Giovanny Blanco Artist’s Block: The Director’s Cut

Giovanny Blanco from The Holy Broken curated the Artist’s Block for the December 5th There Once Was A Note on Woody Radio. He provided a great, thoughtful reflections on the songs that he chose, but his commentary had to be trimmed to fit the runtime of the show. I thought that it needed to be presented in its full form, with the accompanying videos for each song. Many thanks to Gio, and I hope you enjoy this “Director’s Cut.”

John Prine, “Illegal Smile”

We come to things in the time we’re supposed to come to them. We might catch glimpses of close calls. Moments where we should’ve had an “aha” to mark ‘em. Some times things exist in their own bubble and seem to sustain themselves without any involvement from me. John Prine was one of them bubbles. I knew about him and his importance as an American songwriter. I just never opened that door. It looked like a small house that was always packed. I wasn’t even curious as to why people revered him so. It’s funny how sometimes you notice something being there and being pleasant but not experiencing any it’s hooks catching any part of your being. I knew “Angel From Montgomery” as one of Bonnie Raitt’s earlier hits and in the last few years it seemed like if I came across a female singer performing in bar or small club, at one point or another they’d always sing this song. It’s probably not the way it’s always happened but it sure has felt like it. Young/old, black/white, no matter if there was a woman singing in a half empty bar where half the people weren’t even playing attention, on cue, “Angel” would be sung. And it always sounded good. Didn’t matter who sang it. Good songs are kind of invincible like that. This one time, the person next to me, who just happened to be the boyfriend of this one particular singer said, “Yeah, you can’t fuck with John Prine”. Whatya mean I can’t fuck with John Prine? How did this guy know about my inability to enter that small, and crowded house? Right then and there the door opened and the house didn’t seem so crowded. I walked right in and I started at the beginning. When I got in my car to go home that night I played his very first album and the very first song is “Illegal Smile”. I played it over and over again. The connection was immediate. I made it through his first three records that night and I kept coming back to that song. The humor, the irreverence. The weight of that irreverence and his ability to toss it off like it was nothing. I didn’t know much about John Prine but I knew that night that I got him. Recently, I saw a friend online recommend to someone who wasn’t Prined yet to listen to Prine’s first and last record. That it was all there. I added that if he did that and then worked his way through all his albums to the middle and then back out again he might find a guitar waiting for him at the end. It’s what happened to me.

Kenny Rogers, “Tennessee Bottle”

I grew up with Kenny Rogers in my house because my father loved his ballads. Loved them. As an adult, I found out that the same guy who sang “Lady” sang “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and when I picked up my jaw I went diggin’ for more. I knew the hits, I already knew there were two sides of Kenny. When he passed away this year (and by now I’m sure you can see a theme to my Artist Block) I covered a few of his songs (a couple with The Dirty Lowdown and one a duet with Cindi Law). Tennessee Bottle was one of the songs that was shortlisted to cover because it’s groove is so damn dirty and lowdown – but we never got around to it. I didn’t even push it because I thought it may be obscure for some. As I was assembling this list I found some some similarities between this song and The Holy Broken song I picked. Our song isn’t a cover and there isn’t any blatant thievery going on but they can sit together on a liquor store shelf and no one would say anything. I’ve learned the hard way (and the only way) that Whiskey and Bourbon don’t taste the same but if you have enough of either you’ll end up feeling the same.

Luther Ingram, “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right)”

Pete Carr was a guitarist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. I can stop right there. He’s Hall of Fame material. He’s recorded with Bob Segar, Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Hank Williams Jr, Box Scaggs, and even Barbara Streisand – check out Woman In Love off her “Guity” album. Yes, I am recommending a Barry Gibb produced Streisand song here – I can read the room – but look outside for a minute and check out that song’s guitar intro, it’s Barry’s riff but… damn! Pete plays the paint off of it. In Luther’s song, Pete plays in three or four different parts in styles that shouldn’t go together and he NEVER goes over the song or the singer. There is nothing else you can fit in the song and if you take anything thing out it would fall apart. Carr’s guitar is the glue. Luther and his voice come out begging and pleading but never groveling and it’s because Pete has his back. You don’t want to start a fight with that guitar. I imagine he passed away this year with that guitar in his arms. Since I don’t know who was at his funeral I’m going to tell you that it’s the truth.

