Monday, January 31, 2005

V-Day

So lately, I've been noticing the paucity of female performers out there in Clubland. Back in December, at Experience the Art of Music, an event benefitting the Women's Center of Fort Worth, why wasn't there a single female performer on the card? I mean sure, we all know that rock'n'roll is a boys' club -- if you don't believe, me, just ask Melissa Kirkendall, who's been running clubs and putting on shows in this town for the last 15 years and still can't seem to get props from the majority of folks on the scene; when Jason Reimer of Denton's Pyramid Scheme arts collective recently put forth the proposition that "to have a scene, what you really need is a Bill Graham" (and kudos to Jason for, um, even remembering who Bill Graham was), I couldn't help thinking, "We do. It's her." ("But she's difficult to work with," I've heard local musos say, which kinda begs the question, "Don't most promoters of either gender kinda define 'hard to work with?' ") Maybe my perspective's skewed by the fact I've got three daughters (and why wouldn't it be?), but the idea that the main function of wimmin on the scene is to serve as eye candy for the boyzzz that play and go to shows just seems, well, pretty wrongheaded. Maybe what this burg needs is a rock and roll summer camp for girls like the one they started up in Oregon, so we can grow a new generation of empowered women.

Or maybe I've just been barking up the wrong tree. Maybe the place to find strong women on the evening stage isn't down at the rock'n'roll club. Sure, I've had my ass whipped up on over the years by the likes of Chrissie Hynde (first Pretenders tour, before half her band OD'd and she married first Ray Davies, then that whimpering donkey from Simple Minds), Joan Jett (whom I once, ca. '80, observed blowing Iggy Hisself clean off the stage during a low ebb in His career when His best song was "Louie Louie," an experience comparable to seeing the Lakers with both Kareem and Magic still in the lineup having their heads handed to them by George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs), and Patti Smith (a transcendent performance at the Gypsy Tea Room near the end of the century, which made a believer of me in spite of my previously having been, um, not a fan). More recently, I've been impressed by marathon-running singer-songwriter Heather Knox, the 50% female L.A. band Slow Signal Fade (whose button I proudly wear on the closest thing to a rock'n'roll jacket that I've owned in 20 years), and singer-guitarist-trumpeter Regina Chellew, ex-Captain Audio, who now fronts the Dallas-based band Day of the Double Agent (not "Dave the Double Asian"). And who could forget Pam Pride, back when she was running Fort Worth's only lesbian jazz bar, fronting a bemused-looking trio she probably got through the union, responding to a request for a Willie Nelson song with what has to be the funniest thing I ever heard anybody say onstage: "I would tell you to suck my dick...but it's out in the car."

Still, it's the exceptions, as they say, that prove the rule. And the rule only applies if your orbit is restricted to certain types of venues.

So, a few weeks ago, when Kat's friend Tammy Gomez invited her to present some of her "digital art" (ignorant ass that I am, I continue to think of them as "QuickTime movies") at an event at the Arlington Museum of Art in support of V-Day, I thought it might be an opportunity to, how you say, broaden my horizons a bit. V-Day, I learned, is an organization that annually presents performances of The Vagina Monologues to benefit groups that work to stop violence against women and girls. Tammy herself is quite a phenom. A Fort Worth native and a world traveler, she's probably done more than anyone to promote poetry and spoken word performance in the Panther City. She's taught workshops and done performances all over the world, and been published often, most recently in the anthology Bicycle Love. Her reading of her 1993 poem "Manslaughter," about a "domestic violence" killing in Austin, was an object lesson in how to do spoken word the right way, but with commendable humility, she positioned herself in the middle of the program. No star trip here. One thing Tammy does very well: bringing together diverse performers to create bona fide events. When I saw the card for "eVeryDAY a Woman: voices (of) truth in art & verse," I was a little skeptical. If managing creative people is a little like herding cats, trying to cram 19 performers into two hours is a recipe for, at least, a high degree of frustration. Or so I thought.

A confession: When I see performance art coming, I usually run the other way. So much of it is silly, self-indulgent, self-important. Too often, the subtext (which subsumes the avowed purpose of the work) is "Look at me, look at me." (Of course, the same thing is true of a lot of musical performance; I just happen to relate better to noise with a beat than I do to "the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation." My bad.) Declaimed poetry usually hits me the same way, although I'm learning (through my literary daughter who likes to go to poetry slams). Maybe it's a hangover from when I used to moonlight at Borders and my second least favorite night (after chess night) was the night the poets took over the comfy chairs in the music department and we were barred for the evening from playing any music.

To make it easier for philistines like me, there was some music on the program, by a couple of singer-songwriters I'd heard of but never heard. Gigi Cervantes' music is almost painfully intimate and personal, her guitar playing just a whisper to complement the arc of her voice, but even I was unable to resist the couple of numbers she performed (an original and a Dar Williams cover). Tracie Merchant sounded earthier, rootsier. Her politics (a reminder that even in a post-9/11 world, dissent remains as American as, well, folk music, and a Woody Guthrie cover -- she performed at the festival that bears his name last year, and is descended from Grapes of Wrath Okies who stuck around through the Depression years) were tailor-made for the leftie-sympathetic audience, and her music should appeal to anyone who dug Billy Bragg and Wilco reimagining Woody. I left with a CD of her stuff that I need to listen to the next time I have a day free to devote listening to new music. (During the working week, I usually stick with the comfortable and familiar. I suck.)

