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THE FORGOTTEN BOBS

 

THE FORGOTTEN BOBS

This is a little essay I started last year, almost completed, then promptly forgot about.

That is until one morning during my self-imposed COVID-19 quarantine. I was reading email on my laptop, iTunes was running in the background on Shuffle, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Why” popped up just like it had the day I started this essay. It was time to finish my thoughts.

If you’ve not heard it, “Why” is the last song on Fleetwood Mac’s 1973 album, Mystery to Me, a song on which Christine McVie’s manages to be wistful, plaintive, and majestic, all in less than five minutes.

But what sets the song apart for me, beside Christine’s beautiful melody, haunting lyrics, and soulful delivery, are the contributions of Bob Welch and Bob Weston, or as I think of them, the Forgotten Bobs.

Peter Green, one of the finest blues guitarists ever, fellow guitarist Jeremy Spencer, bassist Bob Brunning, and drummer Mick Fleetwood began performing in 1967. When John McVie replaced Brunning a couple of months later, Fleetwood Mac was born. Their playlist consisted of blues covers and original, and increasingly innovative compositions, by Green. And yes, Peter Green, not Carlos Santana, was the guy who wrote “Black Magic Woman”.

Eighteen-year-old guitar prodigy Jeremy Spenser joined the band in 1968. For maybe the finest example of this iteration of the band’s music, check out the singles like “Need Your Love So Bad”, “Albatross”, and “The Green Manalishi”, and what may be my favorite Fleetwood Mac album, Then Play On.

By 1970, an LSD-addled Peter Green had left the band taking with him their Chicago blues roots. Jeremy Spencer followed a year later, joining the religious group Children of God, and leaving Fleetwood Mac without their strong link to 1950’s rock-n-roll.

Searching for a second guitarist to compliment Kirwan, they selected Bob Welch, the first American to join the hithertofore all-British band. The first album Welch played on was Future Games, which is also the first album on which Christine McVie, nee Perfect, appears as a full-fledged member of the band, although she had done session work with them as far back as 1968.

I sometimes think of Danny Kirwan as a an unregenerate British folkie despite his blues chops. With the addition of Welch’s jazzy R&B roots and unique mysticism combined with Christine’s soulful ballads and mid-tempo rockers, Fleetwood Mac now featured three strong and distinctly different songwriters who nevertheless were able to blend their talents, their voices, and their playing to enhance each other’s material.

Fleetwood Mac had morphed from a blues/rock-n-roll driven band into more of a mainstream, yet still idiosyncratic, early ’70’s rock band. Anchored by the incomparable rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the group recorded two fine studio albums, Future Games and Bare Trees, before Danny Kirwan, who contributed half of the material on each, was fired as a result of ongoing altercations with other band members.

Enter Bob Weston, a blues-rooted guitarist known for his slide work. The reconstituted Fleetwood Mac released Penguin in early 1973 and Mystery to Me in late 1973.

And that brings us to “Why”. Christine McVie has written many hauntingly beautiful melodies and lyrics. And that voice. For my money, she is one of rock’s finest contraltos. Long time Fleetwood Mac fans never fail to mention that her maiden name, Perfect, says it all. Few singers can express such heartbreak and as much erstwhile resignation at the same time as she can.

The casual listener may be familiar with “Don’t Stop”, “Say You Love Me”, “You Make Loving Fun”, and “Everywhere” from the late ’70’s onward version of Fleetwood Mac; but Christine McVie had been making great music since the mid-’60’s.  Just listen to “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from 1972’s Bare Trees or “Show Me a Smile” from 1974’s Heroes Are Hard to Find or her 1969 cover of the Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” from the her days with Chicken Shack.

