About once a year, I sit back and reflect on my musical influences. Like most people, I tend to go through cycles. As of late, I've been listening to the great R & B players, the work of Curtis Mayfield, Cornell Dupree, Steve Cropper, the Funk Brothers, Isleys, etc. Then, recently, I had the great pleasure of seeing Return to Forever live in concert in Omaha and that stirred a whole other plethora of great memories.
I had flashbacks of myself as a wide-eyed 20 year old in 1976, watching Lenny, Stanley, Al and Chick on the floor of the Simpson College Hopper Gymnasium in my home town of Indianola, Iowa with a friend and fellow guitarist named Wade. We sat back in awe as the band performed the "Romantic Warrior" album track to track. This June's RTF show also brought back memories of a dear pal, Mick Polich, also a writer in this I-zine.
As I came down from the musical high of the recent Omaha RTF reunion show, I decided it was time to take stock on all of the players I've listened to over the years, those who influenced me and others who perhaps I didn't have nearly as good a handle on. I am a firm believer that we as musicians go through a variety of phases, but ultimately return back to our roots. Being in this musical and somewhat introspective mood, I decided to solicit the opinions of my good friend Mick whom I worked with closely in Des Moines back in the early 1980s to understand his perspective on each of these players. I reached out to Mick Polich for this interview in mid-July.
[D.P] So, Mick, it has only been, well, 28 years since our last show together in Des Moines! I recall that we were covering some of the Cars "Candy-O" album, Utopia's "Adventures in Utopia" and even a couple of Cheap Trick and Split Enz tunes. New Wave, thin ties, a drummer with a Boy Scout uniform on, and us all decked out in patched blue jeans and tweed suit jackets. What a gas that was!
[Mick] You bet it was - a source for many a great tale years afterwards! What stills amazes me is the fact that you remember details – down to what we were wearing for stage clothes!!! I remember rehearsing in the old Victors House Of Music/ Music Connection warehouse. Great band, too – Jerry Heard, great bass player. I got to play in a band with a relative of his, Byron Wells – another amazing bassist.
[D.P.] So, I've put together a list of musicians and would like to get your thoughts on them, their impact if any, and what they brought to music, in your opinion.
[Mick] Sounds wonderful.
[D.P.] Let's start with Keith Richards. Keith always created confusion for me, as I started with more technical players before I really understood him, his rhythm and style. What are your thoughts on Keith and how did he affect you?
[Mick] Well, I like the fact that you brought this point up – early on, the Stones and Neil Young were big musical heroes, but I was so into technical players, and –this is the weird dichotomy – I love the Stones, but didn’t think Keith was a very good player – same with Neil Young. Can you imagine a musical world without those two guitar styles? I can’t – very underrated musicians – songwriting giants, but underrated as musicians.
[D.P.] Jan Akkerman - the flying Dutchman.
[Mick] I love Jan – I got his first solo album, which I liked, but the “Live At Montreaux” album really brought me around. You could even tell the style mix on his solo to “Hocus Pocus” – rock, jazz, classical, blues. Pretty much the prog-rock norm for the time period.
[D.P.] Steve Cropper?
[Mick] Again, an underated guitarist, except around people that know guitar. Steve really copped alot of country/soul licks in his playing – you can tell where he grew up and who he listened to. I really like that style of soul/rock/country guitar playing – Curtis Mayfield had it, and Jimi Hendrix borrowed liberally from him. The use of third intervals, major pentatonics – it’s still a primer today for so many players.
[D.P.] Frank Marino. It seems Frank always got the bad rap of trying to "be Hendrix" though I think he's one of the most fluid blues/rock players and certainly had the energy. How about you?
[Mick] That was a funny time period and I'm glad you brought it up. I bought every Mahogany Rush album that came out –"Maxoom," remember that? I had this thing for Hendrix-influenced players at the time. Robin Trower used to get the same bad rap. If you listened closely and got past the Hendrix comparisons (which Marino himself built up in a weird fashion) – you could tell Frank was a fluid, complete player. He could cop jazz licks, definitely had the blues thing down, and was a speed demon. But there was alot of energy in his playing – you’re right.
[D.P.] Here is a good one -- George Harrison.
