Sunday, February 27, 2005


Listening to New York, the Lou Reed album that got me back into listening to music "seriously" when I found it in a mall in, um, Abilene back in '89, and specifically "Halloween Parade," a song about the cost of the AIDS pandemic in which Uncle Lou never once utters the name of the Illness That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Thinking back to '72, when I got Lou's Transformer album and was annoyed unto death by "New York Telephone Conversation," a song chock full of oh-so-precious Lance Loud Noo Yawk City gay culture references and how, if I were to hear the two songs played back-to-back today, the contrast between the innocence of the earlier song and the knowledge of what it cost on the later one would probably break my heart. It's funny how time can recontextualize stuff for you like that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

OC and FZ

They just don't make avant-gardists like they used to.

In today's musical marketplace, that reductionist world where artists are better off if they only have one idea (just like political candidates; easier to stay "on message" without a lot of subtlety or complexity to muddy the waters), where how you look (advantage: cute) is as important -- maybe more so -- than how you sound, where "traditional" jazz, always a minority taste, is holding on by the skin of its teeth and purveyors of Beatlesque pop are hailed as the great innovators of "modern rock" -- in such an environment, it's hard to imagine someone like Ornette Coleman or Frank Zappa being able to get a recording contract. While there's an element of DIY in both of these musicians' latter-day approaches (mainly in how they set themselves up as cottage industries, the better to reap the rewards of their labors), it would have been impossible for either man to have made the impact that he did in terms of influence and perceived importance among Those Who Know without the kind of visibility that only a major label can provide.

Ornette Coleman's musical career might have started out with a fundamental misunderstanding about the tuning of his chosen instrument, the alto saxophone, but whether you love him or hate him, he's undeniably the creator of a bona fide original approach, maybe the last one to appear in jazz, and he's been able to continue producing his art for half a century with less compromise than almost anyone else you can name. Born in 1930, Ornette grew up in Fort Worth, listening to bebop out of one ear and rhythm and blues out the other (and perhaps, one could say, Mexican music out of his third ear). Talk to anyone who knew him then and they'll tell you that 1) he always "played like Ornette" (stories of him "playing like Bird" that appeared in the press around the time of his late-'50s apotheosis are, I think, fabrications, designed to make it appear that he was "legit" by the standards of the time, when in reality what he was proposing was something Entirely Other) and 2) that he was thrown out of every band he ever played with, before he skipped town, a fully-formed man of 25, to travel to L.A., where he did menial work before somehow managing to find other musicians -- older, established guys like Shelly Manne and John Lewis, as well as younger cats like Paul Bley, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins -- who were able to hear his particular song.

The instant Ornette-worship that attended his 1959 arrival (with quartet) in New York City probably had as much to do with the fervor with which the jazz cognoscenti were wishing, praying, hoping for the Next Big Thing to follow the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of Charlie Parker as they did with the actual merit of what he was doing. While Ornette's approach (which at the time sounded like a simulacrum of bebop's metrical form, minus the chord changes) might have led eminences like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis (as well as tons of lesser lights who'd invested years in studying Parker's methodology) to dismiss him as a charlatan who "couldn't play," forward-looking colleagues like Charles Mingus (who used to take the members of his then-current Jazz Workshop down to the Five Spot where Coleman and Co. were holding forth and ask them, "Why can't you play like that?") as well as the collective Noo Yawk hipoisie (including New York Philharmonic musical director Leonard Bernstein in his pre-Black Panther cocktail party-hosting days) were paying close attention.

It didn't help that Ornette's rap, filled with oblique abstractions, was as impenetrable to uninitiates as his music -- maybe even more so. (For an operational definition of "disturbing," see Shirley Clark's Ornette documentary Made in America, specifically the bit where he talks about wanting to be castrated. I'm not making this up.) He wasn't good at explaining himself, and the text on his "harmolodic theory" that he claimed to be writing 30 years ago still hasn't materialized. In spite of all this, Ornette -- who defines himself as "a composer who improvises" rather than "an improvisor who composes," an important distinction -- has managed over the years to transfer his process to a host of talented collaborators: world-traveling trumpeter Don Cherry and the other linchpin of the "classic" Coleman quartet, bassist Charlie Haden, a bluegrass-warbling Missouri toddler turned revolutionary firebrand and closet romantic; New Orleans master drummer Ed Blackwell, whose work demonstrates better than anyone else's the linkages between Africa, Congo Square, and 48th Street; fellow I.M. Terrell High School alumnus Dewey Redman, a tenor saxophonist who was a mainstay of late-'60s/early-'70s Coleman groups; and two musicians who accompanied Ornette in his initial mid-'70s forays into electric music, the gritty South Carolina-born guitarist-singer James "Blood" Ulmer and the majestic and magesterial drummer-composer Ronald Shannon Jackson, another Fort Worth expatriate who signed on with Ornette's Prime Time band as a hired gun while Denardo Coleman was off attending business school in preparation for a career as his father's manager. (When I was first getting into Ornette, back around the Bicentennial year, there was a radio station in Connecticut that used to play four hours of music by Ornette and his various sidemen every Sunday. Today, that seems like, well, science fiction.)

Listening to Ornette's "classic" Atlantic recordings today, it's hard to figure what all the fuss was about. Notwithstanding the absence of '20s and '30s pop-song forms, tunes like "Lonely Woman," "Congeniality," "Ramblin'," and "Free" sound familiar as a heartbeat, and they reveal how Ornette's early music both influenced the mainstream and was reflective of trends that already existed within it -- how easily Miles' '60s quintet was able to assimilate devices like "Lonely Woman"'s dirge-like head over fast rhythm, f'rinstance, or how Haden's countryish solo on "Ramblin'" echoed the use of folkloric elements in some of Mingus' solos (another strongly rhythmic bassplayer with a big, deep sound). While eschewing the harmonic complexity of Bird, Ornette's alto had the same human cry that's also present in Armstrong and Parker's sounds. "Bluesy" doesn't even begin to cover it; depending on the piece, Ornette's song can be playful and joyous, or the most lonely and desolate sound imaginable. His epochal 35-minute "Free Jazz" (which gave a name to the movement that followed in his wake) echoes both the cacophony of New Orleans-born collective improvisation and the severity of modern classical music (the fanfares that punctuate the solo sections) as well as bebop (the rhythm section's sound and one of the recurring composed themes). When Ornette reunited with the "classic" Cherry/Haden/Higgins quartet and distilled their distinctive essence down to discrete two-and-three-minute snippets for 1987's In All Languages, it would have been impossible to deny that music's accessability, if anybody had been listening.

Back in 1961, as his original heroin-addicted quartet was fragmenting, Ornette continued to grow and mature as an improvisor, taking more time and space to develop his themes. His playing on the recording of his 1962 Town Hall concert is a far cry from his groundbreaking 1959 work -- less rhythmically constrained, more fluid. The rhythm section of classical bassist David Izenzon and Fort Worth drummer Charles Moffett seemed to follow him intuitively, shifting their accompaniment in response to his every improvisational tangent. That event also marked the first public performance of Ornette's music by a classical ensemble and an R&B group. After that, he disappeared from the scene for a couple of years to teach himself a highly, um, idiosyncratic approach to the trumpet and violin, re-emerging to tour Europe to great acclaim in 1965. In 1966, he released the album The Empty Foxhole on Blue Note, with his 10-year-old son Denardo on drums. This is where he lost a lot of people, I think; when I heard the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's blatting bugle with drums-being-dropped-down-the-stairs while working on a story last year, I was reminded of nothing so much as The Empty Foxhole. The powers that be at Blue Note must have had the same impression; Ornette's next two albums for the label teamed him and Dewey Redman with a bassplayer and drummer best known for their work with John Coltrane. (Kind of like the album of standards Thelonious Monk recorded for Riverside at the peak of his compositional creativity, just to show he could.)

Since then, as the jazz mainstream has slowly but inexorably regressed back to approximately where it was when he arrived on the scene, Ornette has continued to challenge his audience's expectations at every turn by doing whatever the hell he wanted, whether that meant composing symphonic works ("Forms and Sounds," "Saints and Soldiers," "Space Flight," and especially "Skies of America," where his writing for strings gives the orchestra a sound akin to the cry of his alto), performing with his electrified combo Prime Time (which essayed the nursery-rhyme simplicity of "Theme for a Symphony" -- a piece that started its life as a quartet item called "Happy House" and resurfaced as "The Good Life" on Skies of America -- at extreme length on the 1977 album Dancing in Your Head), or presenting onstage body-piercing exhibitions at his concerts in the late '90s. Now there's talk of luring him to Fort Worth for the annual Jazz By the Boulevard fest on a bill with Dewey Redman (who's matured over the years into a crowd-pleasing festival performer, a phenomenon which I prefer to attribute to Dewey's genuine enjoyment of playing ballads, blues, and bebop than to any sort of commercial arm-twisting) and Shannon Jackson (a reclusive character of late, but one whose Decoding Society was the most viscerally accessible manifestation of harmolodics in its heyday). While arguments could be made that 1) it's been done already -- the mayor of Fort Worth presented Ornette with a key to the city and declared "Ornette Coleman Day" in conjunction with the opening of the late, lamented Caravan of Dreams, way back in 1983 -- and 2) Ornette and his fellows aren't exactly household names, although they're already in the history books, one hopes that the festival organizers will seize the opportunity to render props to these sons of Fort Worth while they're still drawing breath.

On a purely selfish level, I'm hoping that they pull it off, if only because I've never seen Ornette in person. I had a ticket to a 1977 Prime Time performance at Avery Fisher Hall that was cancelled, and I saw the Ornette alumni band Old and New Dreams open for Arthur Blythe at Town Hall on my first trip back to New York after moving to Texas in 1979. Now, Frank Zappa is another matter. Between 1974 and 1978, I saw more Zappa more times than I've seen any other "name" performer.

To his Noo Yawk fans' great delight, Frank used to mount Big Apple extravaganzas every Halloween and New Year's Eve, originally at the Academy of Music at 3rd Avenue and 14th Street, later (as his popularity increased) moving uptown a bit to the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden. Older fans could boast of having seen Zappa and the Mothers at the Fillmore East or even earlier, in the storied run at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village, but my cohort had mostly discovered Frank's music through popular albums like Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe ('), where astonishing music shared space with loads of low-grade humor. Now, I like stupid-funny stuff as much as the next person, and I realize that Frank was able to keep the lights on and finance his more, um, challenging work by spending months on the road playing songs like "Dyna-Moe Humm" and "Disco Boy" for crowds of stoned kids who probably dug Cheech and Chong as much (and for the same reasons) as they did Zappa. In the film Baby Snakes (which documents a typical New York show from around 1977), you can see a crowd that's pretty representative of what I'm talking about: a bunch of kids from Long Island with blow-dried hair, acting "crazy" and "weird" because that's what they think they're supposed to be doing at a Zappa concert, talking about how they dig Frank because he's "a pissaaaah." In the argot of the time, he was "outrageous."

I think Frank was fine with that -- I think he genuinely liked being able to play his music in front of large audiences. In a different way than Ornette, he did whatever the hell he wanted to for pretty much his entire career, including breaking his contract with Warner Bros. in '77 by playing an entire six-record set they didn't want to release according to his specifications over the radio and encouraging fans to tape it. (This is the material that was released on CD as Lather a few years ago.) He maintained until his death in December 1993 -- of cancer, a couple of weeks before his 53rd birthday -- that he believed humor did, indeed, belong in music, and if his fans could get a laff out of the same stoopid shit he did, then why not?

So, you might ask, how can I justify calling a popular performer who made lots of money playing material that appealed to the lowest common denominator an "avant-gardist?" Lester Bangs dismissed him as "a competent arranger" and pastiche artist, preferring the music of Frank's high school buddy Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) as more "authentic" -- ignoring the fact that Don's music was as derivative of Howlin' Wolf and Ornette as Frank's was of Varese, Stravinsky, and the Penguins. Like Ornette, who was a decade older, Frank considered himself a composer first, grew up in a backwater (in his case, the desert town of Lancaster, California, where his scientist father settled the Zappa family when Frank was a teenager), and harbored a genuine affection for both modern classical music (he bought his first Varese album because he thought the composer looked "like a mad scientist") and rhythm and blues (he and original Mothers of Invention frontman Ray Collins -- who'd later berate the resolutely drug-free Zappa, telling him that "You need to do acid with someone who believes in God" -- penned a no-fooling doo-wop hit, "Memories of El Monte," for the Penguins). Following his example, loads of art-creeps tried to shoehorn "serious" music influences into rock, with an earnestness that made their efforts a lot harder to listen to than Frank's aural crazy quilt.