Beyond that, the good stuff was so good that I was able to suspend my habitual dread of spoken word. Monologist Yvonne Duque, who directs and teaches theater workshops at the Rose Marine Theater, had great presence and really inhabited her material. I need to see her in a play sometime. Martha Whitehouse read hilarious excerpts from a novel in progress. The book in question is a mystery, but the bits she read described a life situation that had a lot of resonance for her listeners, even out of context. She said so far she's only received rejection notices, but "good ones -- the kind that say 'This is really good, but we're not publishing stuff like this right now.' " A pity -- she has a great, original voice. I just want someone to publish her book so we can sit around my house and crack each other up reading it aloud. (Which is what we do instead of watching TV, most of the time.) Megan Harris came across like someone's wiseass punk-grrrl kid sister but recited a series of short poems ("I'm really ADD") that hit like Burroughs cut-ups, only loaded with vivid, evocative imagery. Best of all was Natasha Carrizosa, a bilingual championship slam poet (which seems a weird distinction, but no weirder than Martin Amis' story in which he imagines a world where the fortunes of poets and screenwriters are reversed) whose work is rich with riddim and sensuality. I dug her work so much that I went online and found examples of it here and here. Who knows, I might even have to start showing up at the Black Dog before the poetry slam ends.

I'm highly biased, but I also dug Kat's piece, "Take Me As I Am," real much. Kat's been doing these little movies for awhile, mainly for her own edification and enjoyment (and for friends and family). She's mos def not into exhibiting her work for public consumption, but she agreed to do it just this once out of respect for Tammy. I love watching other people create, and it was a gas watching her start out with some material (in this case, images from lurid vintage paperbacks and movie posters), tinker with the images, add words (randomly selected from the texts of the books), and in the process, come up with a concept -- the archetypes which society projects on women, and a possible response to that. It also got me thinking about something a friend told me about how, with the advent of digital photography, people have gone from taking, say, a hundred pictures a year that document their lives, to a couple of thousand. What's going to happen to all of these images 2000 years down the road? Will there still be ways of accessing all of these digital media, or will future archaeologists wonder why, around the start of the 21st century, people stopped taking pictures? (Yeah, right, as if celluloid and paper are gonna survive the ages.) A sobering thought, when so much visual art and writing (um, including this blog) exists only in the electronic ether of 1's and 0's.

I still dunno what to think/say about the situation vis-a-vis wimmin in Clubland. But I do know this: Anytime I see someone doing something I can't understand, but know is real, I call it magic. And there was a whole lot of that going on that night in Arlington.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Love Supreme

I went and saw Confusatron play at the Black Dog last Thursday. I was pleasantly surprised: these days, they're playing tunes with more than perfunctory changes -- probably the result of the always-musical keyboardist Justin Pate's input -- and their music has a nice ebb and flow that it didn't back when their modus operandi was simply to start playing and blow up against the back wall. Amid the clamor and clatter of the eight (count 'em, eight) musicians onstage, I could hear thematic development in Brian Batson's Maceo-cum-Ornette sax solos, Matt Skates' very fonky bass sounded better for having more just than his imagination in the moment to direct its flow, drummer Lucas White sounded a lot more comfortable than he did when he was playing just a little over his head in Keith Wingate's trio, and bluesy guitarist John Stevens has realized every bit of potential he ever showed when he was aping Stevie Ray Vaughan in Smokehouse or shoehorning his sound into Nuthin' Special's Dead/Phish jam-band thang.

Confusatron's music has the same silly-shit quotient that the best Fort Worth bands all seem to have (their "theme song" and the goofy shades Batson donned while singing Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman"), and that's a good thing, I think -- a sign that they haven't yet succumbed to the Sin of Seriousness. Occasionally, when they broke it down, the boys lost their groove and lapsed into the kind of aimlessness that comes from kicking an idea around for longer than it can sustain, but overall, I was reminded of how enjoyable it can be to watch a local band develop over time. These guys have come a long, long way from the days when Batson and Skates used to play for tips in front of the Coffee Haus in Sundance Square. Seeing the sizable crowd that showed up to hear them (and White assured me that it was "a little slow" that night), I had to smile remembering Skates' initial surprise when Tad Gaither offered them a regular, paying gig. They've got a live CD now. You can buy it at their shows. It's only three bucks -- real value for money -- but it's not as great as the one I know these guys are gonna make someday.

What Confusatron is not: a jazz band, although they might easily be mistaken for one by civilians who think any music that features improvisation and saxophones is automatically jazz. Sure, Batson and Skates are products of the jazz program at Weatherford College (and Skates' guitar-playing brother, whose first name I'm sorry to say eludes me, studied jazz at TCU). But the music they play is more jam-band rock and streetcorner funk than it is jazz. And there's nothing wrong with that. Audiences dig what they dig, and if musicians can find a crowd that happens to pick up on the form of expression that's most organic to them, it's a win-win, as they say in CorporateAmerica. These guys are a natural for the groove-hungry crowd that digs local heavyweights like Pablo and the Hemphill 7, Sub Oslo, Bertha Coolidge, and even the mighty Spoonfed Tribe (and indeed, Spoonfed's front guy Egg Nebula was in the Black Dog crowd that night).

