Sunday, December 26, 2010

With a Heart Like a Fist: The true beauty of anger

Art pimps passion.

For this I use the word pimp advisedly. (Generally I hate our cultural habit of neutralizing offensive words through overuse. Pimp is only one of the lessor offenses.) I use pimp in the sense of procurement through some form of hardship or abuse. In that sense some of our greatest art indeed comes from a kind of pimp transaction. Passion is a requirement for great art, certainly, and though misery may not be, it just seems to work better that way.
Exhibit A: Buffy Saint Marie. Buffy began as something of a folk prodigy, having established a successful career as a solo performer by her early twenties. This performance of "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" is from Pete Seeger's short lived show from 1965, Rainbow Quest. (I describe the show briefly here.) Hear the tearful rage in her voice barely contained and the soul-freezing mourn in her eyes. Now, 46 years later the song still resonates: Today, Indians may have the tragic Americanization of Native Americans (note the irony of the title itself) policies behind them but still live in nation capable of naming its capital's football team "Redskins" among other offenses. Clearly, Thy people's work is not done.

James Baldwin famously wrote in his essay "Many Thousand Gone" (also "No More Auction Block's" original title) that through song Americans are "able to admire [the history of Black America] because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it... [It is only in song] that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story... a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear."

Exhibit B: Uneasy truths couldn't wish for a better vehicle than Paul Robeson's voice. Robeson's genius and general prodigiousness are the stuff of legend. Not least for his passionate work in the cause of civil rights, a cause for which he'd suffer in both career and life. For this, his version of "No More Auction Block for Me" may be the most profound and poignant, if not most definitive, ever recorded. (The fact that most of us know the song at all, though, is a debt owed to Dylan.) The song's origins are mysterious. It's vintage is the nineteenth century and was composed by an unknown and almost certainly illiterate slave. (How a song of such of humble origins becomes canon has to do with its acceptance into church repertoire.) The song served as a kernel for a number of other popular folk and spiritual tunes including "Blowing in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome." (A side note: The picture of the whipped slave featured in the video is described in a Harper's article from 1863. Learn more about "negro GORDON" here. The pic is also one of the top ten most requested photos in the National Archive.)
Back to the premise: Perhaps the words art and passion should be interchangeable. If extremes of heat and pressure produce the diamond then bloodless art making, however skilled, might barely warm the egg. Mediocrity may be the enemy but sometimes the only difference between mediocrity and the merely good is the degree of heart the artist chooses to leave out. Renowned marketing egghead Seth Godin suggests that the merely good rarely changes minds. It's like pimping hugs.
Passion always elevates. Godin says you could run a church exceptionally and still be an atheist. The product is less important than the process. If you're passionate about doing your best work, whatever it is, then the non-believer is as capable as the believer. I've my own theory: It takes more than just passion. It takes the right kind of passion. Misery will work, abuse, hardship, and general suffering, but it's not the experience itself so much as what it leaves behind: Anger.

Now, Godin also suggests that "anger only makes us smaller." That's true. It's toxic, and like most toxic substances when used carelessly, it can be dangerous. When I say anger I don't mean pissy frustration or blinding rage, but profound anger that makes us want to go to war; Not just for truth, justice, and the American Way but to war against the passionless: The assembly line vampire editions, the licensed remakes, the "rock and roll" cruises, the celebrity picture books, and all manner of cynical derivatives and mercenary hackism. The secret is to go to war for a new vision, even if that only means digging deeper into your own. Which is, ultimately, the best thing we can do.

Exhibit C: Odetta. This is an excerpt from the Scorsese-directed Bob Dylan interview doc "No Direction Home" (highly recommended, whatever your taste for Dylan). The performance is from 1959. Robeson took his pass at this song too, and though I haven't heard it, I can't imagine his version is even up to the standard of this one. Dylan admits a debt to Odetta and her's is a rage to be reckoned with: It rings harder than the hammers striking the rocks of the song. This is anger served on a silver platter. Every stroke of her guitar is echoed in the grievous look on her face. This is a song that projects far beyond the singer; this song suffers for the damnation of generations.
"There ain't no sweat boy/that's on a-this mountain/that runs like mine, boy/that runs like mine"
Exhibit D: 16 Horsepower. A band from Colorado whose musical DNA is a mix of traditional country, Appalachian folk, hymns, murder ballads, early Bob Dylan as well as Joy Division, Creedence Clearwater, and The Gun Club. The band is led by David Eugene Edwards, a man who spits truth from a chemical mixture of fire and brimstone. The truths of his narrative aren't mine but in his deepest moments of fervor and intensity, when his work dons the devil-shaped wings, he makes his truth mine. See here:

Anger is what puts the crack on the whip. The truth of
anger is that it isn't about taking power so much as losing it. Anger, done right, is our humanity at its most vulnerable. Love is our higher aspiration but anger, for better or worse, is what we're best at —if only because we're most familiar with it. Most of the performances posted on this blog are the pearls of such resonant anger.

Exhibit E: There are a few versions of Tom Robinson's "Glad to Be Gay" on YouTube (here's an earlier version with slightly different lyrics), but this one gets closest to the heart. Note how he encourages the audience to sing along before the first chorus and by the third the audience kind of retreats into stunned silence. (It begins in the second verse when he gets to the line "see how disgusting we are in the press." Something breaks behind his eyes and we're there with him.) This performance is from an evening of otherwise comedic performances, The Secret Policeman's Ball from 1979. Kudos to Tom for the courage of launching this flaming arrow into an otherwise lighthearted evening.