Always, Frank's specialty was kloodging together whatever disparate elements suited his fancy -- doo-wop harmonies, Varese-influenced percussion, bits of musique concrete, Stravinskian orchestral themes, social commentary and prurient humor, his trademark coruscating psychedelic stinkfinger guitar -- into a dense, dizzying melange. His best records worked that way, too; they were more audio collages than anybody's conventional idea of a "rock album." While the critique of Americulture on the early MOI records hasn't held up any better than most period social commentary, some of it -- particularly "Who Are the Brain Police?," "Help, I'm a Rock," "It Can't Happen Here," and the protest anthem "Trouble Coming Every Day," all from his 1966 debut Freak Out! -- remains relevant, and he gets points for being the first rock'n'roller to point out (in 1967's We're Only In It for the Money) the rot at the core of hippie utopianism. He was still pretty brutal on "youth culture" as late as '81, penning lines like "Free is when you don't have to pay for nothin' or do nothin' / I wanna be free, free as the wind" (from You Are What You Is' "Teenage Wind"), but then again, he had plenty of spleen left for televangelists, the PMRC, and any number of other institutional stupidities. An equal-opportunity shit-slinger.

Beyond that, he was a motherfucker guitarist, and he had great bands.

When I was on the road with Nathan Brown and Dave Karnes last year, a little girl in Atlanta (or maybe it was Columbia, SC; they all kind of run together in memory) paid me an ultimate compliment of sorts. After we were done playing, she came up and asked me who my three favorite guitarists were. I mumbled something about Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, and Eddie Hazel, before she asked me if I'd ever listened to Zappa. I told her I'd been a big fan back in the day, and she said she could tell. When I asked her how (since it seemed a highly unlikely observation, based on the music I was playing with Nathan, which basically consisted of the notes he told me to play and no others), she told me that her father had been a guitarist. It made my night, even though I know I don't have a thimbleful of what Frank had, guitar-wise. His inspiration came from West Coast/Texas blues guys like Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Eddie Jones (aka Guitar Slim), but with his composer's melodic imagination, he took blues rifferama to some very wild and abstract places. His solos were always played over a drone, one or two chords against static rhythm, but within that realm, he was amazingly inventive. When I saw him at the Academy of Music shows that were recorded for the Zappa in New York album, he made my hair stand on end. No lie.

About his bands: the original Mothers started out as a bar R&B outfit called the Soul Giants, but evolved under Frank's leadership into a unit that was equal parts SoCal bar-band vets (the rhythm boys, Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black, "the Indian of the group"), dyed-in-the-wool avant-gardists (keyboardist Don Preston and any number of horn-playing Gardner brothers), and conservatory-trained sophisto musos (ex-symphony percussionist Artie Tripp and multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood) that could go in any of those directions and often did so in the course of a single song, cued by their leader's hand signals. That lineup was heard to best advantage on the albums Uncle Meat, Burnt Weenie Sandwich, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which Frank assembled from miscellaneous live and studio recordings after breaking up the band when he could no longer afford to pay them (they were on salary, even when they didn't work -- an untenable situation, but not one that was easily understood by the bandmembers; for documentary evidence, see "If We'd All Been Living in California..." on Uncle Meat).

Next came a series of bands built around the British drummer Aynsley Dunbar. The first was fronted by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, aka Flo and Eddie (for contractual reasons), who'd previously been in an L.A. folk-rock band called the Turtles. The Flo and Eddie band is the one that appeared in the film 200 Motels, by which time Frank had delegated much of the responsibility for lyrics and stage business to the ex-Turtles. This meant that most lyrics from that period dealt with the, um, sociological observations of a musician in a touring rock band, which are either hilarious or tedious, depending on your perspective. That ended when a demented fan knocked Frank off the stage at the Rainbow Theater in London, breaking his leg and crushing his larynx. While confined to a wheelchair through most of 1972, he recorded two jazzy albums, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, that featured a horn section and keyboardist George Duke. While some of the horn charts sound like college lab band exercises, the title track on Waka/Jawaka features a nifty harmonization of a Zappa guitar solo played by the brass section.

After that, Frank put together what some fans (this one included) consider his best band, with Duke on keys and vocals, Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals, the Fowler brothers (Tom, who'd played with the San Francisco hippie band It's a Beautiful Day -- anybody remember "White Bird"? -- on bass, Bruce on trombone), Ruth Underwood on percussion, and Chester Thompson on drums. This is the basic unit that appeared on Roxy and Elsewhere, recorded shortly before Frank got too popular to appear in clubs, and The Helsinki Concert, probably the best of the sprawling You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore series. With the substitution of Terry Bozzio for Thompson on drums, it's also the crew that backed Zappa and Captain Beefheart on their "reunion" tour in 1975 (documented on the album Bongo Fury). Bozzio was an unabashed exhibitionist and infinitely more interesting that some of the more "technical" drummers who came after him. In later years, he'd admit that he was probably better off donning a devil mask to sing "Titties 'n' Beer" with Frank than he was playing po-faced prog rock with UK or insipid '80s pop with his own band Missing Persons. (In the trade, this is known as "Mick Taylor's syndrome.") His playing and persona provide some of the best moments in the Baby Snakes film.

In the '80s, Frank's bands grew progressively (play on words) more virtuosic and simultaneously less interesting, populated with guys who'd signed on to get their tickets punched enroute (or so they hoped) to sophisto muso megastardom. By the 1988 tour (which produced not one, not two, but three, count 'em, three massive double CD sets: Broadway the Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, and Make a Jazz Noise Here), Frank was confronted with the phenomenon of musicians approaching him covertly, behind the others' backs, to try and convince their leader to pay them at a higher rate than the other guys in the band. He'd had similarly dispiriting results with classical musicians on those occasions when he was able to arrange performances or recordings of his symphonic works. Classical musicians, he found, were unionized hacks who could give a rat's ass about performing challenging work by a living composer. (All of this is detailed at great length in The Real Frank Zappa Book.) As a result, Frank withdrew from public performance to spend the rest of his life sequestered in his basement studio, creating music with his Synclavier and compiling archival tapes for release.

