China Camp Part 2

Back in February, I posted about my hike in China Camp near San Rafael, noting I didn’t have time to walk some of the trails. I did get back there in late winter, and while there’s not nearly enough time to walk the rest of the trails on one visit, I did see quite a bit more than I had on my first visit. So here’s a brief “China Camp Part 2″ post.

One of the recommended loops on the Friends of China Camp site is taking the Bayview trail one way and the Shoreline trail another. I already posted some pictures from the western part of the Bayview trail, so here are some from the eastern part, which does have some views that lives up to its name:

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That’s the best one, where you see the San Francisco skyline faintly in the background (it was a cloudy day) behind the San Rafael-Richmond bridge. From the same point, a wider view:

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Also from the Bayview trail, a less dramatic view of Turtle Back Hill:

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But a more dramatic view, considerably to the east, of Rat Rock Island (that is its real name):

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From this photo, you might think you’re in the middle of the Pacific. The island’s pretty close to shore, however, as this wider perspective reveals:

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Just to the west of the island is Rat Rock Cove:

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Following the Shoreline Trail east after it meets the Bayview Trail, you might come across this rock garden of sorts at the eastern boundary of the park, if it hasn’t been removed:

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The Shoreline Trail is pretty flat, if a bit rolling, compared to the Bayview Trail, and much closer to sea level (and the actual water of the San Francisco Bay). So it’s less exciting. But if you’ve walked much of the length of the Bayview Trail first, as I did, it’s much easier on the feet, and sensible to do in the last part rather than the first. The loop of sorts took about four hours, and with the dirt surface and considerable elevation changes of the Bayview Trail, it is a decent workout, even if you’re in good shape. And you have a good chance of spotting some wildlife, as I did near the end:

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On this cloudy March Monday, there weren’t many people in this quite large park, which you’ll have mostly to yourself. Approximate tally for the day: about half a dozen hikers, about half a dozen mountain bikers, and about half a dozen deer.

Women Rockers on Film: 15 Great Moments

I’m presenting a three-part lecture series on Women in Rock at the Berkeley Art Center this spring and summer, featuring film clips of the performers discussed in this post, among quite a few others. Details on the first of the events, on Thursday, May 31 from 7pm-9pm, are on this page of the center’s site. Details on all three of the events (others follow on June 21 and July 26) are on the center’s calendar.

At several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve taught a course on women in rock during the first quarter-century or so of rock’s evolution, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. One of the pleasures this involves is presenting filmed performances, some quite off the beaten track, of women rockers from around the globe during this period. Even with the increased accessilibity of rock history clips on DVD/Blu-Ray and online, many of them remain rarely seen, or  even unseen by some fans.

Here are fifteen great examples of such footage. I haven’t ranked these in a best-of order, instead just progressing in chronological order, from late-‘50s rockabilly to early-‘80s new wave. Along the way are unforgettable glimpes of girl groups, psychedelic stars, folk-rockers, singer-songwriters, soulstresses, and more.

Wanda Jackson, “Hard Headed Woman” (Town Hall Party, Los Angeles, November 29, 1958). Although Town Hall Party was a country-oriented TV program, it featured quite a few rockabilly stars in the late 1950s, almost all of whom had started in country music. Wanda Jackson wasn’t the most famous of them, but she was one of the best, and certainly the finest woman rockabilly singer, belting with throaty zest. While her appearance on the show unfortunately didn’t feature her finest early rockabilly songs (the white-hot “Fujiyama Mama,” for starters), she does well with “Mean Mean Man” and “Hard Headed Woman.” The latter song’s most famous as a 1958 hit for Elvis Presley, a boyfriend of Jackson’s for a while, who encouraged her to sing in an earthier and rockier fashion than she had on her tamer initial country records.

She also distinguishes it from Presley’s version with a deceptively mellow introduction: “I tell you what, we haven’t done a real good love song. Joe, play me some real pretty, you know, twinkly stuff up there. Real sad.” Guitarist Joe Maphis follows suit. “Y’all like love songs, do you?,” Jackson resumes. “Good. I like those. This one really tells a beautiful story, if you can pay real close attention to the words, and if you like love songs, well, we think this is one of the most beautiful love songs that’s ever been written. And we’d like to do it especially for all of y’all. It goes like this. Do that again,” she instructs Maphis, “that’s pretty.” Upon which she launches into a take-no-prisoners growl: “A hard headed woman, a soft hearted man, been the cause of trouble ever since the world began!,” shaking her hips and pointing for all she’s worth as Maphis spins off sharp rockabilly licks and Jimmy Pruett pounds the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.

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Dusty Springfield and Martha & the Vandellas, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (Ready Steady Go, London, March 16, 1965). In early 1965, several Motown artists toured the UK, just as records from that label were developing a fanatical following across the Atlantic. To commemorate the visit, the leading British pop music television program of the time, Ready Steady Go, did a special “Sounds of Motown” episode. A highlight was a unique, playful duet between the leading British woman pop-rock singer of the ‘60s, Dusty Springfield, and one of Motown’s greatest groups, Martha & the Vandellas.

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” was actually originally recorded by another soul star, Dionne Warwick, and written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who also produced Warwick’s version. It was Dusty Springfield who had the Top Ten hit with the song in the US in 1964, however (oddly, it was not a hit for her in her native UK, where Liverpool band the Merseybeats took it into the Top Twenty). At a time when there was much more segregation between black and white (if less in the UK), it was a fine and bold statement to see two fine black and white acts singing together on television.

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The Ronettes, Be My Baby (The Big T.N.T. Show, Hollywood, November 29, 1965). “Be My Baby” had been a hit for about two years by the time the Ronettes did it on The Big T.N.T. Show concert movie in Hollywood in late 1965. They must have sung it hundreds of times by then, but you wouldn’t know it from the elan Ronnie Spector puts into both her singing and her exuberant onstage presence. From this clip alone, it’s obvious how much she loved performing, and how much joy she put into her vocals. Which makes it all the more tragic that within a year or so, she’d started an enforced retirement of sorts when her new husband Phil Spector—who of course had produced “Be My Baby” and the Ronettes’ other classic girl group hits—insisted she give up her career and stay at home.

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Richard & Mimi Fariña, “The Bold Marauder” (Rainbow Quest, Newark, New Jersey, February 26, 1966). Richard Fariña was the main singer and songwriter in the duo he formed in the mid-1960s with his wife Mimi, the younger sister of Joan Baez. But Mimi was crucial to the pair’s early folk-rock recordings as a harmony singer and guitarist. Fortunately they were filmed as the guest stars of a half-hour episode on Pete Seeger’s public television program Rainbow Quest, just two months before Richard’s death in a motorcycle accident. Although they ventured into tentative early electric folk-rock on their two albums, they play acoustically (sometimes joined by Seeger) on this program. Nonetheless it does justice to their sound and fine material, one of the highlights being this sea shanty-like number (with Richard on dulcimer), whose lyrics sound both like an ageless folk song and a commentary on twentieth-century abusers of power.