Still, it saddens me that a band like Dave and Daver can only draw a fraction of the crowd Confusatron routinely pulls to the same venue -- on a good night. I'll admit to being a sucker for the kind of jive Daves Karnes and Williams and crew purvey: specifically, the kind of post-bop, tune-based, modal improv for which the archetypes are John Coltrane's classic quartet, the Shorter-Hancock-Williams edition of the Miles Davis quintet, and a slew of classic Blue Note sides that drew from the same pool of musicians, as well as gifted contemporaries like Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard. These days, the jazz masterworks of that era seem to be on the verge of attaining the status of classical repertoire, which is usually a precursor to any art form losing whatever vitality it had left. Why, in the last few months, both the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra -- brainchild of pompous didact Wynton Marsalis, the last Great Black Man to be annointed by Columbia Records -- and the less-evil Marsalis brother Branford have essayed Coltrane's A Love Supreme -- for my money, the most fervent prayer ever committed to tape with the possible exception of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On -- on stage or disc.

But A Love Supreme IS classic, dammit, more for the individuality with which the original musicians invested it than for the sanctity of its structure. When I was in Korea back in '82-'83, I had a cassette I used to call my "sanity tape." On one side was A Love Supreme. On the other, Miles' In a Silent Way. Although I'm no longer thousands of miles from my family, being constantly reminded of a hostile adversary waiting just a few minutes' flight time away, I still listen to both of those records when the stress of life is about to put me over the edge. One of the things I pay the closest attention to on both records is the drumming. I love the way Elvin Jones invested everything he played (in Trane's band and elsewhere) with the deepest pulse imaginable, all the while listening and responding to the forms and the soloists. And I dig the tension between the pastoralism of the other instruments on the Miles record and the static cymbal patterns Tony Williams plays against them. (Anywhere else I've ever heard him, on records or the one time I saw him live -- in '77, with his New Lifetime -- Tony played like a force of nature, albeit a very intelligent one.)

Both Elvin and Tony are dead now. Elvin died from congestive heart failure last May at age 76. He stayed on the road until nearly the end, even though reports say he could scarcely hold a stick in his last days. Tony died of a heart attack during routine surgery back in 1997. He was only 51. Both of these men seemed larger than life to me, and I remain in awe of their musical accomplishments. No one has ever played drums in a way that melded subtlety and finesse with power as well as these two did. My point in bringing all of this up is, Dave Karnes knows about this shit. When he was at Berklee, he studied with Alan Dawson, who was also Tony's teacher. And everytime he hits the stand, those guys are present. I used to hear them in Dave's playing even before I knew him, and we've talked about them a lot since then.

Sure, there's limited utility in playing repertoire of any kind, but then again, jazz isn't the music of constant (well, once a decade, at least) innovation it used to be. There's more to Dave and Daver than "just a bunch of guys playing tunes," too. Not only does Dave Williams blow tenor sax with authority and taste, he writes good originals, melodies with the opaque abstraction of someone like Wayne Shorter. Musically, these guys might not be pushing back any boundaries, but they're bringing their own ideas to the table, which is rare in any idiom. They just finished their own CD, which gives you a chance to hear 'em playing a dozen of Dave Williams' tunes. So I'll keep going back and hearing Confusatron, and I'm sure I'll enjoy their continuing evolution. But I'll keep digging Dave and Daver just as much, and hoping that sooner than later, some other folks will catch on, too.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

big fish

i have a new favorite movie: tim burton's "big fish," which i think played in theaters for all of like 15 minutes. it's out on dvd now. (generally, kat and i watch old audrey hepburn movies and ancient cartoons along w/the occasional rock 'n' roll flick, plus whatever aimee brings home.) i suppose some people (the kind who like quentin tarantino films because he's "ironic") took this film as evidence that burton's gone soft in the head, but i've been there for a long time. (as chief dan chambers once told me, we _do_ get more sentimental as we get older. i mean, i liked "what dreams may come," too.) the last 10 minutes or so tore me up. apparently this italian rock 'n' roll rag i've done some stuff for liked it, too, but then again, i _expect_ italians to be sentimental. like all my favorite books 'n' flicks, "big fish" is about storytelling (and the fact that not everybody you think is full of shit is really full of shit). and fathers 'n' sons 'n' like that. if you can buy into the premise of ewan macgregor growing up to be albert finney, you'll prolly love it. jessica lange and helena bonham carter are in it, too, and do a real good job. steve buscemi and danny devito, too. and carl the giant. now i can almost tolerate the idea of seeing the film which i saw hyped with an ad that went something like this: "wonka. burton. 2005." you gotta love hollywood. or not.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Scott Morgan

As much hip cachet as the whole Detroit late-'60s/early-'70s thang (MC5, Stooges, et al.) has always had, you'd think more people would know about Scott Morgan. When Iggy was still working at Discount Records in Ann Arbor, Scott's high school band the Rationals (who morphed from Nuggets-era garage kings into blue-eyed soul brothers extraordinaire under the tutelage of legendary manager/record guy Jeep Holland) were voted the most popular band in Detroit. When the wheels kind of came off the scene there in the mid-'70s, Scott formed a sort of local supergroup, Sonic's Rendezvous Band, with Fred "Sonic" Smith from the MC5, Scott "Rock Action" Asheton from the Stooges, and Gary Rasmussen from the Up (kind of a poor man's Blue Cheer, but with important connections in the Ann Arbor hip community). For some reason, he's more highly revered in Australia and Scandinavia (where they apparently go for high-energy, R&B based hard rock more than folks here seem to) than he is in this country. If you're an uninitiate, suffice to say he's prolly the best rock vocalist this side of Paul Rodgers, and he's still sho 'nuff doin' it, although he's old enough to qualify for AARP membership.

