Thursday, July 29, 2010

Even Brel-ier than Before: Amsterdam

Until recently, like most of the hegemonic English-speaking world I too was 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! — all contribute to a 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.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jacques Brel: Ne Me Quitte Pas (1962)

Nineteen fifty-nine was the year Jacques Brel, the Belgium born chansonnier (singer-songwriter), composed this brilliant and pathetic paean to the emasculated-in-love male. Since, it has been recorded by legions of singers (never heard this karaoke'd but I shudder to think) and translated into just about every known tongue but Klingon. And deservedly so: In the world of popular song, this chestnut has few betters. About the song Wikipedia has this to say: "Ne me quitte pas was written after Brel was thrown out of Zizou's (Suzanne Gabriello - his mistress at the time) life after casting shame and sadness upon her. Zizou was pregnant with Brel's child and had an abortion after Brel refused fatherhood." It is considered by some as 'Brel's ultimate classic'. He would later say in an interview that the song is not a love song, but rather a song about the cowardice of men." This version, by the maestro himself, is both deeply moving and wonderfully creepy. Watch as his face describes the heart-wrenching tale of the jilted lover begging the jilt of his desire in circular, plaintive bleats (don't leave!) This, people, is the song selling art at its finest. (Let's see you squeeze that kind of juice from of any of your winners of American Idol or The Voice!) In a project to translate Brel's work, Rod McKuen wrote a slightly different take of the story with If You Go Away. This version, while no less worthy, is the one that's probably better known. Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Brenda Lee, and others have all taken worthy passes at it. But in the end these singers are only pretenders: None, in my estimation, have captured the song's scaling depths of depravity and mountainous peaks of despair quite as effectively as the maestro himself. See the French lyrics alongside their English translation here. I’ll weep no more/I’ll speak no more/I’ll hide right here, to look at you/dance and smile, to/listen to you/sing/and then laugh... Let me become/the shadow/of your shadow, the shadow of your hand/the shadow of your dog, but/don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! "The shadow of your dog." Beautiful.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Love, it's the opposite of power."
Howard Devoto,
Via Sacra

Thursday, July 15, 2010

James Brown: Mother Popcorn (1969)

Good gawd y'all: The voice, yelps, feet, and band that make up the Frankenstein monster Godfather of funk and soul. If there's a better word in our language to describe the man than Motherf**ker! please tell me. I can't think of one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nick Cave & PJ Harvey: Henry Lee

I love the whole "I'd kiss you but I'd rather see myself sing" vibe of this. Harvey and Cave may represent the unorthodox wing of rock star physical hottness, but it's hotness nonetheless. (I'd take these two over any of our present crop of on-screen vampires and their obsequious mates anyday.)

Harvey and Cave also represent that rare breed of pop musician: Those of career longevity. To put that in American Idol years, they've had the half-life of uranium. (Cave formed The Birthday Party, his first band, in 1973. Harvey joined her first band with John Parish in 1987.) Both have survived in an industry not known for rewarding age and both have done it with grace and their integrity intact. Both have grown and adjusted their music appropriately with their ripening age. (Cave's latest, "Dig!!! Lazurus Dig!!!" is on par with the best work of his career and that's no small achievement. Harvey has produced a deep canon with nary a lemon yet.)

Perhaps calling this breed rare doesn't begin to give justice to the truth of it. Try making your own list of dignified musical survivors (still recording) and see if your list can surpass the fingers on one hand.
If you can, let me know and let's discuss. (For my own list I'd have Cave and Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and then the well dries up fast. I'll have to spend some time with this.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bettye LaVette: Love Rain O'er Me

Here's a display of understated power unlike anything you'll ever see on American Idol (not exactly a safe house for understatement). All from a Metamucil-aged granny who could otherwise
be watching reruns of Sanford & Son
under an afghan at home ... if she weren't so goddam cool! Watch as Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend shake their heads in disbelief (and that may be a tear in Townsend's eye, there was in mine).

And, yes, in fact old people DO rule!

Stevie Wonder: Superstition (live)

I always loved Stevie, but I'm really lovin' him now. Dig this: Stevie on Sesame Street. That's right. Sesame Street. Doing a nearly seven minute version of Superstition without muppet interventions. And it's clear he's lovin' the whole fuzzy vibe; hear his shout outs to the "Street" in the song's latter third. (And take note of the kid feelin' it at the top of the stairs.)

Seven minutes of live Stevie Wonder on any program, much less one for children, is unconscionable by today's standards of American broadcasting. But back in 1972 (from whence this appearance came), thankfully, such was not the case.

Props to the blog Industry Shakedown for the tip.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Nina Hagen: Naturträne

Nina Hagen: She of the monster voice, rubber face, and a beauty all her own. You have to wonder if that voice could exist without the mad poached-egg eyes and the mouth conceivably capable of holding a jet engine. But then, everything about her is outsized. (And very German too, and I mean that in the best possible way). As a singer her currency is the radical mix: the grand gesture with the Grand Guignol, the classical with the animal, the sacred with the profane, and all filtered through the technical burlesque of that voice. As a personality she is equally garish, flamboyant, and loud, and yet there's an undeniable delicacy in her too. She manages to radiate humanity and vulnerability no matter what voice she's using or what disguise she's in. (Compare this to Diamanda [below] whose talent seems to serve an entirely different master. Nina is a mom; Diamanda is, god forbid, not. Maybe the answer is in there, somewhere.) As Naturträne demonstrates, Nina has no wanting for technique, but she isn't limited by it either: She could use it or not, depending on how it might best serve her particular vision. That she doesn't need to put it on display in everything she does is a rare quality indeed.

And despite all that, for me anyway, Hagen's career never quite found the right vehicles for her talent. (Imagine her voice as animated character! She's practically one already.) Maybe it was as simple as never having found the right support in a producer, arranger, or musicians. Her records seem far too conventional for her vision and more than a little naive.
(Admittedly, Americans like me tend to find foreign [save for the British] rock and roll naive in general.) Her sleepwalking covers of 60s American bubblegum hits are an example. Imagine her voice with a band of suitable peers capable of making her prodigiousness soar: Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Brian Eno, (early) Roxy Music, John Zorn, Philip Glass, Elliott Sharp, Polysics... John Paul Jones, even. (Insert your preference here.)

Explore YouTube and you'll find her more recent work includes standard big band arrangements of jazz-age evergreens. While her versions are respectable, if unexceptional, the arrangements seem to corset her. (Check the audience: The mystified looks on their faces are a giveaway that she may be fluttering way above their heads.) She just might be the best interpreter of Brecht/Weill ever if she weren't playing so nice for the posh theater crowd. (If only she could give her Brecht more Vile, as the old joke goes...) Note her video versions of "Surbaya Johnny" and "Alabama Song," you keep hoping for Mad Nina to appear but, alas, she never
does. ("Alabama Song" could be Nina after electroshock treatment. Or too heavy a dose of Prozac.)

Despite this, watch the video above and see if you too don't fall in love with her. Whatever her output, her gifts and charms are undeniable. Maybe it's the combination of the emotional intimacy with a fair dose of sexual abandon, the domineering and the demure, and that bucketful of vulnerability. It's a generous performance.

Diamanda Galás: Skótoseme (live 1994)

Diamanda Galás & John Paul Jones on John Stewart's show: A mash-up of Yoko Ono, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Tuvan throat singing (on helium), opera, tree monkeys, Fran Dreiser, Nina Hagen, and various kitchen appliances all brought back to earth with a weapons-grade John Paul Jones groove: What more could anyone want?