Thursday, August 16, 2012

Andy Fraser: All Right Now - Life, Death and Life Again

Andy Fraser's New Autobiography
"Listen to the songs, the minor key masterpieces of melancholy and growling, restrained power - desensitize your ears and eyes from what's happened in music since and you might begin to understand what Al Kooper meant when he boldly declared, 'Free is the greatest band that ever lived.'"

Andy Fraser has always been solidly challenged by his blessings. Whether in finding fame with Free while still in his teens and writing one of rock and roll's greatest and most enduring anthems, or discovering who and what he is as a gay man, it seems that as soon as he climbed one mountain he would be unceremoniously thrown down the backside by circumstances that could only be controlled by powers that demanded that he work harder, and learn more - to keep growing and never be given the luxury of resting on his laurels.

No sooner than he had found fortune and adulation in the world of music, his band imploded under the weight of fame, addictions, and egos. Then after many years and great struggles, he realized he was a gay man living a straight life that could never be reconciled without great changes. He bravely made those changes - only to then be stricken with a life threatening illness that would see him through a journey that takes him from being almost suicidally confused to spiritually sound and robust in health.

Thankfully, Fraser is a resilient man not easily defeated. All Right Now - Life, Death and Life Again, Andy's soon to be published autobiography, does a grand job of telling a true tale that has long been a rock and roll fable filled with suppositions, rumors, and untruths by way of the vagaries of time, the unreliability of memories, and, in the case of Fraser's once announced death, great exaggeration. In fact, I remember one occasion in which I was talking with superstar sideman/bassist Carmine Rojas, and when I mentioned having recently communicated with Fraser, Rojas replied, "Andy Fraser? Of Free? Andy Fraser of Free? You mean he's alive?" Upon realizing that Andy was indeed, still above ground, Rojas was thrilled by the news and asked how he could contact the British musician to pay his respects, and say hello. We had been discussing great songwriters who were also bassists, and Rojas described his respect for Fraser's talent and accomplishments with great awe.

Understandably, 'with great awe' is often how fans refer to Andy Fraser's career, and also with an equally great sense of mystery. This book resolves many questions and solves most of the mysteries. All except one. Which I will venture into later.

I have to admit - I'm a huge Fraser/Free fan, and that I read this book in one sitting. In fact, the only problem I have with this book is that it is about 200 pages less than I would have liked. That being said, it is one hell of an enthralling read. Andy Fraser tells his story and leaves out few pertinent details - without making anyone the bad guy, and always being incredibly forthright about himself - these are the true litmus tests of the art of autobiography. Co-written with author Mark Hughes, the book is lean and true. Too lean? Well, maybe for someone like me who is as interested in hearing not just of Fraser's musical exploits, but also his dealing with severe illness, his views on spirituality and religion (always more valid when delivered by someone who has seen both great victories and difficult defeats), and his views on world affairs - usually I'm just in it for the music, but Fraser offers insight and a world view that is uncommonly perceptive. Eighty percent of the book covers the history of Free, though, in case you are curious - yeah, you'll want this book in your collection.

Here are a couple of samples of his views on old friends:  
"Paul Rodgers has written some of my favorite songs of all time and his two sides were very well expressed in Free. On the one hand, he's the Northern macho man - very earthy, aggressive, not saying much, the Clint Eastwood of rock. On the other hand, he's a sort of folk balladeer - very sensitive and that gave us some beautiful haunting melodies. I used to think of him as a lonely soldier boy on a misty battlefield, dead all around him, but going on, unstoppable but very melancholic. I thought that was a wonderful side to him....We were competitive with each other, but in a healthy way - pushing each other, driving the other one on. I felt as close to him as a brother. If I was the mind of the band, Paul R was the voice - and what a voice. For me, we could not have had a more appropriate singer."

"Koss was the band's soul. The guitar is the emotion in a band anyway, but he put so much emotion into it, yet he never overpowered the sound. He was sympathetic and complementary to it. He played from a heart that was forever on his sleeve, and that really touches people. He had this fantastic vibrato technique, so good that even Eric Clapton asked him how he did it once - really made Koss's day, that."
In the case of Rodgers, the relationship between the two men is terribly complex, and to this moment unresolved. Maybe because, as Fraser implies, they have chosen to deal with each other respectfully, and without controversy - which in this case may be the wrong approach. Perhaps it's time for these two titans to sit down and have the face to face to which neither has yet acquiesced. In terms of unresolved issues, there is that of the catalog of the band Free - it died almost before it had gotten off the ground, and perhaps there is a point to be taken that as great as he was, Paul Kossoff was not the guitarist to lead the way for the combined artistry of Rodgers and Fraser. Between Kossoff's resistance to pursuing music outside the band's blues roots, the creative differences between Fraser and the man he describes as perhaps the best singer on the planet, and the crazy demands of stardom 70s style, maybe there had to be a forty year cooling off period. Could it be that only now the pair could speak and possibly resume their brilliant but short lived partnership?

Maybe I ask for too much, but I am willing to ask.

This book, as entertaining as it is, is just not enough. I'd say that it stands next to Bobby Whitlock's - Rock and Roll Autobiography  as one of the best rock reads in ages - so much so that it has invigorated my desire to imagine not just one more great record from one of rock's best couplings, but even a larger desire to see once great friends become great friends once again.

Of course, this is presumptuous as hell of me, and it may even detract from my review of this excellent book, but I think I speak for the majority of music fans who have never let the Free flag founder, even when the band's members couldn't be bothered. There is the question of who would play guitar once you got Rodgers and Andy to speak out their differences and hammer out some tunes, but the way I see things, nothing is impossible. If Andy Fraser could overcome all the obstacles that have been before him to come out being such a strong and positive force - to be able to succeed on his own path and write such a wonderful and honest tale, anything can happen.

Paul Rodgers - here's a man with every reason not to do such a thing. He's worked his entire life to have the reins of one of the greatest careers in music history, and has earned his right to be his own man, and his own man only. However, what would cap this career off in a better fashion than to come full circle and not just ride out a champion, but to do what to this point has never been done, and truly recreate magic? His story has always seemed somewhat without the proper topping - what better time than now, while he is still at the very top of his game as a performer?

Of course, it could well be that Fraser does not need the aggravation. He is successful by any measure, and has his hands full running his McTrax record label, and the burgeoning career of his young protege, Tobi, who made big waves in his recent tour of England and at The Isle of Wight Festival this summer. No one could blame him for taking the higher road and refusing to open up old wounds now. However, he appears to have this fierce streak of bravery.

Bravery is this book's name - it is the way that Andy Fraser has lived his life - remember, when Island Records wanted to re-name his band The Heavy Metal Kids, he was the one who replied, "Listen, if you want to sign us, our name is Free."

Andy Fraser has been free for years - read this book and be prepared to be inspired, invigorated by his life, and the potential for us all.

Whatever the future holds for Fraser and Rodgers, they have certainly earned the great love and respect they receive from true lovers of music everywhere.

No comments: