Monday, June 06, 2005

Reeves Gabrels

"Fuck You, I [Heart] Tin Machine!"

So reads the t-shirt I could never lay my hands on.

Tin Machine was the remnants of the mid-70s Iggy Pop band, without Iggy Pop and Carlos Alomar. David Bowie on Vocals, Hunt Sales on Drums, Tony Sales on Bass, and Reeves Gabrels on Guitar.

I can't tell the story of Reeves Gabrels without telling the story of David Bowie's 1980s career. I had been a David Bowie fan for a long time. I followed his career, attended his tours, and bought all his records. He could do no wrong in my eyes.

Then the mid-1980s happened. David Bowie became the bleach-blond, squeaky-clean poster boy pop star of the Reagan era. He was everything our brave new world began to crave: he is white, has good looks and talent, he's rich, totally corporate, and willing to smile for the cameras irrespective of how crap things might be. Bowie had made another leap! He'd gone from counter-culture superstar to mainstream rock god. It was a remarkable transformation. I enjoyed every minute of it! 1983 was an exciting time to be a Bowie fan. Sadly, 1984 followed, then 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 . . .

Two tedious pop albums were released and Bowie seemed to be everything Reaganomics promised: a hollow shell of himself with all glitz on the outside and a total lack of substance inside. He was the embodiment of the American dream. Bowie openly admitted his dissatisfaction with the corporate status of his fame and promised one final greatest hits tour before retiring (again).

The Reeves Gabrels chapter of Bowie's career follows a story something like this:

During his Glass Spider Tour, Bowie received a cassette tape from one of his publicity assistants, Sara Terry. The tape was of her guitar-playing boyfriend, and she thought Bowie might like it.

When the tour ended, Bowie listened to the tape and loved it! From his home in Switzerland, he began recommending Gabrels to anyone who would listen and Reeves' career took a new turn.

When David Bowie finally tired of being David Bowie, he formed Tin Machine with Reeves and the Sales brothers.

Enough now about David Bowie.

I knew nothing about Reeves Gabrels when Tin Machine formed in 1989, even though I was a denizen of Boston punk clubs, and I saw The Dark more than once, I knew nothing of him. I didn't love The Dark and didn't hate them. They were another local band and they seemed more aloof than most. I basically ignored them.

I was confused by the first Tin Machine release. It was good, but I was surprised by it. This didn't sound like David Bowie, at all. That was OK, but it really sounded like this was Reeves Gabrels' band, and Bowie was the singer. I never stopped thinking that way. To this day I think of Tin Machine as Reeves' band, because his guitar defines the band's sound. Completely!

I loved Tin Machine!

When Tin Machine disbanded, I assumed Reeves would go the way of other guitarists who've worked with Bowie. He would have steady work, but the limelight would elude him. Mick Ronson, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar . . . it happened to all of them.

When Bowie returned to a solo career, I was shocked that Reeves became his guitarist. This made no sense to me! Gabrels' guitar was the sound of "Amazing," "Baby Universal," "Baby Can Dance," and "Under The God," not ""Heroes"," "Changes," "Young Americans," and "Stay"! This made no sense to me!

I thought both of them made a very poor choice. Reeves is not a pop guitarist, and David Bowie writes spectacular pop songs! I never liked the bands. I resented Gabrels butchering of famous Bowie guitar licks, and I watched Bowie sneer at him onstage more than once when Reeves would intentionally alter guitar parts that Bowie's fans were waiting to hear.

I became a pariah among Bowie fans because of my disdain for Reeves' guitar in Bowie's band. Reeves' sycophants attacked me for my criticism, rooting their attack in their supposed friendships with the guitarist. If Reeves has as many friends as these people say he has, then he is the most popular guitarist in the history of modern music! Of course, these were all people who learned to adore Reeves, not because of his talent, but because he was Bowie's guitarist and he waved to them once or said hello at a stage door. I stopped caring that people disagreed with me about Reeves. My criticism was always the same: Reeves is a brilliant guitarist whose work is unparalleled; but he is a terrible choice of guitarists for Bowie's pop band.

So be it!

When Reeves and Bowie parted company, the rumors flew about drug abuse and bad business decisions and a lack of funds flowing down from the top. The standard stories you hear when a band dissolves. All or none of the rumors might have been true; chances are that some part of all the rumors were accurate.

I paid no attention to Gabrels after he and Bowie parted ways. The only contact I have had with his post-Bowie work are the steady stream of emails I get from one of my web page reviews of a Bowie show where I criticize Gabrels' work. One email was a personal attack on me and was signed "Reeves Gabrels"! I assumed it was one of the many sycophants that follow the guitarist's career, and not the guitarist himself!