Said Picasso: We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. And this, Picasso didn't say: Truth is found when experiencing one another’s passions. So, it's all about emotions: The more honest the work of art, the more emotional the truth. Art may be subjective and political and egotistical and jealous and envious; it is, to misquote Kerouac, the grey film that catches the actual pink juice of human kind.
Whatever else, this we know: Art without passion is art not to be trusted. And for better or worse, anger is often the truest path.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Rockschool (not to be confused with Gene Simmons' Rock School) was a short lived television series produced for the BBC somewhere in the dark musical ages of 1983 - 1985 (depending which source you believe). A cursory viewing immediately reveals the show's hoary '80s vintage and Anglo-centrism. It's a cultural time capsule of oversized hair, passed-expiration performers and gear, reggae infatuation, and worst of all, those sickly sounding cotton-candied synths. (I defy anyone to wax nostalgic on 80s synth sounds.) But even worse, according to the show's prognostications a cotton-candy synth epidemic was all but poised to devour all guitar, bass, and drums from pop music. (Thank heavens this Satanic plot was thwarted!) And then there are times the show is just plain naive as when it always seems to err on the side of old school, e.g. choosing Genesis' Tony Banks over, say, Brian Eno for a synthesizer demo. But then, it's these same lapses that make the show's retrospective impact both laughably featherweight and such a juicy guilty pleasure.

Here, one of the better episodes featuring funk bassology from the thumbs of Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins:

I discovered Rockschool around 1990 on New York PBS station WNET, the show's only American outlet
. Much of the trove now available on YouTube reveal episodes with Herbie Hancock. These episodes were a retooling designed exclusively for American audiences. Otherwise, it's all thick beans-on-toast accents of the anachronistic house band interspersed with Brit-pop curiosities of the era and a few legitimate masters thrown in. The result: An Extreme Remedial "Rock" for Non-native Dummies.

Like most academic tours into the ghettos of pop culture, the show's emphasis is mostly on the banal mainstream. Case in point: A segment on vocals by way of Midge Ure and Graham Bonnet (!?). You'll notice there's also a fan-boy zealotry for the era's dated technology (pretty much anything digital). The program on Funk is legitimately good (Brits have long lurved American R & B) while the Heavy Metal segment is deliriously naive. Rockschool asks you to believe the bible of metal was actually the illuminated word of Foghat. (Motorhead, a basically funnier, drunker, and sloppier version of Foghat, gets some face time.) The better done reggae segments may've something to do with the music's proximity to the British heart. (For American audiences it may seem like over-representation.) There's also an awful lot of gear info the show would've been better without (do we really need to know how to tune a drum?). And then there's the cachet degrade that happens every time the house band plugs in: Even The Wiggles would've passed on this ultra-lite electro-fusion.

The meat of the show, the reason for watching, is in the commentaries from the show's celebrity cameos. Seeing drummers like Ginger Baker and Omar Hakim demonstrate polyrhythmic techniques only possible from drummers with four brains is awe-inspiring. (Squandering Omar Hakim behind a Syndrum, on the other hand, is criminal.) Jools Holland's encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll piano styles happily knotted up my boxers. And Funk from the likes of Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Maiden would be top drawer by any thinking person's Funk cabinet.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I Love You, You Big Dummy

Captain Beefheart, 1940 - 2010

I don't sleep so well these days. There may be number of reasons for this. (My guess is middle age and finances are the leading candidates.) Side effects include disappearing library books, losing reading glasses left on the top of the head, and surreal retellings of bedtime stories.

About the bedtime stories: Reading aloud during these sleep-starved periods often has me dropping into a light sleep mid-sentence. Interestingly, the sleep doesn’t stop the reading. Instead, the manuscript switches from the page at hand to the one in my head. The result: A Dada-esque cut-up word game that leaves my daughter bewildered.

E.g.: As Hansel and Gretel follow the trail of bread crumbs home, the narrator interjects with "No, Mr. Stewart, I didn’t study for the Geometry final and, yes, I did forget to wear pants.” And, “is that my girlfriend from 9th grade wearing Margaret Thatcher's head?"

It’s a fairy tale as retold by Captain Beefheart.

The late great Captain, born Don Glen Vliet (later changing "Glen" for "Van" for the stage), passed away last Thursday, December 17th, at the age of 69. If you've never heard the music of Captain Beefheart, well, you probably wouldn't have liked it anyway. His particular genius was an acquired taste. He was the James Joyce of Rock and Roll: A pioneer who the snobs of outre´ culture insist we should all know but few of us can actually abide.

Lyrically, Beefheart was not unlike my dream:
It's like a white onion-fleshed pumpkin tiny black eyes and round paper hairs laughing white collars minced muted in the huffing dry morning wind that jingled like fish bones. (Doped in Stunned Mirages, 1982)

As for his sound, one critic's description as "pure primeval stomp" seems reasonable enough. I'd prefer "deep fried atonal catfish on a sugar-dusted hacksaw of blues." The Captain himself describes it this way:
"I don't like doing music. I like doing spells. Because music is just black ants crawling across white paper... I don't like hypnotics. You see, I'm doing a non-hypnotic music to break up a catatonic state. [And society] is in a catatonic state."

You see, he was saving us from ourselves.

To Beefheart, mainstream rock rhythm was the enemy: For him, the basic “heartbeat” patterns of rock were dull as muddy water. His models were on the margins: Late Coltrane, early rhythm and blues, Howling Wolf, post-tonal composers, surreal poetry, and abstract algebra. As a character and artist he stood among an exclusive club of geniuses; A club whose roster might include Van Gogh, Syd Barrett, John Kennedy Toole (“A Confederacy of Dunces”), and outside artist Henry Darger, masters who could straddle sanity and its opposite to good effect. Like them, Beefheart also had a vision that was unschooled, defiantly stubborn, and utterly convinced of its own righteousness. In a Rolling Stone interview he said, "I don't spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me." Only an artist with complete trust in his choices and a complete indifference to general conceptions of "failure" could claim such a thing. Is it hyper-confident boasting when you have the imagination to back it up?

By his own admission Beefheart was “an only child, a tyrant, irascible" and his work reflects that. High school friend Frank Zappa described the young Beefheart as an indulged teenager whose parents exerted little authority over him. (Their role limited mostly to keeping him plied with Pepsi and art supplies.) He also had little interest in academic methods or institutional learning. "If you want to be a different fish you got to jump out of school," he would say.

One analyst described Beefheart’s as "a diffuse undifferentiated consciousness that children have." If so, the condition served him well. His influence proved widespread: From the obvious — Sonic Youth, White Stripes, Tom Waits — to the less so — Beck, Blondie, Joan Osbourne. His ardent fans have ranged from The Beatles (who wanted to sign him to a precursor of Apple Records and whom he’d later decry in "Beatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones") to Julian Schnabel and Matt Groening. I saw Captain Beefheart and the last version of The Magic Band ca. 1980 at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. It was vintage Beefheart in all his abstract gesticulating and wild-eyed glory. He combed a fireman's helmet cradled in his arms and he blew intermittently into a soprano sax. I say blew because to call it playing would be an overstatement. His Howling Wolf yelp was still resplendent. The grating rhythms, serrated harmonies, and battered guitars had smoothed (slightly) with age but were none the less for power. For anyone else this all may've easily appeared as pretense or pose. Not so for Beefheart: This is what he was. He wasn't capable of anything else.

The Captain addressed downloading 30 years before it happened:
"I don't want to sell my music. I want to give it away because where I got it, you didn't have to pay for it."
Love has no body
I love you, you big dummy
No body has love
No body has love
Breathe deep
Breathe high
Breathe life
Don't breathe ah lie
I love you, you big dummy

Love to you, Captain.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Rhiannon you never knew

Mick Fleetwood often raved about the talents of Stevie Nicks. One of the most intense performers I've ever seen, he'd say. (Initially, the band took a pass on her but Lindsey Buckingham refused to join without her.) Considering the caliber of musicians Fleetwood has played with over the years (incl. George Harrison, Rod Stewart, Stevie Windwood, Alvin Lee, Peter Green, et. al.) you'd think he might know what he's talking about.

Still, you're skeptical. You're reminded of Nicks' 
airy-fairy canon, the teen girl fascination with legends, dreams, and visions (the ones she'll tell you she can't tell you). You imagine she writes in bubble letters with lavendar ink. But she has that precious up-turned nose and privileged California Girl complexion so you forgive her. Then there's that girly insouciant voice with its tone of half velvet, half burlap, and a vibrato like a power tool. She was the college boy dating cheerleader from your high school and the Juliet in your school play. On stage, her wardrobe was always deliriously behind the times. She was a pirouetting cloud bank of abundant sleeves and guazy skirts and Masterpiece Theater hair. Critics described her as ethereal and mystical. The New York Times called her a satin-clad pop ballerina. But you thought of her more like a Celestine Parody: cloying at best.

Yes, you might've thought that. But then, you saw this:

The song starts where you'd expect, a slightly more caffienated version than the one on record. The song takes a meditative breath at about the four minute mark. It's the breath you take before attempting to pull the barbell up to your chin from the floor. Then begins the dreams unwind, love's a state of mind refrains. Trite, sure, but it doesn't even matter. The words are secondary. They're just a conduit to push out the sound and sound is the master here. She steps away from the mike for a moment and returns as something else entirely. The airy cheerleader's face now impaled on the sharp guitar line behind her. It's as if the audience disappears as her eyes kind of crawl inside her mind to dig up what will follow. And what follows is something much more animal and real, a white hot minute of studied rage. It's a voice that rages for every woman whose power wasn't understood, loved, or respected enough. It's the rage of the Rhiannon of legend (a goddess who surrenders her power to marry a mortal). It's also the face of the betrayed, the face you'll see as she throws your clothes out the door. Musically, it's a face that probably doesn't exist outside rock and roll. For me, it's what I love most about the artform. (See these posts for other examples: Here, here, here, and here.) The video has no date but I suspect it's somewhere after the release of Rumors (ca. 1977), though it could be pre-Rumors (1975). The band is clearly on edge. There are no easy smiles or casual comaraderies between them. They're responding to each other through the senses and they're clearly feeding on it. Here's another version of the song done around the same time for television. The video quality is superior and the performance is respectable, but it's nowhere near the above. That performance would certainly have to have been unsustainable. 

Buckingham was generally considered to be the brain trust of Fleetwood Mac, writing the bulk of the material and helping to mold everyone else's with his assertive guitar. Yet it was Nicks's solo career that would prove to be by far the most successful. Her twirling mystical style of pop had its legions of adoring fans. Few mainstream pop artists are capable of her kind of intensity on display here (including her, as you'll see in a tour of her other performances on YouTube). What's above is a rare captured moment. Anyone with the resources and inclination to deliver such a performance deserves our utmost respect. Mick may've been right after all.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cowboys Get the Blues

It's been said the term "cowboy" might first have been coined for African American cow-punchers. It makes sense as Americans have always been on the leading edge of derogatory term technology. What you may not know (I didn't) is that country music, that music we may consider the whitest of musicsor at least the one with the whitest of audiences – may indeed have some interesting lineage in the woodpile, as it were.

Check this story from NPR and learn that Anglo folk songs, Black Southern blues, and songs brought up by Spanish speaking Vaqueros may've come together in a kind of musical orgy on the dusty trails where cowboy and frontier songs were first sung. Of the songs posted, "Tom Sherman's Barroom" (a lyrical half-brother to "Streets of Laredo") was for me the most interesting (see above). Certainly, it's the bluesiest. It may be the "Danny Boy" of the lonesome prairie. Its deathly minor key plaint gives the proper "beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly" ambiance to what may be the high standard of the cowboy lamentations.

From there, follow the snaking branches of the family tree for 150 years and off drops the GMO-ed fruit of Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift? Be that as it may, this is yet more proof American music has the fingerprints of many all over it.

(Thanks to Anne Riddle Barrow for the heads up.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nico: Chelsea Hotel from a Chelsea Hotel room

She's the classic image of the fräulein as femme fatale: tall, blonde, diamond-cut features, eyes that burn like dry ice, and the sultry parched voice of a luftwaffe interrogator in silk lingerie. Maybe I'm projecting a little bit, but that's what I hear.

