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The late great JJ Cale.

Belated...but thank you, JJ Cale

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The late great JJ Cale.

On my way home from work, I stopped by Half-Price Books, remembering that I still needed to buy George Orwell’s "1984" (the obligatory summer reading for a high school Senior).  My lucky day, I found a well-worn paperback copy, published in 1961 – the only one in the store – and I paid a dollar for it. Just a dollar to enter a world of newspeak and double-think, of propaganda and psychological manipulation, of “Big Brother’s Watching You.”  Sometimes I think Orwell wrote to remind us of our worst selves.

Handing over my dollar, I spied a record section and asked the young man sorting through donated books to hang on for a minute while I checked out the albums. I wanted to point out that I was “an early adopter” of vinyl with an impressive collection back home in Ireland, but I imagine he dismissed me as somebody who could be his mother with no taste in music. But I think I impressed him with my purchase. It has been over 30 years since I held a record by The Clash in my hands – a 7” single in its original paper sleeve, “Remote Control” in stereo and on the B side, “London’s Burning” in mono.  Given my recent musings on Terri Hooley and the Good Vibrations Record Shop and Ronnie Millar’s Pop-In, it didn’t seem right to leave The Clash in a second hand bookshop in Phoenix, Arizona.

Now, it would serve me better to adopt more of a minimalist lifestyle, to confront the clutter and discard all the unnecessary bits and pieces, but I regress.  I’ve decided to renew my relationship with vinyl. I’m annoyed that I ever ended it. I’m annoyed that I ran with the crowd and turned my back on LPs opting instead for shiny compact discs in plastic cases that were hard to open. Privately and begrudgingly, I started over, and after twenty odd years, I had an impressive CD collection. Then along came some genius who figured out that the thousands of songs I owned could be saved on a computer, an iPod, and ultimately, my phone. And today, most of my music exists on a virtual cloud, the location of which remains a mystery to me. Meanwhile, all the cool kids are collecting new vinyl, gushing over the digitally remastered "Led Zeppelin 1" and acting like they invented it.  Well, they didn’t. I’m reclaiming it. And, I’m going to start at the end of July, with the release of the tribute to JJ Cale album.

The laid-back songs of JJ Cale, the original cool breeze, have been part of my personal soundtrack since the early 1980s when I bought the “Naturally” and “Grasshopper” albums, and when I went to The Errigle Inn in Belfast every Saturday night to see S’Kboo (ex-Them) who, when they played “Cocaine,” would always announce it as a JJ Cale song, knowing presumably, that most of the world thought it was an Eric Clapton song.

By the time I came to Phoenix and its hotter than hell afternoons, JJ Cale was the natural choice for backyard ambience, for a beer in the hammock under the shade of a mesquite tree. That’s where I was last summer,  listening to his “Travel-Log” album, when I heard that he had died. I was immediately sad, in the way we are when we hear about the death of someone who has never met us but who has been next to us in our bedrooms and backyards, telling stories and singing us to sleep whenever we’ve needed them. Naturally.

Around the first anniversary of Cale’s death, Eric Clapton will release a new album “The Breeze, An Appreciation of JJ Cale.”  Featuring Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Derek Trucks of The Allman Brothers Band, and Clapton himself, the album is an over-due tribute to the man without whom Eric Clapton may not have had such success.  In a statement about the new record, named for Cale’s 1972 single, “Call Me the Breeze,” Clapton stresses that he is just the messenger, wanting to bring more attention to JJ Cale the man who made him and so many other people famous when they covered his songs. “In this case . . . I’m just saying thank you,” he recently told Rolling Stone magazine.

Naturally, JJ Cale - A New York Times Op-Doc from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Thank you – a powerful pair of words, typically unsaid when we need to hear them most. There’s a lovely minute or two in the Irish film, “Waking Ned Devine,” when the man from the Lotto shows up at Ned Devine’s funeral, just as Jackie O’Shea is about to give the eulogy.  Always quick on his feet – and realizing their plan to cash in on Ned’s winning lottery ticket is about to come crashing down - Jackie looks over at his best friend, Michael O’Sullivan, who is posing as Ned, and as an easy smile spreads across his face, he begins:

“Michael O’Sullivan was my great friend. But I don’t ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I’d congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend.”

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