Since the late '90s, when he hooked up with that season's Rawk flavor-o'-the-month the Hellacopters, he's had something of a career over in Europe, where he fronted a Swedish/Dutch band called the Hydromatics that started out with head 'Copter Nick Royale on drums. He's also toured the Continent with fellow Ann Arborite Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman fame. I had the pleasure of meeting Scott and his girlfriend Maureen at SXSW back in 1999, where he signed my Rationals album and played me the rough mixes of the first Hydromatics album in the van outside his hotel room. The next night, he showed up at Emo's to sit in with Wayne Kramer and I spent most of the Bellrays' set listening to Scott and Frank Meyer discussing what MC5 songs Scott might sing with Frank's band the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs (in the event, he sang none). At the very end of Wayne's set, he brought Scott out to sing the first two verses of "Kick Out the Jams" before bogarting the rest of the song himself -- pretty shabby treatment, I thought, for a guy who'd made a wide detour on a trip from Michigan to L.A. to be there.

Back home, Scott works with the band Powertrane, featuring Mitch Ryder's guitarist Robert Gillespie and the rhythm section of Chris "Box" Taylor on bass and Andy Frost on drums. In April 2002, I was present for a couple of shows that Powertrane played with Deniz Tek in Cleveland and Ann Arbor. For the second one (which was recorded for the CD Ann Arbor Revival Meeting), Ron Asheton from the Stooges was also in the lineup. As I wrote at the time, it was wish fulfillment at its best, and it gave me a buzz that persisted for a couple of weeks, even though I got shitcanned from my job around that time. More recently, Scott has actually topped the charts in Scandinavia with a record called Communicate! by a band called the Solution -- another collaboration with Nick Royale. It's actually the record I told Scott he needed to make when we first met back in '99 -- one on which he prominently displays his Detroit R&B roots.

Scott and Powertrane will be in Austin for SXSW this year, on March 17th. I won't be -- I'm getting married that Friday. But I'm trying to help him get a gig in Dallas or Fort Worth that week (say Wednesday or Friday). Any takers?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Tim Locke

Tim Locke's kind of an enigma: somewhat shy and awkward in social situations, but put him behind a guitar and a microphone and he'll bare his innermost soul in deeply personal songs, sung in a voice tinged with ache and regret. He's an intensely focused artist who'll tinker obsessively with his own creations, a fierce competitor at basketball and racquetball, a go-to guy who'll drop everything to hit the road if a friend's band needs a guitar player. (His mom Frankie once made this revealing comment: "When he was little, Tim tried all kinds of things, but he'd never want to keep it up if he couldn't be the best. He was also my most loving child.")

I've known Tim since 1994, when I was moonlighting at Blockbuster Music on Camp Bowie Boulevard on the west side of Fort Worth. Todd Lewis was working there, too -- all of the Toadies did, I think, at one time or another. Dan Lightner, who did the painting on the cover of the Toadies' Rubberneck, was a manager there. Later on, the rapper J.D. Jimmerson IV (aka Mr. Aggravated Foe) worked there, too. Back in '94, there was on ongoing struggle for control of the store's turntable (remember those?) -- Nine Inch Nails vs. A Tribe Called Quest. Whenever his coworkers wanted to piss Tim off, we'd play the CD by Cream of Mushroom, the grunge-y band with guitarist Greg Beutel that he'd just broken up. I knew that Tim sang and wrote songs back then, but I never in a million years would have imagined that someday he'd be great.

Not long after that, Tim and Greg got together with guitarist-songwriter Steve Duncan (ex-Tabula Rasa) and drummer Max Lintner. They started out rehearsing at the Stone Pony in Dallas, where Steve used to run sound. Their band was called Dead City Radio, and they had a song called "Angie Wood" that created a stir locally before they found out that another band already had their name. So, they became the Grand Street Cryers. (It was the time of three-name bands.) Stan Lynch, who'd drummed in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, heard them and took them out to L.A., where they recorded Steady On Shaky Ground in less than a month. They spent the next couple of years touring relentlessly around the midwest, somehow finding time to cut a second album, Grand Street Cryers, with two different producers in Arkansas and Dallas. I remember seeing them at some outdoor event in downtown Fort Worth around that time and being impressed by Tim's stage presence: a far cry from the slouchy, cynical kid I remembered from the record store. This was a Big Rock Show, and he was the highly emotive front guy.

The year 2000 brought some changes. For some reason (personal issues with bassist Steve Bernal, perhaps?), Tim and Steve elected to kick Grand Street to the curb and re-form as Blue Sky Black (after a song from the Cryers' first album) with drummer Robert Anderson and classically-trained bassist Byron Gordon (ex-Jim Squires Band). They continued slogging around Clubland and managed to attract the interest of some Houston indie upstarts who wanted to finance a recording. Unfortunately, all of that evaporated with the backers' capital in the wake of the Enron collapse, which pretty much spelled the end of Blue Sky Black. Steve Duncan elected to focus his considerable energies on his erstwhile side project The Chemistry Set, while Tim and Byron signed on with ex-Nixons frontman Zac Maloy's touring band.

