Originated in a response to a post on Taegan Goddard's terrific Political Wire.
A few by my hero, Ross Thomas (public relations specialist, reporter, union spokesman, political consultant, eventually author of political thrillers: Wikipedia entry here):
The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967): fantastic novel, told from the perspective of an ex-reporter-turned-political-writer, who accompanies Democratic political consultant and New Orleans Creole Clinton Shartelle to a thinly-disguised Nigeria, where they are to honcho the election campaign of a candidate in the newly-independent nation's first elections. Fantastically cynical, very well-informed, Shartelle is the coolest political operative ever, and it turns out he's an ex-Wobbly.
The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970): protagonist gets out of a Hong Kong jail after having been imprisoned without trial on a failed espionage charge and is recruited by a group of sociopathic political operatives who have been hired to so-far-destroy the infrastructure of an anonymous Mason-Dixon Line ciity (OK City, maybe) that the voters will hire the same sociopaths to build a political machine. Story cuts back-and-forth between this plot and the protagonist's recollections of growing up, the orphaned son of a Protestant Missionary, in a Shanghai whorehouse just after the Japanese occupation.
The Porkchoppers (1972): Very dark and pessimistic account of a campaign for union presidency between a very-long-in-office alcoholic president (and failed actor) and his psychopathic challenger. Wonderful collection of misfits and crippled personalities running the campaigns on each side.
Missionary Stew (1983): This, with "Seersucker Whipsaw", is my favorite Ross Thomas. Morgan Citron, a travel writer, is releaseed from a Central African (maybe Angolan?) dungeon by Amnesty International shortly after having discovered he may have unwittingly participated in cannibalism (when he and his cellmates were fed a stew of "mystery meat"). He is hired by the campaign fundraiser of a young, Jerry Brown-style California governor-elect, to follow up on rumors of a "private war" fought in a Central African republic, when agents of two different USA covert agencies mistakenly shot it out with each other over a failed drug deal.
This are only a few. Equally great are "Ah! Treachery" and "Twilight at Matt's Place", both starring Thomas's recurrent hero-duo of saloon owner Mac McCorkle and his partner, the ex-OSS assassin Michael Padillo, and the series of novels starring his con-men-with-a-heart-of-gold, Artie Wu (the Pretender to the throne of China) and Quincy Durant (who carries scars on his back from torture in a Cambodian prison): "Chinaman's Chance" (sleazeball Southern California politics), "Out on the Rim" (fantastic double-double-cross plot attempting to bribe an overage Filipino guerrila out of the hills and thus reinstate the Marcos regime), and "Voodoo Ltd" (more California skullduggery).
Thomas made his first authorial success writing Westerns and crime potboilers (not unlike another great American political writer, Elmore Leonard), but the best of his stuff is cynical, very well informed about Washington's nefariousness (hints that he had info on CIA misadventures around the world, including both El Salvador and the Kennedy assassination), and hilarious to boot.
My top four, and the first four I'd recommend, would be "Whipsaw," "Missionary Stew," (for their locales and colorful major and minor characters), and "Treachery" and "Out on the Rim" (for the great antiheros Edd Partain, and Wu/Durant).
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Originated in a response to a post on Taegan Goddard's terrific Political Wire.
Posted by CJS at 5:09 PM
...than I said he was.
"I believe it will become clear that this investigation was inspired by partisan divisions."Tomlinson's response after being named in an investigation for having, get this, run a horse-racing operation out of his office.
Jeezus! Maybe public radio should make book instead of doing fund-raising! All the Repugnicans are doin' it!
Posted by CJS at 4:31 PM
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Don't insult my intelligence, Don.
Posted by CJS at 9:29 PM
Monday, August 28, 2006
Of course, you knew that already, but perhaps you hadn't run across this priceless morsel: Seaneen taking aim at higher education:
Kids are indoctrinated. They’re a captive audience. What can be done to remove these professors with these radical ideas from campus?You're right, Sean. They're indoctrinated--before they ever get to college--with mom 'n' dad's and the mass media's and Paris Hilton's and Nick Lachey's and their religious-leader-of-choice's and their peer group's and their sports team's and their MySpace Friends' and the "Kool Kidz's" and their sports coaches' and their band director's idea of what's important.
And they are a captive audience: mom 'n' dad are shelling out a helluva lot of money (which they can probably afford much less than you, pipsqueak) for us to jam as much ability-to-function-in-the-world into their little darlings, many of whom have been kept remarkably childish and naive about that world. And mom 'n' dad damned sure want their money's worth, as they are never tired of telling us.
Our job as college educators--and this is what you really hate us for--is in fact to remove the indoctrination: to remove the "teaching to the test" and the "infinite do-overs" and the "I blew off all the exams--what extra credit work can I do to make an A" and the "but you have to pass me or I won't get Med School" (and do you want a kid with this poor a sense of discipline operating on you?!?) and the "my fifth grandmother died" and the "my alarm didn't go off" and the "my parents booked the plane tickets for me to come home on Thanksgiving and my flight leaves 8 days beforehand" and the "but I didn't kknow that plagiarism was wrong" and the "all fags are evil" and the "all Muslims are terrorists" and the "I've never met anybody homosexual--they'd gross me out" et cetera ad nauseum.
Our job is to remove all that. Our job is to say, as the great Zen teacher Suzuku Roshi said:
"Think for yourself."
And you guys hate that--because if we reach a whole nation of young adults who truly do think for themselves, you fuckers are going to jail, the poorhouse, and the unemployment office. Have a nice time!
We will win.
Posted by CJS at 2:19 PM
Saturday, August 26, 2006
There’s a term in Sufi theology which I’ve used in a past post: the fakir, the “God-intoxicated man,” the man who is so drunk with the beauty and mystery of God’s love that he has stepped outside the conventions of polite and prosaic reality. Shams-i-Tabriz, the wandering mystic who was Jellaludin Rumi’s muse and “spiritual friend,” and who was eventually murdered by followers of Rumi jealous of Shams’s influence over him, was one of these; Saint Francis of Assisi, who tore off his clothes, giving them to the poor, and ran through the streets of Florence singing (and who may have encountered Sufis during an imprisonment in Syria); Hildegard of Bingen, who in the midst of hallucinatory migraine experiences heard the songs of God, and who transformed medieval conceptions of Woman’s capacities; and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the endlessly-difficult, infinitely-compassionate holder of the Nyingma “Crazy Wisdom” lineage who would throw himself off staircases to test his students’ readiness.
I’ve never seen him jump off a staircase or run naked through the streets, but I believe that Robin Williamson would do that, and things yet crazier, if he thought they would lead to poetry. Born in Scotland during World War II, and growing up, as he says on this record, “in the knee-high 1940s, and the waist-high 1950s,” Williamson was, with partners Clive Palmer and Mike Heron, part of the Edinburgh fringe of the great Skiffle craze, when British youngsters heard the earliest folk recordings from the American folk revival and created their own, slightly-bent, version of that American folk music. It was music heard at one and performed at two removes: first, removal from the rural and southern American contexts in which it originated and filtered through the urban college white-bread sensibilities of Tom Rush, Bob Dylan, and others; second, removed across the ocean and seen as infinitely more exotic by scruffy British Sixth-Formers.