Nico was the name I wanted to give my daughter (eventually it was demoted to middle name status). For the eponymous original the name was awarded like all great destinies, casually and without much deeper significance. According to legend, she was bestowed the name by a photographer in the early days of her modeling career, being the name of his lover at the time. Presumably, her given name of Christa Päffgen wasn't sufficiently intriguing. Now, of course, it's hard to imagine another word more befitting of her. Nico's uniqueness may come in some part from her limitation: She was deaf in one ear. Her voice does seem to circle the pitch at times but her flatness, if that's what it is, only adds to the mystique. It makes her tone sound more metallic and wintry. And aloof. She can sing a Jackson Browne song, drain it of all it's twee sunny So Cal Singer-songwriterliness, and transform it into a yellow-eyed night in the black forest. If Jim Morrison's The End was a taste of the dark night of the soul, her's paints it black without even trying. Her's is the sociopath's take. At the end of the hall Morrison gave us his his Oedipal fantasy; Nico – the character her voice embodies, that iswould not only do it, she'd go to work in the morning with her coffee and scone and not upset her stomach about it.

Her singing was as much about her as an iconic symbol as it was about the sound of her voice. In this sense she was like a classic Hollywood actor, a Betty Davis, Greta Garbo, or James Cagney. They couldn't pretend they were someone else, even in the role of someone else.

In her summit of the 60s and 70s, she took celebrity lovers, influenced films, and had songs written for her. Later, she would ravage her life and body in a long interlude with heroin (permanently scarring her model good looks and pretty white teeth). Eventually, she'd get through it. In her later years she undertook a healthier lifestyle and diet. While on a holiday in Ibiza with her reunited son, she experienced a minor heart attack while riding a bicycle that caused her to fall and strike her head. Left unconscious, she was discovered by a taxi driver and taken to a local hospital. Complications with admittance and a misdiagnosis later and she was dead of severe brain hemorrhage. She was 50.

Imagine Souixsee without her. Death may've thwarted her legacy as a American Idol judge but the musical one continues.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Proto-rock and Roll, Etc.

The Treniers may be the Adam gene of all rock and roll bands as they're considered to be the first self-contained rock and roll group ever. Their's was a version of proto-rock heavily influenced by the swing era that gave birth to them and other musical mutations of their age, namely Rhythm and Blues. The hybrid version they played, with its heavy backbeat, walking bass lines, caterwauling yelps, and jumper cables to the nipples surges of manic energy would later be known as Jump Blues. (For a modern equivalent, think the Brian Setzer Orchestra.) The Treniers began in earnest in the post-war 40s and reached their peak in the mid-50s. It was during this period that they amassed a thick portfolio of songs with the words rock and/or roll in the title ("Rockin' Is Our Business," "Rocking on Sunday Night," "It Rocks! It Rolls! It Swings!"). If they don't own the word outright you could at least say they had first squatter's rights.

Led by Mobile AL born twin brothers and Claude and Cliff Trenier, with more Trenier brothers joining in and the Gene Gilbeaux Orchestra behind them, their sound is slightly hipper and less loungey than contemporary Louis Prima's. And like much of the rock and roll that would soon follow, dancing and singing weighed equally on the performance scales. The song featured here, Ragg Mopp — later pinched famously by Art Carney on the Honeymooners (imagine Ralph's slow-burn reaction)has since disappeared from our collective golden-age-of-novelty consciousness comes from the group's heyday of the early 50s. The Treniers would persevere through the rock and roll era, and in some form or another to the lounges of the present, but the shadow had fallen. Like to many of their back-beat challenged brethern of the pre-Elvis era, rock and roll would be the death knell. Sad, because as you can see here, the influence of their musical/performance DNA is still very much apparent today.

Presenting above, Al Simms and Leon James, otherwise known as Al and Leon. (Forgive the video's low quality, the contents make up for it.) Two more proto-stylists whose dance and presentation style would feature large in the culture to come. If their DNA is not in the actual substance of modern pop, their hereditary stamp is certainly represented in their attitude. There's an exhuberant and impudent kind of free-style going on here, even within the confines of a form like the Charleston. But for them, the Charleston is just something to leave their footprints on as they ascend a ladder spiraling into the wild cultural future.

In this they stand beside The Treniers.

For a little more perspective: Below, dancer Bill Bailey (brother of Pearl Bailey) from a performance in 1955. Bill is credited with being the inventor of the Moonwalk, first documented in a performce from a film in 1943. What is pop culture but a pirate's enterprise?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Killing Joke: Asteroid (live)

I've a theory as to why musical tastes tend to change with age. That is, why as we scale up in age do our music choices tend to mellow down? The reason, as I've unscientifically concluded, is that as noise in our lives increases — career, marriage, mortgage, kids, etc. the less we want it in our diversions. I think this goes a long way in explaining the popularity of banalities such as Twilight and Barry Manilow. But mellowing down doesn't have to be all vanilla. Even though I'm now on the ripe side of middle age myself I can't imagine how senile I'd have to be to enjoy, say, Rod Stewart's diddling over of The Great American Songbook. Or to book passage on the next Air Supply cruise. Take the "a" and "t" from adult and you're left with dull (then add another "l"), but it doesn't have to be that way.