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Big Brother & the Holding Company, “Ball and Chain” (KQED, San Francisco, April 25, 1967). Of course, the most famous performance of Janis Joplin singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company is seen in the Monterey Pop film, where she delivers one of the best rock vocals ever on “Ball and Chain.” A couple months earlier, the band—still mostly unknown outside of the Bay Area—did a half-hour live-in-the-studio set at San Francisco’s public TV station, KQED. While this version of “Ball and Chain” doesn’t match the Monterey Pop one in charismatic intensity, it certainly serves notice that Joplin would be a force to be reckoned with. Probably inadvertently, the group’s version of the traditional folk song “Cuckoo”—on which guitarist James Gurley takes the shaky lead vocal on the early part, Joplin taking over on the hurricane-like conclusion—demonstrates just how much they needed her to get on the map. She’s also good on other early Big Brother material on the program, like “Down on Me,” the band’s rough-and-ready early psychedelic rock complementing her sensual style well.

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Aretha Franklin, “A Natural Woman” (Konserthuset, Stockholm, May 2, 1968). Fortunately, there’s a lot of footage of Franklin’s Swedish concert on this date, in which at points you can literally see sweat dripping from her face. It’s a bit uneven, but she hits her stride on her soul hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood” (on which she plays her underrated piano), and “A Natural Woman,” co-written of course by another woman (Carole King) and her first husband, Gerry Goffin.

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Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (Woodstock, August 17, 1969). They couldn’t have planned this, but because the Woodstock festival was running way behind schedule, Jefferson Airplane didn’t take the stage until just as the sun was rising on Sunday morning that weekend. That made for a magnificent backdrop to their set, which like much of Woodstock was filmed, including this radiant version of Grace Slick’s most famous composition, “White Rabbit.” (She also sang “Somebody to Love” here, but that was written by her brother-in-law, Darby Slick.) There have been several expanded editions of the Woodstock film and it’s hard to keep up with what’s appeared where, but “White Rabbit” doesn’t seem to be on any of them.

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Nina Simone, “Four Women” (Harlem Cultural Festival, New York, August 17, 1969). There are many great clips of women rock and soul performers, but this is my very favorite. In vivid color, Simone delivers one of her most dramatic compositions, each verse detailing the tribulations of four different women (the title “Four Women” is not actually sung in the lyrics). The backup is sparse and moody, and the piano solo rather aggressively incorporates her classical training. At the end a gust of wind blows some sheets off her piano, but she doesn’t miss a beat as she vainly tries to stuff them back into place. Mesmerizing. And yes, this took place the very weekend the Woodstock festival was being held elsewhere in New York State, and later on the very day that Grace Slick sang “White Rabbit” with Jefferson Airplane there (see above entry).

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Joni Mitchell, “California” (BBC, London, October 9, 1970). Joni Mitchell wrote a famous song about Woodstock, but didn’t actually perform there. We do have this footage from about a year later, taken from a half-hour program taped for the BBC, live in front of a studio audience. She does a few outstanding songs here as a solo performer, including “Chelsea Morning,” “For Free,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” I think “California” is of special interest, not only because it’s not as well known as most of the other songs in the set, but also because it showcases her skill on the dulcimer, which she plays to accompany herself on this tune.

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Carole King, “A Natural Woman” (BBC, London, April 27, 1971). Although she wrote many hits with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, throughout the 1960s, it wasn’t until early 1971 that King became a star on her own with the Tapestry album. Just a couple months after that LP was released, she did a half-hour live-in-the-studio program for the BBC, as part of the same concert series that Joni Mitchell had done an episode for (see above entry). She did a few of her hits as a solo artist (“I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late”), but also did her own versions of some songs that had first been hits for other artists, as “A Natural Woman” had been for Aretha Franklin. Listening to her sing this and other material on this program, it’s hard to believe it took her so long to emerge from behind the scenes to become a recording star as a singer and solo artist, so accomplished are her vocals.

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Nico, “Femme Fatale” (The Bataclan, Paris, January 29, 1972). Nico left and/or was fired from the Velvet Underground in spring 1967. She hadn’t shared the stage with Lou Reed and John Cale for almost five years when this one-off Reed-Cale-Nico concert was presented in Paris in early 1972. An unplugged semi-Velvet Underground reunion (though no other Velvets were present), part of the concert was fortunately filmed, giving each of the three turns in the spotlight to sing lead. One of Nico’s songs was “Femme Fatale,” written by Lou Reed, though sung (like two other Reed compositions) by Nico on the Velvet Underground’s first album. Cale and Reed supply subdued backup harmonies to her on this acoustic version, on a TV program marking the only time the three were filmed performing together in decent image and sound quality.

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Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, “Summer Wine” (Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, 1972, probably February). The oddest couple of the 1960s, Nancy Sinatra and her producer Lee Hazlewood had several unlikely beauty and the beast hits, including “Some Velvet Morning.” “Summer Wine” was another bittersweet-to-the-point-of-moodiness highlight of their discography, performed with rather irreverent sassiness in Las Vegas as part of a Swedish documentary on the pair in Sin City.

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Patti Smith, “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together” (Konserthuset, Stockholm, October 3, 1976). In the same venue where Aretha Franklin was filmed for TV in 1968 (see earlier entry), a program was shot of the Patti Smith Group in concert. There are other good clips of Smith from the ‘70s, but this is the best sustained document of her electrifying stage presence. Although it includes strong original compositions like “Land,” “Redondo Beach,” “Free Money,” and “Ask the Angels,” it also has some covers she didn’t put on records in the 1970s. The best of these is the one that opens this program, a hyper charge through the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together,” to which Smith, as was her wont, adds some different lyrics.

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The Avengers, “The American in Me” (The Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1978). Although they didn’t get to release many records at the time, the Avengers were the top early San Francisco punk band, fronted by Penelope Houston, who both sang and looked as though she could bore right through your head. The Mabuhay Gardens was the top early punk venue in the city, and this clip captures the ferocious energy of both their performances and the Mabuhay audience’s frenzied dancing.

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Shonen Knife, “Kappa Ex” (Japan, promo video, mid-1980s). This is the most recent of the selections on this list, yet I know less about its background than any other. It was one of the mimed clips on a promo video sent to a music magazine where I worked at the time. This Japanese trio mixed pop and punk in about equal measures, at a time when all-women bands were even rarer in their country than most anywhere else. Even if it’s cornily enacted, this is a charming clip of one of their better songs, the threesome not taking the low-budget props and lip-syncing entirely seriously.

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I’m presenting a three-part lecture series on Women in Rock at the Berkeley Art Center this spring and summer, featuring film clips of the performers discussed in this post, among quite a few others. Details on the first of the events, on Thursday, May 31 from 7pm-9pm, are on this page of the center’s site. Details on all three of the events (others follow on June 21 and July 26) are on the center’s calendar.

