Mitch Mitchell, RIP

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine and I went to see The Who play at the Izod Center (formerly Continental Arena, formerly Brendan Byrne Arena). It was almost 26 years to the day since we had last seen The Who at the same venue on their farewell tour.

In 1982, Keith Moon was dead and Kenney Jones was gamely filling in on the drums. Jones was a fine drummer, but no Keith. This time around, John Entwistle was also gone, replaced by Pino Palladino, also a fine bass player (no Entwistle, but who is?).

The fact that it was “Half The Who” was on our minds as we sat in the parking lot, drinking a cold beer (or two…or three). We started talking about how many of the old bands were nearly gone now. Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops had died not too long beforehand, leaving only one remaining original member of that great vocal group alive. I asked the question, “Are any of the old bands gone?” We couldn’t come up with any. The Ramones have one surviving member, the Beatles and Who have two, Badfinger has one, the Mamas and Papas have one. Stunningly, the Stones have lost only one original member, and it isn’t Keith Richards. Sooner or later, we reckoned, one of these bands would be entirely gone.

Unfortunately it happened sooner, rather than later. Last week the news came through that the sole survivor of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, drummer Mitch Mitchell, had been found dead in his hotel room, after playing on a tour called Experience Hendrix with guys like Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepard filling in for Jimi.

Jimi, of course, was the first to go, in 1970 at the age of 27. Bassist Noel Redding made it to 2003 before dying. On November 12, 2008 it was Mitchell’s turn. In the grand scheme of events, I’m well aware how unimportant a rock drummer is but for music geeks, like myself, this was like watching a part of history die. The days when these musical colossi roamed the Earth used to seem so recent. Now it suddenly seems like just another bygone era, somewhere between the Victrola and the iPod. It’s one thing when a towering solo superstar dies. Death can come at any time and claim an Elvis, an Otis, a Buddy. This was an entire band, though. They once stood on top of the world as a collective unit and now they are nothing but memory.

In this spirit, allow me to express a word or two of appreciation for Mitchell. His name is not as well known as Keith Moon or John Bonham, but Mitchell was nearly as fiery a drummer. A jazz freak, he brought a distinctly Elvin Jones-ish feel to rock drumming. Prior to guys like Moon and Mitchell, rock drummers kept the beat and threw in a few fills here and there. Moon exploded the concept by playing lead drums, arms pinwheeling, drumsticks twirling, his kit laced with explosives. Keith was a show unto himself, and he placed the drummer at the front, equal in every way to the guitarist and the singer.

Mitchell (who auditioned for The Who but lost out to Moon) took a more traditional role. There was no way to share the stage equally with Jimi Hendrix, and Mitchell knew it. While he contented himself to remain a supporting player, he brought that jazz style to Jimi’s Martian blues and psychedelic excursions. Rolling around the toms, Mitchell sounded like a rumbling deep inside the earth. While Jimi kissed the sky, Mitchell shook the ground. You may have been so busy reaching for the clouds with Jimi that you didn’t notice what else was happening, but a large portion of the sensory overload that was the Experience came from the back.

Mitchell was technically a better drummer than Moon, though not as influential or as much fun to watch, but he served the same purpose in the Experience that Moon served in the Who. If you watch old footage of The Who you’ll notice something strange. During guitar solos, instead of stepping forward and taking the spotlight like a good lead guitarist, Pete Townshend would frequently step back until he was next to Moon. He’d put his head down, sometimes even put his foot on the drum riser…and Moon would spur Townshend on, and Townshend would inspire Keith to new heights, like two parasites feeding off each other.

Mitch Mitchell did the same thing for his lead guitarist. Jimi Hendrix never shunned the spotlight but, like Pete and Keith, Hendrix would lock in with Mitchell and the two of them would become an unstoppable force, a blinding blizzard of technical proficiency and deep soul. Mitchell was the perfect drummer for Hendrix, which explains why Hendrix went back to Mitchell after the Band of Gypsys experiment. As Hendrix played the role of alchemist, turning noise and distortion into cosmic beauty, Mitchell kept it all rooted with those endless rolls across the kit, as relentless and as powerful as the ocean. Mitchell’s skill made Hendrix better; Hendrix’s genius spurred Mitchell on to ever greater heights. Together they spiraled up into the stratosphere, like a rocket kept on course subtly and capably by Noel Redding’s bass, I frequently wondered what Stevie Ray Vaughan would have sounded like if he had a Mitch Mitchell behind him rather than the lead weight of Chris Layton. It would have been amazing. Compare Hendrix’s version of Earl King’s “Come On” with Stevie’s version of the same song to hear the difference a drummer can make to a guitar player.

