editions of Bob Dylan’s seminal recordings from the 1960s (the box set included a thoughtful essay by noted rock historian Greil Marcus). I think that Dylan, the Stones, and the caretakers of Elvis’s brand essentially were re-establishing their places in history for newer generations of rock critics (and it sounds like John Jurgensen at The Wall Street Journal wasn’t convinced). None of them technically released new material (the previously unreleased Exile tracks date back to the making of the original album). Instead, they continued to keep their past achievements relevant (even to the point of the Stones successfully licensing “Gimme Shelter” for use in a video game). I think it’s also significant that the Beatles finally made their music available digitally through iTunes. I don’t think the move was about generating sales (although sales did result) but rather passing the band’s legacy down to digital generations both today and tomorrow.

  • “I am an artist!” It’s no secret that Roger Waters and his ex-Pink Floyd band mates have fought bitterly over who is the rightful owner of the Pink Floyd legacy. In 2010, Waters made a statement in the best way possible: performing the 1979 Pink Floyd classic The Wall as a high-concept solo tour, replete with the construction of a giant wall in the elaborate stage act (as Pink Floyd with Waters did via a limited series of concerts decades ago). So how was The Wall tour different from the re-release of Exile on Main St.? Because Waters re-interpreted and updated the music he wrote in the 1970s as a modern-day statement against corporate greed and bellicose governments (the U.S. war in Iraq among the topics he explored with the modern-day performance of his songs). And having attended one of The Wall concerts, I think he suceeded.

In 2010, we also heard from many other legacy rockers, including Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and later, in the year, the king of pop, Michael Jackson. I expect 2011 to bring more of the same. And I have mixed feelings about what’s happening here. I think we should give the giants of rock history their due just as newer generations of readers should continue to buy books by Hemingway or pay admission to see the works of Picasso. But for every dollar we spend honoring the gods, rock fans need to be supporting new music financially. How many new and emerging artists have you supported lately by actually paying money to enjoy their music (whether recorded or in concert)?

I hope you’ll make a commitment in 2011 to both the old guard and the vanguard.

Let us now praise old rock and rollers

On September 16, B.B. King turned 83, just weeks after releasing his latest recording, the well received One Kind Favor, and on the same day, 59-year-old Lindsey Buckingham blessed us with Gift of Screws, thus continuing a run of great music created by rock, country, and blues musicians who could qualify for the senior citizens discount.

Today’s older generation of pop and rock stars — the Bob Dylans, Patti Smiths, and Al Greens — have lived, lost, and flourished. They come from diverse backgrounds, but I believe these traits unite them:

  • Adventure. Robert Plant, now 60, could have rested on his laurels after Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980. Instead, he embarked on a solo career that established him as one of the most inventive musicians in rock history, not “the ex-front man for Led Zeppelin.” His work, especially in the 1990s and beyond, has explored the rhythms of North Africa, rockabilly, folk, and a dash of electronica. He doesn’t need the primal scream of Zeppelin days. On the CD Dreamland, he practically whispers folk covers, and he quietly explores blue grass with Alison Krauss in Raising Sand. Could it be that the established rockers like Plant are in a better position to take these kind of risks because they have nothing left to prove?
  • Perspective. When Paul McCartney was 24, he could only ponder turning 64 some day. In Memory Almost Full, McCartney, his 60s, could speak from experience. On his best recording in decades, he accepts his mortality but revels in the fact that his life has room for whimsy and joy. Perspective, however, also means pain. In the poignant “Mama You Sweet,” Lucinda Willaims, in her 50s, learns to say goodbye to her mother, who died in 2004. In “The Long Goodbye,” Bob Seger, in his early 60s, ruminates on the ravages of Alzheimer’s (which his family has experienced first hand). Lucinda Williams and Bob Seger have experienced the kind of loss that comes with growing older. I want to know how they feel about that.
  • Passion. I don’t particularly care what Kid Rock believes about the war in Iraq. But when Neil Young and John Fogerty vented their anger about Iraq in Living with War and Revival recently, I listened. In particular, Young has seen it all (and protested against it all) from Vietnam to Iraq. He’s earned the right to be a conscientious voice. The older rockers (especially contemporaries of Bob Dylan) came of age at a time when rock and roll meant having a point of view about society and politics. And boy, are they pissed off. John Mellencamp rails against racism in “Jenna,” and the Eagles take on empty consumerism in “Long Road out of Eden.” Whether you agree with them is beside the point. Their passionate social commentary is something sorely lacking today with the exception of rap muscians like Dr. Dre and rock bands like Radiohead.