While Tim's primary role in the Zac Maloy Band was as a non-singing guitarist, he never stopped writing, and in late October 2001, he recorded the EP Love Songs for the Very Low in Maloy's basement. It's a record of almost claustrophobic intimacy, with a spacey, dream-like ambience that (along with the confluence of pop sensibility and naked vulnerability in signature songs like "Many Happy Regrets," "Last Chance?" and "Welcome Mat") invites comparison with Elliott Smith's work. When he wasn't on the road with Zac, Tim started playing lengthy solo sets at the Moon and the Aardvark on West Berry Street in Fort Worth, near Texas Christian University, performing covers of classic rock and country tunes as well as his own material. (He's as saturated with the elder Hank Williams and George Jones as he is with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.) When I interviewed him for the local alt-weekly rag the next year, he had a couple of projects in mind that reflected those influences: a country-ish solo project and a rock band.

The first of those eventuated in 2003 with a band called Calhoun and a CD entitled The Year That Never Was. The record's sound is dense and richly-textured, a blend of epic Flaming Lips-like pop orchestration and post-Wilco twang, awash with Benroi Herring's lilting pedal steel, Gordon's bowed bass, and the celeste-like sound of a Suzuki Omnichord. The songs include some of Tim's best: the title track, "What Makes Your Black Heart Sing," "Boom Cha," "To Die in Little Pieces." Live, the band -- including old friends Gordon and Lintner along with Herring and "utility musician" Casey Diiorio (ex-Valve) -- performed amid lamps and end tables that gave their stage a living-room ambience.

The rock band emerged the following year. Dubbed Coma Rally, the band provided Tim an opportunity to work with guitarist Daniel Harville, another veteran of the music biz wars who'd been this close to grabbing the brass ring of mega-success with the pop-rock outfit Sugarbomb. With the Gordon-Lintner team stoking the engine room, they recorded a handful of tracks that remain tantalizingly unreleased, including one Tim calls "the most evil-sounding thing I've ever done" (which could be titled "Sugarbomb Goes to Hell"), and another that sounds for all the world like a Led Zeppelin song. (The Calhoun record closes with a cover of Zep's "Going to California" that sounds like a country song on the verses and something Trent Reznor might have done on the bridge.)

In fact, Tim spent a significant chunk of 2004 in California, working with a San Francisco-based producer called "The Count." While this might evoke images of a guy in a cape intoning, "Wahn, two, three bee-oo-teeful songs," the reality is something Entirely Other: a series of productions which frame Tim's songs in exquisite settings that glisten like highly-polished gems, with arrangements that flow organically from within the tunes. Tim's voice has never been recorded better, and The Count seems to hear his music in a more sympathetic way than any of the other producers Tim's worked with over the years. I've often said that since the demise of Blue Sky Black, Tim Locke has been doing the very best work of his career, but in venues where not enough people can hear him. His collaborations with The Count should make it easy for the big world outside of Fort Worth to get in on our best-kept secret.

Monday, January 17, 2005

blues people

so i'm re-reading leroi jones' blues people, the first book about jazz i ever read, and realizing just how dramatically it shaped my views and attitudes towards music and, um, society.

sure, the world's changed a lot since 1963, when the book originally appeared. not long after that, the poet jones reinvented himself as amiri baraka, reflective of the changes that were happening the larger culcha at the time. (the book's subtitle is negro music in white america, which should give you some insight into its contents.) what i learned from reading jones/baraka was that music, no, _all_ art is reflective of the social context in which it was created, and that _matters_. out of context, a song like, say, parliament's "mothership connection" might be construed as just stoned bullshit. in context, it signifies and invokes the power of myth, so that when george clinton sings "swing down, sweet chariot, stop and/let me ride," the line conjures visions of a dead african king rising from his funeral boat just before it goes over victoria falls and ascending to...you get the idea.

when i was still writing for _that paper_, i did a cover story once on lady pearl, a great (if underrecognized) blues singer from right here in the fort. later, i had the privilege of interviewing and writing about the locally born-and-bred jazzmen ronald shannon jackson and dewey redman. talk to any black person in this town over, say, 50, and you'll hear about how fort worth was -- hell, still is -- a segregated city. one of the musicians i interviewed for the blues story even talked about how one reason for robert ealey's tremendous popularity with white people was "because he used to _pop his eyes_" (spoken while the musician did a pretty convincing imitation of a lawn jockey). race is _always_ on the table when you're talking about america.

and yet, and yet. after the blues story appeared, another local muso (a white one) took me to task in a letter to the editor for giving the race angle so much play. "it's all about the music, maaan," he essentially said. and while i agree that in a perfect world (which you and i both know doesn't exist) that'd be true, we're not there yet. dewey (who remembers his family once having their car doused with urine by joyriding white kids) told me that back in the '90s, around the time of the ken burns jazz documentary, the political economy of the time dictated that black jazz musicians could once again get contracts with major labels (most of which had gutted their jazz divisions in the '80s) -- _if_ they were young and good-looking (like dewey's son joshua). when the burns doc ran and jazz failed to surge in popularity, even that avenue was shut down. now, i know that absence of commercial outlets doesn't necessarily equate with the absence of creativity and vigor in an art form, but still, it wouldn't surprise me if, in a generation, what we've historically thought of as jazz (and no, i don't count the room spray they play on the oasis) existed only in academia.