By 1966 they had morphed, with the first faint whiffs of psychedelia, into the proto-hippie ensemble Incredible String Band, who over a series of whimsically-titled albums (Wee Tam and the Big Huge, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Be Glad for the Song has No Ending), and with a cast of equally-whimsically-monikered associates (chiefly girlfriends-in-waiting Licorice and Rose), worked out a relatively acoustic and global-music-oriented approach to psychedelia. They were sort of impossibly inconsistent, capable one moment of transcendence and the next of noodly banality, but you could never fault their commitment or the breadth of their collective imagination. And it was a different time, when things which in hindsight seem pretty damned airy-fairy felt deeply personal, expressive, and, yes, courageous—at least, from within the experience. They played a huge wealth of instruments, sometimes with more enthusiasm than expertise, and blithely experimented with a huge range of writing, playing, and singing techniques (people mostly either love or hate Williamson’s quasi-Islamic-inflected singing, for example).
They split up in ’74, with Heron going off to try his hand at prog-rock, and Robin formed a San Francisco-based group he called his Merry Band, using harp, guitar/bouzouki, fiddle, and his own guitar/whistles/hammered-dulcimer/kitchen sink. And it’s here, in my opinion, that his writing really came into its own, most notably on the astonishing A Glint at the Kindling (a quote from Yeats).
That’s probably roughly the same time that my old friend Kevin Skorupa met him. Kevin, who’d grown up in a Polish family in Jersey, had encountered Williamson’s music some time in the early ‘70s, pre-Merry Band, and had struck up a correspondence with him (how many Polish teenagers from Jersey did Williamson have in his fan base, after all?). It was under Williamson’s influence that Kevin acquired a Sobell cittern and had started playing and singing traditional music. When I met him, through my brother-in-music Larry Young, Kevin was playing music in the subways of
You wouldn’t know it to listen to the (now-multiple) MTV generations, but “originality” is not equal to “different from everyone else.” Watch MTV-U (voluntarily or involuntarily), and you see a bunch of weedy kids who are trying so desperately to be “original” that they all wind up sounding the same. You can so admire and study a musician that you take on bits of his or her verbal, facial, or physical characteristics: Bird tried to borrow not only Lester Young’s style but also his vocal mannerisms (though he couldn’t really pull it off), David Papezian borrowed fiddler James Kelly’s characteristics, Dharmonia can tell when I’m talking overseas to Ireland on the phone. And almost all of us, if we sing, sing like our heroes. Kevin had studied Williamson’s music, he was so much an admirer, Williamson had been such an important mentor, that Kevin really could cop his style. Even when we spoke on the phone, though he retained the
As for Williamson, he truly is a true god-intoxicated man, deeply influenced by the really-very-weird but compelling poetics of the great (and loony) Robert Graves, author of both I, Claudius (a fantastic historical novel), and the endlessly-abstruse-yet-engrossing The White Goddess, the latter, in Graves’s own words, “a historical grammar of poetic myth.” What Graves did in this book—composed, he claimed, in a weeks-long poetic trance—is to weave together a wealth of at-that-time-unexamined information about pre-Christian Celtic society (poetic and nature languages, symbolism, and magic concepts), about the working poet’s own psychological processes, and the “secret history” of nature worship in the post-Christian era. It sounds insanely disorganized—and it is pretty darned idiosyncratic—and its scholarship is pretty much non-existent. But as a piece of poetic myth-making, as opposed to myth analysis, it is masterful, and deeply engrossing.
Glint at the Kindling is full of Williamson’s own Gravesian approaches to ballad and lyric poetry, and it’s absolutely masterful. There is beautiful instrumental music (the Boyhood of Henry Morgan/Pooka set), much of it featuring the great harpist Sylvia woods (The Road the Gypsies Go), beautiful (and often very sad) lyric song (By Weary Well and Me and the Mad Girl), hilarious and rueful (Lough Foyle, to the tune of “Nancy’s Whiskey,” detailing his less-than-successful experience as a 14-year-old Army cadet in Ireland) or evocative personal autobiography (the wonderful reminiscence The Road the Gypsies Go), direct citations of The White Goddess (Williamson’s magnificent setting of Graves’s tree poetry in The Woodcutter’s Song), the epic poetic history of Britain Five Denials on Merlin’s Grave (a 20-mnute tour-de-force, which takes its title from the quintuple refrain “And I…will not…forget”), and, closest to my own heart, the grinning night-time winkery of The Poacher’s Song, which opens
“Wake up Jamey, strike a light
For while you were lying sleeping,
I’ve been up the water-side
All with the gaff and the lantern
But the bailiff he’s a restless man
And terrible light in sleeping
His dogs did bark, his guns did bang
Damn, but he had me running.”
It’s a piece of poetry-and-music which, in its grit, texture, sly peasant humor, and magnificent tune, epitomizes the success of Williamson’s goal of “writing new music within the tradition.”
I first saw Williamson when he split a bill with
Williamson came out after the intermission and sang one song played one harp tune, one whistle tune, and one pipes tune, and then told a 45-minute story (The Fisherman’s Son and the Gruagach of Tricks, I think), accompanied only by his own diatonic harp. And he held that audience in the palm of his hand. I had never seen a performer so totally, confidently, and mystically transfix an audience. But I believe because his music was offered in service to something bigger than himself.
Typically the reaction to a fakir by prosaic society is mystification, intimidation, or contempt. And, at some level, in the shadow world of Samsara in which we live and strive to reconnect with the divine, that makes sense: the fakir is not only not “playing with a full deck”—he’s playing with a different deck.
The story is that it was in heartbreak over the loss of his “spiritual friend” that Rumi began the outpouring of improvised lyric poetry—of spiritual loss, longing, and desire—that led to his staggering, forty-thousand-verse Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i (the “Book of Shams of Tabriz”) and made him one of the greatest mystic poets of any time and any place. He is said to have left his home in
Robin Williamson taught me that.[And can I get a shout-out-in-the-comments for "100 Greats" post NUMBER FIFTY! It's taken more'n 50 days, but, shit, we're halfway there!]
Originated in a comment over at B*:
I should provide a disclaimer that I'm male, Anglo, and recently-tenured, so my perspective may be only marginally useful--so salt to taste.
My feeling is that the student behaved in a socially-awkward (read "challenged") way but not in a fashion that was inherently, intentionally, or necessarily disrespectful. In fact I agree with you that as professors and mentors we *do* need to maintain a certain mode of discourse with our students.
However, my experience and observation suggest that "setting boundaries" is *much* more effectively-accomplished by *modeling* the behavior you want to elicit. In other words, with students--of any level or age--it is both more effective--and will be perceived as less dictatorial and defensive--if you *show* them how you want them to behave, rather than *tell* them how they must behave.
Case in point. In the classroom, I am always careful to introduce graduate teaching assistants to the undergraduate students as "Mr X" and "Ms Y." These TA's may be only a year or two older than the UGs, may be in the same program or classses with the UGs, and may in fact be personal friends with said UGs. Nevertheless, in the classroom I model the "Mr X" and "Ms Y" construction. And the UGs, who are at least as immature and as intuitive as house-training puppies, *see* this modeled mode of discourse, and use it very consistently thenceforth, without my ever having to *tell* them that they must.
Similarly, though I encourage my teaching assistants to call me by my first name outside of lectures, none of them do: they all (so far) prefer to use the "Dr S---" figuration. Some of these are students who I play music with, or have socialized with. We hug each other after a semester break, inquire after one another's significant others', and not infrequently share discreet snark about institutional hassles (though NEVER EVER about my colleagues). But they still *feel more comfortable* with the "Dr S---" construction. I have to assume that this is because they have understood the mode of discourse that has been modeled for them.