As luck would have it, in the last year of his life, Frank connected with a European classical group, the Ensemble Modern, and was finally able to hear his "serious" music performed properly. The results were released as The Yellow Shark a few months after his death. His last "new" work, Civilization Phaze III, consisted of music realized on the Synclavier, interspersed with tapes of people's voices recorded inside a grand piano for the 1968 Lumpy Gravy album, along with some Ensemble Modern performances and new "piano people" recordings. It's in these last couple of projects, perhaps, that Zappa finally found his true voice. That he had to wait until so late in his career to do so says a lot, I think, about the relationship between art and commerce in our society.

I've argued with my friend Irv, who has the best taste in music of anyone I know, about the dearth of innovation in jazz these last 30 years or so. He says I'm not listening to the right stuff; I say there's a difference between making good records and pushing back boundaries, which jazz fans of a certain stripe used to expect almost as an article of faith. Personally I blame the neocons (Wynton Marsalis and his ilk) for creating the current climate, where tradition dukes it out with baldfaced commercialism (forget about any "avant-garde") for survival. If the guys being promoted as the cutting edge of the art form 20 years ago had aspired to something more than imitating the '60s Miles band, perhaps things today would be different. Perhaps not. In any event, when I told Irv that I'd heard Ornette got paid 60 grand for a recent performance in Austin, he responded, "If he didn't make at least a hundred, then jazz is dead." More recently, I heard that Ornette's going price for a concert is now $30,000. Sorry, pal.

I know that I contribute to the devaluation of the artist's currency every time I buy a dubious Italian reissue at Half Price Books for four bucks rather than ponying up full price for the officially sanctioned release, but whatthehell. At this writing, Ornette's Harmolodic imprint (distributed by Verve) is still active and most of his major works remain in catalog, but it'd be foolish to assume that's a permanent condition. One reason why Ornette didn't work a lot in the late '60s was that he had "priced himself out of the market," but perhaps that strategy (and the subsequent scarcity of his appearances) is the reason why he remains so well-paid today. (Face it, nobody who plays real music is making what they did in the '80s today; only reality TV stars get that much to perform.)

Go to the official Zappa website and I'm pretty sure you can still see a broadside from the Zappa Family Trust, blasting Rykodisc, the label with the rights to Frank's catalog, for slashing their prices on Zappa product. So, if you like, you can pay Frank's estate twice what you'd pay in a regular retail outlet and almost three times what you'd pay a discounter for the same fine recording. In life, Frank took a lot of shit from folks in the counterculture, basically for being a small businessman trying to make a living instead of a starry-eyed utopian or a walking pharmaceutical laboratory. As savvy as he was, I figure he'd understand it's all about supply and demand, what the market will allow.

I just don't want to have to imagine a world in which it's no longer possible to hear the work of artists like Ornette and Frank or more importantly, younger people who are motivated by the same kinds of impulses they were. And honestly, I have an uneasy feeling that it's closer than I'd like to admit.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

so long uncle duke

wow. hunter s. thompson killed himself.

him and sandra dee on the same day. it's almost too much to bear.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

dancehall reggae and the last acceptable prejudice: aids wins!

from my old hometown rag the village voice, here's a trenchant little piece of musicology/sociology on homophobia in dancehall.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

punk is as punk does

i hate rockstars and all their preening, egotistical, self-aggrandizing bullshit. sure, i know they're all tortured souls underneath (aren't we all?), but why they gotta act like the world at large can kiss their ass (while dropping coin for their record/showticket/t-shirt/etc., of course)? that's why i'll never go to another show where i have to look at a jumbotron to see the band (and it's tiny). nah, i'd rather hear the other ones, the weird, asocial kids who get into music because it gives 'em a voice and a crowd to hear it (even though that sometimes means they wind up acting like BMOCs like the pricks described earlier in this paragraph; it's an interesting tension, at least).

there's a movie out now about the minutemen, who totally epitomized the "do-it-yourself" aesthetic of punk, whose main guy d. boon created scarcely a ripple in the consciousness of the public at large when he checked out in december 1985 (crashed the van coming home from visiting his girlfriend's relatives) -- certainly nothing, f'rinstance, compared to what attended the deaths of hendrix (who my best friend of the time, whose tastes ran more towards peter paul & mary and roger miller, persisted in calling "bobby hendrix," and whose music i couldn't listen to for 20 years after college because i'd seen one too many examples of the human wreckage that otherwise intelligent people could make of themselves in the name of "bein' like jimi") or cobain (who actually pissed me off more when he took the coward's way out -- playing ernest hemingway and eating the shotgun, mega-success and "the year punk broke" and wife and baby not enough to quiet the demons he carried within him -- primarily because my own kids really believed in him, saw him as some kind of spokesman or avatar, and he just wasn't up to the gig).

still, boon left his mark -- i mean, seriously, is there a better record than double nickels on the dime, the minutemen's sprawling trout mask replica for the reagan decade, substituting political consciousness for don van vliet's rampant tree hugger-ism? fugeddabout the mc5, these guys didn't need a toy political party to talk about what was wrong in america. and they didn't hew to anybody's musical orthodoxy, either. "punk rock is what we make it," they said. meant it, too; there's a marked absence of repetitive downstroke barre chords and four-on-the floor drums in their music, and plenty of other stuff -- funk, something approaching jazz, fingerpicked nylon-string acoustics, even a conjunto polka or two. not only that, but they were big enough to render props to influences as unfashionable as blue oyster cult and john fogerty (where'd you think the flannel shirts came from?). listening to their swan song 3-way tie for last in the car yesterday, i was struck (and a bit saddened) by how relevant its ruminations on war remain, 20 years after they laid it down. boon's buddy mike watt, whom he met by falling out of a tree, is my age, with as many tours under his belt as he has rings around his trunk, and he still climbs in the van to make the circuit of the punk dumps a coupla times a year in spite of having suffered a near-fatal illness a few yrs back and facing rock's law of diminishing returns. which only makes songs like the minutemen's "history lesson (part 2)" or watt's own solo "drove up from pedro" that much more poignant. yeah, your band could be my life. go easy, bro.