The forgotten gem in all of this? “Why”. Rarely done in concert, here is a 1976 performance with the Buckingham Nicks iteration of the group. Take a listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxjDHw5FtOA

Beautiful? Yes. No doubt. Great songs are hard to mess up, but take a moment and listen to the studio version from Mystery to Me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBgG6FtQOCQ

That’s right. A 4:54 minute cut opens with 1:22 minutes of Bob Weston’s slide guitar and Mick Fleetwood’s drum before the first piano chords. Furthermore, Christine’s first vocals don’t come in until 1:51. Some have criticized that long intro. I suggest that Weston’s slide work sets the proper melancholic tone before Christine delivers her bittersweet verses with lines like “And the hurt I feel will simply melt away”, laced with Bob Welch’s crystal-sharp electric guitar notes that pierce like daggers into the heart. The song ends with the triumphant harmonies of the coda juxtapositioned against the lyric “Why don’t you love me?”.

For these reason, I consider it the superior version. Alas, this iteration of the band, like many others, did not last. Bob Weston was sacked on the 1973 tour for among other things having an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife Jenny Boyd. There must be something about those Boyd women, witness Patti Boyd Harrison Clapton who inspired George to write “Something” and Eric to write “Layla”.

The 1973 tour collapsed, and the band’s anxious and unscrupulous manager, claiming he owned the rights to the name “Fleetwood Mac”, put together a group of unknowns to complete the tour as the New Fleetwood Mac. Hard to imagine that making anyone happy, particularly in light of the lawsuits it spawned.

With the lawsuits finally resolved and a new record deal in place, Fleetwood Mac returned to the studio in late 1974. For the first time in its history, Fleetwood Mac was a four-piece band with only one guitarist. Together they produced Heroes Are Hard to Find, their highest charting album to that date.

The quartet with additional keyboard backup then went out on tour to support the album. I saw them in Jackson, MS, on that tour. If I remember correctly, after the first number “Coming Home”, Bob Welch stepped up to the microphone and said something like, “If you were ripped off by the fake Fleetwood Mac tour, we’re going to make it up to you tonight.”  And they did with a setlist that reached from “The Green Manalishi” to “Bermuda Triangle”, from “Hypnotized” to “Spare Me A Little of Your Love.”

That tour was Bob Welch’s last hurrah with Fleetwood Mac. In December of 1974, he left the band for personal and professional reasons and embarked on a solo career that included its share of ups and downs.

In 1975, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac. I was familiar with them through a friend who had the Buckingham Nicks album. I found them pleasant enough but was not a huge fan. Their work was a little too slick and commercial for me. And that cheesy cover. Still, I admired Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar work and still do, although I have never been a fan of Stevie Nicks’ vocals or her on-stage theatrics.

So, I inwardly and outwardly groaned when I heard that they were stepping into the void left by Bob Welch’s departure. A band, whose music I had enjoyed through all their permutations since 1968, would be changing dramatically. I had no idea how much. Their monstrous success led to its own problems, but they produced some great music, which I came to appreciate only by considering them in their own right, and not comparing them to previous versions of the band.

In 2019, Fleetwood Mac toured with Mick Fleetwood on drums, John McVie on bass, Christine McVie on vocals and keyboards, Stevie Nicks on vocals, Mike Campbell (formerly with Tom Petty) on guitar, and Neil Finn (formerly of Crowded House) on vocals and guitar. Their setlist reached all the way back to “Oh Well” and “Black Magic Woman” and acknowledged Peter Green.

Nevertheless, these days those founding guitarists, Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer and later Danny Kirwan, who passed away in 2018, are largely unknown by most fans. More’s the pity.

And the Forgotten Bobs, well, Bob Weston’s short tenure and contributions are essentially unremembered and rarely even mentioned. And Bob Welch, whose songwriting, vocals, and guitar work in many ways formed the bridge that carried Fleetwood Mac from their blues roots into the mainstream world of rock music, is all but forgotten.

In 1998, the original members of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, along with Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bob Welch and Bob Weston were not included, their contributions never mentioned, their names not even uttered.

