The Music Gig - Boz Scaggs Interview
Preparing to meet Boz Scaggs, my first thoughts were of Madison, Wisconsin. Madison, that Midwestern Mecca of academia where I received my ticket to the working world; to Boz, it was the city where he threw his books away to pursue rock and roll full-time.
Back in the early 60s it wasnt unusual to find Boz jamming on the Union patio which overlooked a serene Lake Mendota, or gigging at some fraternity party with several other musicians. Steve Miller and Boz, childhood chums from Texas along with Tracy Nelson, Mose Allison and Ben Sidran , coloured the flourishing Madison music scene of that decade. Alas, upon my arrival in Mad City those days were history. The music scene had crumbled under the impact of a burnout, rowdy crowd of students; the music makers had gone their separate ways years before. Boz to Europe, Tracy and Steve to the psychedelic fervor of San Francisco and Ben to the halls of U.W. to earn a PhD in Sociology.
For those who fled from the top 40 college club routine, Madison was a place where they could test their wings: It was a great scene back in those pre-Beatle days in Madison, Boz commented. People were just starting to come out with frizzies and earrings. Steve and I, all of us, could still consider ourselves the elite musically, although things were happening a lot faster in San Francisco and New York. We wanted to escape all that mess. Madison was a conducive place for all of us degenerates to thrive and grow in.
Discovering this common denominator with Boz was satisfying, not only because of an immense admiration for the man as a musician but for selfish reasons also: Ive always felt victimized by my age, an age which isolated me from the previous decades musical vitality. I desperately grabbed up all the Scaggs and Miller vinyl I could find, searching for one more vicarious experience. Speaking with Boz yielded an opportunity to air my frustrations and fill some voids. More important, reminiscing about Madison resulted in a greater understanding of Bozs musical beginnings. Hes waited an awfully long time for large scale recognition, a good twelve years. Despite various musical diversions like a year long stint as lead guitarist for the Miller band in 67, Boz has always been a hybrid, unwilling to forfeit any one of his innumerable influences. When Boz was a dilettante in music (I never really thought Id get serious about it), being a hybrid was to be confusing, almost freakish. Over the years he had no problem filling up San Francisco nightclubs and dance halls where the beautiful people showed up dressed in black tie and flowing gowns. This camp cult was perhaps as avant-garde as their own lives. Something in Scaggs music lent itself to non-conformity. While the masses were engaging in psychedelic retreat with the Jefferson Airplane, the upper echelon pill poppers sought a more socially sophisticated form to dance to. Disco freaks were fewer and further between in those years.
Today hybridization is the rule, not the exception. Boz, once considered an interesting but minor figure in music, has more room to move today than ever before. Even in the Miller days, his soft soul technique showed signs of life, exhibited in plaintive ballads like Babys Calling Me Home. Looking back on those days, Boz sees the Miller band as something of an experiment, never really the true manifestation of the music within him: After I left Madison I went over to Europe. Everyone there was a lot more progressive getting into free-form jazz. I enjoyed being in those circles but I needed to get back to my roots. I was afraid if I went back Id get bored. I was turning into a sort of whacked out kid in Afghanistan when Steve sent me a telegram saying Come join a band. I had heard a lot about San Francisco. It sounded like a circus or a cowboys and Indians movie and I wanted a part of it. But once I got there I felt alienated from all the heaviness. I couldnt even live in the city. I couldnt understand the denseness of the music and the lifestyle. I knew it wouldnt be too long before I went out on my own.
Bozs first of six albums, Boz Scaggs, was a brilliant solo debut, a mixture of country (Jimmy Rogers Waiting for a Train where Boz makes an honest attempt at yodeling), blues (Loan Me A Dime featuring Duane Allman on a mournful, unforgettable guitar) and some of Bozs own memorable compositions including Ill Be Long Gone
The second LP Moments was a radical change, characterized by a big band sound which accentuated Scaggs musical complexity and toned down his vocal performance. Despite its subtlety. Bozs voice was able to dip and soar freely against a more flexible back-drop. The third album, Boz Scaggs and Band, was somewhat of a disappointment, no match for its predecessors in terms of quality and consistency of style. Textural changes from raw to subtle became ragged and despite a few pleasant departures like the Scaggs classic Runnin Blue, a hard-driving Muddy Waters type tune, the album suffered from overcrowding.
My Time, Slow Dancer and Silk Degrees are the most revolutionary projects in Bozs career in terms of clarity, forcefulness and style. Covering an expanse of three years, these albums mark the fruition of Bozs soul-searching days. Once afraid of his own unpredictability, here he begins to emphasize it. The unexpected is never disconcerting, as every seemingly desperate element slowly reaches cohesiveness. On a tune like Slow Dancer Boz can sing with the passion of Van Morrison, touching on notes rather than strangling them; he can just as easily switch to the nasality of Luther Allison on Allen Toussaints Hercules or the pop sentimentality of a Frank Sinatra on Harbour Lights. What surfaces most of all is Bozs public affair with black music, though unlike most contemporary soul music, it never reaches banality. The added dimensions of horn, string and vocal ensembles often tempts musicians to exploit them, a re-occurring symptom of disco music. Boz keeps them strong but tasteful, so as not to challenge his role as the central figure. Years of experimenting with such techniques have taught him to use them with discretion: I have always been more at home in the studio than on stage. Boz explained. Each album is an experiment, each one makes a statement. If you lay down all 6 albums next to one another, you can see a definite parallel between each one. Theyre simple, primitive and honest. My elements and attitudes have always been the same, theyre just more polished now.
An interesting pattern on every Scaggs album is the absence of inner sleeve lyrics. Considering the importance of lyrics today, record buyers have come to expect such luxuries: I deliberately omit lyric sheets because I feel the basis of my music lies in the words. The act of concentrating on the lyrics within the melody is important. You have to listen, it shouldnt have to be in front of you.
I take an attitude with my voice and my phrasing thats lost in print. Its too easy that way. The words are nothing without the mystery of the unfolding melody.
Although Boz is ecstatic about his sudden success, hes benefited from his once minor following : Its kind of nice to be cultish, unaccepted by the masses. You maintain a higher degree of integrity that way. And when youre only acknowledged by a select few, you take the criticisms more seriously and work harder on your art. Most of all you have no one to please but yourself really.
Now the audiences are more sophisticated, they expect more meaningful lyrics and concepts. The record companies have always been eager and interested in me, they wee just kind of waiting for the right moment. Today a lot of has-beens are back on top again because record guys are picking up some people they dropped along the way. Theyre more discriminating, theyre not buying everything off the streets like they used to.
The Roxy Theatre, chilled champagne and record company extravaganzas are all far cries from Madison pizza parties and fraternity panty raids. Certainly no one is more deserving of that special attention than Boz Scaggs. Its been a long time coming.