at carl pack's birthday party at the wreck room last week, i remember thinking, "wow, just from the people in this room, someone could write an oral history of punk in fort worth." carl his own self, chuck rose, professor blake hestir, carey blackwell, melissa kirkendall, lee allen, william bryan massey III -- throw in a coupla others like quincy holloway and tony chapman and we'd have our own little please kill me or our band could be your life or we've got the neutron bomb. pack's a stylin' mofo, and at age 40 (i refuse to say "even"), he could never be mistaken for anybody but himself -- moving faster behind the bar on one leg than billy wilson can on two, hopping in front of the mic stand or throwing away his crutches and lying on the floor, pretending to read from an upside down bible while bellowing "hey mister, hey mister / stick yer dick in / yer sister" while his long-in-the-tooth punk cohort cheers him on. or later, exhorting his "bitches" to "talk to your president," then holding the mic down by his crotch. you had to kinda feel sorry for his partners in the gideons, who played to 50 or 60 people with carl up front and maybe 10 as brother tex after he left the stage. that's what you get for learning how to play, i guess.

the gideons' music has all the nihilistic fury and none of the groove of the stooges at their best -- prompting steve steward from darth vato to remark later, "seeing those guys made me wish the me-thinks played out more." while the darth boys sometimes seem like more of a vehicle for kerry dean to work out his role confusion (am i a tcu fratboy? a dickies-bedecked white eazy-e wannabe? or a high school math teacher? why not be _all three at once_?!?!?) than a band, steward comes as close as any 24-year-old i know to having _the correct spirit_. steve grew up in lodi, california, where in the late '80s you could still go to see high school bands playing at vfw halls. he waxes nostalgic (play on words) about such punk arcana as split vinyl singles, even threatens to make one of his band with their buddies in chatterton (who represent a totally different strain of indie rockismo). "it'd be the most mean-spirited single ever," he says.

the me-thinks, of course, are the self-proclaimed "shittiest band in fort worth," whose endless stream of self-deprecating bullshit is as intentionally funny as most wannabe-rockstars' self-important horseshit is unintentionally so. left to their own devices, they'd probably never leave their mini-warehouse in haltom city, but they can occasionally be coaxed out to play a gig at the wreck room, where they invariably invoke the spirit of their proto-punk forefathers and the letter of lotsa bands from scandinavia that have flames in their graphics. head me-think ray liberio knows all about the importance of branding, being a graphic artist by trade. his latest brainstorm: the me-thinks are recording a double e.p., to be released on a single cd. genius. steward keeps threatening to book a warehouse someplace, buy some kegs, and charge the kids five bucks at the door to hear the me-thinks and darth vato throw down. now, that's a show i'd pay to see.

Monday, February 14, 2005

superman is a dick

hahahahaha. this is the funniest shit i've seen on the 'net in awhile. they went live last week and got so much traffic -- 146 hits a second, i think they said -- that they crashed their server. now they're back, thanks to the smiling folks at national lampoon, who apparently have a web presence, even though all they seem to do these days is release lame will ferrell/vince vaughan movies. so there.

Friday, February 11, 2005

bright eyes, wtf?!?!?

so indie rock wunderking/critics' darling/recent rolling stone coverboy conor oberst brought his band bright eyes to the ridglea theater earlier this week. although aimee digs them mightily, and i sorta like some of their stuff and was impressed by their show at trees a coupla years back, well, we're trying to save money this year and it wouldn't fit in our budget. so imagine my surprise when i read some of young conor's comments re: the state where i live. "i'd put a [expletive deleted] gun to my head before i'd live in your state." whatthefuck, conor? listen, angst-boy: i've been to omaha. it was no great shakes, either, and it doesn't have a thimbleful of the musical history my town does. not to mention the fact that the cornhusker state also lays substantial claim to the title manure capital of the u.s. of a.

oh well. perhaps i'm just being parochial. and after all, i said/did loads of stoopid shit when i was 24 and drunk. i just wasn't getting paid to do it. if it was motivated by a dislike of the dimbulb currently occupying 1600 pennsylvania ave., who claims texas as home, i wonder what herr oberst says when he plays in connecticut, whence dubya sprang. but hey, little dude, nebraska was pretty resolutely red in this last election, too, although it only has a piddly-ass five electoral votes, compared with texas' 34. i once wrote that i thought conor's singing a song about walking away from a fight on the eve of the iraq invasion was "brave." in a way, i still think it was. but i also think that venting spleen at bright eyes' own melancholic texan fans was more than a little chickenshit: kid comes to your show looking to make a connexxxion with a performer he/she really digs/relates to, winds up getting dissed/downed for his/her zipcode.

oh well, what the hell. bring on the dancing horses.

sports night

a secret: i don't know shit about sports. all i know is enough to sound interested when the subject comes up in a bar (which is the only place i see the shit, usually with the sound turned off, ever since we got rid of the tv which is something i'd been waiting to do for 25 years, more or less). i love the american myth of baseball, but the games are so long and _so_ fucking boring. even when the yankees and mets were playing the subway series, i think i might have watched part of one game. football is a sixty-minute game stretched out to three hours for commercials. i admire the athleticism of basketball and soccer, but not enough to actually watch any games.

several years ago dan lightner and i took a trip out to rockwall, where i had found a working washer and dryer that some guy was selling for fifty bucks. we were the _only_ thing on the road. it was spooky. we thought that maybe the rapture had come. we stopped someplace to get something to eat. there was a single mexican family there, eating their lunch, and two yokels behind the counter with the tv on. then we realized why the town seemed deserted: it was super bowl sunday.

sunrise fw 2/11/05

staring at the silhouette of downtown through bare trees
w/pink and purple clouds behind it,
i feel like some dumb ape looking at the grand canyon
thinking, "ooh. aah. big rocks."