[Mick] I came in late to the game on George – the Beatles were a big influence, but I really had to sort out them as individual artists when they all went solo. As with so many music styles, I backtrack now, and pick up on things I didn’t appreciate early on. I LOVED George’s slide playing – fluid, inventive. Compositionally, when I was playing in the Salmon Dave Band back in Des Moines, I started to appreciate George more when we would listen to his “Cloud Nine” album during after after-gig parties. Even Sinatra said that “Something” was the greatest torch song ever written, and you can’t bet much better than the Chairman Of The Board! But I’ve read some Harrison bios, and he’s even with Lennon, perhaps even ahead, as my favorite Beatle – the guy was on a search, musically, definitely spiritually.
[D.P.] I agree on all your points. And what a sweet person he was. I recently caught the DVD Concert for George which, if you haven't seen it, you must. And now, here is another controversial guy - panned by everyone but I believe in an unwarranted fashion - Mark Farner.
[Mick] Oh gosh, yes – the “Closer To Home” solo (middle vamp) kinda sums up the Michigan/Midwest white boy rock/soul approach that he had. Critics hated those guys, but the fans loved ‘em. I listened to the “Live” album that was released awhile back - as a power trio, those guys had it going on. Donny Brewer was an amazing drummer,too.
[D.P.] Very true, indeed. Not only was Mark's style very blues influenced and accessible, but his voice was probably one of the best in the soulful rock style. Steve Smith was even quoted in Mark's authorized biography as saying Mark was one of his favorite singers/guitarist. And when Kansas first formed, Kerry Livgren has offered that they "wanted to get someone who sounded like Farner..." (paraphrased). Mark's an even better guy to hang with and talk to!
Speaking of Grand Funk, how about Todd Rundgren, or TR-i as he is referred to in the online circles? Todd has always said that he never wanted to be a notable rock guitarist, because '...like in the Old West - someone is always trying to cut you..." (paraphrased)
[Mick] Good ole’ Todd. My wife got to hang with him backstage after a concert of his in Des Moines back in the ‘80’s – said he had the purple hair thing going on or something! Todd’s out there, but what great artist isn’t? Not that I have to be around him or anything! But I appreciate the work he’s done. “Something/ Anything” was an inspiration for me when I worked on my EP/CD earlier this year. I like the vibe when artists do most everything on an album themselves. I appreciate the humanity in the work – the slight sloppiness, things getting pieced together in an analog fashion. You wouldn’t get the same vibe if you Pro Tools’ed “Something/Anything”. Yeah, Todd was a reluctant guitar hero, but with Utopia, how could he not be? The live album proved that he could hang with the rest of ‘em at the time for guitar playing. For me, Todd is the complete musican – those wonderful vocal harmonies rival anything the Beach Boys did, plus the compositions, the musicianship. Do you remember the tune “For The Want Of A Nail” that he did with Bobby Womack? Gorgeous r and b – I remember him doing that song on the Letterman show with his band.
[D.P.] You're speaking of Todd's "Nearly Human" CD which happens to be on my short list of favorite alltime albums -- a true soul / R&B album which was critically acclaimed, sonically great but never broke over as the big seller. "Want of a Nail," "Parallel Lines," "Hawking," all amazing pieces -- way above most of what was out there at the time.
And now, for someone completely different - Pete Townsend.
[Mick] Here's another guy who it took years to appreciate. I always liked the Who, but didn’t appreciate Pete’s style until later on. He actually got better as a lead player as he got older! But the stuff that he did solo wise and with The Who is in my rock canon – great, great musician for rock.
[D.P.] Now, let's go to another end of the "Spectrum"...so to speak. Tommy Bolin.
[Mick] Good ole’ Iowa boy - Sioux City, I believe. There’s a tragedy – think of what he could have done, even given a few more years. “Teaser” had some great tunes –wonderful guitar playing. “Wild Dogs” is a favorite. A complete package – I thought of him last when I heard Jeff Beck’s live version of “Stratus” - a nice nod to Tommy, and of course, Billy Cobham.
