Friday, November 30, 2007

From the archives: Making of Layla

Tom Dowd was one of the greatest producers of popular, 20th century American music --working with everyone from Charles Mingus, the Drifters , Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cream. He was also a great guy and a brilliant raconteur, who loved to entertain with tales from his long and storied career.

I interviewed him many times for many stories. I wrote the following for Guitar World over a decade ago, for the Producers column. One of my favorite memories of my career was sneaking into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria the year the Allman Brothers were admitted -- a major coup that required grapefruit cajones, by the way, but that's another story. After making the break from the press room into the hall, I drifted around and ended up at one of the Allmans tables, with Kirk West, my buddy and an ABB manager. He was tickled to see me, couldn't believe i had breached the security, and gave me an invisible ink hand stamp under the table which made me legit.

The night was coming to a close and I found myself next to Tom Dowd. He filled up our wine glasses with a bottle of red on the table. As Neil Young and others took the stage for a jam, Tom regaled me with the story of how Otis Redding wrote "sitting on the Dock of the Bay" as his first song after Steve cropper had given him an open tuned guitar. He told me all about the song and the recording process of it -- he produced that, too. R.I.P. Tom, you were a gentleman.


Tom Dowd began his career as a house engineer and producer for Atlantic Records, recording classic sides by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane and others. But for all his contributions to the worlds of jazz and r&b, Dowd was to make his biggest mark in rock, most notably working with Cream and, later, Eric Clapton, and the Allman Brothers Band, a relationship which began with the group’s second album, Idlewild South (Capricorn, 1970), and continues to this day. So he was uniquely qualified to bring together Clapton and Duane Allman, a casual introduction which led to the creation of one of rock’s undisputed masterpieces, Layla and And Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor, 1970).

“I was working with the Allman Brothers on Idlewild South when I got a call from Robert Stigwood saying that Eric would like to record and asking if I could fit him in my schedule,” recalls Dowd. “Of course I said I’d be delighted. It became a lengthy conversation and as I usually didn’t take calls while in session the Allmans had all wandered in wondering what the hell was going on. I put the phone down and said to Duane, ‘You have to excuse me, that was Eric Clapton’s manager. They want to come here and record,’ and he said, ‘You mean this guy?’ and plays me an Eric solo note for note. I said, ‘That’s the one’ and he goes, ‘I got to meet that guy. You got to let me know when he’s gonna be here. I’d love to come by and just watch him. Do you think that would be possible?’ And I told him I was sure it would be fine, and he should call me and we’d work it out.

“Sure enough, two or three weeks later, Derek and the Dominos are in the second day of recording and Duane calls and goes, ‘Is he there? We’re gonna be in Miami tomorrow for a concert. Can I come by and meet him?’” I said, ‘I’m sure you can. Hold on.’ I grabbed Eric and said, ‘I have Duane Allman on the phone. His band is playing in the area tomorrow and he’d like to come by and meet you.’ And he goes, ‘You mean this guy?’ and he plays me Duane’s solo off of Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ note for note. I said, ‘That’s the guy.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got to see him perform. We’re going to that concert.’”

“Now I knew the two of them personally and they were both low-key, beautiful human beings and wonderful musicians, so I thought, ‘This is gonna be fun.’ Sure enough, Saturday afternoon, we record for a few hours, then head out to the limos Eric had waiting and go down to the Convention Center, where the Allman Brothers are playing. They snuck us in behind the photographer’s barricade, sitting on the floor with our backs to the audience, right in front of the stage. Duane’s in the middle of a solo, when he opens his eyes, looks down, sees Eric and stops playing cold, in shock. Dickey starts playing to cover until Duane regains his equilibrium, and then he sees Eric and he freezes too. That’s how big Eric was to them.

“After the show they met and hung out and all of a sudden I had half the Allman Brothers and all of Derek and the Dominos crammed into a limousine going back to Criteria, where they jammed until two or three the next afternoon. I kept the tape running the whole time. [Some of these jams appeared on The Layla Sessions (Polydor, 1990)] There’s Duane playing Eric’s guitar and Gregg playing Bobby Whitlock’s organ and they were all in piggy heaven. When it was over, they were all such good friends and Eric said to Duane, ‘When are you coming back? We should record some.’”