Rock and roll still means decadence and rebellion. But “hope I die before I get old,” as Pete Townsend once famously wrote, is more myth than reality. The Bob Segers, Lindsey Buckinghams, Lucinda Williamses, and Robert Plants show us that rock also means passion, beauty, loss, adventure, and gowing old. Gracefully.

For further listening, I’ve listed below a partial roll call of excellent music from veterans since 2006:

Continue reading

Let us now praise old rock and rollers

On September 16, B.B. King turned 83, just weeks after releasing his latest recording, the well received One Kind Favor, and on the same day, 59-year-old Lindsey Buckingham blessed us with Gift of Screws, thus continuing a run of great music created by rock, country, and blues musicians who could qualify for the senior citizens discount.

Today’s older generation of pop and rock stars — the Bob Dylans, Patti Smiths, and Al Greens — have lived, lost, and flourished. They come from diverse backgrounds, but I believe these traits unite them:

  • Adventure. Robert Plant, now 60, could have rested on his laurels after Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980. Instead, he embarked on a solo career that established him as one of the most inventive musicians in rock history, not “the ex-front man for Led Zeppelin.” His work, especially in the 1990s and beyond, has explored the rhythms of North Africa, rockabilly, folk, and a dash of electronica. He doesn’t need the primal scream of Zeppelin days. On the CD Dreamland, he practically whispers folk covers, and he quietly explores blue grass with Alison Krauss in Raising Sand. Could it be that the established rockers like Plant are in a better position to take these kind of risks because they have nothing left to prove?
  • Perspective. When Paul McCartney was 24, he could only ponder turning 64 some day. In Memory Almost Full, McCartney, his 60s, could speak from experience. On his best recording in decades, he accepts his mortality but revels in the fact that his life has room for whimsy and joy. Perspective, however, also means pain. In the poignant “Mama You Sweet,” Lucinda Willaims, in her 50s, learns to say goodbye to her mother, who died in 2004. In “The Long Goodbye,” Bob Seger, in his early 60s, ruminates on the ravages of Alzheimer’s (which his family has experienced first hand). Lucinda Williams and Bob Seger have experienced the kind of loss that comes with growing older. I want to know how they feel about that.
  • Passion. I don’t particularly care what Kid Rock believes about the war in Iraq. But when Neil Young and John Fogerty vented their anger about Iraq in Living with War and Revival recently, I listened. In particular, Young has seen it all (and protested against it all) from Vietnam to Iraq. He’s earned the right to be a conscientious voice. The older rockers (especially contemporaries of Bob Dylan) came of age at a time when rock and roll meant having a point of view about society and politics. And boy, are they pissed off. John Mellencamp rails against racism in “Jenna,” and the Eagles take on empty consumerism in “Long Road out of Eden.” Whether you agree with them is beside the point. Their passionate social commentary is something sorely lacking today with the exception of rap muscians like Dr. Dre and rock bands like Radiohead.

Rock and roll still means decadence and rebellion. But “hope I die before I get old,” as Pete Townsend once famously wrote, is more myth than reality. The Bob Segers, Lindsey Buckinghams, Lucinda Williamses, and Robert Plants show us that rock also means passion, beauty, loss, adventure, and gowing old. Gracefully.

For further listening, I’ve listed below a partial roll call of excellent music from veterans since 2006:

Continue reading