[D.P.] Yes, Tommy was and is the pride of NW Iowa and South Dakota. I had the great fun of performing some of his material from his days in James Gang during a 2002 show in Sioux City. His brother Johnnie (drummer for Black Oak Arkansas these days) really dug it and invited us to play for the annual Bolin festival there with Glenn Hughes and the gang on the Riverfront. He even invited us over to the family home the following day to see some of Tommy's old artifacts, his bedroom, etc., but we had to get back to Omaha in a caravan of vehicles. We still regret not taking the time that Sunday to go over to the house. Tommy was special and you said it right -- think what he could have done....
Of all the later players (90's to present), is there one in the rock vein who really moves you?
[Mick] Well, I love Joe Satriani – very musical and vocal-like in his solos and compositions. Ty Tabor with King’s X is overlooked, as is King’s X for what they’ve done. You never hear a bad country lead break in a song, ever. All those boys can play, so that brings up Vince Gill. For jazz, John Scofield, even though he’s been around awhile, is a fave. Mike Campbell with Tom Petty –always the right notes at the right time. Warren Haynes kills for what he does - I saw him with the Dead in Atlanta a few years back. Jimmy Herring, now with Widespread Panic, is very John Coltrane-ish on guitar, and makes it work with anybody he plays with. Derek Trucks – Mary Beth and I saw him a few years back at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta – he’s just amazing. Probably the best slide player out there now. And with that, I gotta mention Bonnie Raitt –she’s got a vocal style, and guitar tone, that are distinct. Wonderful interpreter of songs –she’s best covering other people’s material. So many good players out there –I know that I’ve left out a ton of them.
[D.P.] How about James Blood Ulmer? I recall the day you gave me the LP "Black Rock" and I just didn't get it.
[Mick] It’s pretty out there – he played with Ornette Coleman, so he really takes the harmoledic approach on guitar seriously. His newer blues stuff that he did with Vernon Reid producing is alot more accessible.
[D.P.] The tone monsters now.... Strangely enough, I came across Eric Johnson accidentally as I was channel surfing many years ago and I caught his Austin City Limits set. What an amazing technician.
[Mick] You’re telling me – see, another guy that I forgot to mention! Remember when “Tones” came out? That floored me. Also, the Electromagnets reissue is a must-have CD. Hard to believe that he was a young buck when he did the Magnets stuff – they were like a Texas Mahavishnu Orchestra!
[D.P.] Let's move on to the jazzers. Sound OK? How about Abercrombie and Scofield? (no, not the clothes designers!).
[Mick] Oh, I thought you WANTED to talk about the clothes designer! That would REALLY be switching gears! Scofield, as I mention earlier, was a big influence. John Abercrombie has had some great moments as well. I’ve listened to a few of the ECM albums. Those guys really helped take jazz guitar playing into the next century.
[D.P.] Elaborate on any of the following if you would. Tal Farlow, Wes, Herb Ellis?
[Mick] Wes, I appreciate what he’s done, no doubt about it. But somebody like Grant Green though just speaks to me more, personally. Kenny Burrell, too. I got a dose of Tal Farlow and Herb Ellis when I was taking lessons from Doug Miers back in Des Moines in the late 1970’s – Doug made sure that I heard and appreciated those cats, which I do.
[D.P.] The debate may go on forever between McLaughlin and DiMeola, not that it is fair to compare, but what are your thoughts on what each bring to the table?
[Mick] Man, Don Archer, another jazz teacher used to rap hard on those cats. I got ostracized by Don for listening to those guys! Luckily, later on, I shrugged it off and keep listening to ‘em both! Early Al, especially with Return To Forever, was simply amazing. Al’s a great single note/multi-line stylist. I don’t think complex jazz chord melody is his forte, nor does it need to be for what he does. McLaughlin’s my favorite between the two. I just dug his solo stuff. “My Goal’s Beyond” influenced me for a couple of fusion albums I did back in the early 2000’s for the prog-rock market. If you haven’t seen the Mahavishnu DVD, check it out, especially the 1974 band disc. I wore out “Visions Of The Emerald Beyond” on vinyl and tape back in the day!
[D.P.] I too wore out "Visions," and "Birds of Fire." I'd agree that Al's approach was very different than John's. Transitioning our thoughts over to 60's rock, as you know, many of the 60's psychedelic players were more into the Coltrane and Miles thing than rock. Roger McGuinn's infatuation with Coltrane is evident in his horn-like Eight Miles High. Others, like Jorma Kaukonen also showed a modal influence. Do you see that happening today with newer guitarists, or it is a lost art in a time gone by?
