Boz Scaggs Interview - New Musical Express 1978
And theres the rub. Love him or loath him Mister Scaggs has got his act together in no uncertain manner.
Years of semi-obscure fringe applause revving up with Steve Miller left him out on a limb. Solo status wasnt much different either the soul ration went up, the rock meter went down but the sales figures stayed static.
Some time around the making of Silk Degrees it was decided that this was make or break for the man. Irv Azoff, management to the L.A. gentry (Eagles, Dan but probably not Randy Newman) gets drafted. Suddenly Boz is all over the charts not with a bullet but with a civilised Neutron bomb, kills audiences but leaves theatres intact. The right place, the right time and the man can sing.
Of course this cuts no ice with the critics who mostly ignored Silk Degrees at first hearing. So Boz isnt too enamoured of the press boys and gets a reputation for coming on as a mean bastard with an oversized ego.
Speaking personally Ive never found this to be fair, even though the only times I have ever talked to him have been on the end of a transatlantic hook, elusive but affable.
I spent three hours chasing him around Central Park once and only managed to say hello. A year later I turned up at a London hotel room and got to say goodbye. Spliced around these historic meetings have been a couple of massive phone bills. If Boz is on the lam from newspaper print he must like me; four months late for an appointment made in the summer but eventually he keeps it at his insistence and him in Columbia, South Carolina and me in Central downtown London.
Were talking about Down Two Then Left, the latest Scaggs blitz and the only review hes read of it happens to be in NME. The gist of it is that Boz felt damned by faint praise.
The guy was apologizing for liking it; he was saying sorry to the readers! At least he wasnt being chic that intellectual down your nose stance which is so fashionable with journalists. What is strange for me is to read that Im assuming a pose. What people see is an image thats taken years to evolve and I dont know how I look in the eyes of others.
Boz refutes allegations that hes coming over with a manufactured line:
All my time and pride goes into the music. I dont have my picture all over magazines. I dont push myself, just a few key interviews. I feel shy about the things inferred.
If thats the down angle there is an up:
If people need to relate to an artists image... maybe people need heroes... naaw, Im tired of that. Musical terms or nothing. It comes down to conversation. I cant talk about everything but there are things Id like to discuss that Im interested in. (Preferably not Steve Miller and inside leg measurements).
It has to be personal because it doesnt take long for two people to realise if they understand each other. I got fed up with doing interviews where the guy couldnt care less, he just had to do it. Anyhow Im gun-shy.
Yeah, its boring to think about yourself? I dont think about myself normally.
The breaks on Scaggs newie, despite the lukewarm reviews, are that the intention, I hesitate to use the word concept but it fits, behind Down Two Then Left is markedly different from Silk Degrees, to which it bears little resemblance. Theres not even an obvious single cut.
As with its predecessor I found the listening entrance was blocked by waves of paranoia. Jibes of high octane muzak floundered in my ears. But the album comes alight when you realise that on tunes like Were Waiting or Gimme The Goods Boz is really stretching into what for him is new territory. The vocals and the back-ups are in a unique class. What influences there are are submerged by the scope of those vocal chords; hints of Ella Fitzgerald. The Beach Boys, even Don Fagen (the closest companion disc this year is Aja) are absorbed by this idiosyncratic sort of shoe shuffle.
When the tension wire snaps he is still big boss man at his game, making the rules and turning the tables even in Los Angeles, that city which raises hackles and snorts of derision from everywhere else, the Plastic City of Night.
Some artists, though, are comfortable there, yknow. Steely Dan can handle it with aplomb. So can Spirit. And if it was good enough for Jim Morrison...
Interestingly enough, the bands or personae who transcend the sick excess of the industry biz in L.A. come from outside New York in the case of Becker and Fagen, Florida for Morrison and Scaggs is out of Texas, so hes not easily impressed.
If he feels secure in the environment it shows in the music:
I know my vocabulary there, the musicians are more progressive and I get more freedom. We cast out spontaneous ideas in the studio, never more than three takes. This is one more in a series of experiments for me. I have faith in the integrity of the musicians but I might move on at any time.
Scaggs upfront roots, his early love for R&B and a feel for pop sophistication, have been well studied before, as has his tendency to chop and change the routine, hire new men. The major aide de camp this time was keyboards veteran Michael Omartian, whos assisted everyone from Bobby Bland to, lets labour the point, recently, Steely Dan. His trick is to arrange the rhythm basis and direct chords into patterns.
Omartian collaborates on strings and horns and Boz handles the vocal department and initial melodies. The results are a deal jazzier than last time round with David Paich, while the rhythm section positively fries. Jeff Porcaro on drums starts to move into the Michael Shrieve bracket, young, fast and scientific.
What Down Two Then Left makes clear is that on record at least Boz Scaggs and rock and roll are no longer sleeping partners;
There are only so many variations on rock n roll, it boils down to pure energy. I love it myself but I cant, as a creative individual, sustain that context. Jaggers taken it into stylism as only he can do but I dont hear a lot of good rock n roll these days.
His listening habits are revealing; Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Joe Zawinul and Art Tatum.
No technical rock like Yes; thats stopped. You get Weather Report working at a very high level meeting with good rock; ideas and forms are beginning to merge, theres been a re-definition.
Scaggs place in all this has been pretty much left of centre, the problem is to maintain a degree of popularity, not to fade away, and retain the integrity which old-time Scaggs fans hold as his hardest won asset. The danger is that you become a hit machine and have to give the larger audience what they want. Scaggs is already risking that one on account of using one group in the studio and a totally different, much younger outfit on the trail;
The trick is to educate your audience, satisfy them with the hits but intersperse with new material. On this tour a lot of them certainly arent familiar with the recent songs and we can still take them a step further. The back-ups are becoming integral; that soul thing is how I started.
Boz Scaggs is always conscious of constructive criticism, aware also that many of his followers wish to see him play guitar again, often the biggest buzz of his live shows. Now hes writing more on guitar Ive exhausted my four piano chords and his attitude towards maintaining a peak popularity would surprise those who accuse him of bland out:
Im geared up to cope with success now but theres a constant ego-wrestling you have to deal with. Do I need it? Is it important? Do I want an obvious format or shall I move on? I could have repeated Silk Degrees but I cant consider that. The title Down Two Then Left is a juggling around with image. I really am trying to depart from the norm.