1970: Baseball’s Bumper Crop of Fluke Seasons

Baseball season’s starting, and with it the unavoidable hopeful predictions that so-and-so is poised to have a “breakout” year. Much of this is hype from managers, owners, broadcasters, and sometimes the players themselves. Every year sees some “career” years that are unexpected, but you can’t count on too many of them, no matter which team you’re following. Here on the San Francisco Giants, for instance, it doesn’t seem impossible that Brandon Belt would somehow put it all together one year and hit .330 with 35 homers and 120 walks. Even if he did, however, it’s likely that would be his one “peak” year, and he’d revert to his usual streaky slightly-above-average performance at the plate.

Some years do see more out-of-context performances than others. I don’t know if there’s any way to measure such things, but for some reason, 1970 seemed to see more of them than most other seasons, and perhaps any other season. You could field a killer All-Star caliber team with the guys who, for just that year, exceeded their career norms by implausibly high margins.

Perhaps the most improbable of them, given his age (33) and how he’d never before approached stardom in his nearly decade-long career, was Cubs outfielder Jim Hickman. His career high in homers had been 21, his highest batting average .257. He’d even been demoted to the minors for a while a couple of years previously, at the age of 31. Suddenly he was a Triple Crown threat, hitting .315 with 32 home runs, 115 RBI, and 93 walks. He even delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the twelfth inning of the All-Star game—the famous one in which Pete Rose scored the winning run by crashing into (and injuring) catcher Ray Fosse. Hickman had a couple of fair years for the Cubs over the next two seasons, but never approached those numbers again.

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On base between Hickman and Rose as that All-Star finish played out was Billy Grabarkewitz, who that year hit .289 with 17 HR, 84 RBI, 95 walks, and 19 stolen bases for the Dodgers—the only season, unbelievably, in which he had more than 200 at-bats. Grabarkewitz had hit a mere .092—that’s not a misprint—in 65 at-bats the previous year, in his first big-league trial. Injuries would limit his playing time to 90 at-bats in 1971; he his a woeful .167 with more action (144 at-bats) in 1972; and he never got regular playing time again. What happened?

“What was amazing was the day after the All-Star game, which was a day off, [Dodgers general manager] Al Campanis calls me into his office and says, ‘You’re doing real good, but you know you need to cut down on your strikeouts,’” Grabarkewitz told Michael Fedo in the book One Shining Season. “So he got [coach] Dixie Walker to go out and work with me. I’m hitting .376 and Dixie wants to change my whole hitting style again. And he says, ‘First of all, you need to quit swinging for home runs.’ He switched me to a heavier bat again, and it’s like I didn’t have a choice. I’m being told to do this. So in the month of August, I don’t think I struck out six times. And I think I hit .101…[in September] I went to [the lighter] bat, and the last month I did real good again—hit home runs, struck out a lot, but got base hits.”

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For the record, Grabarkewitz was actually batting .341 at the All-Star break; he’d have two walks and a two-run homer, his tenth, the first day after the break. But he was indeed down to .289 (and had been dropped from leadoff to the eighth spot in the order) by the end of August, in which he batted .173 (not .101, but bad enough). (He also struck out 26 times in August, not six.)

What really killed his career, however, might have been (again according to his memory in One Shining Season) being told to work on double plays for a long time the second or third day of spring training the following year. That hurt his shoulder badly enough to keep him out of the lineup most of 1971, and he never got a foothold in the big leagues again, with the Dodgers or several other team he’d play for over the next few years.

Or, there might have been a more prosaic explanation. I wish I could find it for reference, but I remember Phillies broadcaster (and ex-center fielder) Richie Ashburn writing in a newspaper column that Grabarkewitz had come looking for him after a game because of a negative comment from Ashburn. Ashburn wrote something along the lines of that if Grabarkewitz had tried to hit him, if Ashburn had curved, Billy would have missed.

Also on the Dodgers that year, in the midst of a much longer career, was Wes Parker, regular first baseman for the team since the mid-1960s, including on the pennant-winning squads of 1965 and 1966. Although acknowledged as an excellent fielder, Parker had never seemed to live up to his potential at the plate. His best season had been 1969, when he hit .278 with 13 homers (though just one came after July, around the time he had an emergency appendectomy). In 1970, however, he had his only superb year, hitting .319 with 111 RBIs, and leading the league with 47 doubles.

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His explanation for why he didn’t approach those figures again will no doubt vex Dodgers fans unaware of Parker’s attitude at the time. “After doing that for one season, I decided it wasn’t worth it,” he revealed in One Shining Season. “It was a conscious decision on my part that the sacrifices and effort, the amount of energy that had to go into it, was more than I thought it warranted. 1970 was for one season only. I’m glad I did that once, but I wanted to enjoy all aspects of my career, part of which was dating again, part of which was enjoying people. I didn’t want to live like a hermit again”—which he’d done in 1970, so he could focus almost exclusively on baseball—”and I really believe that’s what it would have taken for me to have another year like 1970.”

There could have been other grounds for criticizing Parker’s approach to the game. Again I wish I could find the newspaper story, but I remember in 1976, Phillies manager Danny Ozark (who’d been a coach with the Dodgers in 1970) was getting on outfielder Jay Johnstone for not hustling on extra-base hits that could have been triples, stopping at second to pad his doubles total. (Johnstone hit 38 doubles that year, finishing second in the National League.) Parker, Ozark remembered, had led the league in doubles back in 1970 by doing the same thing.

Moving across the diamond, at third base Tommy Harper had a superstar year for the Milwaukee Brewers, then playing their first year under that name after having started life as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. Harper always had speed—he’d stolen 73 bases the previous year—and he’d flashed some power by hitting 18 homers for the Reds in 1965, though he’d never hit more than ten in any other season. Suddenly he hit 31 homers to go with 38 stolen bases, a .296 average, 35 doubles, and 104 runs. He’d never come too close to that stat line again, and never hit more than 17 homers in his remaining years, though he did lead the American league with 54 stolen bases in 1973.

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At shortstop, Bert Campaneris had the best career of any player to have a fluke season in 1970. He made the All-Star team six times; led the American league in stolen bases six times; and was the shortstop on the A’s team that won three straight World Series in 1972-74. He was not, however, a power hitter, with 79 home runs in a 19-year career. Except, that is, in 1970, when he somehow clubbed 22 roundtrippers (and 28 doubles). In no other year did Campaneris manage more than eight homers. In 1969, he hit two; in 1971, five.

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There’s no vintage anecdote explaining what happened, but it’s interesting to note that Campaneris turned on the power again for a few weeks a few years later, when it mattered most. In 1973, he hit just four home runs (and slugged just .318) in the regular season. Yet in the postseason, he hit three—two in the American League playoffs, and one in the World Series.