what happened, i think, is that the mtv era made role models whose appeal was primarily visual so accessible to american kids that music became almost superfluous. in today's commercial arena, image isn't the main thing, it's the _only_ thing, and today's performers are marketed like reality tv personalities: plastic popstars, laden with bling-bling, and faceless simulacra of simulacra. like non-alcoholic champagne, it's all fizz and no lift. a guy in nashville whose website i used to write for keeps waiting for the hard times in bushamerica to raise the level of political content in music. he's going to be waiting for awhile, i think. in general, the social and political dialogue in this country has degenerated to the level of talk radio, the electronic equivalent of the drunk guy at the end of the bar who won't shut up. ("i like toby keith." "i like the dixie chicks." "i'll kick your ass.") so, entertainment-wise, what we get is probably what we deserve: commercials for conspicuous consumption on the one hand, solipsistic psalms to self-absorption on the other. sure, there's interesting stuff happening on the fringes, maybe more now than ever before, but who's listening?

will "we the people" ever again agree on anything the way we supposedly did on elvis (or the beatles, or michael jackson, or jfk)? probably not: as a nation, we're as divided now as we ever were back in the '60s, maybe more so. polarized? shee-it. the few decades of the mass marketing model (in a nutshell: divide and conquer) that we've experienced have left us so segmented that a real consensus (not a stage-managed consensus) is almost unimaginable. in an environment like this, it actually seemed _brave_ to me when i heard conor oberst from bright eyes open his set at trees with a song about walking away from a fight on the eve of the iraq invasion. (it's on his new "folk" record.) so what, you ask -- do you really wanna hear what, say, ludacris has to say about the war in iraq?

sure. for starters.

noo yawk punk on dvd (doo-dah, doo-dah)

one of the dangers the resource-constrained (that's me, pilgrim, and probably you too) face when shopping on amazon.com is that once you've bought anything there, they've got your number (or at least your ip address) and they'll take any subsequent opportunity to alert you to other product you might wanna drop coin on.

so, because i apparently once did an amazon search for the new york dolls, the helpful folks at jeff bezos' place have made me aware of the existence of a live dvd from one of the reunion shows the surviving dolls -- that'd be david johanson (aka buster poindexter), syl sylvain, and arthur kane, who unfortunately shuffled off this mortal coil not long afterwards -- played last year (at the royal albert hall, no less, pretty impressive stuff, especially when you consider that the "mc3" played _their_ big london comeback show at the ratty 100 club), and another one by the dead boys, this one dating from their '77 heyday at storied cbgb's in lower manhattan.

granted, i have more sales resistance to this kinda stuff than i once did, but having broken the rock dvd card by scoring the kids are alright (greatest rawk movie of _all time_ imo, especially since they restored the full "a quick one" from the stones' rock'n'roll circus and a coupla minutes of crucial interview footage that were inexplicably deleted from the vhs release) and frank zappa's baby snakes (the appeal of which owes as much to bruce bickford's demented claymation -- as close of a visual analogue to frank's toons as we're ever likely to see -- as it does to the footage of a late-'70s lineup, including terry bozzio and adrian belew, that i actually witnessed in the flesh a coupla times back when i used to go see frank every chance i could), it's gonna be harder to pass these up. sure, the possibility exists that they'll be handheld video quickies like the one of iggy & the stooges playing some football stadium in detroit (which was well-edited, at least, reminding me of nothing so much as my buddy geoff's account of their performance at coachella, where he was pleased to find himself lost in "a crowd of 20,000 people, a hundred of whom came to see the stooges"). the best part of that dvd _could_ have been the "bonus" footage of an instore appearance at some manhattan record store, with scotty bashing away on a briefcase and iggy sitting on a stool (in the beginning, at least), but my enjoyment of that one was mitigated by the fact that the videographers chose to position their single camera at an angle where you couldn't see ron's hands on the guitar. feh.

i mean, i love the dolls 'n' all. they were trailblazing gender-bending trash-rock mofos, they made it cool to play loud and simple again at a time when the rest of the world outside lower manhattan was still listening to emerson lake & palmer, and their early demos, re-released on noo yawk's norton records awhile back, constitute an essential document if you like that sort of thing. but fuh cry sakes, did you see david jo as officer toody in the remake of car 54 where are you? sure, he's lately redeemed himself with the post-o brother roots-music cred of the harry smiths, but can he still do the dolls?!?!? my friend tommy stumbled into a johanson performance on the pier in manhattan when he was in the big apple last fall and said yes, yes, _yes_, and david is, after all, _an actor_, so i'll suspend disbelief on that score. and sure, syl sylvain (ne mizrahi) is a fine rockin' ringletted bolanesque boyo (anybody remember that album on rca that had "14th street beat" on it? i thought not), but the pressing question remains: can you have the dolls without the _real guys_ (read: the junkies) -- to wit, john anthony genzale, jr., and jerry nolan, both now deceased? (the true measure of the greatness of legs mcneil and gillian mccain's please kill me: the uncensored oral history of punk, on the surface just a kloodged-together melange of interviews, is that it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of making johnny and jerry seem like tragic heroes instead of the guys that you probably wouldn't wanna invite to the house that they were in life.) film, as they say, at 11.

