2017 has finished and from Guitars
Exchange we would
like to say our farewells to the year by talking about what we like most;
guitarists. We are going to focus on three who we have most enjoyed: a giant
who has left us; one who still walks among us, and; one who aspires to carry
the flame of rock music in these challenging times. These are, specifically, Chuck Berry,
Neil Young, and Adam Granduciel of The War On Drugs.
2017 has not been as cruel regarding ‘rock deaths’ as the previous year but it has left us orphans of one of the parents of rock & roll... and its most influential guitarist. Chuck Berry did not invent rock & roll - this genre is a bastard with many fathers (and mothers) - but if I had to choose a single figure to represent it I would have to choose him, or as John Lennon said “if you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’". Or if a poetic reference is preferred, we could modify a little the well known words of Bécquer : “what is rock & roll? And you ask me? Rock & Roll... is Chuck Berry".
That is how important he and his music seems to me. Humans can be proud that Johnny B. Goode is part - together with Mozart, Beethoven and Bach - of the first object manufactured by the species that has left the Solar System. As Carl Sagan himself wrote, in a letter to celebrate his 60th birthday, “When they tell you that your music will live forever, normally, you can be sure that they are exaggerating, but with Johnny B. Goode travelling on Voyager, now 2,000 million miles from Earth [it was 1986] and continuing towards the stars, this record will last one thousand million years or more”. Furthermore, the letter ended with a line that gained special meaning in its new dimension: "Go Johnny go".
Chuck Berry died at 90, after leaving us his first record in 38 years, but his legacy will live forever. He was the man who best represented this music because it had everything, skill on the six strings, songs, lyrics, the way of playing... If one day an alien civilization finds the Voyager, with just Johnny B. Goode it would have more than enough to develop more marvels from the 'Chuckberry fields forever' and, if by chance one visited the Earth, any alien could get up on stage - in the style of Marty McFly in Return to the Future - and be sure that the band was going to follow them as soon as they played the most famous introductory notes in history on the guitar (better if it is one of the models preferred by Chuck, the Gibson ES 350, 335 or 355). So roll over Beethoven, make space, and tell Tchaikovski the news, Chuck Berry is going to the stars, Go Chuck go!
Our second protagonist is Neil Young - another of the rock greats of all time - who has given us two albums this year (besides offering in high definition streaming his complete digital archive). The first album to see the light was Hitchhiker, recorded during the key period of the 70s - specifically the night of 11 August 1976 - with only his acoustic Gibson J-45 and a bottle of tequila for company. The two big questions we might ask are: how is it that it has taken over 40 years to be released? and why he has decided to do it now? A response to the former question remains completely unknown but it might be that the latter is related to the political climate that is currently being lived. If we listen to a song like Campaigner, for example, with the chorus that affirms that “even Richard Nixon has a soul", it is enough to simply change the name of that president for the current one to know that Neil is telling us something. Or that moment on Human Highway on which he asks ‘how can people become so cruel?’. It seems that the author of Cinnamon girl has decided that the result of a magic summer night is perfect for our current times. Or to put it in other words, that it is the moment for protest songs to return to the fore.
The second album is completely new and sees him exploring his other facet; that of the electric roar of his 'Old Black'. Substituting Crazy Horse for The Promise Of The Real (Lukas Nelson’s - Willie Nelson’s son’s - band), Young demonstrates again with The Visitor that one can also protest by playing rock at maximum volume. It could be said that the songs are not at the level of his classics but anyone who has seen him recently play live can affirm that he continues to be the most iconoclastic and unclassifiable guitarist in the world, leading jams of more than 20 minutes long in which he pulls out the most visceral sounds with his extensive use of the bigsby.
To see Young during one of his most recent performances while he manipulates the bigsby of his White Falcon was one of the great inspirations for our last protagonist, Adam Granduciel, who didn’t think twice about adding one to his own White Falcon. A guitar which he puts to splendid use on marvels like Pain and Thinking of a place, in which from the third minute is used to evoke that beautiful melancholy so fixed by the group. It lasts more than 11 minutes and could be twice as long without boring. But the White Falcon isn’t the only guitar that is being played on the outstanding A Deeper Understanding, one of the best albums of the year; there is also time to enjoy many more pearls from his collection like the omnipresent ’72 Les Paul, his favourite, a ‘66 SG on the parts with more ‘feedback’, a Jazzmaster or an ‘80 Japanese Squier Strat on Nothing to find in order to achieve that jingling sound.
The leader of The War On Drugs has received the baton as heir of the great tradition of rock guitar from many of his influences, including the above-mentioned Young, but also Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits or the much-missed Tom Petty. This is his second big album in a row, after 2014’s monumental Lost In The Dream and it is not a step forward in a new direction but a reinforcement of a way of doing things and sounding. It is, in sum, the consolidation of The War On Drugs as one of the great bands of our times and of Granduciel himself as one of the most unique guitarists of his time.