The Brothers had some tour obligations to meet but, Dowd recalls, Duane vowed to return as soon as possible. “Sure enough, two or three days later he called up and said, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’ By the time he returned, the Dominos had recorded several songs and had arrangements set for others, but right away he started fitting in parts and the more he did that, the more their reaction was, ‘If he’s gonna do that, I’m gonna do this.’ Songs started to radically change because Duane had unleashed this dynamic entity that was just ridiculous. They were feeding off each other like crazy and running on pure emotion.”

Clapton and Allman were set up in the studio facing each other, looking one another in the eyes and playing live through small Fender amps--a Princeton and a Deluxe. “These guys weren’t wearing earphones,” Dowd recalls. “They were just playing softly through those little Fenders. If they talked while they were recording, you would have heard it over the amplifier. It’s funny, too because when I did Cream, Eric was playing through double stacks of Marshalls and it literally hurt to be in the room with those guys. When Eric showed up for Layla, he had a Champ under one arm and a Princeton under the other and that was it. He and Duane used those amps, switching back and forth.”

The two also often swapped guitars, with Clapton primarily playing a Strat, Allman a Les Paul. “They did whatever seemed best at the moment for a given part,” Dowd recalls. “It was never gonna happen again. It just happened and if you didn’t catch it, you blew it. The spontaneity of that whole session was absolutely frightening. A lot of it flew and then when they heard it, they’d say, ‘Oh man, here’s a part I gotta put in there.’ But it was not because it was misplaced the first time, but because they would have another flight of inspiration when they could step back and hear it. They had all this positive feedback to add. There was no jealousy or ego-type thing at all among them.”

Also, Dowd adds, contrary to ever-growing legend, there was no excessive drug use during the album’s actual recording: “We started sessions every day at 2:00 and everyone arrived clear eyed and ready to work. As I dismissed people, they may have floated away, but it did not interfere with the album. Even in his wildest moments, Eric arrived at the studio on time with his instrument in tune, ready to play -- and he would give absolute hell to anyone who didn’t. Eric and Duane shared that. They didn’t know each other from Adam before the sessions began, but they were both taskmasters. They didn’t give a damn what anyone did on their own time, but when they were in the studio, it was their time, and you better be ready to go.”

After approximately two weeks of recording, the band went out on the road and Duane returned to the Brothers, leaving Dowd to mix the album on his own. “I sent them cassettes and then Eric called and said they wanted to come back to alter a part on one or two songs and remix one song. When they returned--with Duane--among the things they had in mind was adding a piano part to ‘Layla’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, where does it go? The song is tight as a drum’ I played them the cut, mixed, and they said, ‘Okay it’s going to go here and we’re going to do this and that.’

“I thought, ‘You’re all absolutely stark-raving mad. How are we going to get everyone to match the brilliance of what they did the first time and make it fit?’ But I had no choice, so we gave it a go.”

Drummer Jim Gordon, who played the coda’s piano part is credited with writing it as well, a fact which has been disputed over the years. Dowd says that no one ever explicitly told him who wrote the music, but Gordon played it beautifully, in one take.

“When I set up, I expected Bobby Whitlock to play the piano, but [drummer] Jim Gordon played it. I can’t say whether or not he wrote it, but he had it mastered; that part was in the end of his fingers. Duane’s guitar part on that coda is just absolutely intense and, of course, I was absolutely wrong about not being able to make the new part fit. We spliced it right in and it made the song. I knew immediately that we had something really, really special –as anyone would have.