In San Diego, Cito Gaston, like Jim Hickman, had a near Triple Crown-worthy season — .318 average, 29 homers, 93 RBI. It was all the more shocking coming after a rookie year in which he’d hit .230 with two homers, slugging .309. Unlike Hickman, Gaston was relatively young (26), and fans of the second-year-expansion Padres entertained reasonable hopes they had their first superstar. Yet the following year, his average dipped to .228, with 17 homers. Only once did he top ten homers again, with 16 in 1973, his last year as a regular.

1970 Clarence Gaston (f)

As great as his 1970 was, Gaston never did master the strike zone. Even in ‘70, he struck out 142 times—the same year he had his highest walk total, a modest 41. His 121 whiffs in 1971 (accompanied by a mere 24 walks) suggests poor command of the strike zone that pitchers learned to exploit. Gaston’s greatest fame, of course, came not as a player, but as a manager with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989-1997 and 2008-2010, where he was the first African-American manager to win a World Series (in both 1992 and 1993).

Behind the plate, San Francisco Giants catcher Dick Dietz had an amazing 1970, at least at the plate. He hit .300 with 22 HR, 107 RBI, and 109 walks, not to mention 38 doubles. He’d only played semi-regularly in his earlier seasons, but for that year, was almost as good a hitter as the National League MVP, fellow catcher and future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

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Dietz tailed off in 1971, but was still very above average for a catcher as a hitter, with 19 homers and 79 walks. Somehow he was waived (not traded) to the Dodgers in April 1972, where a broken hand ruined his 1972 season, in which he hit .161 in 56 at-bats. He rebounded with a rather phenomenal, if unheralded, year as a reserve (playing more first base than catcher) for the Braves in 1973, hitting .295 and walking 49 times in just 139 at-bats, compiling a .474 OBP. That translates to about 150 walks in a full-time year.

Dietz was just 31, and it seems like he should have kept finding work as a reserve, perhaps moving to the American League to DH considering his subpar defensive reputation. It’s been suggested that he was blackballed owing to his role in the 1972 players strike, when he was serving as the Giants’ player representative (and, likewise, suggested he was waived to the Dodgers in early 1972 because of that as well).

With a bit of juggling, you have a starting eight of fluke 1970 seasons here. You could move either Grabarkewitz or Harper from third to second (both played some second base in their career). There are only two outfielders; you could add Bernie Carbo, who had a great rookie year as a platoon player for the Reds (21 HR, .310, 94 walks in just 365 at-bats) and never hit nearly as well again.

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Pitchers aren’t nearly as well represented by fluke 1970s, but there was one guy whose All-Star year came out of nowhere. Clyde Wright had started and relieved for the Angels for a few years without distinction, especially in 1969, when he was 1-8 with a 4.10 ERA. In 1970, he somehow won a place in the rotation and rocketed from 1-8 to 22-12. He’d have a couple other good years in 1971 and 1972 (winning 34 games with a sub-3.00 ERA) before declining into retirement by the mid-’70s. His 12-6 record at the break was good enough to get him a spot on the American League All-Star squad, where he gave up the game-winning hit in the twelfth inning to…Jim Hickman, which is where we started.

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Days of Future Passed: 10 Surprising Rock Albums of the Late 1960s

What makes an album surprising? The criteria will differ widely according to who’s making the judgment. Weren’t all of the Beatles albums surprises, in how each marked not just a significant departure and progression from the previous one, but often wholly unpredictable ones as well? Aren’t albums surprising in which a performer noted for a very specific style moves into a very different one, as Bob Dylan did on his electric rock recordings in the mid-1960s? How about ones that many consider to be duds, Dylan providing another example with 1970’s Self-Portrait?

Although none of the records noted in the above paragraph make the list on this post, most people can probably agree that surprising records are ones that don’t match, and sometimes even defy, expectations given an artist’s past releases. I thought about this recently after reading a new 800-page (yes, 800 pages – and it only goes through 1979!) book about the Moody Blues, Long Distance Voyagers. The Moody Blues aren’t for everyone, and an 800-page book about them definitely isn’t for everyone, or even every Moody Blues fan. But it naturally has a lot of coverage of their most famous album, Days of Future Passed, which was a pretty radical departure from their early sound when it came out in late 1967.

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Were many other significant LPs of the late ‘60s so different than what had preceded them? Not many – an inarguable point even if you don’t like the Moodies. There were some others that came close, in pretty different ways. The common thread on my personal Top Ten list here is the genuine sense of WTF reaction that must have greeted these records when they were first spun, even by dedicated fans. Some were baffled, some exhilarated, some outraged – but no doubt almost all of them were surprised.

The late ‘60s, of course, were not the only era in which such albums were unleashed. Over the next ten or fifteen years, others would appear that were strong candidates for lists of the some surprising LPs by significant artists, again for very different reasons – unlikely comebacks (Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English), utter departures from their usual approach (Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska), wholly uncommercial excursions into the avant-garde (Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music takes the cake in that regard), or outings so stylistically uncharacteristic they seemed designed to piss off longtime fans and record companies (Neil Young’s Trans, as well as several others he’s done). Analysis of those holds some interest, but is best left to different writers. I’m sticking to the era which I know the best – the late 1960s, the one in which Days of Future Passed was released.

1. The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed (1967). Albums two and three on this list are vastly more critically respected than this one, and certainly album number two got much more press for defying expectations than this LP did. But really, have there been any other significant records that were as unlike what listeners would have predicted?

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Admittedly, a big reason for their shift in direction was a substantial change in personnel. For about two years, starting with their debut single in late 1964, the Moody Blues were a good, though not great, British Invasion band with a haunting R&B/pop blend. The only song for which this lineup of the band (featuring Denny Laine, later of Wings, on lead vocals) is famous is their only big hit, “Go Now.” But they had quite a few other good tracks in the mid-’60s, many of them written by Laine and the group’s piano player, Mike Pinder. By fall 1966, Laine had enough of their fading commercial prospects and quit, their original bass player (the forgotten Clint Warwick) having already left.

For a year or so, the Moody Blues somehow struggled onward with replacements Justin Hayward and John Lodge, issuing a couple more flop singles. The story’s often been noted elsewhere (and is naturally told in considerable detail in the new Long Distance Voyagers book), but they were given the option of doing another LP whose function would be to demonstrate a new stereo recording method developed by the Deram label. The story has varied somewhat in different accounts, but the Moodies’ job would be to record a rock version of a symphony by Dvorak.

