Friday, August 21, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Best Of The J. Geils Band

This one’s for Matt, since he asked.

In the early 80s, my mother moved to New York to pursue her lifelong ambition of becoming a professional actress. I know, I know…her and about a million other people, right? Unlike some of those others, however, my mom had some reason to be confident. She had just received her graduate degree from the University of Michigan and was by all accounts an extraordinarily talented performer. Of course I’m going to say that, being her son and all. But I’m just repeating what I’ve been told. I only saw her act a handful of times.

Anyway, to pay the bills she took a job working for a guy named Ken Kragen. Kragen was (and still is, as far as I know) a music manager. He’s apparently one of the folks who helped put together the roster of talent on the USA For Africa song “We Are The World”. I’ve no idea what my mom’s job actually was. Kids in their early teens don’t often trouble themselves with details like that. I assume she was an assistant or something like that.

She was never particularly happy working this gig, which should surprise absolutely no one. I think it’s written in the Struggling Artist Bylaws that you must despise your soulless day job, no matter what it is, how much it pays or how much freedom it allows you to pursue your own dreams. But for me, living thousands of miles away with my father in Montana, it was the coolest job ever. For one thing, she was in New York City, which may as well have been Mars to me at the time. Even more important, I got free records out of the deal. Lots and lots of free records.

A lot of these freebies were 45s, promotional singles sent out by record companies to radio stations and apparently everybody else who worked in the music industry. It seemed like I’d get a new batch of 45s every couple weeks. I hoarded them at first but when I realized how many I was getting, I started a new routine. I’d listen to each new batch and separate them into two piles. The ones I liked, I kept. The ones I hated became target practice. If you want to feel like Hunter S. Thompson, go into your backyard and play skeet with a stack of crappy REO Speedwagon singles.

I also got free albums from acts that Kragen represented. At the time, these included the likes of Kenny Rogers, Naked Eyes and…The J. Geils Band. The J. Geils Band was at the height of their commercial popularity when my mother worked for Kragen. The album Freeze-Frame came out and the single “Centerfold” was inescapable. Mom sent me a copy of Freeze-Frame and I must have mentioned that I liked it because the next thing I knew, a large box arrived with about half a dozen catalog albums on vinyl and cassette.

Now I liked Freeze-Frame just fine but it wasn’t as if these guys were my new favorite band, so I didn’t dig into the records immediately. But my mom kept asking if I’d listened to any of it during our weekly phone calls. This was unusual. She hadn’t cared one way or another if I listened to any of the Kenny Rogers albums she’d sent me. I figured I’d better give it a shot and decided the best place to start was a greatest hits compilation, 1979’s Best Of The J. Geils Band.

As soon as the needle hit the vinyl, I was taken aback. It was unquestionably the same band that I was familiar with. Certainly Peter Wolf’s distinctive growl of a voice was instantly recognizable, albeit even growlier. But the 80s pop sheen of “Centerfold” was gone. This was grungier, looser and steeped in R&B and the blues. My ears perked up from the first track, “Southside Shuffle”, but I stopped whatever else I was doing and really paid attention when “Give It To Me” came on. It starts as a perfectly enjoyable pop-rock song, then shifts gears midway through to become a fierce, funky band free-for-all. From then on, I was hooked.

In retrospect, Best Of The J. Geils Band is kind of an awkward and clumsy compilation. There’s virtually no flow to the track sequencing and live cuts appear with no warning next to studio tracks. But the album still holds a special place in my heart. This is where I first heard great songs like “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party”, “I Do” and “Musta Got Lost”. It also showcases some of the best harmonica work ever, courtesy of Magic Dick. One listen to Dick’s virtuoso performance on “Whammer Jammer” will make you forget everything you think you know about the harmonica.

After the success of Freeze-Frame, Peter Wolf left the band and Seth Justman took control for their follow-up album, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd (more on that curiosity in a future installment of Jahnke’s Record Collection). After that, the band broke up, unfortunately before I had a chance to see them live. However, there is hope. The full band, including Wolf, has recently reformed to play a few gigs, mostly out east. It sounds as if they’re enjoying being back together and, more importantly, their live performances are just as powerful as ever. My fingers are crossed for a more extensive reunion tour. If they come out to LA, you can bet I’ll be in the audience, getting down with “Detroit Breakdown” and thoughts of my mother dancing in my head.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't have said it better meself! If you want R&B-flavored Rock, none do it better then The J. Geils Band. Adam, I'll be in the audience with ya!