“The whole session was just so damn impromptu and fly-by-the-seat-of-your- pants brilliant. It was just a wonderful experience to witness such meshing of musical minds, such telepathic sympathies. When we walked out, I told the band, ‘This is the best damn album I have done since The Genius of Ray Charles.’ And then the damn album didn’t sell for a year. We all knew how great it was --including everyone at Atlantic --but we couldn’t get arrested with it. That was very hard to understand, and very disappointing. Then a year later ‘Layla’ was like the national anthem. And that seemed appropriate.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Video from Yugong gig

As usual, what we actually got is pretty random. This is not our most exciting song, but a pretty good performance of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

The Play

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pulled off the gig

So Woodie Alan stepped it up and lived to tell about it. We played Friday night at Yugong Yishan, a pretty big club downtown. The picture of Beck as she was leaving, taken by friend Jill Dutt. We played until close to 2 and they were there until almost the bitter end, which is appreciated.

It was a pretty significant step up -- big stage, big lights, big sound system. We had a decent crowd, about 80 people, which was enough to not seem empty, though it would definitely be nice to get some more people in there next time because it's a big place -- and there will be a next time. They asked us back in January.

Woodie says he has some video that sounds great and he is much more critical so I'm anxious to see it. It felt good. We had a bunch of friends get up and jam, mostly guys Woodie knows and they were good. Really good. That included two great harmonica players, including Royce, who plays with Black Cat Bone, a really good, popular blues ban din town, and Powell Young, the Chinese shred king, who has played with us a couple of times before and ripped it up on the last three songs. I really can't believe I've pulled this thing off. The column only scratches the surface.

The last photo is another the photographer sent from our previous week's gig. He has a bunch more cool ones of us and that funky little bar on his blog.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Final HK Disney photos

Hong Kong photos -- Disney

Photos of two weeks ago trip to HK still coming... Disney was fun. One morning I took the boys to Space Mountain, which they rode about 5 times in a row while Anna and Becky went in search of princesses and found all these characters. I think J & E rode Space Mountain 20 times in one and half days. as you can see, they also enjoyed the characters.

I have, admittedly softened on Disney. Steve Galpern is horrified that I have sold out to both Disney and the Olympics. He's got a point, but HK Disney is pretty low key compared to those in the U.s. The food is also a lot better. Each area has a Chinese or other Asian option as well as some American fried junk. I ate some damn good noodles there. Chinese people don't play with food and they will not give up a good hot lunch to go anywhere. I love that about this culture, actually.

we stayed at the Hollywood Hotel there and it was filled with people from all over Asia.. China, Indonesia, India, Phillipines, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan...very interesting.

Last column

New one already out today.. I can't keep up. Lots of this will be familiar to regular blogstigators, but I think I cast in a different light.


The Freedom Abroad
To Try a New Tune

November 9, 2007

I have a band in Beijing, Woodie Alan. The moniker is a joke, reflecting my name and that of my Chinese partner, Woodie Wu, but the group is not. In fact, much to my surprise, I am fronting a pretty happening little band.

I never could have pulled this off back home. I owe my success as a gigging musician, however far it goes, to being an expat. Moving here and re-establishing my identity has allowed me to redefine myself, casting off old insecurities and pursuing a reality I always envisioned but didn't quite know how to achieve. In this, I am not alone.

Many people find that expat life allows them to liberate themselves from the accumulated reputation and history that can come to define you. Everyone plays an established role with his or her families and old friends, and moving somewhere new gives you an opportunity to reboot. Expats may also be more willing to give something new a try; after all if you've traded Milwaukee for Beijing, why not try your hand at fronting a band, or running a bar, or riding a motorcycle?

Woodie Alan plays regularly at The Stone Boat, inside Ritan Park, within one of the city's Embassy districts. The little bar is actually a stone boat and sits on a lake with a small stage extending over the water and tables spread along the banks, a surprisingly serene, pastoral setting right in the middle of downtown Beijing.

American expat Jonathan Ansfield and his wife run the Stone Boat. Jonathan is a journalist and blogger, contributing to Newsweek and other publications and Web sites. Now he is also a bar proprietor and a small-scale Beijing music impresario, booking performers for free shows three nights a week during the warmer months.