With no other real opportunity on the horizon, the band accepted — but then jettisoned the concept and substituted their own, that being a song cycle about different parts of a day from dawn to nighttime. It was a risk that in some ways might have been foolhardy (though not as foolish, perhaps, as just doing a Dvorak symphony as they were told), or at least resulted in them being kicked off the label and unable to find another recording contract. Probably more than 95% of the bands in a similar position wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. The Moody Blues did, reinventing themselves as an act bridging psychedelia and progressive rock with somber, stately songs with thoughtful-to-the-point-of-pompous lyrics, gothic vocal harmonies, and Pinder’s eerie Mellotron, marking him as the first adept user of the instrument in rock music. They sounded little like the Moody Blues of “Go Now” days with Denny Laine’s vocals, save for ingredients surviving in the haunting melodies and backup harmonies.

It was a career move that’s been hailed as not only adventurous, but courageous, the Moodies sticking out their necks for what they believed in when the record label funding the project was expecting something totally different. Which I agree with, but really, what did they have to lose? They’d made some good records in their early poppier style, but that approach wasn’t getting them anywhere in 1967. An album of Dvorak interpretation, aided by classical interludes, wasn’t going to make them commercial or critical favorites either. Indeed, it might have made them laughing stocks for being stooges for a company project aimed at hyping a stereo technique. Why not throw caution to the wind and go for broke, consequences be damned? They were probably going to break up anyway if they didn’t come up with a miracle — and that miracle wasn’t going to be the Dvorak album. The only chance they had, in the ultra-competitive world of 1967 rock, was coming up with their own distinctive original material.

It seems that at least a few people at Deram knew what the band was up to, but it would have been great to be a fly on the wall at the meeting at which the result was played to Deram staff expecting a somewhat exploitative Dvorak-meets-the-Moodies LP primarily designed not to advance the band’s career, but to show off their “Deramic Sound System.” Perhaps figuring it didn’t make sense to throw yet more money away to bury or redo the project, Deram released what the Moody Blues gave them. And everyone won, the album quickly gaining strong sales and positive feedback from fans and critics, and over time (which took a good few years) becoming a huge seller.

Something to emphasize that isn’t always pointed out when this tale is told: although the Moody Blues deserve praise for doing something both daring and true to their hearts with Days of Future Passed, it wouldn’t have worked if the songs weren’t strong. Indeed, they made for a stronger batch than any of their other albums, most made when they were established as a top act. Had the songs been on the okay-but-rather-unmemorable level of their pre-Days of Future Passed singles from 1967 with the Hayward-Lodge lineup, or the “Nights of White Satin” B-side “Cities,” the album would have been forgotten, even with the same concept and structure. And while Peter Knight’s instrumental classical interludes linking the band tracks can seem corny at times (the bit before “Peak Hour” almost sounds like the background to a frenetic city scene in an industrial training film), the album would not have worked as well without them, as they were vital to establishing a sense of epic grandeur.

2. Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding (1967). As albums by artists who were already influential stars went, none was as surprising as John Wesley Harding, released in the final days of 1967. As Mike Jahn wrote in his 1973 book Rock, “As expected, it thoroughly stood folk and folk rock on their heads.” But not the way fans expected. It had been a year and a half since Dylan’s last album, Blonde on Blonde, which doesn’t sound like much now, but was an eternity by 1966-67 release schedule standards. In that year and a half following a July 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan hadn’t played any concerts or released any singles, or even appeared much in public, sparking rumors of death or crippling injury. In that same year and a half, rock had changed at a dizzying pace, often getting louder and more psychedelic.

Dylan

Some listeners had to expect that Dylan’s next album might have been, if not psychedelic, even louder and more far-out than Blonde on Blonde, itself quite a bit louder and crazier than his early folk recordings. Instead John Wesley Harding was quiet, country-folkish, and barely electric, as though he was consciously restraining himself from rocking out. His lyrics were (with the exception of a song or two) as sophisticated and enigmatic as ever. But soundwise, he’s since been hailed as heading the rock world’s retreat from psychedelia to a back-to-basics, earthier approach, though in truth rock might have headed that way anyway as the possibilities of psychedelic music began to exhaust themselves, as they do in as any major innovative musical movement plays out.

John Wesley Harding’s almost quotidian calm was almost as contrary as possible to almost any Dylan fan’s expectations. Given Dylan’s already iconic stature in the rock world in 1968, many would pick it as #1 on a list of this sort. However, one factor in particular makes me reluctant to consider it for the top position. Although it wasn’t widely known at the time, Dylan was making a lot of music in 1967, if outside of conventional recording studios. Tons of music, in fact, as the recent six-CD expanded edition of The Basement Tapes verifies. By the late 1960s, some of it would be bootlegged, and of course many of the more accomplished songs found official release on the 1975 double-LP version of The Basement Tapes.

The Basement Tapes weren’t quite as hard-rocking as Dylan’s fiercest mid-’60s electric music, though they’re closer to Blonde on Blonde than John Wesley Harding. But they draw more on rootsy blues, country, and gospel than Blonde on Blonde, and if they’re not exactly halfway between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, they’re something of a bridge. Had the best of The Basement Tapes been released in 1967, whether as a single or double LP (and re-recorded in a conventional studio to boost accessibility), they likely would have been very well received, and generated only mild surprise for not being as loud or outrageous as some might have expected. Now that so many Basement Tapes are available, the transition from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding seems less shocking, though hardly insubstantial.

As a footnote, at least a few people besides Dylan and the Band had heard some Basement Tapes before John Wesley Harding was released, when a few of them were circulated inside the industry with the intent of generating cover versions in late 1967. But almost everyone who heard John Wesley Harding shortly after its release had not heard any of these. Indeed, very few listeners even knew of their existence. So The Basement Tapes would not have mitigated the shock for any average purchaser of the John Wesley Harding album when it first appeared in stores.

3. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground (1969). Each of the Velvet Underground’s principal four studio albums (a couple outtakes compilations subsequently appeared in the 1980s) was markedly different from each other. Still, I’d have to say their self-titled third album was about as unlike what any of their growing cult fandom would have expected when it came out in March 1969. Having made one of the weirdest and noisiest records of all time with their previous album, White Light/White Heat (released in early 1968), the Velvets now seemed perversely determined to make the quietest album of all time, at least in places.

Velvetundergroundthirdalbum

I got the record (as a UK import; it was out of print in the US) as an 18-year-old in 1980, and still remember the shock of putting the needle down on the opening track, “Candy Says,” in which the group seem to be deliberately playing in as subdued and restrained a manner as possible, as if they’re afraid nudging the volume up even a bit would cause the needle to skate across the vinyl. And this was after having been thoroughly prepared for the VU’s change in direction by reading retrospective reviews of the LP (which weren’t all that easy to find in 1980, actually).

The Velvet Underground does rock out harder on some tracks, like “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On,” and even gets avant-garde near the end on “The Murder Mystery.” But almost everything, even the mid-tempo rockers, is suffused with a feeling of containment, to the point where guitarist Sterling Morrison famously said (as a compliment) that it sounds as though it was recorded in a closet. It’s as if they’re trying to consciously annoy the fans who wanted more “Sister Ray” and the like by supplying the complete opposite.