How does this apply to the social anecdote you described (if it does)? Well, in a situation like that, I might have met the "Hey girls!" (or "Hey boys!") query with a pause, a thoughtful look, and then a reference using appropriate discourse to my colleagues present at the table; e.g.,:
"Well, Dr X [indicate one present colleague] and Dr Y [indicate another present colleague] and I are planning to [go to dinner, visit some local sights, etc--but expressed *unspecifically*]. What are *you* planning to do?"
At that point, if the student wants to join the party, s/he'd have to ask. Which provides you the opportunity to say "Well, my colleagues and I really just preferred to spend this time with one another. But I'd be happy to 'visit with you' [as we say in Texas] at another time. Have a pleasant evening!"
This, to me, sends the message and models the appropriate discourse--whereas getting up and walking away from the table could, potentially, be confusing. Or make you seem defensive. Or tight-assed. Or all three.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Read the whole thing: Cesca's reaction to the claim that Bubble Boy has read 60 books this year:
President Bush is currently responsible for two ground wars; a crisis in Israel and Lebanon; a midterm election; a sagging housing market; the upcoming hurricane season; a laundry list of scandals; an on-going attempt to avoid coming off like a retarded frat-boy bully; and the day-to-day struggle to basically run the nation -- that is, pretend to run the nation. Looking back on 2006, he's faced numerous other critical events at home and abroad including gas prices, immigration, the Dubai ports deal, the Plame investigation, and his vice president shooting a lawyer in the face.I don't believe it either.
Posted by CJS at 7:54 PM
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
My medieval band has done some recording at a little church called St Bridget's, built by German carpenters and Irish stonemasons, in the midst of the corn fields of central
It must have been that hot and dusty—and magical—when piper Tim Britton, button accordion player Paddy O Brien, and singer/guitarist Pat Egan convened at a de-sacralized church in Bensonport Iowa (the photo inside the disc reveals it to be virtually identical to St Bridget’s), to record this disc. Timmy is one of the great young American pipers (now building pipes as well), and an incredibly deep musician, playing in the stately, deliberate, “classical” style of Séamus Ennis and Liam O Flynn. Pat’s a fine singer, featured singing the heartbreaking Kilkelly on the classic live disc Music from Matt Molloy’s, and a stalwart of the legendary (or notorious) McGurk’s Irish Pub in St Louis. And Paddy O Brien of Offaly—the second great “Paddy O Brien” playing button accordion, distinguished as “Paddy-with-a-pulse” from the earlier Paddy O Brien of Co. Tipperary—is one of the greatest repositories of tunes and their lore alive in the music. An early devotee of radio and of recordings, Paddy has an astonishing data-base of a mind: he can recall tunes, variants, titles, sources, original comments, and the circumstances in which he first got his tunes. For the past 45 years he’s made it his mission to associate with the old musicians and preserve their music—which came to one initial fruition with the 1994 publication of The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection: A Personal Treasury of Irish Jigs and Reels, a collection of 500 tunes-on-tape—to save them.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Paddy in the Catskills in 1999, just after (I later discovered) he’d had an emergency triple bypass (that was also the year I met Joe “Banjo” Burke, and James Kelly, and Billy McComiskey, and Gearoid O hAllmhurain, all of them important in my later life—in fact, Gearoid wrote one of my tenure letters). So he was pretty frail, but his dedication to the music, and his memory, were unshakeable. I asked him about the tune collection, and he said that, when he’d been recording, he’d sit at his kitchen table, and get a tune on tape, and say to himself, “that’s another one safe.”
Paddy was pretty retiring that year, teaching his classes, spending time by himself, and going to bed early. But a few of us sought him out, and one night we were playing with him, when the little session in the Blackthorn Hotel and Ranch (no, I’m not making that up) was invaded by all the other faculty: Gearoid, Mary Bergin, the late Tony Cuffe, Don Meade, and others, who said “we’ve come to find you in your lair.”
They played all night long, and the few others of us there mostly sat like mice, playing the few we knew, just glad to be present.
Listening to this record is like listening in on that private a musical conversation. Barefoot is just the three of them, Timmy strapped into the pipes and seated on the altar (and with the on/off switch for the recorder under his stocking foot), Pat and Paddy seated down below. As Timmy puts it in his wonderful, evocative notes:
Outside, bees buzzed, birds sang and fireflies danced late into the night. Inside,seated barefoot on the altar to minimize the reverberation of our foot stomping, we played the old tunes.
This record sounds warm: it sounds like a conversation between old friends, with the shades of all the musicians who came before peering over the players' shoulders and nodding in appreciation. The pipes and box are an unexpected combination, very seldom employed in trad music, but in Timmy and Paddy’s hands they turn out to be enormously expressive. From the very opener, when we hear Tim’s voice counting us in “1…2….3…4” into Tobin’s Favorite / WillyClancy’s / Paddy
There are fantastic sets combining contrasting tune types, like the one that begins with an air version of one of the many nameless tunes, supplied by Paddy and authored by Galway’s Paddy Fahy (flute and box), into a beautiful, unusual 2-part version of The Butterfly (a tune that, because it was played dead-slow on one of the Bothy Band records, has been learned, and played badly, by about 4 generations of beginners) and segues seamlessly into the chugging mid-tempo East Galway reel The Mountain Top, and then in the last 8 bars Timmy, who has been playing while strapped into the pipes, drops out on flute, and at the downbeat of the final tune, the fantastic The Boys on the Hilltop, roars back in on the pipes. It’s a moment to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
There are wonderful vocal performances too, particularly on Pat’s version of the classic rebellion song The Foggy Dew, which gets at the sadness and hopelessness behind the text’s apparent assertions of revolt; wonderful tunes sourced from the old masters—Scully Casey, Micho Russell, Joe Cooley, Padraig O Keefe—and a full helping of Paddy’s own idiosyncratice settings. There are fantastic solo pieces, most notably Timmy’s titanic version of the Napoleonic air Wounded Hussar, followed by Slieve Russell and an absolutely earthshaking performance—maybe the greatest I’ve ever heard—of the “big jig” Humours of Ballyloughlin, of which my old friend Roger said “I almost drove off the road, hearing that.” There’s an equally magnificent solo set for Paddy, which begins with his version of Jefferson’s March, a tune he found in a Monticello manuscript, and then slips beautifully into the classic Sliabh Luachra slide The Star Above the Garter (surely one of the most beautiful—and sexiest—tune titles), and finally into one of the many tunes Paddy, and so many others, got from the great Johnny O’Leary.
This is one great, deep recording.
The second CD by the same trio, Down the Back Lane, might lack just a hint of the first disc’s sense of intimacy and discovery, but its maturity, sensitivity, and quiet authority are even stronger. And it also has Pat’s magnificent Lough Melvin’s Shore, which in its sweetest and sadness epitomizes his strengths as a singer. It’s matched by the intensity of Tim’s Lament for Terrence McDonagh on whistle, which segues into Paddy’s remarkable original tune March of the Jacobites, an absolutely fantastic tunes and one of my favorites in all the world.
One of my own treasured possessions is a recording that I own, of that night in the Catskills in 1999, before the others showed up, when it was just myself, and Ken Fleming, and Paddy himself, frail and tired after his recent bypass, when he went into this tune, which I’d never heard—and I got to play on it.
As Paddy would have put it, Barefoot On The Altar saved a few more.
Thanks, lads. Go raibh mile maith agat.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
From Chinaman's Chance, a wonderfully cynical political thriller about California city politics:
Liberals, in her opinion, were the kind of people who'd work for Exxon during the day and then sneak off to stuff envelopes for Common Cause during the night. Liberals were the kind of people who'd file into the corporate concentration camps wearing buttons that said 'we MEANT well'.I couldn't ever call myself a liberal, because I know that somewhere Ross would be laughing at me.