"It's an out of body experience -- certainly nothing I ever did or would have done had I stayed in America," he says. "I've always loved music and spent a lot of time going to clubs and seeing bands in college, but I can't see how I ever would have ended up booking bands had I stayed in the U.S. But I've been into the Beijing music scene since I got here [over 10 years ago] so it's something I really enjoy."

It's manifestly easier to realize some goals here than it would be in the U.S. American Jonathan Anderson, now an analyst for the investment bank UBS, fronted blues bands in Moscow in the early '90s and in Beijing at the end of that decade. In this city he co-founded the Rhythm Dogs with some of the city's finest musicians, including key members of the Cui Jian Band, China's first significant rockers.

"I'm a mediocre harmonica player and a worse guitarist but I had my pick of incredible musicians," says Mr. Anderson. "With some vision, drive and hard work, anything was possible. It was like living out a fantasy. The quality of the guys I played with was head and shoulders above what I could have rated at home. It was like walking in and gigging with Led Zeppelin and that just doesn't happen in a more developed market."

Kaiser Kuo has a similar story. He moved to Beijing in 1988, formed the hard rock band Tang Dynasty in 1989, put out an album in 1990 and was touring all over the country by 1991. After returning to the University of Arizona to pursue a doctorate in East Asian Studies, Mr. Kuo found himself daydreaming about Chinese rock stardom and eventually quit school to return to Beijing. He rejoined Tang Dynasty and was soon performing in 35,000-seat stadiums. Now overseeing digital strategy for Ogilvy and Mather's Beijing office, Mr. Kuo still performs regularly with his band Chunqiu.

"I can sit in a guitar store in the U.S. and hear 10 guys who smoke me in just an hour but here I am," says Mr. Kuo. "For me, this could only have happened in China."

My story fits the same pattern. I met Woodie when he repaired a guitar for me. He heard I was a longtime editor for Guitar World magazine and became very interested in chatting, which quickly led to jamming together; the same news would have induced a shrug from a good guitar repairman back in the states. Saxophonist Dave Loevinger, who is the U.S. Treasury Department representative in Beijing, played for years with the great Washington, D.C., party band Jimi Smooth and Hittime. Had we met at home, it's unlikely he would have been interested in forming a band, but newly relocated to Beijing, he was excited to find a musical outlet.

When a nearby restaurant asked me to host an open mic, the three of us got together, with an initial repertoire consisting of whatever I could sing without cringing. We've come a long way since then, thanks largely to my growing confidence -- the other guys were already good. We have a unique sound, with most of the solos coming from Dave's soulful sax and Woodie's mournful lap steel guitar, an unusual instrument which figures prominently in American country and blues music. I have always loved slide guitar, but it never occurred to me that my first chance to play with a great lap steel player would come in Beijing, with an amiable Chinese guy bearing a tattoo of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my favorite blues guitarists.

We played with a couple of different bassists and drummers before settling on the young, easygoing Chinese pros who play with Woodie in another band as well. Since adding them, we've become more and more of a real band. In two weeks we are headlining one of Beijing's top rock clubs, and we're talking to an agent about booking some out-of-town festivals.

Pretty soon, we may even live up to the bragging motto I made up for our posters and Web site: "Beijing's premier blues and jam band."

Though it feels like the most natural thing in the world, our mix of Chinese and expat musicians is unusual; most bands around here feature one or the other. In fact, Woodie used to play regularly with most of the current members of a popular band, but when they formed this group they made it clear that they felt they could get better gigs if they had no Chinese members.

It's their loss; not only are they missing out on a great guitarist but also on moments of unforced cultural exchange that can be hard to come by. I have gained a new understanding of the lyrics of songs I've sung for years by explaining their meaning to my band mates, two of whom speak no English. And one of the unanticipated benefits of the band has been an opportunity to get a little deeper into local life, sharing meals, beers and downtime with my new Chinese friends and their wives, girlfriends, cousins and buddies.

Dave wants us to change our name and it's true that the humor doesn't really translate to a Chinese audience, but they view it as a straight-forward description: the Woodie and Alan band. It is also a reminder of our humble beginnings. Something can be funny without being a joke, and this band will never reach the point where I don't see the humor in it.
* * *

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous Expat Life column.

