FROM A YARDBIRD TO A MAMBO SON! SOWING SEEDS IN TOM GUERRA’S AMERICAN GARDEN – this feature was published in No Depression in 2018
“A couple of people said to me that I shouldn’t write anything political – you’re gonna piss some people off. But what is the sense of writing anything if your heart is not in it? I’m not saying ‘my way’ has got to be everybody’s reality, but this is what I see and feel, and this is what impacts me. And this is what I’m writing about! Not every song on this record is political.” Tom Guerra
Life is indeed different in these United States since Mr. Guerra and I discussed his sophomore solo slab Trampling Out the Vintage way, way back in 2016. Perhaps the divisive issues that currently dominate our national agenda were there all along and we Americans ignored them – or quite possibly, we the people simply were not cognizant of them. Whatever the case may be – and we could debate this topic ad infinitum – most of us are greatly affected by the turbulent times we live in the year 2018.
Such is the state of Tom Guerra’s new album, American Garden. True, not all Tom’s compositions are overtly political. But there is a noticeable civic, social, and emotional gravitas to his latest song-cycle. Like all of Tom’s work – under his own name and with the mighty Mambo Sons – those magnificent guitars are front and center – save for one piano-vocal track with Morgan Fisher – “Meet Me at the Bottom of Your Glass” wherein the keyboard maestro, renowned for his Mott the Hoople / Queen plinkery and his extensive solo and collaborative canon, renders a riveting final motif which Guerra fittingly pronounces as “sounding like ice cubes in a glass.” Guerra’s melodies are splendid, the lyrics insightful and intelligent, and the musicianship and production are par excellence throughout.
Yet I cannot ignore that, to my ears, this artist has a lot weighing on his mind. Which is a good thing for the artform that is rock and roll. We need more than “entertainment” to navigate the here and now and wherever we are headed. Guerra’s interpretation of Tom Petty’s “Walls” which he waxed shortly after the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s passing, stands as a celebration of the iconic songwriter. And I also get the feeling that Guerra, like most of us who revered the work (and attitude) of the Heartbreakers’ leader, harbors a broken heart that Petty, a straight shooting “spokes-rocker” for our generation, is gone. “I put that little Leslie solo in there which I think was something Mike Campbell would play, this is actually a Heartbreakers tribute as well.”
“Jack for Joe” joyfully jangles in all the right places – and it’s another tribute – this time, to a fallen friend of Guerra. “He’s been gone now for thirty years, and I still miss him and our younger days, but realize you can’t go home again.”
American Garden also affords a rockin’ rave-up harvest which began as a Yardbirds songwriting project. Tom was approached by his bassist buddy Kenny Aaronson – a current member of the revamped legendary British ensemble, now led by drummer Jim McCarty, and a bona fide legend in his own right (Bob Dylan, Billy Idol, The Stories’ “Brother Louie” to cite a ridiculously select few)– to collaborate on songs for a planned Yardbirds studio album which was slated to be produced by Jack Douglas – whose credits as an engineer and producer include Aerosmith, Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, New York Dolls, and John Lennon & Yoko Ono, among others.
Kenny, akin to most bassists, is a born collaborator. It’s the nature of the instrument and the player. Recalls Aaronson, who anchored Guerra’s aforementioned previous platter, “so here I am in the position to possibly write, but I’m not a songwriter! Over the decades I have written a song here and there…and I certainly did not want this blow the opportunity. But I also realized that there is only so much I can do…. I love bouncing ideas around, from musical ideas to titles, I can come up with a lot of stuff, I can write lyrics, but I’m not big on melodies. But I also need to work with someone I know and respect.”
Soon after, the bassist experienced a rather animated instance of “divine intervention.” Laughs Kenny “I was taking a morning walk, and suddenly, the lightbulb went off above my head like “Gramps” in a “Betty Boop” cartoon: ‘I’ve got it! Tom Guerra!”
Guerra and Aaronson worked up a few demos and Douglas liked what he heard, however the album never materialized for reasons I won’t go into. Lucky for us, three killer Guerra / Aaronson songs intended for the Yardbirds disc made the American Garden cut: “The Lyin’ King, “Goodbye to Yesterday,” and “Family of One.”
“I’m a huge Yardbirds fan,” Tom enthuses from his home in Connecticut. “But I got to thinking as to what made them unique, besides the obvious great guitar stuff, and that was great lyrics. Listen to ‘Mister You’re a Better Man Than I.’ That song could be written today about all the things that are going on now. And their background vocals were very representative of what they did too. In our song ‘The Lyin’ King’ we do their ‘ohhh ohhh ohhh Gregorian Chant-esque backing vocals. Our approach was that we wanted to write stuff that we could imagine The Yardbirds doing.”
