Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Of Rodney, Zelig and Al....

Some months back I read four or five things in quick succession in which some writer referred to Al Kooper as the “Zelig of rock’n’roll.” What had happened seemed pretty clear; some clever fellow coined the phrase in an article somewhere and someone else picked up on it, repeated it, and, well, Bob’s your uncle.

But it is, I think, a genuinely wrongheaded metaphor, misdirected and wholly inaccurate. It is a lazy comparison as well. I’m trying to think of a similar erroneous comparison; perhaps to call Devandra Barnhart the “Jimi Hendrix of Nu Folk” because Barnhart plays guitar and, um, Jimi played guitar. Other than that, the comparison would be silly; much like... oh, comparing Al Kooper to Zelig.

Zelig, used as a noun as in “a Zelig,” comes from the character of Leonard Zelig created by Woody Allen in his 1983 fictitious biography of the same name. In that film, comprised of newsreel footage from the 1920s and 1930s into which Allen inserted himself (as Leonard Zelig) into various memorable historical moments, a new history of pre-WWII emerges into which Leonard Zelig is a constant bystander. Robert Zemeckis used similar elements in his 1994 film Forrest Gump in which the title character interacts with JFK, John Lennon and others.

Writing for the All Music Guide, Bruce Eder describes Al Kooper this way:

Al Kooper, by rights, should be regarded as one of the giants of '60s rock, not far behind the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in importance. In addition to co-writing one classic mid-'60s pop-rock song, "This Diamond Ring" (though it was written as an R&B number), he was a very audible session player on some of the most important records of mid-decade, including Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Kooper also joined and led, and then lost two major groups, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. He played on two classic blues-rock albums in conjunction with his friend Mike Bloomfield. As a producer at Columbia, he signed the British invasion act the Zombies just in time for them to complete the best LP in their entire history; and still later, Kooper discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced their best work. Instead, in terms of public recognition, Kooper has been relegated to second-rank status, somewhere midway between John Mayall and Steve Winwood. Apart from the fact that he's made, and continues to make great music, it's the public's loss that he's not better respected outside the ranks of his fellow musicians.

The story of Kooper showing up at Dylan’s sessions for “Like A Rolling Stone” with his guitar in hopes of playing – hopes that were abandoned shortly after Michael Bloomfield arrived and plugged in; then to bluff his way onto the organ when no one was looking and Dylan’s response when he listened to the playback, “Turn up the organ” – is a thing of rock legend.

That Hammond organ sound that Kooper used on that track became the most copied sound in all pop for the next year or so, while Al was busy reintroducing horns into post-psychedelia via Blood, Sweat and Tears, and recording a throw-away LP of studio jams that he added some horn charts to and became one of the biggest selling records for Columbia up to that time (Supersession). For the Zelig metaphor to hold Zelig would need to do way more than just show up and make it into the photograph.

No. Not only is Al not Zelig, I know who actually is the “Zelig of rock’n’roll.”

In 2004 George Hickenlooper directed the documentary The Mayor of Sunset Strip, chronicling the life of one Rodney Bingenheimer (tell me that doesn’t sound like the name of a folk duo circa 1961, “Ladies and gentlemen, Gerde’s Folk City is proud to present the folk music stylings of Hickenlooper and Bingenheimer”).

Beginning with the early California surf-pop-garage band scene, the unassuming and diminutive Bingenheimer has helped advance every adventurous rock mutation--California pop, glam, punk, goth, new wave, alternative.

In the middle of the film there is a montage of file footage of every major and many minor bands of the 1960s – Byrds, Beatles, Stones, Sonny and Cher, etc. – and after a second or so an arrow appears on screen pointing at Rodney, standing by a speaker, standing off to one side, standing just off stage, always with his page boy haircut and always smiling.

I borrowed the DVD from a friend and watched it with my wife and in the middle of that sequence she turned to me and said, “Hey! He’s like the Zelig of rock and roll.” And so he was.

Al Kooper was never a bystander. Zelig didn’t play the organ part that defined the sound of Dylan’s greatest song. Zelig would have been in the back of the control room, off to one side, passively observing, not a participant. And Rodney never traded licks with Michael Bloomfield onstage at both Fillmores.

After I saw that “Zelig” reference in a short piece in an issue of the UK magazine MOJO I wrote a letter to the magazine and looked up Al Kooper on line and found his web site. I emailed him my outrage over the whole Zelig thing and, a few days later, I got an email from Al. “Don’t sweat it,” he wrote. “So long as they’re writing about me I don’t care.”

I kept it in my email “in” box for months and would drop it into conversations, “Say, whadda ya know; an email from Al Kooper. You know, the guy who plays organ on ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’”

The definitive Al Kopper records are Projections (1966) by The Blues Project, Child Is Father to the Man (1968) by Blood, Sweat and Tears (the pre-David Clayton-Thomas version), I Stand Alone (1968) and Supersession (1968) with Michael Bloomfield and Steven Stills (actually, just for the Bloomfield side).

Bruce Eder’s bio entry for Al Kooper at the AMG site ends by neatly placing Kooper in a solid historical location:

Anyone counting the records on which Al Kooper has played a key role — as songwriter, singer, keyboardman, guitarist, or producer — would come up with tens of millions of albums and singles sold, and a lot of radio airtime. His career recalls that of Steve Winwood in some respects, though he's never had a solo hit. Even in the '90s, however, Kooper remains a formidable performing talent, and one of the most inspired and intelligent people in rock music.


Anonymous said...

Al Kooper as Zelig is, indeed, as you imply, ridiculous, but Stan, why do you think Al never did make as big as the names that he stands with? While a teenager, "I Stand Alone" and "Super Session" were in the regular rotation on the turntable, at least, two to three times. I still know all the words to I Stand Alone, and whenever I hear Season of the Witch, its not Donovan I think of, its Supersession. I saw him at a small club here in the area several years ago. Just him and a teeny keyboard, similar to the one Bob now uses.
So, what really was the cause of Al's "Zelig syndrome" ....a matter of being in the right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time? I mean, dang man, he was always in the right place at the right time! I don't get it.

Stan Denski said...

People like us, people who are "into music", are responsible for people like Al never having to have a day job. But there aren't enough "people like us" to push someone up into the "super star" strata.

More than that, there's also a sort of elitism involved that makes "people like us" drop a band or artists like a hot potato if they become huge, because it means that "people who aren't like us at all" must like them now. A very odd chain of events, but somewhat true.

I've never seen Al so I'm also a bit jealous of "people like you."

Staci Layne Wilson said...

Great blog. You don't see much about him written. (He's in a rock video by the Ventures that's really funny. Have you seen it?)

Stan Denski said...

No, I haven't but I'll look for it, thanks.