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Richard Hell

Speaking of writers 'n' punk rock 'n' shit, I was dubbing some old Television bootlegs the other day for a friend who just read Please Kill Me and I got to thinking about Richard Hell, who was in the original Television lineup from their beginnings as the Neon Boys. (The story of his and Tom Verlaine's misadventures is in the previously mentioned tome as well as the also-worthy From the Velvets to the Voidoids by Clinton Heylin.) Speaking of the Voidoids, that was the band Hell had with gtrist Bob Quine, who took his own life last year. In between times, Hell was in the original Heartbreakers lineup with a couple of ex-New York Dolls. Now he writes novels. Somebody told me he got fat. From the pic on his website, it would appear that they were full of shit.

It's funny, I've gone years without reading anything longer than a cereal box, but I think I might have to get up from the 'puter and spend a few weeks reading some of this great shit I've been stumbling across. Or watch some movies or something.

William Bryan Massey III a real fucking writer. He's been publishing his own little books of poetry and rants for years. Tonight, I finally got to meet him (at Carl Pack's birthday party, at the Wreck Room). He's still writing. Kat bought a copy of his latest book, and showed me a poem called "Father's Day" that made me cry. I came home and found out that Bryan actually has a web presence. Lucky for us.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Carl Pack

Carl Pack runs my favorite rock'n'roll bar anywhere, the Wreck Room. While his name's not on the lease, he (and Graham Richardson, and Billy Wilson, and Andre Edmonson, and Jon Teague) treats it like it's his place -- with pride. I love the Wreck, so much so that Kat and I are gonna have our wedding reception there. A couple of years ago, when I was offered the opportunity to write "a heartwarming countercultural Christmas story," I had to shoehorn the Wreck in there.

Last year Carl, who's been apolitical all his life as far as I know, got politicized -- to the point of having voter registration cards in the bar and even showing Fahrenheit 9/11 on the night when Michael Moore said that anybody who wanted to, could. I hope he isn't disenchanted after the election result. He's a born grass-roots organizer, in his way.

This Thursday, Carl's old band the Gideons is getting back together to play a reunion show at the Wreck, celebrating Carl's 40th birthday. While they were kind of a mess musically, there's no way anybody could deny that they had the correct spirit. Ya mo' be there. Maybe you, too?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Happy Birthday, Bob

It's always a gas when you have two or three good shows to choose from when you're planning to go out -- a condition which has been occurring more and more frequently here in the Fort of late. It's even better when you can find a bill that brings together two or three bands you'd go to see on their own. That happens less often.

So when we saw that Pablo and the Hemphill 7 were celebrating Bob Marley's birthday at the Wreck Room with Confusatron and Kulcha Far I, it was a no-brainer. Since drummer Damien Stewart returned to the fold last fall after a brief hiatus to concentrate on his other band, Goodwin, Pablo has moved from strength to strength. The various members brought back the knowledge they'd gained in their outside endeavors (bassist Marcus Lawyer's plethora of secret recording projects, guitarist Steffin Ratliff and keyboardist Justin Pate's participation in a half dozen other bands) to broaden and deepen Pablo's thang. Their shows have progressed from merely great to collective ecstasies, and they've gotten smarter about the way they present themselves, too. After developing a following by working their asses off playing four-hour shows in any venue that would have them, they've retrenched to concentrate on developing original material and recording a real CD (although the bandmembers have circulated a steady stream of "bootleg" product that's afforded fans a window on their progress, allowing us to watch the evolution of both their material and their creative process). If he wasn't so secure in his skin, I'd expect Pablo frontman/mastermind Joe Vano to be steamed that Berry St. upstarts Darth Vato got their record out before his band did theirs. But that isn't the way Joe's mind operates.

There's a lot of intentionality behind every move Pablo makes, a reflection, I think, of Vano's temperament. You might expect him to be "crazy" -- all poets are, aren't they, after all? -- and if you ask him, Vano will tell you that he's a poet first and foremost. (When his best bud Stewart stepped out of Pablo for a minute, the bandleader assured him it was cool. "After all," Joe said, "I'm a poet first. But wait a minute...I'm your friend first. So I guess that means I'm a musician third.") But if he is, he's crazy like a fox. Vano's into creating events, shows that flow organically and build in intensity and vibe. Witness last November's Xtreme Soundclash '04 at the Axis, where Pablo topped a bill of reggae-inflected (to varying degrees) bands from the Fort: Darth Vato, Sally Majestic, Kulcha and Sin-C. But the Darth boys and Sally draw a different kind of crowd -- less, how you say, bohemian; more collegiate on the one hand and more, um, thuggish on the other. And Sin-C, a band that's been together as long as the Hemphill 7, remains most remarkable for its inability to progress musically -- they're more garrruuunk/stoned hoodlums with instruments than a band, really (although the singer looks like a miniature Joe Vano and the guitar player sounds like someone needs to play him some Bad Brains to give him an idea of an approach that might work for him -- if he starts practicing). Perhaps a better example: the recent evening at the Axis where Pablo appeared sandwiched in between jazzified funkateers Confusatron (who've grown by leaps and bounds over the past year to the point where they'd be unrecognizable to someone who last saw them when they were just a trio, playing "All Blues" on the street in front of the old Coffee Haus in Sundance Square) and fusion heavies Bertha Coolidge (taking advantage of drummer Rich Stitzel's availability to play a run of shows at the Black Dog Tavern and elsewhere).

An unheralded development on the Fort Worth scene: the rising number and growing popularity of bands whose stock in trade is groove and vibe rather than pop-rock flash or singer-songwriter angst. Think about it: Sub Oslo, the Spoonfed Tribe (when they're doing their organic drum thang, not coming across like cock-rockers in hippies' clothing), Bertha, Pablo, and now Confusatron. That's an encouraging sign to people who like their music organic and free from VH-1/MTV popstar poseur bullshit. Because face it, kids: There isn't going to be "another Toadies." But if you're smart and self-aware, where a door closes (ClearChannel), a window opens up (the internet). And Joe Vano's smart enough to realize that all you need to do to have a "scene" is to have enough people who believe you have one and are willing to pay the price of the ticket to see the show.

