‘Be On My Side . . .’

Sometime in the past week or two – and I cannot recall where or when – I heard a faint snippet, no more than five seconds, of Buddy Miles’ cover of Neil Young’s “Down By The River.” It reminded me of this piece, now more than ten years old.

There was a half-second of empty air after the commercial ended. A softly strummed guitar broke the silence, and then, above that, came the moan of an electric guitar playing one long note and then a short break of melody in a minor mode. A choir came in behind the guitars, a chorus of “oooooh” sounding as lonely as a back road while the guitar continued its forlorn dance above the chorus.

A quiet organ wash replaced the chorus as the drums entered and set a pace, and then a tortured voice sang, “Be on my side, I’ll be on your side, baby. There is no reason for you to hide . . .”

Rick and I paused whatever we were doing – probably playing a board game – and stared at the small radio and the sounds coming from its somewhat tinny speaker. What the hell was that? And who was singing?

The sounds of a summer night came through the screened windows of the porch that Rick’s dad had recently added to their house: oak leaves whispering in the wind, a car’s honk some blocks away, the faint “breek-breek” of frogs in the low places near the railroad tracks, the laughter of teens out walking in search of something, the distant horn of an approaching train.

But we kept looking at the radio, wondering what in the heck they were playing on WJON, whose studios were no more than two blocks away, just the other side of the railroad tracks.

It was 1970, and like many stations in non-metro America, WJON tried to be all things to all people. Daytime was farm reports, the Party Line show in the morning, news at regular times during the day, and, I seem to remember, lots of traditional pop music during the day: Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Al Martino and maybe, if the deejay were feeling adventurous, Hugo Montenegro’s version of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” with its eerie whistle and twangy guitars.

At night, from seven o’clock on, the station played pop and rock, ranging from mostly Top 40 during the early hours of the segment to deeper cuts and slightly harder sounds as the night aged. And it was about ten p.m., I guess, when Rick and I were transfixed by the sounds coming out of the radio.

Maybe Rick recognized the song as Neil Young’s “Down by the River,” but I don’t think he recognized the vocals as coming from funky drummer Buddy Miles. I didn’t know either the song or the singer. I was still pretty unhip to most pop and rock music, although in the past nine months, I’d started to listen and to buy LPs. My first two purchases had been Chicago II and the Beatles’ Let It Be. It would be a while before I got around to Neil Young. And beyond hearing on radio the spooky sounds of his version of “Down by the River,” it would be a longer time yet before I got around to Buddy Miles and his combination of blues, funk and rock.

“Down by the River,” which Rick and I would hear several more times late at night that summer, was from Miles’ third solo album, Them Changes. His first two, Expressway to Your Skull and Electric Church, had been well received by critics. (Jimi Hendrix, with whom Miles would play in Band of Gypsys, had produced about half of Electric Church.) Earlier, Miles had been part of Electric Flag, a group that was eclectic in both its membership and its music.

He’s not always been received well by critics. I recall reading particularly savage reviews in the various editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and Album Guide. But in the years following Them Changes, Miles would team up with Carlos Santana on a well-regarded live album in 1972 and would record consistently through 1976. After that, his recording was sporadic.

For me, though, as intriguing as his other work may be, nothing from Miles has ever grabbed my attention and imagination as tightly as that first hearing of “Down by the River” during that long-ago summer evening.

Miles, of course, is gone now: He passed on in February 2008, less than a year after this piece first showed up here. The album track of “Down By The River” remains one of my favorite tunes; I’m not as fond of the single edit that went to No. 68 in the Billboard Hot 100 that summer. I have a few other interesting covers of “Down By The River” in the digital stacks, and I pondered offering one of them here. But having heard just a snippet of Miles’ version the other day, I’m hungry for more of it.



(I’ve edited the 2008 post slightly.)

Tags:

One Response to “‘Be On My Side . . .’”

  1. David Young says:

    Saw Buddy Miles Express at the Fillmore East. Middle act between headliners Mothers of Invention and Chicago (who didn’t have a record out yet). All three bands had full horn sections. Something I’d only seen in soul bands. Buddy Miles Express did a sublime version of Whiter Shade of Pale. Unfortunately they never recorded that.

Leave a Reply