the dead boys were, as my grandfather used to like to say, a whole 'nother bag of rice. myself, i always considered 'em, how you say, second string, but people whose opinions i generally respect dug 'em, and even i'll admit that when the me-thinks essayed the dbs' "sonic reducer" from the wreck room stage a few months back, i was mightily impressed. this is the thing you find as you get, uh, more _seasoned and mature_: with the passing of the seasons, stuff you once thought of as mediocre becomes, at least, better than the shit -- the hives? hahahahaha. jet? hahahahaha -- that now passes for the rawk. (i recently came to the realization that, to the majority of people now buying rec...uh, cd's, blues-based rock'n'roll guitar sounds as antique as, say, guy lombardo -- a sobering thought.) and i have a feeling that, were i to purchase this artifact, i'd dig it at least as much as i dig the heartbreakers live at max's kansas city, the raucous rent-party-in-a-jewelcase by johnny thunders' shambolic post-dolls outfit which is still usually where i go when i want to hear some slovenly late-'70s guitar sleaze and rampant audience-baiting. as iggy his own self prolly would say, "you pays your money and you takes your choice."

mlk

when i used to work as a technical writer (_not_ a "testicle biter") for radioshack, there was this rather courtly gentleman from arkansas who officed down the hall whose opinion i usedta semi-respect. this one time we were working on mlk day (you only got like three holidays off at radioshack and one of them was easter) and i remember he came in my cubicle and said something about how he couldn't understand why there was a holiday for someone who "was responsible for so many of the problems we have in society today." i asked him what he meant and he said, "you know ... by giving all _those people_ hope." he wasn't being ironic, either. i told him you could say the same thing about lincoln. or jefferson. he must not have been thinking, otherwise he'd surely have pointed out that we don't have a holiday for thomas jefferson.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Maggot Brain

Lately, all I've wanted to hear is P-Funk.

It seems to happen to me once a decade or so. Back in 1982-83, when I was Guarding Freedom's Frontier with the Air Force in Korea, the National Anthem for the people I was with might as well have been "Atomic Dog" from George Clinton's Computer Games album (well, that or Grandmaster Flash's "The Message"). Funk seemed to be in the air in Korea, and not just from the "night soil" that local farmers used for fertlizer. I could devote a whole treatise to the reasons why so many funkateers wound up as military enlistees at the dawn of the Reagan era, but not here, not now. Suffice to say, there were three GI bands on my base; one of 'em (the white one, actually) used to play Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain." I remember being shocked to hear AFKN radio playing "Standing On the Verge of Getting It On" in the chow hall one day. And "back in the world," I was almost as surprised to hear Dallas radio playing both "Quickie" (from You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish, Clinton's follow-up to Computer Games) and "Pumpin' It Up" (from Urban Dancefloor Guerillas, the album he released with the P-Funk All-Stars around the same time). Since my future ex-wife didn't dig jazz, funk was pretty much all I listened to for a couple of years.

I dug George Clinton's music in the same way as I did Frank Zappa's: the complex, detailed arrangements seemed to give up new delights with each listening. Its effect on me was, well, like a narcotic. Still is. Like Zappa, Clinton synthesized a bunch of diverse musical strains (in particular, classic doo-wop, the R&B innovations of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the fonky Meters, and the Temptations during their Norman Whitfield-Dennis Edwards phase, not to mention a general vibe and bits of stage business from jazz space-weirdo Sun Ra) to come up with something startlingly original. Clinton started out running a barbershop in Plainfield, NJ, cutting sides like "(I Wanna) Testify" with his vocal group the Parliaments, and traveling to Detroit to pitch songs to Berry Gordy at Motown (the Jackson Five actually recorded "I'll Bet You," later recorded by Funkadelic) before he scoped out some of the local Motor City rock talent like the MC5 (from whom he probably inherited the Sun Ra influence), the Stooges, and the Amboy Dukes and realized just how much he could get away with in terms of outrage (or expression, depending how you look at it). To my feedback-scorched ears, the albums he cut with Funkadelic in the early '70s -- particularly the self-titled debut, Maggot Brain itself, and Standing On the Verge of Getting It On -- hold up better than most rock records from the period. But I digress.

A decade, more or less, after my Korean sojourn, I was living in an apartment complex I used to call "Hell" and listening a lot to Music for Your Mother, a two-CD compilation of all the Funkadelic singles issued by the Detroit-based Westbound label between 1970 and 1976, and Live At the Beverly Theatre, another double CD recorded in Hollywood in 1983. Unfortunately, since then, I've had to unload both of those sets to keep the lights on at home. (For years, my arrival at Half Price Books was treated by the employees like the coming of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Camel Guy put together.) So, a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to stumble upon Motor City Madness, which has nothing to do with Ted Nugent like you might suspect but rather, is yet another two-CD compilation of Funkadelic material on Westbound. For my money, it trumps Music for Your Mother for the inclusion of some longer tracks like "Maggot Brain," "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow," and "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?", as well as its non-chronological sequencing, which lets me hear songs I associate with different albums bumping into each other in new ways. (The reviewer on allmusic.com complained about that, but I like it.) Luckily, Kat likes it, too; she listened to P-Funk as a tiny teen in the weedgrown wilds of New Jersey, and even got me to burn some songs for a co-worker who said that she and her husband courted to Funkadelic music back in the day.

So anyway, for the last couple of weeks I've been going to sleep at night listening to "Maggot Brain." (Listening to CDs as I cross the threshold into the Land of Nod is a habit I picked up from my daughter.) Featuring the great Eddie Hazel (RIP) going off on guitar after Clinton told him to imagine his mother had died, it's maybe the greatest blues statement of the Rawk Era, navigating the emotional terrain from a scream to a whisper and back again in just over ten minutes. Eddie had his ups and downs over the years, mainly due to drugs -- when my friend Geoff saw him play a club in Philly not long before he checked out in 1992, Hazel's road crew was canvassing the crowd to see if anybody had any crack they wanted to share with the artiste. In his place, P-Funk has employed some superior technicians on guitar (particularly Mike Hampton and Blackbyrd McKnight), but no one has ever bested Eddie in terms of pure feeling. (I just read that Rhino Handmade released his ultra-rare 1977 solo record Dames, Games and Guitar Thangs on CD last year.)