Van Halen, “Drop Dead Legs”

Eddie Van Halen was a guitar god. He had the hands that launched a million copy cats shredders. Fingers that copied Eddie’s speed but rarely his flavor. “Drop Dead Legs” off of “1984″ is a bluesy crawl and stop and crawl back up a again kinda tune that’s got nothing but flavor. It struts in like it owns the place but the only thing it owns is itself. The cowbell almost steals the show and the guitar knows it but it never exercises it’s authority and power and shames the cowbell. It let’s the cowbell exist in the brown sound. The guitar is swinging. All over the place. In most songs that were derivative or copies of Van Halen the guitar was like a hood ornament. Leading the way and letting you know what kind of car it was upfront. In Van Halen songs the guitar was the car and everything else the passengers in it. Eddie’s guitar giving them all a ride to where there needed to go or be. Fast, smooth, and always with a groove you could live in and call mama.

Bill Withers, “Better Off Dead”

I’ve talked in the past of how important Bill WIthers’ “Just As I Am” record is to me. I listened to it for the first time when I was living in Dominican Republic as a teen and was stuck inside a friend’s house because a tropical storm had flooded the streets. I was 13 going on lost when I dove into a record that already had a couple of recognizable hit songs. I wrapped myself in all the songs but it was the last song on this record that stayed with me the most. A song about a man who was beyond saving. A song that ends with a gunshot. A gunshot that ends the record. I get goosebumps when I think of the echo in the living room – the bang hanging off the walls mixed with the wind and rain outside. No human voices. Just a big empty space being washed away down the street and into the ocean.

Paul K & The Weathermen, “Jesus Children Of America”