Congratulations on your 50th expat column. As a second-generation Chinese American, I always enjoy your Chinglish references. I find myself using Chinglish more often with my own parents as I grow older and find it harder to remember all the Chinese words & phrases (much to their disappoint & disapproval).

Your comment about how the merchants have an "odd mix of fatalism and optimism" is spot on. In a country where the government has yet to provide consistent, reliable regulatory agencies and practices, it's easy to see how some people can view their lives with either a fatalistic view (as we would say in Chinese "eat bitterness") or with sheer optimism.

-- Helen Liu San Francisco, Calif.
* * *

Continued efforts as you write about the life of ordinary people in China bit by bit. This is very meaningful to us.

-- Land

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Woodie Alan photos/video

We had a great gig Friday night at Jianghu Jiuba, the little hutong bar I have written about before. Saxy Dave was out of town so we played as a quartet and had a whole bunch of friends jam. Joe Bisell, the 17-year-old guitarist who plays with us regularly, sat in for three songs in the first set. After he and his mom left, I think I was almost the only non Chinese guy in the room.

My friend Shen from Chinese Slam came with his wife, which was nice. A reader from my Chinese language column came after reading my column about the band, which was nice. Everyone else in the room seemed to be a musician, most of them friends of Woodie. After a song or two, he asked me if I wanted to start having guests. I said sure and Woodie started calling friends up. First, Claudio, a great Italian harmonica player, then the owner of the bar, a really good jazz tenor sax player, then one guitarist after another, including Powell Young, the famous Chinese shred king.

Then a guy who Woodie was very excited about -- he told me he was the most famous blues singer in China. He called out a song and they told me "shuffle blues in E" and he started singing a cool jump blues in Chinese. Zhang Yong, the bass player, knew all the words and sang harmony. I asked him later if he used to be in his band and he said, "No, I know all his song from his CDs, which I love." Woodie sort of twisted his arm to sing "Stormy Monday," which I guess they used to play together back in the day. He forgot the words and turned the mic to me and I did my best. If nothing else, I know the words to "Stormy Monday." On and on it went. We jammed until after one a.m. with one guy after another getting up and playing. It was really fun.

There was a guy sitting in the front taking pictures and it was obvious that he knew what he was doing. He is a friend of Woodie's. Monday I got a Google alert that I had popped up online and found these photos on his blog. I think they are great. Note that we never posed for him. These were live shots. The crowd pics were taken at the gig.

I looked through his blog his blog and think that these are some of the nicest shots of China I have seen. If George Lange or anyone else who really knows photography is reading this, have a look and tell me what you think.

This video came from the first time we played Jianghu a few weeks back. I love this place.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hong Kong photos -- Lama Island

We spent an afternoon/evening on Lama Island when we were in Hong Kong. It is a 30-40 minute boat ride out into the South China Sea and really a very cool place. You arrive in a pretty densely packed little commercial center, walk about 15 minutes up and down some hills, past little farm plots, bannaa trees, papaya trees, stray dogs and cats roaming around, and land on a really nice beach.

We played there for a couple of hours and you can see it looks like you’re in the tropics (as long as you can’t get to a spot where you can see the giant cement plant around the bend.)

Then we pushed on, walking about 45 minutes to the other end of the island,. In between ,it is hilly and really beautiful. We were with Ken Brown, WSJ friend in from NYC.

The population of the island is about 10,000 and apparently there about 3,000 expats there. That’s sort of amazing Hong Kong overall seems like such a cushier, less exotic expat experience than Beijing, but this seemed so much wilder than our lives.

I spoke with an Irish guy on the beach and he said rent is about a third of what it is in Hong Kong and people not making huge bucks usually end up pushed to the fringes of HK, with long commutes anyhow, so many opt to go out there after a few years. I asked what happens if you want to go out on the town and he said there are ferries until 12:30 and then for $150 HK (about $20), you can hire tuktuk. I asked what that was and he said, “A 90-year-old woman with a little fishing skiff.”