E.g.: Killing Joke, a relic from my post-adolescent musical formation of '78 - '81 (after that they continued without me). For those who don't know, Killing Joke is considered one of the fathers of Industrial and is an admitted influence on many bands that followed (Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Ministry, Jane's Addiction), including metal (Metallica, Tool). Interestingly, Asteroid was originally recorded during a more recent reforming when remaining original members ages were deep into pattern baldness and middle age spread. Grease-painted vocalist Jaz Coleman — already wearing a precursor of his retiree's jumpsuit became an ordained minister in 2003. (KJ songs are larded up with scriptural references.) His ordainment followed periods of dabbling in Alister Crowley and the occult. In the early 80s he convinced other band members to join him in Iceland to wait out the impending apocalypse. (That's all right, Jesus missed that call too.)
If this latter day sound is also Industrial then it's of the most wizened and vintage variety. Asteroid is repetitive and coarse, transgressive is the word reviewers used, like a buzz saw ripping through 24 gauge steel. Yet, somehow all that bash comes out remarkably hypnotic as well kinetically so, if that's possible. (That phrase may be as oxymoronic as "High-impact Yoga" but you get the idea.) What works for my ears is the intensity of the sound; I don't believe there's another sound in the universe that quite conveys what only an overdriven guitar and a vocal with that kind of force thickened rasp can. Our emotional soundtracks aren't all violins and twee singer-songwriters huddled over acoustic guitars. Killing Joke's sound is a great symbol of the working life: Coarse, repetitive, droning, and yet with a kind of stuttering rhythmic balance. Maybe it's the fact that it's a sound pounded out by guys with AARP cards (like me) that speaks so well to me. (Although, judging from audience's young faces, the sound isn't limited to an age group.)

And maybe it's the touch of humanity within. Hear the plaint in Colemen's shout; He may be singing about the world's demise but he's not quite ready yet (as none of us are ever likely to be). I'd guess he's no more ready now then he was when he ducked into the Land of Trolls.

In conclusion: The sound may travel in a clenched fist but it arrives with an open hand.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Worst Album Cover of All Time

I overstate: Actually, the above is considered only one of the worst covers of all time. An honorarium bestowed by both The Guardian (the British national daily) and Pitchfork Media (according to Wiki). The cover is from the album Noah's Ark
(2005) by the sister duo CocoRosie.

The art was created by sister Bianca Casady (the "Coco" part of the duo). As best I can tell the image appears to depict a train of three copulating unicorns, each situated in a different level of the hierarchy: A top, a sandwich, and a bottom. The sandwich appears to exude a rainbow out of its horn which could be a symbol of radiating pleasure, a migraine, or inspired contempt for the exchange (the gray/black elements near the brow could indicate a mix of feelings). The bottom has been described as "vomiting." As unicorns are often accused of farting rainbows maybe they can
blow rainbow chunks as well. Or, it may be salivating vigorously. Vomiting is consistent with a coercion scenario; salivating, on the other hand, could either be arousal or "roofies". The top seems to have dropped its pants. The dark clouds overhead support the coercion theory which also makes the use of unicorns rather unpleasant and ironic. In addition, there's an unsavory element of specieism and bigotry as the bottom appears to be the only zebra of the three.

For more contenders for worst album cover, see here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tokyo Jihen: OSCA

Perhaps not so well known in the occidental world, Tokyo Jihen (translated: Tokyo Incidents) originally formed as a backing unit for successful singer Shiina Ringo (Ringo Shena as listed in the video). It must've become apparent immediately to all involved that this was to be way more than a band of celebrity waterboys.

There has been trouble with getting this video in the U.S. before so this may not be up for long. Enjoy while you can:

Tokyo Jihen - OSCA from Roberto Kerveros on Vimeo.

Unfortunately, for some reason this brilliant video has been suddenly banned from Western eyes. I couldn't find it anywhere. So, instead a live version along with another song, KabukiOSCA is the second song:

Tokyo incidents - KABUKI,OSCA[JCB] by uooron

Thus, the member's roles expanded into song writing and production as well. (Bass player Seiji Kameda [Sage Kameda] was already a prolific producer and arranger in his own right.) And it paid off: Despite Ringo's prodigious talents and a 20+ year career as a solo artist (her solo work veers a little close toward MOR for my taste), it's her work with the band that stands out most. Note the stellar musicianship at every corner: They've the skills to be as pretty, dirty, smooth, dissonant, or with any combination thereof as the situation requires. And Ringo herself is no punk: A capable instrumentalist with a voice that's as versatile, colorful, and as searing as it wants to be. When they're on the spot, as they are here, this band can rock as hard as anybody out there.

(There's a version of the video without the dancers, but there's an insolence to the dancing I find irresistible. Maybe it's their indifference to synchronization. Or, how the dancer who begins it all with a fat slug from a flask.)

We definitely need more of this in the West.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

They're The Stooges and Not for Nothing

The term stooge implies comedy at one's own expense. The stooge is the butt of the joke. In comedic hierarchy he is the underling, the lackey. In this video capsule from 1970, the Stooge otherwise known as Iggy Pop shows himself to be the most brilliant of clowns. (Feral clown, might be the better description.) On this night he entered the stage a Stooge, but left as something else entirely.

Hallelujah! for whatever dysfunctional circumstances that came together to bring us a creature such as Iggy. Whatever else he's done in his career, for this performance alone we should all construct altars of thanksgiving in our homes. The sound, like the man himself, is raw and crude. (Primal is a descriptive often used here, primate may be a better one.) But you don't need to care one whit for the band's sound to appreciate the un-boundaried performance here. Nearly common enough to be considered banal now, it's easy to forget that once Stage diving was tactic used only by fourth wall breaking avant-gardists. Iggy may be the first to bring it out of the extreme margins and into the (small) arena. When Iggy dives here, it's more the act of a gladiator entering the death cage for his bout with the audience. The audience's response is nothing less than amazing as well (and unrepeatable, I'm sure). Watch as they lift him to stand on their hands like the laurel-crowned victor, given the rabble's blessing to go forth and slay the king. (Note that someone in the crowd offers Iggy a large jar of peanut butter (!) like a bouquet of victory flowers, to this he responds appropriately by spreading it on himself. In a stroke he becomes both hero and feast.) Like no one else Iggy breaks the boundary of the stage. This is what is meant by a Dionysian Frenzy. The actor thrown into the maw of the crowd to do with what they will: Their peanut butter-flavored fetish object. All of these antics could've easily gone completely out of control and it's Iggy's risk averse-ness that makes it so sexy; a fact of civilization that probably hasn't changed since Dionysian times. This is the stuff that Jim Morrison only dreamed about: While Morrison (whom Iggy admits as an influence) may've unzipped his pants (and was nevertheless arrested), Iggy would actually pull his out. Though many of his reported stage antics have the yellowy glow of legend (vomiting on stage, exposing himself, rolling on broken glass, striking himself with a hammer), there is enough extant photographic evidence to substantiate enough of the claims to confirm that he is indeed the genuine article.

