The future of rock and roll - in stereo, double vision, twice over. They aren't coming to town, they aren't media darlings, they aren't being hyped as anything more than a couple of maidens looking for their first win. But they should be all of those things.
Not since the days when Bruce Springsteen gave up opening for Anne Murray to cut his debut album has a solo artist working in the pure American rock genre packed onto a piece of vinyl as much emotional force, social insight, heartfelt passion, and lyrical literacy as Will T. Massey does on his eponymous major-label debut. Except Vinnie James on his concurrent national premiere, All American Boy.
Producer Thom Panunzio, a specialist in wedding newly signed acts to studio recordings (he worked on Nuclear Valdez's initial effort for Epic), boarded James and Massey, sharing duties with Roy Bittan on the Massey project. Besides being a casual, easygoing, down-to-earth person, Panunzio is among the sharpest producers in the business. "The way I work," he says, "is that I'm not a dictator. I come in and just help the artist do what he does."
In these two cases, he's helped portend the future of the world's most important musical form. High praise, however, sets high expectations. "It's what someone thinks about me," Vinnie James says of loved-it reviews. "They coulda said something else!" He laughs, then adds, "When you meet a girl and like her for a certain reason, you start going out, and then maybe you want her to wear make-up all the time or something, and you forget why you started going out with her in the first place. I think it's the same thing. This is just me, doing what I've been doing for a long time. If I'm walking along, and someone says I have nice shoes, I'm still just walking along, doing what I do."
With All American Boy, James presents a rocking case for a repainting of the North American social canvas. The album scalpels self-deception, bigotry, freedom. In "Hey Geronimo," an acoustic-guitar- and percussion-driven head buster with forceful vocals, James, instead of simply lamenting the Native American holocaust of the 1800s, reminds listeners that the unpardonable abuses heaped on Indians haven't ended yet. "I see your turquoise ain't it covered up with blood/I see your silver eagle face down in the mud/Maybe in a hundred years the people will be free/Maybe in a hundred years they'll forget your `wounded knee'," he sings, later delivering a verse in the Apache language. James does not fall for the novice mistake of singing his meaningful songs at people; instead he chooses mature points of view, such as this third-person entry: "The hawk and the sparrow and the wolf and the buffalo/Wanted you to know/The hawk and the sparrow and the wolf and the buffalo/Refuse to go."
With songs such as "Black Money," a haunting portrait of dope's damage done and the greed that feeds off "the pain in a smack junkie's eyes," and "Here Goes Tomorrow," a deceptively simple arrangement of lyrics that condemn environmental destruction from the perspective of the world's children, the singer does risk painting himself into a politically correct corner. "It's on my mind," James says of the issues he quarterbacks. "I'm not telling anyone anything. `What makes you so special to bring us this information?' If the world changes, what a great thing. But it's not me doing that. If someone suggested I was a savior or a rock messiah, I'd say, `No I'm not. But you are.' Musicians are entitled to an opinion. And we might have experiences that make an opinion more valid. If I see someone get shot, I have an opinion about that."
And James has had experiences. In fact, he and Will T. Massey each hit the road long before they had the opportunity to hit the charts. At age fourteen James began penning poems, and thumbing rides, backpacking, and hoboing to places he hadn't seen. Two years later he began playing guitar at various college campuses on his unmapped route. Years of bouncing back and forth, often by hopping freights, from Alaska to Seattle to Mexico, where he worked at a relief orphanage for a time, inform the broad view of his complex, compelling material. Two All American tracks seem to draw their inspiration from the decadent evil of Lost Angeles itself. In the gentle, swaying "Little Angel," for example, James, supported by Al Kooper's grooving keyboards, leaves details and specifics to the listener's imagination, but nonetheless creates what could be the soundtrack for any runaway caught in Hollywood Boulevard's web of lust: "This side of heaven/There's this town they call in between and/Care must be taken/To keep your halo clean/Angels can fall/Right on outta grace/Where they stare out into a world/That no little angel is ready to face."
Producer Thom Panunzio attributes the refreshing power and depth of the James album to in-the-studio exchanges. Another top boardman, T-Bone Burnett, was slated to produce the project. That didn't pan out, and Panunzio was surprised to learn the day before studio work was to begin that no preproduction had been completed. The lack of a recorded foundation created a situation that, Panunzio says, "was more spontaneous, more experimental. There was nothing in stone, we just let the band play the songs. I had ideas, Vinnie had ideas. I went into the studio not knowing what we wanted to do with these songs."
The Massey project, on the other hand, had been preprogrammed by Roy Bittan, the former E Street Band pianist and a neighbor of Panunzio's. "We're both from Jersey, he lives near me in Malibu, he's a really close friend," Panunzio says of Bittan. "He was in the middle of doing Bruce's new record, and because he was tied up with Bruce, he asked me to be involved on Will's project. He did the preproduction, I took over in the studio."