It was a fairly significant ride in which we passed some massive freighters and fishing boats. A 1 am tuktuk sounds pretty scary scary to me, but it was a cool spot. I’d like to write a column about livng there was an expat one of these weeks.

At the other end of the island there is another little village. Fish farms fill the bay and fish restaurants fill the dock. I didn’t expect much but we had an excellent dinner. All of it was fresh seafood, we picked live incuding a big old squid that came to the table about three minutes later as probably the best fried calamari I’ve ever had. It was tender—you never get fresh squid --, not too greasy or breaded and breaded with salt and pepper so it didn’t need any sauce. We also had excellent black bean clams, fresh, non stringy steamed shrimp, delicious fried rice and a few other dishes.

Sadly, we had to pull ut before uur steamed red snapper arrived. Ken stayed since the 45 minutes wait for the next ferry didn’t matter to his kidless self and admitted the fish was spectacular, but I knew it would be. It was a truly memorable meal, extra amazing since we had superb dim sum for lunch.


Someone wrote:
My family are moving to Beijing from NYC. How bad is the air in Beijing lately? Do people with little kids (we have to toddlers) live in CBD area at all? thanks! can't find your contact information. would like to email you if you don't mind.

I have to respond this way because blogspot is banned again.

Who are you? you should ID yourself and how you found me if you're gonna pop up out of nowhere and ask for help. My email is easy to find.. via my WSJ column or by clicking on the profile above.

Anyhow, the air quality is all over the place. It's been mostly pretty good all fall, with the exception of a few really bad days. Actually, I took some pictures of our street on one of those days. which I've been meaning to post for a while now.

People with kids certainly live downtown. Contact a relocation person and look at some apartments. As kids get older, it is harder because unless you put them in Chinese school, they end up having to commute.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Eli won an art contest

The winter show for second and third grade is the Snow Queen and every kid in both grades drew a poster in art class. One was selected in a contest to be reproduced and put all over the school and that was Eli's. he is really proud. I took this image form the school website, where it is featured, much to his delight. Click on it to have a better look.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hong Kong photos

Kids asleep, so I can throw a few pics up before crashing.. the surprising thing about Hong Kong is how beautiful it is in parts.. such a dense urban environment on a tropical, mountainous island.. These pics are from the Peak and the Star Ferry and the Kowloon landing, across the harbor from Hong Kong.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dulwich Ball

Dulwich held first-ever chairty ball last Saturday night.

I was on the committee, charged with booking and dealing with the band. I sat through an awful lot of meetings and booked the Rhythm Dogs, a really good r&b band. I had to do a lot of unpleasant haggling.

But I enacted my payback --pulling a Dixie and bogarting the stage. I sang "give Me One Reason" and then played four or five more songs and it was really fun. Started with "Play That Funky Music" and ended with "Mustang Sally" and Funkadelic's "Up With the Down Stroke" trading psychedelic riffs with the Madagascarean guitarist Eddie, who is a Chinese rock legend. What a wacky world.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

That's What Love Will Make You Do

Woodie Alan performing Little Milton's "That's What Love Will Make You Do" last Saturday, November 2 at the Orchard, Beijing. The video is shaky and some of my neighbors may be embarrassed by their dancing, but I like the performance. You have no idea how exciting it is for me to teach Chinese musician Little Milton songs. Jerry Garcia also played this all the time and Govt Mule pulls it out sometimes to boot.

Diddy Wah Diddy

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Mrs. Shanen's Bagels also has an organic farm not too far away. I wrote about it in my column about food safety and organics around here. Every year they have a farm fest there. It's a nice event, pretty low-key and with some nice family friendly activities. It was last Sunday, (9 days ago) on a beautiful afternoon and we all had a nice country time.

The corn on the street is just local farmers drying their fall crop. You see it all over here, but this was really pretty spot.

Eli's art

All Eli wants to do is draw, with occasional stops to play on the computer. He was really going wild around halloween. I snapped these pics of some of my favorites. Look closely at the top one.