For Pablo, the Marley birthday bash had a threefold purpose: 1) to commemorate their greatest collective inspiration (they learned to play together by listening to the '73 Marley bootleg The Sausolito Sessions, and an early milestone in their journey was opening a show for Bob's backing band, the Wailers, at the Ridglea Theater when they'd been a band for scarcely three months); 2) to raise money to cover production costs for their CD; and 3) to test the waters for a new Wreck Room "ritual" -- regular reggae Sundays. Maybe add a fourth: To drop some political knowledge. When Joe, who'd just watched Fahrenheit 9/11, told the crowd "Don't be afraid to live your life" and later, to vote for Kinky Friedman for governor of Texas (his slogan: "How hard can it be?"), you knew he meant it.

For me, part of the joy of the evening was seeing two old guitar-playing buds working in situations where they seemed happier and more comfortable than I'd seen them before. Ron Geida plays with Kulcha Far I, where he fills a lot of space in the band's three-instrument format. Ron's a transplanted Yank from Springfield, Mass., with jazz and classical training and exquisite chops. He taught two of my daughters guitar, and he and I once had a band together that started out with the idea of being a free-flowing jam band but wound up (due to the temperaments of the people involved, a collection of smart jazz guys and dumbass blues guys) evolving into a tight-assed little fake jazz band that ground to a halt after 13 gigs, three bassplayers, two drummers, one nervous breakdown (mine), and a partridge in a pear tree. Over the years I've seen him with the Civilians (which I originally thought was a Christian rock band but wasn't, not really), Jasper Stone (with whom I always thought Ron was both underutilized and more firepower than they needed, although he did get to tour Europe with 'em), and loads of bluesbands and cover bands. While I was surprised to hear he was playing reggae, he fits in well with his rootsy bandmates (John Shook on bass and Jeffrey Williams on drums), and seemed to be having a blast, holding down the riddim and blazing up and down the fretboard at will.

Kulcha's frontguy Chris Hakata can legitimately claim the title of African Rasta (which he does, on his last CD), having grown up slightly east of Fort Worth in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he actually got to see Bob Marley perform in the flesh on his country's first-ever independence day, April 18, 1980. Chris is an energetic, upful performer who projects positivity and has the vocal chops (and, um, unaffected accent) to really sing this stuff. It was nice to see him and his band getting a good reception from a decent-size (although not as big as it'd get later) crowd. At Soundclash, the crowd didn't seem to know quite how to respond to Kulcha -- possibly, I thought, because they weren't used to seeing, um, y'know, black people onstage. A word on that, by the way: the crowd at the Marley bash was nicely multiculti in a way you usually don't get to see here in the Fort (except occasionally at blues or jazz shows). Building webs of inclusion through the shared enjoyment of music and art is, well, the best candy bar your money can buy.

Kulcha set the tone for the evening with their opening number, "Good Vibrations" (that's right, the '66 Beach Boys hit, done as an instrumental). Then the baton passed to Confusatron, and they ran with it. My other old guitar bud John Stevens has been playing with them for the past few months. I remember standing next to him at the Black Dog one Thursday night watching them play and hearing him remark, "This'd be a really cool band to play with." The next time I saw them, he was in the lineup -- a fortuitous thing all the way around, I think. I first heard John play when he was still a teenager and even then he was a natural -- a groover and a listener, the kind of player who can hear four bars of anything and jump in, playing good, creative shit. At the time I met him I was trying to insinuate myself into a blues-rock outfit called Smokehouse. John wound up getting the gig, which was fine: he was the better man for the job. Back then he was still heavy into his Stevie Ray bag, to the point of doing the little sidestep move he probably copped, perhaps unconsciously, from SRV's Live at the El Mocambo video. While playing with the jam band Nuthin' Special, his ears got opened up to a wider palette of influences, from Jerry Garcia to Django Reinhardt.

John's improvs with Confusatron are as focused and fluid as ever, and Brian Batson's still a badass little tie-dyed, patchouli-scented saxophone-slinging mofo, but really, at their best, solos are superfluous in this band -- it's all about the groove. They hit and within 30 seconds, they'd locked it in the pocket and didn't let up for a full hour. As I've written elsewhere, lately their jams have become more structured (Jonathan the percussionist confided that they've even been rehearsing, and it shows), which only enhances their punch and power. Matt Skates has pared down his basslines to just what's fundamental, only taking one brief solo slot, and he's built a great rapport with new drummer Lucas White, who's a lot more on point here than he was with Keith Wingate's trio, where he tended to frenzy out more and his reach sometimes exceeded his grasp. The real groovemaker here appears to be Pablo's Justin Pate, who must be getting more arranbee in his diet. (Or maybe it has something to do with his discovery of Frank Zappa, by way of a dubbed copy of The Helsinki Concert he acquired via Damien Stewart. Or maybe it's just something in the water.) In any case, the reasons why are only important to the overanalytical. All you really need to know is this: It's impossible to hear Confusatron without moving. Forget the labels. This is dance music.

After Confusatron closed the best set of theirs I've ever heard with a cover, Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," the stage was set for the headliners. Pablo's set was a masterpiece of pacing -- probably the best example of that I've seen since the Woodeye show where they started and ended slow and I told Kat, "It sounds like Carey Wolff's finally proud of these songs." Vano's crew opened with three newer songs, including "Green Light Girl" and "The Front," so when Marcus fired up the intro to their longtime set-opener "Freedom," it was almost like they were starting over again. In honor of Bob's birthday, they played a mini-Marley set in the middle: "Trenchtown Rock," "Small Axe," "Stir It Up," and climactically, "No Woman No Cry." Before "Small Axe," Marcus put the call out for any I-Threes wannabes in the audience, which brought three women (including Steffin's girlfriend Cammie) onstage to dance and sing backing "woo-woos." By "No Woman No Cry," there were ten non-bandmembers onstage and the room felt like it was about to levitate. That would have been a fitting closer to anybody else's set, but Pablo kept it going for another 45 minutes with audience faves like "Little Man and Chiva Joe" (which regrettably no longer includes Steffin's heart-stopping solo in the middle; for my money, he's the best point-to-point player in the Metromess, but I can see how he'd be tired of taking the same solo slots every single show after three years), "Wacked!" (which sounds like something Steel Pulse might have written in their Tribute to the Martyrs glory days), and Justin's Beatlesque feature "Picture This" (on which Steffin's solo quotes a keyboard part from Led Zep's In Through the Out Door, no fooling). They have over an hour's worth of strong original material now, which means no more "Steppin' Razor" or "Sound System," but the covers aren't missed -- the originals are that good.