Before scoring Motor City Madness, the last time I'd heard "Maggot Brain" was one night at the Wreck Room last spring, when I went to hear Dave Karnes play drums with Lee Allen, a mad-scientist looking guy who lives in Austin but used to host an open jam at the Wreck a few years ago. They played a set of all cover material like Hendrix' "Manic Depression" and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." When they launched into "Maggot Brain," a collective gasp arose from the crowd. The AlternaKids at the Wreck all knew the tune, possibly from Mike Watt's version (with J. Mascis on guitar) from his 1994 "wrestling record," Ball-Hog or Tugboat. (I kinda like the idea of having music I can share with both middle-aged black couples and the crew at the Wreck.) Not everybody was impressed, though. Jon Teague from Yeti was working door that night, and he kept muttering, "There are no drums on 'Maggot Brain.' There are no drums on 'Maggot Brain!' "

And there aren't on the original record -- George mixed them out. Which means, I suppose, that when I used to play 30-minute, three-guitar versions of the song with my Reserve buddy Pete and his teenage son Nick as a way of teaching Nick to solo (which he, Green Day-loving lad that he was, did in a style that was midway between Harvey Mandel and Neil Young), we were playing it correctly. (Another Karnes-related story: Last January, I saw Pete and Nick when I was in Shreveport with Karnes and Nathan Brown, playing for drinks at some shit-dive down the road from the Air Force base. They came out to see us play and Nick gave me pictures from hs wedding and a copy of a CD he'd just recorded in his dad's home studio. His playing sounded exactly like mine would if I played Christian death-metal. Thanks, Nick!) Again, I digress.

Then this weekend, I found a dub of Dope Dogs -- Clinton's sprawling 1995 fusion of funk and hiphop that, for some reason, was never released in the U.S. -- and some dynamite P-Funk Allstars live stuff that Phil Overeem (aka the Rev. Wayne Coomers from the First Church of Holy Rock and Roll) had sent me eons ago, sitting under a pile of tapes at home. And a trip to Half Price Books unearthed a copy of Blacktronic Science, a '93 release from P-Funk's Juillard/New England Conservatory-trained keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell that somehow manages to encompass classical music and jazz (with Tony Williams on drums, no less) as well as funk. All in all, not a bad coupla weeks. (Besides rediscovering old music I love, there's nothing I like as much as finding music I never heard of by people I dig.)

All of which leads me to think that maybe, the next time George comes around, I oughtta pony up the bucks and go see him (which I never have, not even when he played at Caravan). He turns 64 this July.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

a useful tool for musicians

that matt hembree. besides being a bad-ass bassplayer (and singer/songwriter, in his alter ego as katboy), he's always posting stuff like this on the forums at meetgoodwin.com. use it to manage your business (or to find out just how much your expensive hobby is costing you).

nostalgia

speaking of greg tate and the voice, this blast from the past from the website of pompous windbag robert christgau makes me think that gee whiz, maybe the early '80s weren't such a bad time for music after all. ironman's list is near the end.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Greg Tate

I have a love/hate relationship with The Village Voice. Too often, the rag is guilty of publishing some of the most impenetrable bullshit of all time in its arts pages, but occasionally they'll run something like Greg Tate's piece on the 30th anniversary of hiphop, wherein he bemoans the genre's decline from folk art to an excuse for conspicuous consumption. The former Gregory "Ironman" Tate's a writer whose interests are broad enough to encompass Henry Louis Gates, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and, um, hermeneutics as well as Miles Davis, George Clinton, and the Bad Brains. His book Flyboy in the Buttermilk is out of print but worth searching out.

i came, i saw, i conquered

happy new year.

listening to 'march to the witch's castle' on this funkadelic compilation i bought while i was off over the holidays -- the most compassionate musical statement on the vietnam vets that i'm aware of, which seems weird if all you know about george clinton is the freakiness and the wigginess. to me, it's the most soothing music on earth.

thinking about this kid that my sweetie kat sat next to on the flight back from seattle, and another one that my coworker phil sat next to on a flight from l.a.

the first kid was from burleson, coming home to see his mama before shipping out for iraq. when kat asked him, he said that no, he didn't reckon that rumsfeld et al. are doing such a great job of running the war. he'd just gotten a new tattoo on his arm that read 'veni, vidi, vici' and he was impressed when kat knew what that meant. he was scheduled to leave yesterday for mosul. i hope he makes it through.

the second kid was from new york and looked, phil said, 'like giovanni ribisi.' he'd just gotten out of the hospital and was on his way back to hawaii, where his unit is based. he'd been a tow gunner on a humvee that got hit by an rpg while escorting afghani election officials on their way to set up polling places. he'd been blown out of the vehicle; his driver was still in hospital. he told phil that he doesn't understand what we're doing in afghanistan, but that a lot of people have died there, and that if we don't stay and finish what we started, then those people will have died for nothing -- even though he realizes that staying to finish the job means that more people are going to die. the shit gets complicated sometimes.