With hindsight, however, we can put down much of the change in the Velvet Underground (as with the Moody Blues on Days of Future Passed) to a major lineup shakeup. John Cale was fired by Lou Reed shortly before the sessions for the album, replaced by more conventional (but very accomplished) rocker/singer Doug Yule. Allowing in turn for more conventional, melodic, and romantic songs by Reed, the results were excellent, and actually substantially more commercial than White Light/White Heat.

At the time, however, it confounded and even disappointed a good number of the fans the Velvet Underground had picked up — which weren’t nearly as great in number back then as Bob Dylan fans, or even the number of fans the Moody Blues had after Days of Future Passed. “A lot of people didn’t like our third album because they wanted more of the second,” Reed acknowledged to Metropolitan Review in 1971, after explaining he thought of the Velvets’ first three LPs as different installments of a novel or opera of sorts. “But they didn’t understand that that’s as far as you go with that, then there had to be a release, there had to be an ending. But I needed room to work, so I needed a separate album for each phase. I couldn’t have the ending on the second album, the second album ended very harsh. Then the third album starts out soft. So that was the idea all along, but no one seemed to pick up on it.”

As surprising in the context of a career as John Wesley Harding, I nonetheless put The Velvet Underground one notch lower, mainly for the following reason. John Wesley Harding’s change in direction was a shock for literally millions of listeners. The Velvet Underground’s, if equally profound, was at the time likely noticed by tens of thousands at most. It can’t compare in the magnitude of shock waves it generated, though fifty years later—with the massive expansion of the VU’s audience—it probably does have millions of listeners.

4. The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile (1967). Albums can be surprisingly disappointing, as well as genuinely surprising. This is the standard-bearer for such a record on this list. It’s almost a cliché to cite this 1967 LP as a massive letdown, or, as Beach Boys guitarist Carl Wilson famously described it, “a bunt instead of a grand slam.” But a letdown it was, after the sky-high anticipation fostered by reports of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys working on an album that would out-innovate the Beatles.

SmileySmileCover

That record, Smile, would never appear, and never even get properly finished, though simulations of what it would/could have sounded like (along with mounds of outtakes) have come out on both official CD and bootlegs. Although Smiley Smile was largely derived from subsequent and entirely different sessions, you couldn’t blame many consumers for expecting Smile when they bought it in 1967. The title was pretty similar, for one thing. And it had some songs (if not always in the same versions) that almost certainly would have been part of Smile, particularly the single “Heroes and Villains,” but also “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes.”

Apart from not sounding as groundbreaking, or just sounding as good, as what listeners expected/wanted after reports of the Smile sessions, Smiley Smile often sounds downright peculiar. With the non-Brian Wilson Beach Boys now determined to play their own music after classic mid-’60s records on which their contributions were largely limited to vocals, the tracks sound rather anemic. There’s an abundance of self-conscious, rather silly (if inoffensively so) humor, as though they’re not taking the endeavor entirely seriously, now that they’ve abandoned shooting for the moon. A classic single with pull-out-the-stops production (“Good Vibrations”), like “Heroes and Villains,” sounds out of place next to much more casual, tossed-off arrangements (including inferior versions of the Smile sessions standouts “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes”) that can sound a bit like informal run-throughs. Some listeners find that informality charming, but it also veers on sounding like outtakes rather than finished arrangements, or something fun to hear on bootlegs, but not on par with the band at full throttle.

There have been some efforts to rehabilitate Smiley Smile, championing it as a rebirth of the Beach Boys’ collective group spirit, or as a continuation of their evolution rather than the signpost to the end of the band’s peak. I take pride in puncturing or deconstructing critical party lines in rock history when the music and facts call for it, but at the expense of losing a few friends on my social media lists, I’m afraid I’m siding with the party line here. Smiley Smile is a big letdown, especially when stacked against not only the buildup when Smile was being recorded, but the actual brilliant (if often flawed) Smile outtakes that are now freely available.

5. The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968). Much like Bob Dylan’s move to country-influenced sounds with John Wesley Harding was a shock, so was the Byrds’ sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, when it came out about eight months later. The Byrds, along with Dylan, had been the leading lights of folk-rock; now they were fully on board with country rock. Dylan’s transition to country rock cost him virtually nothing commercially; John Wesley Harding was a big hit, if maybe not quite as big as it might have been if he’d done Blonde on Blonde Part 2. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as many five-star reviews as it would get in rock history magazines and online sites decades later, was not a hit, in part because it wasn’t anything like what people expected from the Byrds.

Byrds

Of course, much of that was down to personnel changes that had rocked the core of the band. Just two of the original five Byrds were left. Still, one of them was leader Roger McGuinn, and the other, bassist Chris Hillman, had become an important singer-songwriter contributor to their pair of 1967 LPs. Yet the characteristic electric jangle of their first five LPs was gone, pretty much. And country rock that often sounded close to straight country music was in its place, at a time when country music wasn’t very popular among much of the rock audience. Even the two Bob Dylan covers (of Basement Tapes songs Dylan had yet to release, no less) didn’t have the jangly, vocal harmony-laden appeal of “My Back Pages,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and several other Dylan compositions the Byrds did masterful versions of on their 1965-67 releases.

While many Byrds fans knew the group now had a couple non-founder members, few were aware of just how profoundly one of them, Gram Parsons, had changed the band’s overall direction. With the enthusiastic support of Hillman, the group abandoned McGuinn’s ambitious plan for a double album spanning the history of music, from traditional Appalachian folk to experiments with the then-new synthesizer. Nor were the band writing as much original material as usual.

The record’s since been hailed as a country-rock milestone by many. I confess I’m not one of the critics who admires the album. I think it’s pretty disappointing and rather dull — a statement that’s another ticket to losing Facebook friends. I champion change and unpredictability among top rock innovators, but had I been old enough to buy it in 1968, I admit my gut reaction would have been to mourn the death of the “classic” Byrds sound. As I’ve written elsewhere, I also wish the Byrds had tried McGuinn’s idea to span the history of music, as prone as that might have been to failure.

6. Tim Buckley, Lorca (1970). Released in 1970 but recorded in September 1969, Lorca was one of the most defiantly inaccessible albums by any rock artist, not counting pure avant-garde outings like Metal Machine Music and the early collaborations by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Buckley had not been the most accessible of singer-songwriters on his early albums, progressing from slightly arty baroque folk-rock to orchestrated art song to near-jazz. But those LPs had been full of actual songs, and for the most part pretty pleasant ones, if often challenging in their lyrics and structure.

lorca

Side one of Lorca was not occupied by conventional songs. The dissonant tones and pipe organ of the opening track were more reminiscent of contemporary composers such as Olivier Messiaen or Arnold Schoenberg than of rock, folk, or even jazz. Buckley proceeded to moan with a shaking vibrato, often wordless, sometimes rumbling and sometimes gliding into pealing shrieks, that conveyed not so much anguish as it did sheer agony. It was art, but to unschooled rock listeners, it sounded like the atonal soundtrack to an acid-fueled monster movie.