Toward the end of the set, Pablo broke out the spacey-sounding dubwise piece that they've been playing onstage for awhile -- I still don't know its name, shame on me -- and what's become my favorite song of theirs (or anybody's), "Rude Boy." The two tunes are the first fruits of the studio experimentation Justin and Marcus have been doing separately for awhile, honoring the spirits of both Lee Perry and Radiohead. (I wish they'd play "The Great Bash" again one of these days, but realistically, they've probably progressed beyond it.) They've managed to integrate the "weird noises" into their sound as seamlessly as they've absorbed Jonathan's percussion and Matt Skates' trombone, to the point where all of these elements sound as if they've always been present. And "Rude Boy" really is something new -- an agreeable collision of reggae, trip-hop, and old-school R&B, sounding like the JB's and Public Enemy rubbing shoulders with DJ Shadow, Vano declaiming like a roots reggae rocker riding an out-of-control New York City subway. I want to hear it 50 times a day for the next year.

The latest bootleg CD Marcus was hawking (a "fundraiser" for the "real" CD that will also serve, he said, as lucky donors' ticket to the CD release party and a beer on Pablo) pretty much mirrors the sequence of the Wreck Room set and includes some new recordings of songs that previously existed, as far as I know, only on their very early "live at the Ridglea" EP. I understand that they've been recording at Matt Hembree's house, so there's no telling whether or not any of these will make the final cut for the CD. One thing I do know for certain: Pablo and the Hemphill 7 are the best band on the boards in Fort Worth right now, bar none, and they need to make a record that reflects that.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

the pianist

watched roman polanski's the pianist the other night. went looking for some classic kurosawa samurai flicks, but those suckers are expensive. i remembered kat had mentioned the pianist when we were talking about adrien brody a coupla weeks ago. we'd seen him do a turn as the local idiot who serves as the catalyst for the action in m. night shyamalan's disappointing the village, and we were trying to think of some better roles he'd had. he was the punk rocker guy in spike lee's summer of sam, where spike typically got the details of the, um, dark underside of saturday night fever right but totally blew it when it came to depicting noo yawk punk ca. '77. for one thing, nyc punks didn't have extreme scissorhead mohawks; that particular affectation came after the virus spread to l.a. and d.c. beyond that, the "punk band" in spike's movie sounded more like '80s goth than what was playing at cbgb's at the time. and brody had a bit part in terrence malick's the thin red line, which was probably the best of the spate of world war II flicks that appeared around the end of the century, even though i was warned off it by a bud who said he'd walked out on it when he went to see it in the theater. malick's lyrical film was both better than the james jones novel that inspired it and the crappy 1964 film version andrew marton directed. brody played private fife, jones' alter ego who malick reduced to a relatively minor character.

like most people, my buddy preferred steven spielberg's take on "the good war," but i'm a little more ambivalent about saving private ryan. while the battle scenes were harrowing enough to be almost unwatchable, they probably did as good of a job as anyone's done at capturing the chaos and horror of combat. spielberg typically overplayed his hand, though, making the characters heroic archetypes that really weren't that far from your stereotypical '50s world war II pic. he pulled the same gambit with his holocaust film, schindler's list: while the first hour was almost too stark to watch, you also got the sense that as difficult as it was to look at, it was only a simulacrum of the real-life horrors wrought by the "final solution." near the end, though, i remember telling the person i saw it with in the theater, "if he [the oskar schindler character] starts crying, i'm walking out." and he did, of course, but we stuck it out, and the final sequence, where the actors accompanied the survivors they portrayed to a holocaust memorial in israel, almost redeemed the film -- certainly gave it a power and authenticity it wouldn't have otherwise had. (the documentary that accompanied the hbo band of brothers series accomplished much the same thing -- reminded you that yes, these events were real, and here are the men who lived through them.)

spielberg gets a pass for schindler's list, though, on the basis of his farming some of the profits into the survivors of the shoah visual history foundation, an outfit dedicated to documenting the testimonies of holocaust survivors. this year marks the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps, and it's sobering to realize that within a decade or so, there will be no one left who experienced the holocaust firsthand. it's important to keep that memory alive, i think, even though that knowledge hasn't prevented the world from turning a blind eye to genocides like those in rwanda and darfour. back in the '80s, when i was stationed in abilene with the b-1 bomber, i had a bud who was both an air force historian and a jew. he took a world war II class at abilene christian university, the premise of which, my friend was appalled to discover, was that the holocaust never happened. the instructor was a published and recognized authority in his field, too. that a professor of history could stand up on his hind legs and deny the reality of reams of documentary evidence and eyewitness testimony kinda defies belief, but then again, i suppose that discipline is as affected by its practitioners' political agendas as any social science. still, a scary thought -- persistent denial of reality, on the personal or societal level, is, after all, a sign of madness.

wladyslaw szpilman, the protagonist in polanski's visually stunning movie, isn't the kind of cod-heroic character you usually see in films like this. as kat pointed out, his actions are often motivated by pure self-interest, but that doesn't diminish his humanity or his value as a witness. through his eyes, we see the persecution of the jews following the nazi invasion of poland, their isolation in the warsaw ghetto, the death camps (which we only hear about, since szpilman escaped them through luck or chance, although his family perished at treblinka), the warsaw ghetto rising of 1943 and the larger warsaw rising following the d-day landings in 1944, which the red army watched from across the vistula while the germans brutally subdued the polish home army -- kinda like the americans in 1991 watching saddam's gunships cut down the iraqis who rose up against saddam at our then-president's urging. (in one scene where szpilman, hiding out in an apartment, watches the beginning of the jewish uprising, i couldn't help thinking, "insurgents.") a great, depressing, and ultimately uplifting film, although not in the usual cheap, hot-button way.

Friday, February 04, 2005

bush takes on hiphop nation

i didn't watch the state of the union address, but apparently in between the talk of dismantling social security and "responsible" spending, the prez announced an initiative to provide inner city youth with alternatives to gang membership (which is on the rise again, even here in the metromess) and, um, hiphop. journo/author jeff chang weighs in here with an interesting take: that the sound you heard in the background during dubya's address was the lefties, snoozing through yet another opportunity.