Monday, August 21, 2006
Growing up in the
So the folk clubs, and my revered first guitar teacher Dory Latta, who took me on when I was 10, more-or-less saved my musical life. The coffeehouses I’ve written about, and I’ve thanked Dory elsewhere, but this time I want to talk about a source I didn’t discover ‘til later.
I heard the great bluesman Paul Rishell at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in
A little later on, when I had moved back from
But I also wanted to learn to play the blues, the real electric blues, which lived a long, long away the suburbs. I’d heard the real shit in the clubs on the South Side of Chicago during my brief, angry UC career, and I’d worked at it in Texas (the first time), but when I found myself back in my own home-town, 3 years after I’d left at age 17, I had a clearer sense of just how much of a musical desert it was. And I wanted to learn to play the blues (this is just weeks before Larry and I wandered into the Guitar Workshop and found Dharmonia and all the others).
So sometimes I’d stay in town, and make my way from Harvard to
In the early ‘80s, in
I did get to hear Rishell a bunch of times, playing on the electric side of things. And I certainly had to acknowledge that he was a great player and singer. But it wasn’t ‘til I heard this record that I realized not only how great he was, but how expressive he was and how moved I was by his music.
Partly it’s Annie, who’s a good singer (great harmony singer) and a house-on-fire Little Walter-style harp player: there’s a great interaction between all voices: his National-steel and her harps, his voice and hers, but really it’s, I think, because I grew up—and maybe he did too. He’s only about 9 years older than me, but he sounds ageless (he looked ageless at 27, too). There’s a magnificent version of John Henry and another of JB Lenoir’s Mama Talk to Your Daughter, hard-rockin’ versions of Step It Up and Go and my favorite 8-bar blues, Keys to the Highway, and some great original tunes too.
But the one that really slew me, the one that finally turned the key in my brain and helped me understand how great and how powerful this music was—the way it could heal you—is their version of the old gospel spiritual I Shall Not Be Moved.
It’s played at a really-quite-slow pace, just Rishell’s National fingerpicking, and Annie’s sittin’-round-the-campfire harp, and Paul’s lead vocal and tapping foot. But it’s so naked, and so simple, and so understated, and so certain, that it doesn’t matter if you’re a a person of faith or not: you listen to this recording, and you believe. I’d put this record up there with those of Blind Willie Johnson and Son House—two other bluesmen who understood that it’s the sinners, not the “do-right" people, who need the saving. And the faith.
I finally got it. I’m glad that Rishell, and Annie, and their blues—and the music of all the bluesmen that went into theirs—were willing to wait for me to catch up.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
These recordings make growing old seem bearable.
I first heard Planxty around 1979, well after I’d heard the Bothy Band, and I’ll confess that, like so many things, it took me multiple encounters and re-encounters to “get” them: I'm slow on the uptake. I lived in
But Planxty was deep—deeper, in many ways. Like the Bothies, Planxty was a rapprochement between hard-core trad musicians and denizens of the ballad/college/folk revival, but, curiously enough, even though the Planxty ratio was 1-to-3 trad-to-folkie, unlike the Bothies' 3-to-3, Planxty's approach was rooted far more deeply in the tradition. Piper Liam O Flynn, heir-apparent to both Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy, was matched with the folkies Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, and Donal Lunny—but the instrumental core of the sound was Liam’s pipes and, as Christy said, they felt they couldn’t go far wrong with Liam involved. Or, as their first manager said, “they were three hippies and a civil servant” (Liam was working in the post office).
But that’s to simplify: all three of those others were at the tops of their respective games, even if it would be only years later that we would understand just how brilliant they were. Christy was a fantastic front-man (and, at the band’s inception during recordings for his solo LP in 1972, the best-known of the four); Donal had been a rock ‘n’ roller but would evolve a series of astonishing imaginative approaches to the newly-introduced bouzouki, and Andy…ah Andy…
Andy Irvine is one of the deepest, most imaginative, most original, and most politically-committed musicians of the folk revival. He was a deeply-expressive singer, with impeccable taste and chops in finding songs (and, it would become apparent, a magnificent songwriter himself), and possessed an astonishing contrapuntal mind. I remember living in a basement apartment on
I didn’t really get at the time just how much was going on in this music, but at Kevin's urging I did pick up the “Black” album (the eponymous first album, which replicated some of the arrangements from Christy’s earlier solo disc). As I said, it didn’t really hit me with the obvious immediacy of the Bothies, but it was remarkably resilient and mature music, with a potent stateliness very different from the Bothies’ histrionics. As my old buddy Roger Landes, a piper himself, points out, that was partly because Liam was quietly insistent about playing the tunes at a “piper’s” pace—a gentleman piper’s, at that. They alternated between tunes and songs, with the bouzouki, mandolin, and guitar weaving an amazing polyphonic tapestry around Liam, who played on Seamus Ennis’s own set.
There’s a sense of democracy about this foursome: they were all so strong in their own individual ways that none deferred to the others. They all brought power and subtlety to the table. It’s incredibly mature music for a group of guys in their 20s. Of course, the maturity comes from the lineage: these guys were not reinventing the wheel—they were drawing from at least 200 years of musicians learning and refining and passing on the best of the tradition’s insights.
Christy’s was the dominant vocal presence, with the fiercely red-blooded Jacobite ballad Follow Me Up to Carlow and the outspoken Republicanism of Only Our Rivers (in their later band Moving Hearts, Christy and Donal would explore this even further, marrying a potent political message with what might be the most virtuosic trad-rock-fusion I’ve ever heard—see upcoming “100 Greats” post). Andy again was a subtler, more complex, and more sophisticated presence, with a vocal repertoire that combined all of his strengths: his own sweet, sweet songwriting with West Coast of Clare; the hilarious traditional tale The Jolly Beggar (but for his greatest in this vein, see The Rambling Siuler from After the Break); the beauty of Sweet Thames Flow Softly, by Andy’s spiritual forebear Ewan MacColl; the ferocious anti-recruiting song Arthur McBride, and his titanic The Blacksmith, a tour-de-force which often closed their shows and which is damned near as impressive as a solo piece as in the band version—but the band version has the fantastic added attraction of Andy’s instrumental Blacksmithereens, which alludes to his long-standing interest in Balkan music (for more on that, and possibly even more firepower, see Andy’s supergroup Mozaik, a band of stone virtuosos that includes the mighty Nicola Parov).
Andy had been working out the possibilities for mandolin-family instruments in this music prior to Planxty with Sweeney’s Men, alongside Johnny Moynihan, Irish trad music’s own Zelig. But the bouzouki/mandolin interplay that he worked out with Donal was some of the most sophisticated usage that would ever happen in this music—and probably the most thoughtful, responsive playing Donal ever did. For the first record of trad music I ever played on, an EP that Dharmonia and I recorded with our band Reynardine around 1980 (and which was therefore too late for the late-‘60s folk-rock boom, and too early for the mid-‘80s Stateside “Celtic” revival), the only part of my own I still like is a mandolin part I put on a Larry song—and for that part I was wearing Andy’s dirty drawers.
Planxty marks more than one watershed in my life. Kevin put the Black album in my hands, and showed me the possibilities of the bouzouki, while we were living in that cold-water basement flat. Andy informed how I came to think about both accompaniment and the role of radicalism in song. Liam introduced me to the power of the pipes, and, eventually and indirectly, to Seamus Ennis—who became a big part of my scholarly life. And Larry and Kevin, together, played a tune from the disc as Dharmonia and I walked up the aisle: Tabhair Dom Do Lamh (“Give Me Your Hand”). That was just before they laid this song on us, which Bob Franke had written for the occasion.