The free-jazzish track occupying the remainder of side one, “Anonymous Proposition,” was only slightly more approachable, impressive as it was in Buckley’s almost athletic journey across several octaves and vocal shadings. Never mind that the second side of Lorca had material far more in the jazz-folk-blues mode of his 1968 LP Happy Sad, albeit looser and funkier. Some listeners might not have even gotten that far.

The label that released Lorca and Buckley’s first three albums, Elektra, was regarded as about the most artist-friendly record company of the time. But even Elektra had its limits, dropping Tim after Lorca. As Elektra chief Jac Holzman told Musician about the Lorca era years later, “He was really making music for himself at that point. Which is fine, except to find enough people to listen to it.”

Like David Bowie and (in jazz) Miles Davis, Buckley changed styles with unnerving frequency and unpredictability. Unlike Bowie and Davis, he hadn’t built up the sizable audience whose base was large enough to ensure that much of it would follow his career, even as some of it dropped out along the way (and others joined partway into the journey). Lorca’s very small audience didn’t dissuade him from continuing his idiosyncratic path, with parts of Starsailor (also released in 1970) just as strange, followed by unsuspected leaps into more commercial funk-singer-songwriting. As admirable as its uncompromising first side was, it ensured that Buckley remained a cult figure.

7. Blossom Toes, If Only For a Moment (1969). All of the other acts on this list are pretty well known, even if some of them are on the cultish side. Not so Blossom Toes, who make Buckley seem like Bowie. The British band put out just two albums, though these LPs mark them as one of the best and most interesting obscure groups of the psychedelic era. And of all the bands in rock history that have recorded just two albums, few can match the Blossom Toes’ rare feat of producing LPs that were not only first-rate, but totally different from each other.

blossom

Blossom Toes’ debut, 1967s We Are Ever So Clean, was charming whimsical British pop-psychedelia, somewhat like the Kinks jamming with the Salvation Army on the village green on Sunday afternoon. In contrast to the debut’s orchestrated pop-psychedelic summer-day whimsy, If Only For a Moment was all heavy guitars and March of Doom lyrics, closer in tone to Captain Beefheart than the Kinks. It’s far more accessible than Trout Mask Replica, however, with some of the classiest proto-progressive rock dual guitar leads (between Brian Godding and Jim Cregan) you’re likely to come across.

The group’s wistful vocal harmonies are also intact—the only real strong link between the two records. But the chirpy chamber orchestra of the first LP is gone for good. The somber lyrical tone of the extended compositions deals with bombs, war protests, and tortured uncertainty. It’s almost as if the smiley face of the debut album has been inverted into a puzzled frown.

At this point Blossom Toes might be more widely known to the international record collecting community than they were back in the ‘60s. Indeed, the number of albums issued by Blossom Toes during their lifetime is now exceeded by the number of discs of unreleased material available by the same band. They remain, however, virtually unknown to the general public. They’ll never have the cult of Tim Buckley or the Velvet Underground, but they deserve a wider hearing, even if your initial impression will vary enormously depending on which of their two albums you’ll hear first.

8. Nico, The Marble Index (1968). Nico is not tremendously obscure, due mostly to her association (actually fairly brief) with the Velvet Underground. Her second album, however, was truly obscure upon its release. It did generate a surprising number of thoughtful, and at times even positive, reviews. Judging by how hard it was to find used copies back when I was buying Velvet Underground records around 1980, however, it must have sold very little when it first came out.

The_Marble_Index_by_Nico

For those who were paying attention, it must have been a tremendous shock after hearing the three Lou Reed songs Nico sang on the first Velvet Underground album, and then the baroque folk (often orchestrated) on her almost as obscure debut solo LP, 1967’s Chelsea Girl. For one thing, Nico wrote virtually nothing on Chelsea Girl (though she got a partial writing credit for the sole track to sound like the Velvet Underground, “It Was a Pleasure Then”). On The Marble Index, she wrote everything. Not only that, it sounded nothing like the rather gentle pop-folk of Chelsea Girl. Instead it presented harsh, uncompromisingly bleak soundscapes dominated by her stentorian, icy vocals and somber harmonium.

As is now fairly well known, Nico was encouraged to start writing her own songs by Jim Morrison, with whom she’d had an affair, Morrison advising her to take inspiration from her dreams. Likely dismissed as a token glamour girl in the Velvets by many of their observers, she was eager to become more of an artist than a pretty face. Remarkably, she succeeded, and with an original style not easily comparable to either the Velvet Underground, the folky songs she’d done on Chelsea Girl (which seemed to be trying to make her into an underground Judy Collins of sorts), or the singer-songwriters (like Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne) she’d covered on the Chelsea Girl LP. She did have a great deal of help in this regard from fellow Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, without whose arrangements The Marble Index might have sounded too monotonous and meandering.

As it turned out, the music she did on The Marble Index would be far more typical of her solo career than what she’d done on Chelsea Girl or with the Velvets, Cale returning to help with the production and arrangements on much of her subsequent studio work. The Marble Index, like Nico herself, did gain more of a following over the next few decades, and is now available as part of an extensive double CD (with her 1970 album Desertshore) that includes almost a dozen outtakes. It is as unlike Chelsea Girl, however, as the second Blossom Toes album was from that group’s debut—a major difference between the acts being that Blossom Toes would then break up, while Nico would put out four more studio LPs, the last appearing in the mid-1980s.

9. John Cale, Vintage Violence (1970). Recorded in fall 1969 and released in 1970, John Cale’s debut album was wholly unlike what many expected—but not because, as was the case with several other albums cited here, it was weird. On the contrary, it was a shock because it was so damned normal. Or, at least, way more normal than you’d expect given Cale’s reputation as by far the most avant-garde member of the Velvet Underground, and by his many way-avant-garde (indeed, sometimes pretty unlistenable) prior recordings in the 1960s, though very few of them had been heard before they surfaced on archival CDs decades later.

Vintage_violence

Vintage Violence was a shock not for the radical nature of its sounds, but for the absence of virtually any radicalism at all. Instead, it was a relatively conventional singer-songwriter record. It was more normal, in fact, than anything the Velvet Underground had recorded, or for that matter any of the records Cale had made with Nico, the Stooges, or Terry Riley. It’s certainly more accessible and less jarring than any of those albums. (Cale’s collaboration with Riley, Church of Anthrax, did not come out until 1971, but the pair had started working on material together in the studio in March 1969, about six months before the Vintage Violence sessions.)