As a recording unit, The Stooges found little success either commercially or critically. As is often the case with history-in-the-making moments, the critics were as mystified as the multitudes; it certainly wasn't for the want of a good producer (John Cale, David Bowie, and Funhouse's Don Galucci, the producer of The Louie Louie fer cryin' out loud!). As for their reputation, as this early television performance shows, the legend required no assistance from multitude or critic. As for this particular night in Cincinnati, you could say Iggy is either the model of extremely aggressive self-infatuation or the most lowly self-sabotage case study imaginable.

Whichever, I think it's an act of genius.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Blonde Redhead: Here Sometimes

I've loved this band for about 15 years, and not just because their name is a tribute to me.

Blonde Redhead is twin Milan born and Montreal raised brothers and a Japanese female who would meet and form in New York. From there the sound has evolved from New York-esque guitar rock (their debut LP was produced by Sonic Youth's drummer) to this more ethereal and relaxed, more European version. To state it chemically: Maturity has moved them down a path that's less Ecstasy and more bong loads.

See here:

Granted, this is not a singer's band. Neither of the group's two distinctive voices are particularly singerly. Still, the vocals serve well their purpose and add a necessary layer to the band's striking sound. The lyrics tend toward the abstract but reveal (if you can understand them) nuggets on closer inspection. Overall, the band is an intelligently designed organism that has thrived in the wild of nine albums and fifteen years of consistently excellent work (no small achievement). Their new album, Penny Sparkle, adds but more fruit to the canon.

4AD is offering the song as a free download so I offer it up here:

Blonde Redhead - Here Sometimes*

Hear the entire album streamed at

*Original link disabled. Even though this was a free download offered by the publisher, invisible spy-bots tracked down the link and forcibly removed the post on the erroneous grounds of "alleged to infringe."

Otherwise, find the downloadable file at this blog, or search other blogs here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nina Simone: Feelings

Yeah. That Feelings.

That once evergreen cocktail lounge cheese brick that's but
a thinly disguised reworking of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies. (The thief in this case was French composer Louis Gasté who "wrote" the melody in 1956, though he had to sue Morris Albert to get credit. It was Albert's performance of this English version that was the international hit.)  "Sentimental sewage" is how composer Richard Strauss once described the music of his peer Rachmaninoff and it'd be easy to make the same assessment here. A tune practically manufactured for a wussy, weepy warble. But in this you'd be wrong. Whatever you once believed about Feelings, cast that away; Simone's trenchant evangelism for the song  will surely shatter such naive notions. There's truth in all that cheese and she's going to tell it: It took a profound and abysmal pain to compose a song like Feelings and for this reason it deserves respect, not ridicule. A point of fact that she'll stop in mid-bar to punctuate. Don't laugh, she says and then proceeds to forget, misremember, and reimagine the song in her own words—some completely off the top of her head as you'll see. Words that push this once squishy ditty from the realms of the pathetic to the suicidal. ("I wished I never lived this long.") Eventually this leads to a little Bach-like interlude to throw a couple of rivets into the lid for closing. She finishes with a big Over the Rainbow type coda, a few last words, and then, The End.

Read the original lyrics and discover only a mere suggestion of what Simone offers here. In terms of evolution, Albert's version had barely yet crawled out of the slime.

Nina Simone was never one to back off from the cloying pop tune. Dig through her catalog (To Love Somebody, Alone Again (Naturally), Mr. Bojangles, Angel of the Morning, and on and on) and you'll note it's loaded with the stuff. For her, covering these songs was a badge of honor. For less capable talents, mining this kind of Top 40 would only diminish the fire of their better work. (Ever heard Sinatra take on Mrs. Robinson or Tie a Yellow a Ribbon?) But not for Simone: Look at the way she looks out into the audiencethrough them reallylike a Harvard professor trying to explain Moby Dick to ADD middle schoolers. She's on a mission and the message is what matters; If the audience can't receive it, well, she's only too happy to play the message just for herself.

What kind of artist could take on a sludgey, over-worn nugget like this
and raise it up to such an exalted altar? Only a genius.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Zahar with Hassan Hakmoun: Bania

Embedding has been disabled: Find the video here.

The instrument is the sintir (known also by other names), a kind of three-stringed lute kissing cousin to the banjo. (Traditional construction included a hollowed log covered with camel skin membrane and goat gut strings.) The sintir is native to the music known as Gnawa. Gnawa, as in Hassan Hakmoun's homeland of Morrocco, is a music born of African and Arabic traditions. Despite the instrument's rustic appearance it produces a sound that's remarkably funky and seems to find a nice intimacy with electric guitar (Hahn Rowe, ex- of Hugo Largo) and trap drums played full-stick. Zahar's sound is as much rock and roll as it is anything East of our Atlantic coast, a condition likely grown out of Hakmoun's residence in New York City (later, relocating to Los Angeles) and his discovery by Peter Gabriel. Hakmoun would later play with Don Cherry, Peter Gabriel, Woodstock '94, and Paula Cole (she of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" fame) as well as become her husband (now divorced).

I saw Zahar live in 1991 in Central Park.
At the time, Zahar was a part of New York's fertile downtown jazz and improv music scene (the Knitting Factory at its center), a scene with arms long enough to nurture exotic sounds from the likes of Hakmoun. Unfortunately, like any "underground" sub-culture whose natural tribe is the fanatic, there just wasn't enough of them to support Zahar's particular hybrid. The band's lifespan proved to be brief, failing to make it even into a recording studio. Though Hakmoun continues to perform today, the complete history of Zahar appears to be contained in the video above.