Bob Welch and Bob Weston died within six months of each other in 2012, the Forgotten Bobs.

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ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE

It was about 5:50 AM in the morning, and I was pulling my laptop out of my daypack when Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” came over the Starbuck’s sound system, a deep cut from his 1976 album, Desire. My head began to subconsciously weave back and forth to Carmen Rivera’s sinuous, seductive violin line. I closed my eyes for just a moment and was transported back to the Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi Southern. It was May 1, 1976, and the Rolling Thunder Review was on tour, Bob Dylan and a rotating caravan of musicians including Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, Kinky Freidman, and Carmen Rivera. They were performing “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”.

Music in all of its forms had been important to me ever since I can remember. Being born in the Mississippi Delta and growing up close to Highway 61, I may have had no choice. My first musical memory was of fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley on the radio in 1956. I was three-years-old and “Hound Dog” ruled the airwaves. Our family did not have a TV yet, but Mother had the radio on all day long. Early rock-and-roll, country, gospel, and dance music was the background of our lives, but ironically, I never heard Mother sing. She did however make me a cardboard and rubber band guitar so that I could strum along to my favorite songs.

Father, on the other hand, sang constantly, improvising lyrics as it suited him. He taught me all the words to On Top of Old Smokey and The Red River Valley among others. My grandfather, Father’s father led the singing in the small Baptist church they attended in Brazil, Mississippi. I sang my first duet there during revival week. Mother’s father played the fiddle, her mother the pump organ.

I played a drum and sang in the cheesiest pre-teen garage band ever, The Strummers. We were heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, and Paul Revere and The Raiders. One of our band members, Johnny, had a younger sister Martha who took us to task for our name. “How can you call yourselves The Strummers?” she asked. “Greg and Peter don’t strum their drums.”

Mike was quick with the absolutely perfect reply, “And The Beatles don’t beat their guitars either!”

Our concerts were held on the back porch where we thrashed our instruments and sang along to our favorite hits, all 45 RPM records, spinning on Johnny’s record player. Cheesy.

I later sang in the youth and adult choirs at Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo for years and played and drums and percussion in the junior high concert and marching bands. In high school, my friends, Stuart, Vergil, and I would listen to the radio as we rode around, almost always singing along, usually in harmony. In our senior year of high school, we all secured singing and dancing parts in Annie, Get Your Gun, our lone experience in a high school musical.

By the time I entered college, I had been exposed to practically every genre of Western music there was: Delta blues, rock and roll, jazz (both traditional and avant garde), opera, classical, pop, big band, country and western, bluegrass, and hard rock. And I liked it all. In fact, one of my college roommates, Danny, once exclaimed, “Your taste is so broad as to be no taste at all!”

At Mississippi College, I auditioned for and joined the Vesper Choir. In addition, we listened to FM radio, WZZQ “The Mississippi Mutha” which played new albums in their entirety. We knew the drop date of the next Hendrix or Stones album like kids today know the opening day of the next Star Wars movie. Like so many others, I picked up a guitar and began playing and jamming with friends.

With a life so steeped in music, I was immediately drawn to the burgeoning live music scene in Jackson, Mississippi. Memphis, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Mississippi Southern, and the University of Alabama were within easy driving distance, and were popular tour stops for most of the major acts. We attended every concert we could: The Rolling Stones; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Yes; Jethro Tull; The Guess Who; Chicago; and on and on. We believed in music and still thought it could change the world.

That May Day of 1976 at The Rolling Thunder Review was not my only visit to Reed Green Coliseum that year. In September, we were back to see The Band, one of our favorites. How a former rockabilly cover band who had backed up Dylan and wrote and recorded music with an old-timey Appalachian feel which was completely out of step with anything else in contemporary music is a story for another day. But we loved them, and we made the trek to Hattiesburg. Ostensibly, they were touring to promote their latest album Northern Lights/Southern Cross, but, unbeknownst to us at the time, it was actually their farewell tour. The Chris Hillman Band opened, fronted by the former Byrd, Flying Burrito Brother, and key member of Stephen Stills’ Manassas. Both their performance and that of The Band were outstanding.