Planxty also taught me—and us—just how screwed you could get in the music business. They made six albums, six of the greatest recordings of folk music ever made; they blew through several changes of personnel (Johnny Moynihan took over from Donal, and Paul Brady spent time in the band as well) and they all eventually wound up in debt; no wonder they broke up. I don’t know who died, but finally in 2004 the original four members got together to do a few gigs. The DVD is what resulted.
Keith Richard once said that he was trying to find a way to grow old in his music--rock 'n' roll--the way that Muddy Waters had in his. No matter what you think of Keith, I’d argue he’s succeeded (even up to and including falling out of palm trees and being parodied by Johnny Depp). Planxty showed us how to grow old—which, of course, they’d learned from the old Masters—Willie, Seamus, John Reilly (as Christy said “an old man got up to sing, and I think our lives were changed from that moment”).
Traditional music is about more than just tunes and songs and it teaches more than how to play and sing. Traditional music, in fact, can teach you how to live. As Bob Dylan said, everything you need to know to live your life is in traditional music, if you’re able to listen: ethics, morality, history, community, pedagogy, economics—you can gain insights into all these, if you approach the music with heart, commitment and humility. As Joe Cooley said, "It's music that brings people to their senses, I think."
It's also music that can teach you about growing old, and passing it on...and maybe even about dying. When the opening menu on the DVD (featuring back-lit instruments on a bare stage: a beautiful, very subtle visual quote of the “Black” album’s cover 30 years before) is past, the lights come up, and these four old men hit Good Ship Kangeroo (from the greatest Planxty album of all, 1979’s After the Break). The power of the music is breathtaking, and it’s effortless. They’re not even working hard—they even make mistakes—but the music is like a tidal wave and it's unstoppable. It makes other, younger (and truly great) bands seem like what they are: great musicians, but 30 years younger. There’s a confidence that comes from these men, because, even with all the lawsuits, the comings and goings, the debt, and so on—all the history—the way they play nobody else ever did,or ever will, and that at least (or at most) can never be taken from them.
The first time Dharmonia and I watched this DVD, it was one more Planxty watershed: we were with a group of our students, none of whom had been born the first time I heard the "Black" album. By the end of the main program, when they roared went into The Blacksmith, the students’ mouths were hanging open—they were enthralled, and oblivious to us. I looked at Dharmo, and the same thought was in both our heads:
Looking at Andy, Donal, Christy, and Liam, growing old in the music doesn’t seem so bad.
It seems like a privilege.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
I live in a pretty fuckin’ conservative place.
Any political, social, gender, or musical sub-community is pretty much underground. In a way, living here is a little like living in small-town
On the other hand, the local socio-/eco-system does make you appreciate the occasional wisp of a more progressive (hell, a more moderate) mindset. Dharmonia and I live in the only neighborhood that’s walking distance to a grocery store, our jobs, or a coffee-shop. Thank God that coffee-shop is the local hippie/alternative hangout (blogging from there right now, in fact). And thank God that the owners manifest that other quality that’s ubiquitous in this town, curiously enough: an impeccable taste for music (the only place I’ve been better treated, as a musician, than right here, is the west of
So when you walk into the local coffee-shop and the great Toots Hibbert is singing Funky Kingston, it can really take you back…
In most of the music I care about, what makes a great singer is soul, or at least the appearance of it. In gospel, blues, r&b, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, it’s about the singer being able to find the space where the spirit comes through. Because the music itself is a mechanism: a finely-designed, highly-evolved tool for creating spiritual ecstasy. So questions about whether the singer “means it” or “doesn’t really mean it” are, ultimately, beside the point. Because the singer can be a misogynist sociopath, or a raving cokehead, or a delusional Bible-thumper, or a satyriacal maniac, before the show starts. But when the lights come up, and the rhythm section hits the groove, and the background singers take up the call-and-response, the singer is supposed to be transported—out of the everyday, the ordinary, the prosaic, sinful and “worldly”—and is supposed to take the audience along.
That’s why some of the greatest, most soulful singers are at their strongest with the simplest, most straightforward, sometimes even banal material—because there is nothing in the song itself to get in the way, and the song itself is just a vehicle for transport. The greatest gospel and soul songwriters have been those who understood the song as a vehicle, as a recipe, as a simple mechanism for catalyzing the performance.
This is why the greatest, most soulful singers can still inhabit songs they sung hundreds, or thousands, of times before—which they usually wind up having to do to satisfy the audience’s hunger for the “classic hits.” This is why BB can still create a sense of great histrionic passion in Sweet Little Sixteen and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops (still the greatest of all the Motown singers, subject of a future “100 Greats” post) can still pull off apocalyptic intensity of Reach Out I’ll Be There.
It’s also what the ragged kids in the Trench Town ghetto of Kingston Jamaica heard coming through the crackly broadcasts of the giant fifty- and hundred-thousand-watt stations of WDIA in Memphis (the “Mother Station of the Negroes”), XERA/XERF in Ciudad Acuna (a “border blaster” station across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, TX--where I spent a night in jail one time), and WSM in Nashville, home of the Opry. With FCC limitations on station wattage still a figment of the future’s imagination, these competing stations built bigger and bigger amplifiers, trying to blanket out each other’s frequencies—and not coincidentally cranking out signals that could be heard in Greenland, Vancouver, Havana…and Kingston.
They damned sure heard that music—the music aimed at working-class blacks and whites in the American South—in the hills of the Cockpit Country in north-western
These were the Maroons, who, under different names but in similar situations in Jamaica, Cuba, Bahia, or the Georgia Sea Islands, retained the strongest ties to African culture and folkways—and much more strongly than in the far more repressive American South. Toussaint l’Ouverture, the heroic liberator of
Bob Marley came out of the high hills. So did Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, and hundreds of other would-be stars who left the hills and came to the capitol (really the only) city of
But Trench Town—like Harlem, and Cairo, and the 13th Ward of New Orleans, and the South Side of Chicago—was a fantastically creative place, because here you had all these people, from all over the island and a range of family backgrounds, living cheek-by-jowl in shanties and listening to the fantastic wealth of popular music beamed from the US and pirated, copied, and imitated by Jamaican DJ’s and, especially, by singers.
Every kind of musician came out of
Bob’s story for another day. Here’s my story about Toots:
Reggae was big in
But there were also people in the community who had been long-term reggae heads—who had traveled to Sunsplash, who followed the bands every summer, and tried to lead an Irie lifestyle. One such was Norman Turner, who I met through the bass player in a legend-in-their- own-minds 80s power trio called “Rods and Cones.” I can’t remember the bass player’s name (Bob?), but
There’s a beautiful clarity and sincerity that shines through in early reggae; that’s close to the roots in
Our part of the gig? Pretty straightforward. Toots’ part? Absolutely earth-shattering. I almost can’t talk about that show, because I was so spellbound by what happened when Toots, Raleigh Gordon and Jerry McCarthy, hit the stage. We played the music pretty good in opening the show, but I think only
He’s another one of those singers who understands that, simply put, his stock-in-trade is transport: the saintly joy of gospel or the decidedly earthly joy of dancehall. As I said, he can sanctify the grungiest situations or the most trite songs—on this set, for example, he gives us Louie, Louie and Take Me Home Country Roads, both of which performances are absolutely staggering in their intensity, clarity, and sincerity. Like
This disc is an unbelievable value, collecting as it does the full contents of two of the best original Maytals records, and the Toots performances that dominated the Harder They Come soundtrack, the LP that introduced reggae on the world stage, Pressure Drop among them. He covers Bob (Redemption Song, cited above), Ike Turner (I Can’t Believe) and Little Willie John (Fever), giving all three a run for their money, and provides some fantastic originals of his own, including Pomp and Pride (there’s that gospel imprint rearing its influence again) and Time Tough.