So there it is. The first (as far as I can tell) of the great Sixties bands to become extinct. The next ten to twenty years will see many more. Mitch Mitchell, dead at 62. RIP.

Update: As if you needed another reason to appreciate that The Raconteurs are the coolest band on the planet right now, they have replaced their usual website home page with a great picture of Mitch Mitchell, which I have ruthlessly appropriated below. Gotta love this band…they know their history.

Mitch Mitchell

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The Happiest Place On Earth

Walt Disney World likes to bill itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth”, and it may just live up to the title.

I’ve just returned from spending a week trolling the grounds at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and the Disney Studios. I’ve been to Disney before as a kid, but this was my first time as an adult, with my better half by my side.

There are many reasons that Disney is a fun place to go on vacation. There are thrilling rides (Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Expedition Everest, Mission to Mars, Test Track), fun shows, quick blasts of international culture and cuisine at Epcot, water parks, fireworks, concerts (yes! Los Lobos at Epcot!), daily parades, great shopping, and slower-paced experiences for when your feet get tired (many of the Fantasyland rides, the African safari at Animal Kingdom).

All of these things might get Disney a reputation as the funnest place on Earth, but not the happiest. In fact, there are things that weigh heavily against that “happy” part: stifling heat (even in November…I can’t imagine what it’s like in July), crowds, long lines, overtired children crying, closed attractions (my wife was denied the experience of the Hall of Presidents for the fourth time in her life). Worst of all, there’s the monstrosity of the It’s A Small World ride, an attraction that would be made considerably better if you were allowed to throw baseballs at the marionettes singing that wretched song.

What allows Disney World to effortlessly overcome the unavoidable annoyances that can cast a damper on a vacation is simple: customer service. The overwhelming hospitality that greets people everywhere they turn can not help but make you feel good. Our plane was delayed by several hours and we arrived at the Animal Kingdom Lodge a little after two o’clock in the morning. We were tired, hungry, and cranky. The lobby was an immediate pick-me-up: huge, decorated in an African motif, with artwork, a fireplace, comfortable seating. It was immediately apparent that a considerable amount of thought and care had been put into this. It helped that we were the only people in the lobby at that hour, which gave us a good opportunity to appreciate the size and scope without a lot of hustle and bustle. Within seconds of our arrival we were greeted with a huge smile by the woman behind the registration desk. She asked about our travels, sympathized with our delays, and took a bit of time to talk to us. As bedraggled and cranky as we were, this little dollop of hospitality made us feel like we’d been welcomed home. As someone who’s stayed in hotels all across the country, I’ve rarely been greeted with anything other than monosyllables and perfunctory acknowledgements. It was the difference between “Hello! Let me help you!” and “Hey, you want to check in?”

And of course, it didn’t stop there. For the next week we were greeted with warmth and smiles by everyone from hotel maids to ticket takers to waiters to shop keepers to bus drivers. Not just a few people. They all did it. Whatever their personal feelings and emotions may have been, when they interacted with us the Disney staff was never less than happy and helpful. They took the time to make small talk, to answer questions, to walk with us if we didn’t know where we were going. They were happy, and the feeling was contagious.

My wife knew people who worked at Disney and we took them out to dinner one night. From talking to them I realized that the smiles and warmth that Disney employees show their guests is not artificial. It is far more than being told that their jobs depend on keeping a smile plastered on their faces no matter what happens. Disney invests in their employees. They don’t simply hand out the Kool-Aid and tell their workers to drink it. No, the happiness is real because the company does their best to train their employees and keep them happy. Disney has figured out that happy employees mean happy customers.

This is called “customer service” and it is, I fear, a dying art in modern America. Too many retail stores are staffed with people who seemingly could not care less whether you can find what you’re looking for. Too many hotels think their obligation to you begins with the reservation and ends with cleaning the room. Too many bus drivers take your ticket or your money, grunt, and avoid eye contact at all cost. Too many waiters and waitresses make no effort to make your dining experience a little more enjoyable just by talking and asking you how your day is going.

There’s a bar near where I live that has a slogan: “Where the customer is always an inconvenience.” It’s a funny slogan, and in a long tradition of self-deprecating bar slogans (another bar near me had the tag “Purveyors of warm beer and lousy food”). But I’m seeing this becoming more of a reality all the time. We all know what happens if we have to call customer service for our cable company or cell phone provider.

Disney World stands in stark contrast to this. It is the triumph of customer care. Disney World is the Happiest Place on Earth precisely because it is the most hospitable place on Earth. By treating every guest like friends and family, they give a respite from a world filled with bad news, overbearing bosses, messy commutes, rude people, and poor customer service. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned by a lot of other business out there.