When I was thinking of this Artist Block I had just finished a discussion with several people online about covers and remakes. How remakes are almost never better than the original. I think that it’s misleading to compare. They’re two different things. Just the fact that one would not exist without the other should make you hit the brakes before you go on a rant about why covers even exist. My brakes are rusty at best. And at best, a cover can offer a deeper look into the original with fresh eyes and a brand new soul. I did say at best, though. And this cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Jesus Children of America” is almost as good as the original. Paul K passed away this year but I stumbled on a cd of his while working at Wherehouse Records. A lifetime working in record retail has it’s perks. Paul K and the Weathermen’s CD called “Love’s A Gas” caught my eye because I had just returned from my first visit to Vegas. Going to Vegas usually can be fun. Going to Vegas when you’re dead broke is a different kind of fun. A Latin Punk band of 6 (with an unofficial 7th member by the name of Jack Daniels), playing a show at the Double Down Saloon and staying in one room at a $30 a night motel near Freemont St was easily one of the strangest and most exciting 24 hour periods of my life. We made it back to LA by Sunday afternoon in time for me roll into work. Once inside the break room, I rubbed my face to see if the real me would emerge and I noticed something new in the box of promo CD’s employees we’re allowed to take home. Paul K’s CD with it’s shiny slot machine on the cover, sat on top of the pile like a busted star on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I grabbed it and went out on the floor to “work”. I opened the player underneath the register, took out whatever CD was in there (I can’t remember what it was but if I had to guess it was probably Jars of Clay), and I heard a co-worker complain in the back of the store but I would deal with them in time. Maybe. Right now, I was pulling back down that slot machine arm on the cover of Paul K’s album and repeating the phrase “big money, big money”. What followed was a board meeting of Hollywood executives who had some news for me. After screening my director’s cut of the events of the previous 24 hours they demanded that I go back and place the songs from this Paul K CD into the last night’s soundtrack. “Apple In My Eye”, “Another Night On This Earth”, and “Slow It Down” all fit perfectly into yesternight’s scenes as I relived them from behind the counter. At the moment, there were only 4 people in the store, three employees and one shoplifter and none of them minded if got lost for a bit. The Replacements/Afghan Whigs/T-Rex vibe of these first few cuts made the fact that I hadn’t showered since Friday night and was still wearing the same clothes feel OK. Then the fourth song, “David Ruffin’s Tears”, came on and I thought it was a lost J. Geils Band song. The old school phone dial at the beginning and the ring at the end of the song put the J. Geils album cover for “Hotline” in full view of my mid conscious.. A couple walked in the store and the guy asked me in a very long and convoluted manner about our Used CD buying policy. I just nodded to the beat and when he was done I smiled like the devil and said “ya just gotta bring ‘em in so we can see”. I went to the CD player and played the song again – I had missed exactly 38 seconds – I HAD to begin again. More people walked into the store and I grabbed a box of returns, hit the farthest corner of the store -underneath the loudest speaker, and I did more “work”. Three more songs breezed by, a little more mellower and easier than the first four. Each one filling my empty glass memories of the night before to the rim with the good stuff – no ice, too. I was looking out the front window, past the Wendy’s onto Sunset Blvd. wondering how soon the band could book another show in Vegas when THE song came on. The SONG. At around 5AM -earlier that day, a few of the guys from the band attempted to sleep, while two other guys talked about Van Halen’s US Festival performance (and one guy still had not returned after leaving the Double Down with a new friend), I decided to go for a walk. I explored downtown Las Vegas in all it’s 1997 glory. If you know the Freemont St area you know how glorious this truly was then. It reminded me of the East Village NYC of the late 80’s. If you removed most of the buildings it was pretty much the same. Same shirt but short sleeved and with buttons instead of zippers. Throughout the walk a wandered physically through abandoned parking lots and mentally wandered in and out from between being lucid to swimming and slowly drowning in a dream. Someone else’s dream. The sun came up and I couldn’t tell you if I had spent two hours or two minutes out and about but in my visions I saw myself at work and unhappy. I could see myself at my job later that day while this song played as I thought of myself seeing me in Vegas earlier now looking out into the street and outside. That’s what this song made me feel. Completely different feeling I get when I hear Stevie’s original. Not a better feeling. A different one. The song ended and I stopped the CD player. I hit eject, put the cd in it’s case, and walked out the door. I never went back, not even to pick up my last paycheck. 

The Holy Broken, “It Never Snows In California”

Scott (The Holy Broken’s guitarist) and I have written a lot of songs together. More than half of them start with a lick, a riff, or a part or two played over and over on guitar. If it hits me at the right time I’ll just start singing something and when I do that enough I’ll run to a phone or any kind of recorder to put melody and words or whatever it is that fell out of my face on tape. The next step is either knocking it around with the entire band or fleshing it out by assembling the puzzle pieces into a song or something close. Scott had given me a cool funky riff that played over and over and I had an idea for it until I got this nagging feeling that it was something I heard in another song. And as luck would have it – that song “Sweet Home Alabama” popped up on the Sirius XM 70’s station I had on in the background. The second I realized that it was the same song, it was over. It was time for that idea and riff to be driven out to a farm far away where it would play and live forever with other half baked song ideas. I didn’t want to let it go, though. Karma works for both evil and good – sometimes. The song that came right after was Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”. And something about the slow controlled pace of it, the title suggesting that there’s still gold in there, and that damn cowbell (a strong element of a few of these songs). And kaboom, we were back in. When I brought it back to rehearsal I asked the guys to play the whole thing at half the speed, to play the main riff only in the chorus and that we needed an actual cowbell. It’s the closest thing we’ve come to a Christmas song and it’s song about never belonging or never being able to find a place to call home. Oddly, it’s the second song I’ve ever written with the same title. It reminds me a quote by Sydney J Harris that relates to all of this, and the feeling I have revisiting these songs. “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.” Such sweet damage.