This performance is from the TV show Night Music. If anyone remembers, it was a musical showcase that occasionally gave unlikely artists such as Zahar a television venue. But alas, Night Music was only to last for two seasons, from 1988 to 1990, and artists like Zahar were sadly far more the exception than the norm. A
vintage-ly resplendent David Sanborn provides the introduction. (Original cohost Jools Holland would soon find greater success hosting the long running music show "Later..." in Britain.) This particular episode also included Miles Davis and Hank Ballard (of Thee Midnighters).

Integral to the city's downtown music scene were the independent record shops. Of course, they're all dead as Dada now. Even fanatics have gone the way of downloading it seems. Bleeker Bob's, of which no less than David Bowie was a customer, was probably the best known. (In an interview Bowie claimed that the titular Bob would throw on his Please Mr. Gravedigger every time he entered the store. If you've heard Gravedigger you'll understand Bowie's humiliation.)

A few neighborhoods away from my East Village apartment was my favorite music joint,
Lunch For Your Ears. The store's owner/fanatic-in-residence was Emanuel "Manny" Maris. If memory serves, Manny was as overbearingly tall, boyishly slim, and bespectacled as you'd expect a music geek to be. Perhaps it was his overbearing height that gave him the confidence to chide customers to influence their buying habits. (I'd be surprised if Manny wasn't at least a part of the inspiration for Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.) Once, I'd inquired about a disc by avante jazz singer Annette Peacock he was playing. Turned out Manny was a Peacock evangelist. I was intrigued with what I heard but the price on the imported disc was over $25. This was unfortunately way more than my emaciated music budget could allow. Instead, I decided to buy the more reasonably priced Easter from Patti Smith. Manny reacted as if he saw my musical road to Damascus moment about to be perverted by the mainstream Whore of Babylon. In his fight to hold onto a new convert, he made an impassioned plea. And like any true zealot fighting to save a wretched soul, his sermon was laced with more than a little snobbish sanctimony and righteous arrogance (though with a trice more charm than High Fidelity's Jack Black). But, I held my resolve. I walked my budget bin purchase to the register, though, not without a few pangs of guilt. Similar to the pangs I get as I close the door on a Jehovah's Witness. (Damn their sincerity!)

It reminded me of something my dad said once: If you don't want to know what I think then don't tell me about it. Because, of course, for the compulsive opinionator one can't follow without the other. That was my dad. And Manny.

Bless 'em both.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Marvin Gaye: Heavy Love Affair

Admittedly, I didn't pay much attention to Marvin Gaye's 80s output. The dilating chasm between Let's Get It On and the likes of Sexual Healing dimmed my expectations for what was possible beyond. This, unfortunately, would delay my discovery of this funky jewel buried on one the least successful albums his career, In Our Lifetime? This song also represents Gaye's atonement for much of his previous late 70s early 80s disco output. (For those not remembering, disco was an epidemic trend that few artists of the era could escape.) Heavy Love Affair is a much welcome return to funkier material. The promise indicated by the song's title is nobly fulfilled indeed. This piece nails it out of the gate: Between the suggestive muted trumpet and whistling in the opening bars, the hypnotic b.g.vocals, a bass line raised onto a funky pedestal a mile high, and Gaye's zipper-dropping falsettos, if the song doesn't pull the chastity belt from every abstinence vow within broadcast reach, well then, those belts don't deserve to come off.

As for the video, while he may only be lip-synching this point hardly seems to matter. Gaye's intensity couldn't have been more acute than if he were singing live.
(The recording was for some version of French language television. Belgium was somebody's guess.) To say the man oozes smooth class doesn't begin to do him justice: It practically squirts out of him. And to think his original hire at Motown was as a drummer.

A oner, he was.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elvis Costello with Fiona Apple: I Want You

This performance represents, I suspect, one of those rare magical and wholly unrepeatable musical moments. If you've heard Fiona Apple before I guarantee you it was nothing like this. (If you've heard the Costello I Want You original, this one is better by miles.) Apple loads her napalm-on-dry-ice stare with all the appropriate subtext of the insufficiently medicated. (Warning: May cause sphincter-flexing flashbacks for survivors of psycho-relationships.) For much of the song's seven minutes Apple sounds as if the restraint holding her voice can't possibly last. There's a bit of rage loosed here and there, teeth are bared and arms swing almost autistically for a moment, but the fragile composure returns. It's a brilliantly measured performance.

The song also offers further proof of just how good Costello's band is.
(What better way to convey fidgety insecurity than vintage sci-fi electric organ and whammy-barred guitar?) Probably one of the greatest backing bands that ever was.
I wish I'd been there.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train

North Carolina born Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (1895 - 1987) saved her wages as a child house-maid to buy her first guitar. Already self-taught on the banjo, the left-hander learned the guitar upside down (without restringing in the manner of Dick Dale) and in the process developed a characteristic picking style (later known as Cotten-picking). She would marry and raise a family and in the process stopped playing and writing songs. It'd be another 30 + years before she'd pick up the guitar again, to be discovered by Pete Seeger's parents
(the Seegers' were "a voraciously musical family") while working for them as a domestic. With their encouragement her musical career began. It'd be Pete's brother Mike who first recorded her.

Some sources claim Cotten wrote Freight Train at 11 years old in response to the train sound she heard from her bed at night. Eventually, the song would go on to become one of the best known and oft recorded songs in the American folk canon. This 1965 clip is from the television program Rainbow Quest, hosted by a recently un-blacklisted Pete Seeger (one of the heros of the House of Un-American Activities period). Cotten would've been 70 years old at the time. (She would continue to perform and record into her 80s.) Even though the show aired at the peak of the folk music revival, it ran on only seven stations and quickly ran out of money. Other guests included Johnny Cash and June Carter, Doc Watson, Odetta, Judy Collins, and Buffy Saint-Marie among others. Quite literally, in this case, the show was history in the making.

As for the song itself, it needs no other explanation. For it to be any more authentic or aching would not be humanly possible: Awe-inspiring.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Roxy Music: A Song for Europe

From 1979: Blue suits of all around, except one: The maestro himself redolent in strawberry-red leather.

