Johnny Rivers – Realization (Revisited)
During some Spring cleaning I encountered a stack of discs that hadn’t been on my radar for a few years, and this one was one of them. It’s not a new reissue, as a matter of fact it’s a pricey out of print disc. I’m no stranger to this recording, but it’s come to mean more as the years fly by than it did some forty odd years ago when I first dropped the needle on my original vinyl copy.
Rivers, like many sixties artists, had enjoyed a relevant string of hit singles throughout the decade. But something happened along the way. He discovered that he possessed one of the finest blue eyed soul voices of his generation. His success with recent covers of Motown hits, and his own melancholy “Poor Side Of Town,” had proved that there was an audience for his brand of soul too. He had finally broken free of the live in a club recordings that ushered in his initial success.
While some dismiss him as merely a cover artist, a careful listen reveals a vocalist with few peers when the tempo shifts to the middle where expression and nuance replace histrionics in the mix. He quite simply had found himself as a true song stylist. The time is 1968 and Rivers is about to make the most well rounded album of his career to that point. He would start by producing himself for the first time. Unlike some of the ham fisted concept albums that we’ve come to expect over the years, this concept was more about a connected set of songs that could be individual snapshots laid side by side to tell a story in no particular order. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking concept as much as he was thinking ambience because most of the songs don’t connect in a words on paper way.
One could argue that this was the West Coast, late sixties, version of the quiet storm genre. The theme is a bit loose, but the vibe is consistent with images of looking out at the surf during the day, and looking inward late at night. Reflective in the sense that a surfer might be finally realizing that not all future days would be spent searching for the perfect wave. Even though he was only twenty six at the time it had been a full life and musically it was time to find the next frontier. The album title is an apt description of what the artist was experiencing during the post summer of love-marching toward Woodstock, and ultimately Altamont era.
He settled on ten songs, including three from friend James Hendricks who was a kindred spirit. His contributions, “Look To Your Soul,” Summer Rain,” and “Something Strange,” along with Rivers’ own “Going Back To Big Sur” give the album its anchor. Choice covers of Bob Dylan, Oscar Brown, JR., Scott McKenzie and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” shouldn’t really fit, but they do and it sounds seamless as it drifts out of the speakers.
The opening re-write of “Hey Joe” as a lo-fi, psych, meditation announces a new direction is being navigated. One where concern for his fellow man is moving to front and center in his life. The surprise track of the album for me is Scott Mckenzie’s “What’s The Difference.” Most assume that McKenzie was a one hit wonder who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Technically true, but he also recorded two wonderful albums that showcased his writing skills as a thoughtful observer of the human condition. Rivers of course knew this and gives the poignant song a soft atmospheric reading.
“Going Back To Big Sur” is the aging hippie’s melancholy take on finally coming to terms of where home really is. The setting sun, and the waves take the place of drugs, city noise and aimless wanderings. “Summer Rain” has probably been heard so much that the sweep of the story and its emotions have given way to blending in with summer songs promoting lighter fare. In the context of this album though it regains its strength of a summer love still going strong as the bonfires of the beach make their way to the inside fireplaces of Winter. Adult relationships have clearly supplanted teen angst for this artist.
I found plenty of other discs in my stack that I will be spinning again, but none as much I have this one the past week or so. It’s easy to read a lot into a recent recording as we try to dissect the lyrics and connect the dots to be on top of the moment. Looking back forty five years later it comes easier, and with a lot more rewards. I‘m not sure I‘ve looked to my soul, but I‘ve sure taken a look around at the things and people that surround me now.
(A special nod should also go to the venerable backing band of James Burton, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtal, and James Hendricks. These people have graced countless recordings and here they provide the perfect musical bed for this project.)
“We sailed into the sunset,
Drifted home, caught by a gulf stream
Never gave a thought for tomorrow,
Just let tomorrow be, let tomorrow be.”