Instead of taking cues from his experimental past, Cale instead plugged into the earthy roots-rock of the Band, who by late 1969 were among the most influential groups in the music business. There were also elements of country-rock, folk-rock, and the introspective singer-songwriting now gaining currency in the pop LP market. Cale sings in a gentle and attractive, if somewhat restrained, voice, backed by the band Grinder’s Switch.

Listeners paying attention to the Velvets and Cale’s prior work certainly would have been far more steeled for something like Church of Anthrax. Just because Vintage Violence is conventional, however, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Far from it, actually. It’s a fine, accessible, pleasing record, full of intelligent if low-key songs, the only avant-garde weirdness popping up (and pretty mildly) on the macabre “Ghost Story.” It’s impressive too for the courage it took for Cale to attempt something not at all like the Velvet Underground, and his ability to pull something of the sort off.

For all its quality, Cale has been pretty modest, and sometimes even dismissive, in his assessments of Vintage Violence. They’re worth quoting at some length here:

In the liner notes to the 2001 CD reissue of the album, he calls it “a very naive record. Those songs were written immediately prior to recording them. I tried to imitate my favorite songwriters of the times, the Bee Gees or whatever. I was out to discover the world of pop songwriting and I thought tunes were the answer. I taught the band the songs in one day and recorded them the next, so we were finished in three days.”

In his autobiography (co-written with Victor Bockris), he writes: “Vintage Violence was basically an exercise to see if I could write tunes. There’s not too much originality on that album, it’s just someone teaching himself to do something…I thought the songs were simplistic. We were writing stuff that was very oriented to what the Band were doing, as the musicians on the album shared that same upstate New York country sensibility.”

More negatively, in the August 30, 1971 issue of Rock magazine, he impassively states, “It was a cop-out. I made the mistake of using other musicians. I should have gone in the studio and done the songs the same way I did Marble Index – overdubbing a lot, doing the parts myself, building the songs up the way I wanted. It would have been more interesting, more honest, more me. The songs on it are about things I’d thought about that morning. They all run into short stories I’ve written, the stories end up as maps and charts, lots of characters come out in my short stories. All of them have characters. Like ‘Adelaide’ is like an English rock and roll song. ‘Little White Cloud,’ like a Bee Gees thing. ‘Cleo,’ like old rock and roll.”

Vintage Violence is better than John Cale seems to think it is, although it’s not his most famous solo record, and still not all that widely known even to Velvet Underground fans, who’d likely pretty readily take a shine to it. I’m aware this list is pretty Velvet Underground-heavy, but then that’s a testament to the daring unpredictability of both the band and the solo work of their three most prominent members (Cale, Lou Reed, and Nico).

10. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass (1970). To fill out this Top Ten list to ten actual selections, I’ve taken small liberties. All Things Must Pass was not released or even recorded in the late 1960s, though it was on the market by late 1970, which isn’t that much later. Musically, it’s different from the Beatles or what George Harrison had done in the Beatles, but not hugely different. You can hear a lot of links between All Things Must Pass and the Beatles, and while it was different in notable ways—an increased emphasis on spiritualism in many compositions, a greater use of horns, and Phil Spector’s co-production (with George)—Harrison brought a lot of the Beatles’ melodicism to the songs, as well of course as his own singing and guitar playing.

Harrison

In this case, the big surprise was not in the content, but in its reception. When the Beatles broke up in spring 1970, everyone was wondering how they’d fare as solo artists. If you’d polled people then as to who would do the best records on their own, I’m guessing about 99% of them would have said the contest would have been between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. As for the 1% who would have figured it would have been between George Harrison and someone else, not all of the 1% would have picked George as the winner.

So it was a huge surprise—and a pleasant one—that George’s true solo debut (not counting his Wonderwall soundtrack and avant-garde doodlings on Electronic Sound) outsold Paul and John’s debuts, and was the best record of the three. (Again, I’m not counting Lennon and McCartney’s various soundtrack/avant-garde/live LPs, and considering McCartney and Plastic Ono Band as their true solo debuts.) I realize quite a few listeners and critics would pick Plastic Ono Band as the best LP of this batch, and some prefer McCartney, though champions of Paul’s debut probably rank a distant third in this contest. In my view, however, All Things Must Pass was easily the best, and indeed the only solo Beatles album I’d rate on a par with the band’s releases. It would have been even better had George not put dull jams on disc three of the triple album, and instead used yet more of the songs he’d piled up (some demos of which are available on archival releases and bootlegs).

If there was any one good thing to come out of the Beatles’ breakup, it was that George was finally free to record—in the way he wished—all of the songs he had accumulated during the late 1960s, some of which (such as “The Art of Dying” and “Isn’t It a Pity”) had been written as far back as 1966. All Things Must Pass suggests that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin not only underestimated Harrison’s songwriting talent, but also his production skills. As much as all Beatles fans lament the passing of the group in 1970, it’s impossible not to rejoice in George’s great triumph, surpassing the expectations of even his most devout fans—and, perhaps, even surpassing his own.

Shoreline Trail in China Camp State Park

On my list of places in the Bay Area I’ve heard about but haven’t managed to visit, China Camp has been high on the list for a while. Earlier this month I finally made it out there on a Monday morning. I walked around for nearly three hours, but that’s not nearly enough time to cover this 1500-acre state park, a few miles east of Central San Rafael.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

There are a good number of hiking trails, some of which are on the steep side. A good choice for a path with some length and variable terrain seemed to be the Shoreline Trail, which runs most of the length of the park near the San Pablo Bay. On a weekday at least, it was easy to park on the main road just outside the first campground entrance you come to after entering on the west side. Be aware there’s a parking fee if you go the lot a two-three-minute drive inside, and that you still need to pay a $3 walk-in fee at the trail entrance.

China Camp trail map.

There’s not much in the way of water views from the trail, though occasionally you get glimpses such as this one:

View

The bends on the trail might not offer scenes as spectacular as those in many more celebrated California parks, but they’re pleasing enough, as this series shows:

Trail1 Timber SunTrail Overhang FirstBendBridge

Unfortunately there are reminders that California’s in danger of suffering another drought. This is supposed to be a creek:

Creek

After a while you’ll get to the Back Ranch Meadows Campground (actually not far from the trail entrance if you take the much easier flatter path), where you’ll have a good chance of spotting a bit of wildlife, as I did:

Deer

Turkey

Across the main road that runs through the park, on the side by the water, there’s a very short trail, Turtle Back Trail, that true to its name winds around Turtle Back Hill. It’s actually just a minute-or-two drive from the campground where you can enter the Shoreline Trail. This seems like a good option for parents escorting small kids, and I saw a couple such pairs when I did the loop in just a few minutes:

Turtle Hill Trail path.

Turtle Back Trail path.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

The most popular spot in China Camp is China Camp Beach at the eastern end, which has a fairly big parking lot (fee required) overlooking the dock. I stopped just long enough to take a picture, and that’s where I’ll start on my next visit:

Dock

More info on China Camp State Park at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=466.