[Mick] Oh no, it’s pretty evident now - I mean, pop styles have changed so much, you really have to look elsewhere for it. I usually find some cool players via You Tube, music mags, or on-line ‘zines. You really have to look for them, though. What I like is now more quote/unqoute "jazz cats" are stating all their influences. For awhile, it wasn’t cool if you dug rock and country. Wynton Marsalis doing a CD with Willie Nelson? Not a stretch of the imagination for me, no sir.
[D.P.] Here in Omaha, the spotlight on blues players rumblings always falls on the great SRV. On the other hand, a player you never hear about in conversations here is Johnny Winter, who in my mind was nearly as influential in his decade as SRV. Was Johnny an influence of yours?
[Mick] I respect what Stevie did, and he’s got a wonderful rep and legacy. But the guy to do it first was Johnny Winter. I know Stevie cited Hendrix as a big influence, but Johnny was there, if not more so. People forget what Johnny Winter did – it’s a crying shame, really. The “Johnny Winter And” live disc just says it all and the stuff he did with Muddy Waters. Now, I just watched him on the new “Crossroads” DVD – damn right he needs that respect. Unfortunately, he made alot of bad decisions involving personal lifestyle and managers, just crappy decision-making that put him in a hole for a long time. But, he’s coming back and it would be great to see a new CD from him soon.
[D.P.] Thanks for that. Did you ever find yourself trying to emulate Rory Gallagher? How about the rockier Pat Travers?
[Mick] Oh man, when I was going to electronics school back in ’78, I had a gig working after class at my old high school, Saydel High, north of Des Moines, as a janitor. I used to bring my albums to play when I cleaned the music room, and Rory was in the mix. Crap, another dude-see??!! We used to do “Laundromat” in a band I was in called Slim Pickens – in fact, we did most of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Second Helping” album,too. Pat Travers, yep, he was in there. “Heat In The Street” – yep!
[D.P.] Last question. Is there a particular guitarist, album or both which really changed your approach to the instrument and how was that?
[Mick] Well, I was influenced by the usual group that my peers were into back in the day, so I can cite a bunch of great players and music. Hendrix really turned the corner for me – I rarely play solos note-for-note, unless I have to copy them for a student to learn; so many players do it much better than I – but the “Purple Haze” solo usually is the one I play close to. And with Jimi, it’s much more than the guitar playing. You’ve got a history of recording techniques when these people had to INVENT stuff to meet a need. “Axis:Bold As Love” is my favorite album. By then, Jimi had more of a command of the studio with Eddie Kramer. You need to really listen to a Hendrix album to hear the layering of sound – U2/Dylan/Emmy Lou Harris producer/musician Daniel Lanois really hit this on the head in a few interviews. There are things that leap out in Hendrix tunes, not just the solos and songwriting, but chords and sounds in the mix, the production. That stuff set the template for what we hear today. I think Van Halen was the next guy to turn my ear, guitar-wise. I’m glad he’s back on the scene.
A few years ago, I decided to de-construct the way I approach teaching and playing music – I think this keeps things fresh for yourself, and your students if you’re a teacher. The old approaches weren’t working any more, so I had to come up with a new path. Mick Goodrick, who taught Pat Metheny, and is an excellent guitarist in his own rite, wrote a technique book that I go to in time periods. His approach, thought process, and vision are very unique. If anyone wants to go on a different path, this is a good place to start. Also, Jesse Gress’s “The Guitar Cookbook” is wonderful resource/instruction book that covers alot of ground, with voicings and scale approaches that tweak your interest, at least mine! Also, since I’ve been playing in a jazz duo with a sax player here in Texas, I’ve been trying to get into Ted Greene’s “Chord Chemistry”. I know it’s very encompassing, but when you’re a parent, spouse, and stay-at-home family member who takes care of the house, you take whatever you can get!
[D.P.] This was great Mick. Thanks for taking the time to reflect your insight into these players. I'm sure we'll find another topic for the future.
[Mick] Thank you Dave! And thanks for taking the time!