Will Massey takes much of his subject matter from his experiences on the road, most of which were in Texas, where he was born and lived most of his life. He wasn't fond of school, and he argued with his father about what direction to take in life. Massey rejected discouragement. The only direction he was worried about was on a road map. "If you don't have a lot of money and you're seventeen or eighteen in Texas," he says in his rough-as-an-old-saddle drawl, "you can jump on a train and get lost in Texas. But you can't really go up to Seattle or Portland, Maine. I saw parts of Texas I'd never seen, the bars and various ranches."
He was a kid who could write songs and play guitar, and older musicians were happy to have him around. "I was the young one," he recalls, "so everyone wanted to adopt me. I had all kinds of surrogate moms and dads. I fell in with the Austin singer/songwriter crowd and learned how to have a good time without any money. I survived on the songs I was writing. That was the best lesson I ever learned."
Massey couldn't hold back from writing new songs once he got a distaste of Lost Angeles. "When I first got out there," says Massey, who now lives in Seattle, "the mountains were beautiful. Just unbelievable, and the houses." He seems to whistle under his breath at the memory. "Course, I thought the record company president would have a big cigar.... When I made the record, I was staying at Hollywood and Fuller, a real wild part of town. I'd walk down Hollywood Boulevard to A&M Studios. Then I'd go past the security guard, and there were all these Rolls-Royces and custom Harleys. It wasn't boring."
The contrast between the wealthy and the desperate fired the first two tracks on the album, both of which were written during the recording sessions. "I Ain't Here" explores the out-of-body experience of finding yourself in a place with a reality that seems surreal: "Knock me out cold, throw me on a train/I'll keep my soul, take bids on my name/I want to be blind, I want to depart/Out of mind, into my heart." The chugging guitar-heavy backing fades between "mind" and the last phrase, then drops further away, allowing Massey's voice to ride roughshod in a half-spoken, half-sung verse: "Now when I see myself, through your eyes/You never can tell, but I'm always surprised/And there's no recognition, when I am alone/I've got a house full of mirrors, and no one is home."
Meeting up with strippers whose faces reminded him of homecoming queens gone through the wash and observing the grown-old-too-fast denizens of his seedy L.A. neighborhood provoked a hell-with-it point of view in the soaring, magnificent rocker "Send Up the Smoke," which includes jaded rhymes such as "so it's adios to the grandiose." But burning beneath the cynicism is a defiant hope: "Signal the world," Massey sings earnestly, "We ain't no joke."
The rest of the material never sags, although the closer, a mood piece called "A Summertime Graveyard," is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. It sounds exactly like Bruce Springsteen circa Nebraska, a fact that can be quite distracting. But with killer cuts such as "You Take the Town," the Bruce mimicry is a minor criticism of the album as a whole.
There are major differences between James and Massey. The former's rock draws on folk, while the latter's rock takes into account Massey's country roots. James is never angry, preferring a positive approach as the best way to overcome obstacles. Massey gets downright mad at the evils of life. And while James tends to ignore what others say about him, Massey addresses the praise-as-burden question by saying, "It does place a burden on me. But it's a burden I welcome. You gotta have a lot of balls to be from Texas and call yourself a songwriter, because there's this long tradition of great songwriting in Texas. The bottom line is that if I do anything with my life, I want to be the best at it. So that's a huge burden I place on myself. There's no way I can live up to many of the records I grew up listening to. But someone's gotta do it."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Along with the mighty songwriting and sterling production, both Massey and James benefit from the presence of all-star backing musicians. On Massey, co-producer Bittan provides synth, keys, percussion, and synth bass, joined by guitarmeister Waddy Wachtel, drummers extraordinaire Jim Keltner and Kenny Aronoff, and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, among others. "That was how Roy and Thom wanted to work - with these great musicians, who were all real serious," Massey explains. "They just called 'em up. It was real laid-back. I mean, I freaked when Mike Campbell was coming in. But Thom says, `Hey, man, don't worry about it. Mike doesn't play on anything that he's not into. If he plays, that means he likes the material.' So Mike gets there, and he hardly says a word. He just comes in and focuses on the guitars. It was really great. All of them made me feel at home."
Some of the same players contribute to James's record, also at the behest of Panunzio, James says. Surprisingly, one of the album's most evocative moments features nothing but James's voice and his twelve-string acoustic guitar. "War Song" is a simple, sparse examination of music's power. "If I could write a song that could end all wars," James sings softly, "I bet they wouldn't listen."
That track is followed by the record's most stirring moment, "Soul Hurts," which sounds just like Southside Johnny. The melody is invincible, and anybody who can sing like Southside is already dancing in the stratosphere. "I was influenced and inspired by Southside Johnny," James confirms. "I met him when I was on Cypress. Subsequently, we got together for a couple of gigs. I wrote the song for him. But everybody said it was good, and they told me to keep it for myself."
The prescription for a hurting soul can be filled at your local record store. These two albums are miracle medicine. But the future of rock and roll? "I enjoyed doing both those records a lot," says producer Thom Panunzio. "Both Vinnie and Will became close friends of mine. Whether they sell any records or not, they're my friends for life.