Aaronson also served as a catalyst. Given the dangers of inadvertently imitating, or even worse, forging a Rutles-like parody of The Yardbirds, Guerra and Aaronson nailed it and then some. “Kenny sent me the riff to what became ‘The Lyin’ King’ – which is that key of E big rock riff –that one really jumped out at me!” Had their album come to fruition, The Yardbirds might have pulled off what their peers The Zombies did in 2015 by way of Still Got That Hunger – i.e. making a fantastic record that lived up to their legend in modern times and added prime cuts to enhance their live set.
Guerra further elaborates on teaming with Kenny, whom we both revere, especially for his work on Brian Setzer’s all-but forgotten 1986 gem The Knife Feels Like Justice: “on our three tracks you hear different things from Kenny. On ‘Goodbye to Yesterday’ he had the whole first line of lyrics and asked me ‘can you do something with this?’ At first this one sounded a bit like The Animals which is from the same era as The Yardbirds. I did a harmony part about the colored memories ‘they turned grey and living in the past is here to stay…’ and I thought that they could relate to that as a band. Kenny’s bass just pushes the tune into the stratosphere.”
Inspired by Sirius/XM radio shows Little Steven’s Under Ground Garage and Chris Carter’s British Invasion along with his deep knowledge and worship of all things rock and roll, Kenny chose the right tool for the right job for “Goodbye to Yesterday.” He gleefully boasts “I had to pull out the Rivoli bass for this – it’s short scale, with flatwound strings, I’m using a pick – man, this reminds me of something you’d hear on a Shel Talmy record!”
Guerra continues, “for ‘Family of One’ I sent Kenny sort of a modified version of the signature guitar line – he liked it – and further developed the song playing a lap steel and he upped the tempo. I’m happy the way the lyrics came out – I really put my ‘Keith Relf’ mindset on! If you listen to the Yardbirds hit ‘Shapes of Things’ – this song is actually the answer to it. The original line is ‘come tomorrow, we’ll all be older…’ my response is ‘now that tomorrow’s here at last…we’ve got to learn from the lessons of the past.’ It’s about mankind and the fact that we’re basically all related in a big family.”
The title track emerged from an extended drinking session Tom had with a group of former soldiers during a gig wherein Guerra was accidentally double-booked, and consequently had time to kill. “American Garden’ is one of the strangest songs I’ve ever written, and among the songs on this record that I am most proud of. I am the narrator, but it is based on true stories that were told to me by Vietnam veterans. The more we drank, the more they told me. One of the vets kept repeating to me ‘I’ve been to the top, saw all three.”
Guerra had no idea what the soldier was talking about – top of the hill? Top of his command? A religious connotation? Respectfully, Guerra did not press the vet on the actual meaning, and the refrain in the song is open to our interpretation.
Aaronson flexed his formidable conceptual producer chops on this cut, altering the sound of Guerra’s vocals in his home studio with the intention making Tom into a “character” ala the various roles played by Michael Madsen and Harry Dean Stanton.
“I’m not a real political kind of guy – I keep my feelings to myself,” notes Aaronson, “but the whole thing of what he was doing with the veterans and their experiences affected me. I didn’t get drafted back then, I was lucky, but I knew people who fled to Canada – I knew people that were over there, and I remember living in New York City in the ‘70s and many of the guys that came back had a lot of issues, so when I heard this song, it really hit home.”
American Garden Video https://youtu.be/ceQU6y-12Xo
Another powerful cut is “Blood on the New Rising Sun” which references the Charlottesville riots. For this track Tom enlisted a powerful guitarist: Jon Butcher. “He and I have known each other for a few years now. He sends me his latest and I sent him my latest, and he said that he wanted to hear more, so I basically sent him everything I ever put out. And then he said that he wanted to do something with one of these songs. I had just written ‘Blood …and I thought, we’re on the same page socially —there’s a lot of places on this track for Jon to do his thing. He didn’t play his traditional Strat, he used a Telecaster. It gives you a different perspective along with a sort of a richness because it’s not just one guy playing every guitar part…”
Blood on the New Rising Son: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPt7ryr03Mc
Of course, the bass player has the final word: American Garden is the deepest thing Tom’s done’ reflects Aaronson, “he’s taken his craft a little bit further…his songwriting is growing, his guitar playing is growing, the lyrics are adult, which is very important now… he’s a thinking man!”
For all things Tom Guerra visit: www.TomGuerra.com
Tom Guerra’s American Garden available at TomGuerra.com, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, CDBaby
Promotional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yVN_CK52Ic