Ten weeks later, The Band would gather with some of their favorite musicians, including Dylan, Neil Young, Doctor John, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters, on Thanksgiving Day for The Last Waltz concert which Martin Scorsese would film. That configuration of the Band would never perform together live again.

That year, 1976, was not the first time I had seen Dylan, or The Band either, for that matter. No, that had been January 23, 1974, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, the first time Dylan had toured since his horrific motorcycle accident six years previously. And to top it off, he was touring with, The Band, the same group that had backed him in 1965 when he had gone electric and alienated all his folkie fans. Tickets were a staggering $8.00 each, available by mail order only. You could order a maximum of four tickets. Music fans were in a frenzy. Shows sold out everywhere they played.

The girl I was dating at the time was still a senior in high school and her parents would not let her go to a concert on a school night. That Wednesday afternoon, I along with several friends from Tupelo rendezvoused with my old buddy Vergil, who was at Ole Miss at the time. We joined a cavalcade headed north on I-55 to Memphis.  Unfortunately, as we worked our way into the Mid-South Coliseum, we ran into Vergil’s girlfriend who had turned down his invitation to attend the show with him, apparently so she could go with some other guy whom she was hanging all over. Vergil now believed what his friends had been trying to tell him for quite some time about the nature of her fidelity.

Despite that downer, the show was fantastic. First The Band backed Dylan, then The Band did a set of their own material. With no intermission, The Band turned the stage over to Dylan for a set of solo acoustic numbers, and finally The Band rejoined Dylan onstage to tear the house down. That concert had it all. Probably no group of backing musicians ever pushed Dylan like the guys in The Band. Check out Before the Flood, the live album from the tour for proof.

In addition to backing his 1965-66 going electric tour, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson had spent most of 1967 playing with Dylan in the basement of a pink house in Woodstock, NY, documented by their album The Basement Tapes released in 1975. Those sessions also produced Music From Big Pink, The Band’s seminal first album. These guys had played together, a lot, and it showed.

It is arguably the best live concert I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of great performers. In addition to those mentioned above, I have seen Eric Clapton, Eagles, Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia, Yes, R.E.M., Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Weather Report, pre-Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, and Little Feat, some of them more than once. But I feel especially fortunate to have seen the Band on their two most iconic tours and Dylan on two of his three most historic tours. I had to miss the 1965-66 tour; I was only twelve.

It was just 3:43 minutes of music, but I had been transported back, if only briefly, to those heady and formative days and surrendered to the cascade of life experiences that led to those days. Music must be the most abstract of all art forms. A work of visual art, a book, a play, or a movie, all of which, no matter how profound or moving, seems to enter through eye and ear, then proceed to the brain for processing before making their impression on our hearts. Music, on the other hand, a collection of sound waves, unseen, ephemeral, hovering then fading, seems to proceed, with no cognitive filter, from the ear directly to the heart where it makes its immediate impact.

Of course, it only just seems that way. The mind is surely involved; else why would music make our hearts swell or our pulses quicken? Why would it calm and soother or flood us with sadness or strengthen our spirit? Why would it trigger deep transporting memories as few other things can? Why would we remember every word to every verse of a song we first heard over 50 years ago?

I sat down with my Grande Pike Place, no room for cream, just as “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” ended, the last notes shimmering above the soft clatter of the two baristas. I flipped open my laptop and began to write what you are reading now, trying to encapsulate all the things that had coursed through my mind in those few minutes.

The door sighed open with another customer and a bit of autumn’s chill air. Daylight Savings Time had ended the previous Sunday. Autumn’s colors were barely visible on the trees outside, a muted palette in the dim light of not quite yet morning, less vivid than the memories that one song by Bob Dylan had triggered.

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