In March, 2005, I received this email:
Hi there,
I work with On Target Media Group. We are doing the internet marketing for the new Reeves Gabrels album, Bowie's long time guitar player. It would be great if you wanted to review or otherwise post the album on your site. If you are interested please e-mail us with your address so we can get a promo copy out to you.
Thanks a lot in advance
All the best,

I thought it odd that I would receive this, because my post-Tin Machine comments about Gabrels have not been positive, nor do I think they have been unkind.

I decided to give Gabrels' new record a listen.

Rockonica, by Reeves Gabrels
Produced by Reeves Gabrels and John X. Volaitis

Sign From God starts the CD and features Reeves' distorted vocals over a predictable music track that could as easily be Marilyn Manson as any other band, if Manson made a record with Lol Creme and Don Was.

Leper follows and is a disjointed and listenable song. Hints of Ozzy and the early-70s Captain Beyond release, with just a tad of Mick Ronson cock-rock thrown in bring a smile to my lips. The recording tricks used to distort the vocal track are present in Leper, too, and don't add anything to the overall sound. I might love this song if it was played faster. Three minutes in, and I'm surprised the song is continuing. This is a perfect three-minute song and should have ended without additional minute and a half of repeating chorus and guitar finesse.

Underneath is a 7:44 tune whose only drawback is its length. I like this song! The vocals are discernible, there is a melody, the cutesy production tricks actually work. There's almost a Southern rock sound to it, in that Lynyrd Skynyrd vein, and I like the line "When your number's up, your number's up. . . ." Unfortunately, at the four minute mark, we are treated to a guitar jam that might work in concert, but has no place on a studio recording. Now the vocal over-production kicks-in and the song begins to sound like the previous two. But wait, in the style of British rock cum American blues, the song breaks into a bluesy sequence of impressive guitar work that would make Stevie Ray Vaughn blue with envy (if he wasn't already blue with death). I can almost feel a bong in my grip.

Anywhere (She Is) starts with a pensive, thoughtful guitar treatment instantly invaded by over-produced vocals that seem a direct lift from David Bowie's "Seven Years In Tibet." This ten-and-a-half minute opus would benefit from the work of a bitter, constipated editor and a remix production by The Residents. So far, Gabrels' brilliant guitar work is being drowned-out by tedious production work and I am having difficulty getting through this 10:30 cut. Half-way through, the production quality shifts and Reeves plays a neo-psychedelic riff that competes successfully with post-Syd Pink Floyd. This should be two songs! Maybe three! It now breaks into a folk vocal and heavily-treated acoustic guitar. Even the sophomoric production tricks can't ruin the third part of this song! You'd almost expect Bruce Springsteen to be singing background vocals!

The Conversation offers a bluesy backbeat, but over-treated vocals diminish the "song" quality of the cut. With this title, I want to hear the words, not suffer them! Unfortunately, the only line I can discern is "I have nothing left to say." It sounds like an Alice Cooper song from "School's Out," which is not a bad critique, but I could never remember the title!

Continue harkens back to Reeves' days in a local music scene and combines a Dead Kennedys tempo with a pop sound that would be a good song if not for the vocal treatments. If Gabrels cannot sing, then get a friggin' singer! Still, this song is a highlight of the CD that has me tapping my foot, shaking my head, and rocking in my seat.

13th Hour with its Led Zepplin-esque riff is melodic and pleasing to the ear. At only 2:27, this is the song Reeves should have made a ten-minute opus. Brilliant lead guitar, crystal clear production, and a unified sound from three different guitarists. This is a wonderful song.

Tunnel is a straight-forward rock song with a nice variety of Reeves' guitar tricks. "I'm sorry that you hate the life you lead. . . . " is a wonderful line! I could imagine this song on the radio, back in the days when they played rock on the radio. This song is a keeper, too!

Uphill Both Ways offers a tense, driving intro with murky production. The song kicks into wonderful lead guitar and the treatment of Gabrels vocal track works. Gabrels has not tried to insert too many of his guitar tricks, so the cut remains unified in its disjointedness. A better producer would have made this a better song.

The final cut Long Day clocks-in at 8:33. It is a plodding song that features many of Reeves' axe-murdering techniques: some cute, some impressive, some grinding, some wailing, some amusing, some dull. As the final cut, it returns me to the beginning of the album and leaves me begging the questions: why not get a singer?

Gabrels has made a guitar record in the vein of an electronica record. A brilliant idea! Layer, after carefully conceived layer of music laid atop one another in an attempt to create a lush, if sometimes discordant, landscape of guitars. Electronica releases require very steep production values, which are more easily attained with synthetic music than with guitars. "Rockonica" fails to reach the "onica" production values to which it aspires.

In many ways, Gabrels is the guitarist who has melded many of the most famous guitar styles that preceded him. He can sound like Steve Hunter, Dick Wagner, Mick Ronson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, and Jimi Hendrix at any moment or all at once!

When I rate all the songs individually on a 1-5 scale, then average the count, I get 3.5. That makes this record worth listening to again; and worth owning. Add Rockonica to your collection.

Dick Mac Recommends:

Reeves Gabrels

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