Bryan Ferry may very well be the model of metrosexuality. He could be the only non-pimp on the planet capable of squiring Playmates and super models with such fruit-colored attire. The secret could only be the voice: An instrument that's somewhere between a Victrola-age crooner, soul shouter, and Theramin, as much Tiny Tim as Jackie Wilson and cabaret. (His vibrato may be one of the natural wonders of the world.) Roxy Music being the other integral part of the equation: A band that provides a jungle that might otherwise not be of the crooner's natural habitat.

Bryan Ferry's stage presence, as you'll see here, is charmingly awkward. His facial contortions are unselfconsciously and unashamedly nerd-like. You could say he owns his ungainliness, makes it sexy even. (There's a lesson in there for all of us.) Forging it all together — band, voice, and songs — the end result is a weapons grade alloy that's mysteriously cool.

Below, a version from 2001:

This version, with subtitled lyrics including the Latin (!) and French bits at the end, is from their tour following a break of 18 years. The stage band here is expanded (as are the individual members, cough cough): Now, long coats all around. Ferry's voice is changed but no less an instrument. Whatever he's lost in range he's made up with depth and percision. Roxy Music, and even Ferry on his own, are one of the few acts of the rock music age who made the transition from young quirky innovators to wizened Lite FM mainstream without any apparent loss of dignity. I mention dignity often here (see Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey below) because I think it's important. Dignity for the artist is simply an outcome of remaining true to your vision and keeping it constantly directed forward. Neither of the bands in the videos above have much in common with the band it was in 1971, the long coats tell us that. But even as change is inevitable, it's also an opportunity. For this band, clearly, it was an opportunity fully capitalized.

For any artist who might harbor ambitions of keeping their dignity intact over the long haul: You could a learn a lot from these guys.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Even Brel-ier than Before: Amsterdam

Until recently, like most of the hegemonic English-speaking world, I too was mostly ignorant of Jacques Brel. What a shame.

For those of us in living in the land of the
Freedom Fries, we really don't have a proper cultural equivalent for the likes of Brel. Unlike many of his contemporaries at the time whose careers also came of age in the rock and roll era, Brel remained strangely inert from it. Perhaps it was the French in him. (More precisely, the Belgium-born, self-described "francophone Fleming" who spent most of his life in Paris in him.) The French never really got rock and roll anyway.

Sure, I'd heard Sinatra and Neil Diamond take their stabs at Brel (
If You Go Away), and Bowie's take on Amsterdam (from a Mort Shuman's translation and a Dave Van Ronk arrangement). But now, through the grace of YouTube, to hear these songs in the master's voice, and face, is a another experience altogether. There's nothing in the covers that could prepare you for the originals.

The lyric of
Amsterdam entails a mash-up of life's many tragedies described through the milieu of sailors on shore leave. There's no Tin Pan Alley in this Amsterdam, unless the Alley reached all the way to the Wiemar Republic and Bertolt Brecht. Brel's style as a performer is as much facial as it is vocal; his expressions, gestures and gesticulations, the whipping head shakes and Uzi-like rolls of the tongue, and the labial twisting in his French — and how theatrical are those teeth! — create a singular synergy that makes these performances so extraordinary. And then there's the way the song sneaks into its crescendo, almost unnoticeable, until he's nearly screaming at the end. This isn't "song styling" like you might expect from other singers: Not just new skin on an old nag, this. Instead, Brel's strikes are more surgical. Watch this and wonder if there are any singers, alive or dead (Brel passed in 1978), who might conjure more song out of their face than him? I don't think so. (His years spent on the cabaret stage were not for nothing.)

I chose this version for the English subtitles. The performance stands with or without the story, but the story adds even more gleam to the song's razor edge. (Appreciation to the translator for adding the double entendres.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Leadbelly via James Booker via Dr. John: Goodnight Irene

If the above is unavailable here's an alternate version, from a live performance with an audience but no realtime image:

This performance by Dr. John — AKA Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr. — is from 1998's Doc's Homespun Video, a series of so-called instructional videos of the master taking on various New Orleans piano styles. (Most likely what you'll learn, standing in the master's dust, is the breadth of the yawning chasm between tutor and tutee.) If you've heard versions of "Goodnight Irene" more faithful to Leadbelly's original (e.g. the more popularly known version by The Weavers), then you'll notice that none of them sound like this; Dr. John based his take on an arrangement from another Crescent City piano legend, James Booker. Booker pried off the song's original waltz rhythm and jackhammered in it's place a heavy-gauged galloping shuffle. As good as Booker's version is (check it here,, and it is good, it's but a welter in the ring next to this heavyweight.

Dr. J's piano burns like a
Coupe DeVille sized jalapeña. It's clear his pounding left hand wants to make maracas out of your breast bone. The fact that the same left nearly also drowns out the filligrees of the right hand (evidence of Booker's affections for both Erroll Garner and Liberace) is a tribute to the passions of the lyric: The beat rocks like a moonlit back seat rendezvous.The song itself is a curiosity. Originally published in 1896 by an African American songwriter named Gussie Lord Davis, recorded and reworked in 1932 by Huddie "Lead Belly" Leadbetter. As a young man Pete Seeger had met Lead Belly and would be much influenced by him. As a member of The Weavers Seeger would bring "Goodnight Irene" to the masses in 1950 (six months after Lead Belly's death), but not before making a few family-friendly lyrical changes. Among them were the dropping of a verse on taking morphine and changing the chorus from "I'll get you in my dreams" to "I'll see you in my dreams." (Lead Belly claimed his "Irene" was inspired by a 16 year old girl; Cuddly lefty Seeger would choose to keep those dreams a mite, er, drier.)

Certainly, from the Great American Songbook "Goodnight Irene" stands as one of the best. Out of the hands of two of our era's greatest pianists, the teenage minx who may've haunted one man's fevered dreams lives on as a Queen of the Ages.