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 npr.org.

*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.