Finally, there’s the Toots song that would go with me onto a desert island or into the grave, the jumping, heartbeat-rhythmed Funky Kingston, a virtual primer on how to play the “skank”, the chopping one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND guitar rhythm that defines reggae as opposed to its predecessors rock-steady and ska (and, did I mention that Toots invented the word “reggae”? See 1968’s Do the Reggay; talk about being there at the beginning!).
Toots called us back out on stage for the last tune of the set. I got to play guitar with the Maytals (quite an education) on that last tune—and it was Funky Kingston.
I have no words to describe what a privilege that was. All I can say is that, as ever, and over and over down the decades, the music opened doors of experience to me that would otherwise have been closed.
I thank the music, and Toots Hibbert, and JAH-Rastafari, for that.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
This one was too good to pass up:
Absent a script, Bush couldn’t get from a subject to a verb without breaking his ankle.Chimpie has always achieved every "success", since freshman year, by doin' what the smart boys/upperclassmen/COO's/Vice-Prez have told him to do. He has never worried about whether he was making his own decisions. It would never occur to him that he's spent his life like a ventriloquist's dummy with Cheney's hand up his ass.
He's like Charlie McCarthy in a Brooks Brothers suit.
Posted by CJS at 10:43 AM
Sunday, August 13, 2006
An anonymous "senior British senior British official knowledgeable about the [hair-gel bombers]" told NBC that there was no threat to airplanes last week, that the terrorists had been under surveillance for over a year, and that UK government didn't plan on arresting these guys until they'd surveilled them a while longer, but moved when they did because of US pressure.The day after Lamont stomped Holy Joe Lieberman. There is simply no denying that to the Bush/Cheney White House, there is no greater priority than political gain.
These are "high crimes and misdemeanors." If the Repubs lose the House and/or Senate in November, there will be indictments.
Posted by CJS at 9:41 AM
Saturday, August 12, 2006
I had some astonishing musical, artistic, and personal experiences at the old Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge, Mass (old New Englanders pronounce it “Mass”; we don’t need no stinkin’ USPO abbreviations!). I saw Hendrix for the first time, in the fantastic Jimi Hendrix film (see “100 Greats” #31), saw most of my favorite (though not my first) Zatoichi films, saw My Dinner with Andre with a dear old friend. It was a tiny (250-seat), dank place, with, as Kevin Murphy described it, seats only marginally more comfortable than fire hydrants. But their programming policy was (and is) absolutely fantastic: if you think that “underground” art functions best on a shoestring (not fuelled by cheddar and Chablis and Yuppies), then it might be the best art-house theatre in the country.
It’s also where we saw The Kids are Alright, Jeff Stein’s earthshaking biopic of the Who, in its original theatrical release. I’d been a Who fan for years (Live at Leeds was another one in the small-but-good collection I took to
I don’t think, even as a pretty-knowledgeable person by 1980, even as well as I already knew their music, even though I’d seen their fantastic sequence in the Woodstock film (about which more in a future “100 Greats” post)—I don’t think I was prepared for these guys. I knew the music was good (I fuckin’ loved Townsend’s writing), but I didn’t get just how overwhelming they were in concert. And not just in volume: Blue Cheer was louder, the Velvet Underground was much sludgier, Zeppelin was way more ice-pick trebly.
No, the Who were more like the aural equivalent of the immaculately dressed street-fightin’ Mods immortalized in Pete’s later Quadrophenia (and in their theme song, the amphetamine-stuttering I Can’t Explain): they were absolutely sharp, absolutely together, impeccably well-thought-out, and absolutely merciless. Whether it was an interview with teenybopping newspaper writers, where Roger would pick his nose; Pete would sneer (like Ian Anderson, Pete terrified writers because he was smarter than they were; unlike Anderson, he was also just as lacking in self-confidence as they were, which leveled the playing field); Entwhistle would sit stoic (or giggle at the others’ antics); and Moon would either clown, as manic as Spike Milligan, or take off his clothes.
But make no mistake about it: they were unmistakeably nuts (and cranked on meth, or grass, or acid, or brandy-and-soda, or, eventually, horse), but they were also the scariest fuckin’ band in rock ‘n’ roll—I can’t imagine how noodlers like the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane must have felt to have to follow a band as tight, as fierce, as virtuosic as the Who, and playing the absolutely sublime (the word is chosen advisedly) songs of Pete Townsend.
It was the intensity of four working-class yobbos (Roger was looking at a job as a sheet-metal worker)—or, OK, three working-class yobbos and an art-school student (Pete)—for whom this band, this music, these fans were the spark and the lifeline: the spark to a life bigger than Shepherd’s Bush, and a lifeline to a greater world.
I don’t think one could argue that Townsend is one of the greatest minds in rock ‘n’ roll—OK, also one of the biggest mouths in rock ‘n’ roll—on the sheer weight of the music. Pete’s daddy had been a big-band/swing-band leader during the war years (Pete was boarded with relatives during WWII, and there’s a dark story there, I think—the wicked child-molesting uncles that recur throughout the Townsend oeuvre are pretty deeply felt), and like every British schoolboy of any class he’d learned to sing harmony and counterpoint in the Anglican choirs, and he like the whole band went to school on the incomparable songwriting of what they called “Tamla/Motown” (Smokey, Barrett Strong, and the magnificent Lamont-Dozier-Holland), so he know how music could be put together, but he also had both the hubris and the astonishing conceptual breadth to think in larger forms. By comparison, the Stones wrote riffs (great ones—but riffs), the Beatles wrote pop songs (great ones—but pop songs—Sergeant Pepper is marvelously evocative, but it’s not a complete concept).
Townsend wrote operas. In fact, he wrote at least two (Tommy and Quadrophenia), and you could argue that might have written three (Lifehouse, whose songs formed the backbone of Who’s Next, was never released in complete conceptual form). Or two-and-a-half: A Quick One, though it’s only eleven minutes long, is a complete entity—a lovely little cantata: it even ends with a chorale (the aforementioned You Are Forgiven).
20 years before the mosh pit, Pete Townsend understood that what the rock ‘n’ roll audience was seeking was what he (who called himself “the ultimate fan”) himself was seeking: a sense of community, the kind of community he’d experienced dancing with the Mods at the Marquee in Shepherd’s Bush, before they ever made an LP; a sense of intensity and commitment (the film captures Pete’s magnificent response to an interview question regarding whether he thought he’d remain an angry young man: “naow, no’ a angry young man…more lahk a angry ol’ FAHRT, really…but not BOR-ing!”); even, we could argue, a sense of spiritual purpose: Pete grasped that rock ‘n’ roll could be a spiritual path. This set him up for all kinds of pompous (and angry) pronunciamentos—Townsend certainly cornered the market on the grand, failed gesture—but it also allowed him to actually find that path, in song after song; album after album; concert after concert; leap after leap.
Maybe that helps explain what held these four disparate and battling personalities together: their esprit de corps was about more even than their share of transcendent moments—partly because they sought them: Moon through excess, the Ox through acquisition, Roger through rage, Pete through religion. The astonishing thing is that, screaming arguments and fistfights, battles public and private, digression and internal mockery, they got there together.
