Friday, July 29, 2011

Animals, JH, FZ

Before and after our recent trip to Seattle for my wife's 50th, when we visited Jimi Hendrix's grave in Renton, I've been listening to a lot of music I discovered when I was 13 and 14, and trying to remember what it was like being a fan before all of this stuff made sense to me. The other night at Stooge prac, Teague was telling me how he discovered Hendrix, Sabbath, and King Crimson when he was 12. For me, the crucial discoveries of my, uh, "wonder years" were the Animals, Hendrix, and Frank Zappa. Forty years later, I still find myself heading back to them like a car with a bad steering linkage.

I first owned half of the Animals' In the Beginning, a live recording from 1963 which I now have on a Sundazed CD, on a French BYG album in their "Rock Generation" series that paired it with one side of Five Live Yardbirds. I bought it at the Cornell University record co-op, where my best buddy from middle school and I used to hitchhike after he moved upstate the summer before 8th grade. We'd pretend to be college students, buy beer, and shoot pool in the student union. Somehow we never got caught. The record co-op was also where I bought the Deviants' Disposable, the Count Five's Psychotic Reaction, and Contact High with the Godz, to my friend's great bemusement. (I'd just discovered Creem and St. Lester.)

Back then, I suspected that the Yardbirds were cooler because they had all the hotshot guitarists, but I sure owned a lot of Eric Burdon records, even if I wound up taking half of them (the hipi ones) in my neighbor's back yard and smashing them up with rocks. (I was a fickle fan.) Besides being a shameless trend-hopper and providing the template for Dick Shawn's Lorenzo St. Dubois character in The Producers, Eric was the only singer from the first generation of Brit R&B to really seem possessed by the spirit of music the way, say, Mitch Ryder and Wilson Pickett were (I didn't hear Van Morrison's work with Them until much later), and he made a lot of good records, particularly Animalization and Animalism, which I still listen to today. He also played one of the best shows I've ever seen at a "county fair"-type event in 1998 and penned an autobiography (Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood) that's not a half-bad read.

In the Beginning proves that he was a fully-formed performer before waxing "House of the Rising Sun." The band, led by organist Alan Price (before he unassed, having managed to obtain the arranger's credit for "House," which probably kept him living pretty high off the hog for a long time), blasts out the Berry, Diddley, and Hooker faves with a lot more balls and swing than any of their Brit contemporaries from further south; in comparison, the Yardbirds' somewhat contrived frenzy sounds a little quaint today. Sure, guitarist Hilton Valentine blows a few outrageous clams, but it's all part of the atmosphere, which is sweaty, beery, and heap big fun.

Rainbow Bridge and More Experience were the first Hendrix records I owned after Are You Experienced. The latter was a fairly dodgy live recording of the Experience on its last legs, Royal Albert Hall 1969, on a cheapie Brit label (Ember), but it was also the first place I ever heard "Little Wing" (best recorded version, for my money) and "Voodoo Child." The former I owned for a season when it was new before I let it go the first time I sold my whole collection in '72. Some of the songs have been compiled on Blues, Voodoo Soup, First Rays of the New Rising Sun, but heard together as they were first released on sweet, sweet vinyl, this undervalued-and-deleted soundtrack to a crap movie that was never released hangs together even better than The Cry of Love.

It took me three or four years after Jimi's death to realize that _all those sounds were guitar_. I was struggling to come to grips with the instrument as a player then and most of what he was doing was incomprehensible to me. Similarly, when I was 13 or 14, I knew nada about blues or R&B, so the root sources of his music were obscure to me, even though I was discovering Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker around the same time. All I knew was that Hendrix's music sounded BIG and ASSURED. Only after studying his music extensively (instead of what I _should_ have been studying during my abbreviated college career) did I recognize the synthesis he performed of Delta blues (which he learned off his father's records and whatever radio broadcasts one could pick up late at night in 1950s Seattle), frat rock 'n' roll (which he absorbed hanging around the Spanish Castle, where bands like the Wailers, Sonics, Raiders, and Kingsmen would hold forth), chitlin' circuit R&B (which he played as a touring sideman after bailing out of the 101st Airborne), Bob Dylan (whose music he heard while playing in Greenwich Village dumps), sci-fi, the sonic possibilities inherent in loud electric guitars, and his own considerable imagination.

I still prefer Jimi's post-Experience music. To these feedback-scorched ears, the more freewheeling structures he began employing on Electric Ladyland and further refined as he went along were better suited to his Wagnerian orchestral concept of composition than his earlier attempts to shoehorn all of that into Brit pop psych formats. Even incomplete, his multitracked guitars on Bridge sound symphonic, especially the exquisite jam "Pali Gap" and the studio "Star-Spangled Banner." The 1970 Berkeley "Hear My Train A-Comin'" (which was criminally truncated in the Jimi Plays Berkeley movie, whose editor seemed to think it was more important to capture the beginnings and ends of songs than all that messy stuff in the middle) is one of his greatest live lumbering Hooker-esque blues explorations, up there with "Machine Gun" from Band of Gypsys. And my favorite minute in the whole Hendrix canon is the intro to "Hey Baby," which it took me 30 years to get around to learning but I remember being muy impressed by hearing Teddy Rispoli play back in '74.

Finally, Weasels Ripped My Flesh is my favorite Frank Zappa album, and I once wrote a lengthy screed about it for Phil Overeem's now-moribund First Church of Holy Rock and Roll website. (If you use the link, you gotta scroll down.) When I got it back when it was new, I hated it -- or at least wasn't sure whether I liked it or not.

Prior to that, the only Zappa I'd heard was a Mothers of Invention compilation in the MGM "Golden Archives Series," which consisted of anthologies of all the artists that label boss Mike Curb dropped from the label for being "drug related" -- besides the Mothers, this included the Velvet Underground, Blues Project, and Tim Hardin. Curiously, the censorious label saw fit to include the line "I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the streets," previously excised from We're Only In It for the Money, in the version of "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" that appeared on this comp. My best buddy and I memorized all the lyrics to songs like that one, "Concentration Moon," and "Call Any Vegetable" in the same way we memorized whole albums by the Firesign Theater, because we thought they were hi-larious.

There wasn't much on Weasels that was funny, with the possible exception of Ray Collins' smarmy vocals on "Oh No." About the only things I could relate to at first were the guitar rock of "Get A Little," "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama," and the little jam-out "The Orange County Lumber Truck." There was a lot of bizarre improvisation, which I'd learn later was guided by Zappa's onstage conduction (examples of which you can see in the Baby Snakes movie and a Youtube vid of FZ appearing on Australian TV in 1973); Lowell George as a German; Roy Estrada's operatic insanity; Motorhead Sherwood's snorks; and a song (the first half of "Dwarf Nebula Processional March") that was used in a '60s tire commercial.

The album ended with two minutes of noise and feedback that used to get me flying across my room to take the record off (like the Stooges' "L.A. Blues" used to). But there was also Sugarcane Harris' bluesy take on Little Richard's "Directly from My Heart to You" (you've gotta hear it on vinyl, since the additional music at the end of "Didja Get Any Onya?" on the CD ruins the transition into it, in the same way that the additional noodling on the CD Hot Rats ruins the transition from Ian Underwood's solo into Sugarcane's on "The Gumbo Variations"). And "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" remains one of Zappa's greatest compositions. Overall, Weasels was my gateway into things like free jazz and modern classical music. If it didn't directly lead me to 'em, the way the list of influences in the Freak Out! liner notes was intended to, it definitely prepared me to hear things like Dolphy's Out To Lunch and Stravinsky once I was ready for 'em.


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