It’s there in performance after performance in this film: no matter what arguments, fisticuffs, or dueling interviews preceded the gig, once they hit the stage it was the four of them together against the world: in the “See Me, Feel Me” sequence fro Tommy they were playing as the sun rose over the ragged tent city at Woodstock (as Pete said, “that was a gift, that was; I didn’t really feel we deserved that”); the magnificent instinctive-Tudor counterpoint “You are forgiven” at the climax of A Quick One on The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus (a film worth acquiring only for the Who’s sequence, not for the Stones’ druggy posturing, and if only to see Pete use his massive schnoz to adjust a sagging microphone mid-performance); the thunderous version of Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues from the Live at Leeds era.
Most particularly and most unexpectedly: the climactic moment in The Kids Are Alright, when—old, worn, cynical beyond belief, chivvied back onto the sound stage for another run at a “definitive encore” by director Stein, they crash into Pete’s greatest song and their greatest record ever: Won’t Get Fooled Again, Pete’s anthem to corruption, transcendent music gives the lie to the wounded cynicism of the text. They lash through the opening, the ageless Daltrey running down all his classic spinning-the-microphone tricks (though R Plant took the shirtless-with-blond-ringlets look much further, and was a good six inches taller, there was no question that Rog took have taken Rob with one punch); the aging, paunchy, sweaty Moon, headphones strapped to his head in a vice-like harness, hammering out the 6-tom fills that he invented (and that Zappa later dubbed “Quaalude Thunder”);
and the lights go down and the lasers go up, fading to the synth tracks which Townsend had recorded in ’71 for Who’s Next and which are still the greatest synthesizer parts in the history of rock...
and Moon’s thunderous fills build to the climax...
and the Daltrey screams the ultimate Daltrey scream, and the lights come up,
and Townsend is in the air soaring across the stage, landing, knees oblivious, and skidding like the most balls-out figure-skater into the wings.
He staggers to his feet, the inimitable Townsend sneer in place, and it’s like the music—his own music, the music he made only with those three comrades—has done what it set out to do, one more time, to its most dedicated, and most disillusioned believer: he’s swept away, one last time, into the music and the dancing and the sense of pure rock ‘n’ roll community, which he, with those three comrades, had found in the nameless gigs at the Marquee and, more clearly, consistently, and courageously than any other ‘60s rocker (even Ray Davies, another courageous—but far more introspective—‘60s songwriter), had fought to bring to the stages of the world. That the promise of the '60s was sold out by the late '70s: we were “lied to” (to quote Johnny Rotten—about whom Townsend wrote another brilliant, rueful song, Who Are You?) wasn’t Pete’s fault—he always told the truth, as much as it was in him to do it.
It was their greatest, most hard-won, and most selfless moment of transcendence.
And it was their last: Moon died less than two months later—and the band that’s played since then, while a great band, isn’t the Who.
And that’s OK—they gave us enough. We should be grateful. Walking out of the Brattle in late 1979, I knew that, and I still believe it.
Friday, August 11, 2006
Pace Bob Zimmerman, the two greatest folkies I ever met out of Minnesota were Spider John Koerner and Dean Magraw—both guitarists, both virtuosi, both fantastically original roots stylists, and both of them more-or-less madmen—John sardonic and Dean manic. I got to know Dean’s playing (an absolutely superhuman amalgam of Norman Blake, McCoy Tyner, and Charlie Parker) at the old Guitar Workshop on Boylston Street, where he was part of a legendary faculty that also included Dharmonia, Larry “Guitar,” Mike Bierylo, Little Mikey Bevan, and Scott Samenfeld, and at the Idler just out of Harvard Square, a fantastic basement club whose back room preserved the hippest, funkiest, and least precious remnants of the Cambridge Folk Scare: low ceilings, skullbuster beams, sexy-but-indifferent waitresses, cheap beer, and a booking policy that would bring in only the hippest people and let them do whatever they wanted (more about the Idler here and in an upcoming “Music Houses” post).
But I got to know John’s playing at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in
Bob’s SNM was similar, but different. It was attached to another Episcopal community, but of the “we’re middle-class liberals who supported Dr King” variety rather than the “we’re Anglophiles who’ll employ as many smells-and-bells as we can get away with” variety. So there was a stronger social-justice/building community element to SNM. And Franke, whatever else you say, as a musician himself had impeccable musical taste, so the roster of artists was overwhelmingly great (FE: at least a half-dozen of the artists on the “100 Greats” list are people I first heard there): Geoff Bartley, Stan Rogers, Martin Grosswendt, Greg Brown, Paul Geremia, Cormac McCarthy, Sally Rogers, Claudia Schmidt, they all played there, and a lot of them were brilliant—and inspirational. That might have been the first location in which I ever was able to ask myself if maybe a life as a musician was a real possibility.
My favorites at SNM were always the bluesmen, though: Geoff (upcoming “100 Greats”), Martin (upcoming), Geremia, and Spider John Koerner. John had come out of the U. Minn folk scene that began pretty much concurrently with the Harvard/Radcliffe/BU scene in New England, but that was, in some ways, more tight-knit, less intellectual, and, overall, tougher than the Boston/Cambridge scene (maybe it’s the cold, or the absence of trust funds and boarding schools in the Minnesotans’ backgrounds). There’s a fantastic recollection of John in Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney’s magisterial Baby Let Me Follow You Down, with Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music maybe the greatest non-academic book ever written about a local music community, and eminently worth the tracking-down. He showed up with Dave “Snaker” Ray (another guitarist) and Tony “Little Sun” Glover (a great Sonny Terry-style harp player) and they were bad motherfuckers. Dave looked like a blond surfer, Tony like a 90-pound greaser, and John looked like a basketball player. The cover of their debut LP, Blues Rags and Hollers captures both their look and their repertoire: they were more like a pre- than post-WWII blues band (the post-WWII
I never saw that trio play live: Tony and Dave went back to
It was raunchier and more raucous at the Idler, though: John stomping out the rhythm and flailing at the 9-string (he’s got about the weirdest right-hand technique of any fingerpicker I’ve ever met) and Mr Bones, stooped with arthritis and fused cartilage, the two of them laying out a loose-jointed, behind-the-beat, splayed and irresistible groove.
One of the great things about John’s approach is that, over the 70s and 80s, he expanded his repertoire to include all kinds of old, non-blues folk tunes—as he himself said: “there’s a lot to those old songs; there’s a reason people still sing ‘em”—and it all came out sounding like him. That’s why I select this disc: because a sea chantey like Shenandoah, a cowboy song like Old Chisholm Trail, a pre-Civil War song like Cotton-Eyed Joe, or a New Orleans dirge like St. James Infirmary all come out with that same loopy, unmistakable, juke-joint groove.
Especially since his complete recovery from the bypass, he’s continued mining this wonderful vein: sometimes in more soloistic settings or with his Twin Cities homies (as on this disc), or with New Orleans players on Raised by Humans, or even extending to Stardust or ballads like The Golden Vanity on Stargeezer (another of his great strengths has been a succession of fantastic album titles).
This might be my favorite though—and Sail Away Ladies (from Nobody Knows…) might be my favorite piece of music ever recorded by a
Zimmerman's got my sympathy, though. Just as when Hendrix covered "All Along the Watchtower," there's attitude and then there's ATTITUDE. On Nobody Knows..., it's the real Big Dogs laying it down.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Jim Crow was a twisted shadowy backwater. Whites (North and South) pretended they were gentle and Christian, blacks (North and South) pretended there was nothing but good humor and comfort in their dealings with whites. Neither Ellington nor his band ever appeared in public in anything other than smiles and the height of uptown fashion; Louis Armstrong grinned and let Joe Glaser take half his royalties (saying, famously and notoriously “Always keep a white man behind you that'll put his hand on you and say 'That's my nigger'"), and Basie was the most understated and urbanely-charming bandleader imaginable, beaming at the piano as he laid down the subtlest, most minimalist arabesque possible.
It would take another jazz generation before the beboppers of the mid-‘40s and the hard-boppers of the ‘50s would break that mold—would issue a musical proclamation that was openly defiant of Jim Crow (Monk said “we’re gonna make a music that’s so hard they can’t steal it”)—but in the ‘30s the grins stayed in place. The ‘30s jazzman’s defiance was epitomized in Lester Young’s elliptical, gnomic words, and the elaborate handles he bestowed on peers (he famously gave Billie Holliday the moniker “Lady Day”) and his absolute refusal to kowtow to the era’s expectations for a tenor sax player—a big, booting, hyper-masculine sound exemplified by his alter ego in the Basie band, Herschel Evans. But Prez (from “The President,” Lady’s nickname for him) refused: he played smooth, eccentric phrases across the bar-line; he built a whole harmonic language out of the possibilities of chord substitutions; he played with a light, focused, straight tone. And, of course, he would turn out to be the most influential tenor player of them all, because Prez is where Bird learned to play (double-time Prez’s lines, play them in the mid-range of the alto instead of the upper range of the tenor, play upper-structures as well as chord subs, and you’ve got Bird).
But there was ferocity behind those grins. The Basie band was built out of the nucleus of two great ‘20s territory bands: Walter Page’s Blue Devils, who Basie, a Jersey native, had joined in ’28, just before they disbanded to go out with Bennie Moten, who had a bigger budget and better gigs.
The territory bands were the most important live music phenomenon in the ‘20s, barnstorming across the West and Southwest in converted school-buses, playing strings of one-nighters (pull into town, set up the music stands, put on the uniform, play four hours for the jitter-buggers, break down, sleep on the bus, drive to the next gig) that were the incubator for swing, and for the virtuosity of the beboppers who cut their teeth there. And they were fierce: no PA (or a minimal one), huge halls full of expert dancers who’d brook no bullshit, and they did this 300 nights a year. A good territory band wasn’t afraid of anybody—they knew how bad they were, grins or not.
And the Basie band were the baddest of them all. Honed in the ‘20s in the Blue Devils and Moten’s Orchestra, hanging tough together in the new cooperative they started under Bill Basie’s name, they backed the greatest vocalists in American music: Billie, Jimmy Rushing (“Mr Five-by-Five”—five feet wide and five feet tall), Big Joe Turner (the granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll), and Joe Williams. They had the scariest gunslinging horn players: Prez, Herschel, and the great trumpeter Buck Clayton. And they had the baddest motherfuckin’ rhythm section there was before bebop: Basie, Big Walter Page on bass, the great guitarist Freddie Green (“4-to-the-bar” chords that nobody outside the band could hear—and nobody within the bandcould do without) and the master, Papa Jo Jones, the drummer who made bebop possible.
The first hint anybody east of the Mississippi had of the territory bands were the charts Benny Goodman purchased from Fletcher Henderson—Fletcher was a genius musician/arranger but a terrible businessman (sort of the opposite of Goodman, in fact) and it was Goodman who became the “King of Swing” on Henderson’s charts. And Goodman had John Hammond behind him, and Hammond had impeccable taste, and insisted that Goodman take on Teddy Wilson (piano), Lionel Hampton (vibes), and eventually Charlie Christian (guitar)—all black—for his sextet, which made Goodman’s music infinitely better.
But almost nobody, east of the
Basie finally got the money together to bring the band east in 1936, first for a long residency in Chicago, and eventually for an even longer residency in ’38 at the Famous Door, a 52nd Street club so small that Basie’s piano sat off the bandstand on the dance-floor.
It didn’t matter—they were better than anybody else, they knew it, and nobody had ever heard anything like. The band was a powerhouse, with not one but two killin’ tenor soloists, Prez and Herschel, who could not have been more different but who between them covered virtually the entire spectrum of what was then thought possible on the instrument (the other unclaimed tenor territory belonged to huge-toned Ben Webster, who at the same period was about to begin a legendary, if brief, tenure with the Ellington Orchestra). They had the absolutely astounding rhythm section, who played with an authoritative ease and relaxed virtuosity that buried any East Coast band. They had a succession of great singers, and they had just about every jazz musician not on a gig in the house listening. More than anything else, they had that telepathic swing: they had 10 or 12 or 15 years of playing together, night after night after night, and they could read each other’s minds. One O’Clock Jump, which became their theme song, had come out of one such “head” arrangement:
Buster Smith remembered: “We were fooling around at the club and Basie was playing along in F. That was his favorite key. He hollered that he was going to switch to D-flat and for me to set something from [another tune called ‘Six or Seven Times’] on alto. Lips Page jumped in with the trumpet part without any trouble and Dan Minor thought up the trombone part. That was it–a ‘head.’ ”
The tunes on this compilation of Basie’s greatest years feature the vocals and instrumentals, blues and “Rhythm” changes, head charts and beautiful arrangements, the full band and various small groups, the horn players and the rhythm section. Some of them, like Jump and Jumpin’ at the Woodside, epitomize the head arrangements; others became incredibly influential on small group players (notably the Prez vehicles Tickle Toe and Lester Leaps In); some allow Basie to unleash his own formidable but typically under-employed boogie-woogie skills (Red Bank Boogie); some—really all—are features for the springy levitation of the rhythm section; some just rock harder than anything before Louis Jordan (Yeah Man). They all, even in the low-fidelity and brief duration of the 78, provide a little taste of what those nights at the Famous Door in ’38 must have felt like.
The Second War killed the big bands: white players were encouraged to enlist en masse (and usually whiled away their tours playing for the troops), black players were usually unable to get work, while the rationing of rubber (for tires) and gasoline (for buses) destroyed the touring circuits. An awful lot of people wound up working overtime or the swing-shift in the defense industry, while the government levied a nightclub tax that made dancing a costly proposition for club owners—who put in more tables and encouraged listening music instead. Bebop would be the result.
But that was in the future. Basie himself was reduced, in the early ‘50s, to touring with a small group, but he boogied just as hard and just as charmingly. Eventually, when he was able to revive the big band in the Eisenhower ‘50s, it became a very different—but still great—band, now relying not on swing and head arrangements, but on the seminal charts of great arrangers like Frank Foster and Sammy Nestico. I played a lot of those charts for Dominic Spera in
I knew it because, though a conflagration of circumstances I can barely remember, Dharmonia and I scored some tickets to see the Basie band at Harvard around ’81. He was old, and sick, by then, and the band was full of young turks, the masters having long since retired or passed on, but the grin, the captain’s cap, and the style were still there. And when we walked into that little banquet room in Harvard, paneled just the way you’d think the Ivy League would be, the aura of that band’s history was palpable even to us who didn’t know much about them. And when they hit, in that paneled Cantabridgian room full of Harvard students and a few stray hipsters like us, it was absolutely overwhelmingly: smooth, powerful, confident, understated, and like a 16-cylinder engine. It was absolutely incredible. By then, they'd been playing together sixty years, some of them--and the ferocity was still there. They weren't taking shit from anybody.
Years after that, we went to school on Basie at
But I was lucky enough to know it as experience first.