Monday, February 25, 2013

Swamp Dogg's "Total Destruction To Your Mind" and "Rat On!"

The classic sound of '60s and '70s soul refuses to die. In recent years, the Brooklyn-based Daptone label has introduced monster talents like Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, and Charles Bradley to the public consciousness, while Patrick Boissel's Alive Naturalsound, once known for its reissues of Detroit ramalama and the first couple of Black Keys sides, has brought us latter-day wonderment from obscuro '60s soul men Andre Williams and Nathaniel Meyer.

Now, Alive's reissued the first two albums by Swamp Dogg -- surely the most eccentric and individuated of classic soul singers -- on CD and sweet, sweet vinyl. Born Jerry Williams, Jr., in Virginia, 1942, he released records under his given name beginning in 1954, and did occasional songwriting and production for artists including Z.Z. Hill before unleashing his persona -- a sly observer and social commentator, like Joe Tex gene-spliced with Frank Zappa -- on the world. If you haven't heard him, you owe it to yourself.

I remember seeing Swamp Dogg's 1970 debut album, Total Destruction To Your Mind, with its cover depicting the artist in his underwear, when it was new and thinking, "Oh wow. A record by a crazy person" (and this was years before Wesley Willis ever contemplated a musical career). I was reminded of the title track -- with its immortal opening line, "Sittin' on a cornflake, ridin' on a roller skate" -- a few years back when Eric Ambel, a fella that knows good songwriting, covered it on his Roscoe's Gang album.

Swamp Dogg's an impassioned shouter in the Otis Redding mold, and these two records have the extroverted energy and friendly blare of vintage Stax or Hi jams -- until you listen to the lyrics. "Friendship's like acid," he sings over a "Like A Rolling Stone" organ in "Synthetic World": "It burns as it slides away." And has there ever been a paean to lust with a line as great as "If I die tomorrow, I've lived tonight" (from "If I Die Tomorrow")? I think not.

Like Ray Charles, Swamp Dogg grew up listening to country music, and he likes to tell a story in song the way the best country songwriters do. (Indeed, he collaborated with Gary "U.S." Bonds on Johnny Paycheck's hit "She's All I've Got.") In "The Baby Is Mine," written in an era before the phrase "baby daddy" had entered the vernacular, he sets an example of paternal responsibility that young men of today would do well to emulate: "I'm not just a father, I'm also a man / I'm going to see my child every chance that I can / And as for the woman, she's his all alone / I'm not trying to break up that man's home." Then he turns around and puts the shoe on the other foot, with the bluesy cuckold's lament "Mama's Baby Daddy's Maybe."

The album's most outrageous lyrics, however, come from the pen of Joe South, he of "Hush"/"Games People Play"/"I played with Dylan, too" fame. "Redneck" chugs along to a greasy groove, except it's liable to break up the dance party with lines like, "But you never had much use / For all the niggers, dagos, and Jews." As if to pour oil on the waters, Swamp Dogg also covers South's cry for sanity "These Are Not My People."

Rat On! was the followup, improbably released on Elektra in 1971, replete with cover art of our hero triumphantly astride a white rat. Sadly, the disgruntled social commentary of "Remember I Said Tomorrow" remains on point 40 years later: "Tomorrow we're going to pass a law that will make everything alright...Tomorrow we're going to bring the boys home / The end of the war is on its way...Tomorrow you'll even have freedom of speech..." "God Bless America" takes an even more jaded view of the political scene, but ends with a heartfelt plea for coexistence.

When he's not addressing serious topics with more humor than Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, or Norman Whitfield ever did, Swamp Dogg can even play it straight. "I Kiss Your Face" is a convincing ballad on its own terms, and Rat On's version of "Got To Get A Message To You" is the best Bee Gees cover since Al Green took possession of "To Love Somebody."

A decade ago, Swamp Dogg was reduced to reissuing his albums on shoddily-packaged twofer CDs, albeit on his own label. More recently, he was shilling them as Bandcamp downloads. Here's hoping that Alive Naturalsound will go the distance and restore more of his catalog to vinyl availability. The world needs more Swamp Dogg now!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Stuffs 'n' such

1) The best music book I've read in 20 years is Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music by Harvard academic and New York Review of Books contributor Arthur Kempton. Published in 2003, it came highly recommended by one of my music gurus, Phil Overeem of Columbia, MO. In spite of its carrying as pretentious a subtitle as I've seen in quite awhile, Boogaloo (the title of an obscure-but-influential '60s dance record from Chicago that Kempton applies to all of R&B) is nothing more, nothing less, than a passionate fan's highly idiosyncratic take on 'Meercun music -- something like Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning, if Cohn had had "as good a human education as an American could have" and waited until middle age to write his shoot-from-the-hip history of pop.

Kempton, the son of journo Murray Kempton, grew up midway between New York and Philly, and had the opportunity to witness R&B reviews performing at both the former's Apollo and the latter's Uptown Theater (in the same way another fave music scribe of mine, Josh Alan Friedman, grew up watching bands at the Fillmore East). His abiding passion is gospel-based Aframerican (another idiosyncratic term that he uses throughout) vocal music.

Phil originally pointed me to Kempton because he paints a clearer-eyed picture of Sam Cooke than Peter Guralnick did in Dream Boogie, to the point of mentioning Cooke's dissatisfaction with his business relationship with Allen Klein -- a fact that Guralnick curiously glossed over. He focuses on Cooke for the first third of the book, after beginning his survey with gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, whose career Dorsey helped launch.

The book's middle section details the mega-success and subsequent downfall of Berry Gordy's Motown Records, with a subsidiary look at Al Bell's similar trajectory at Stax. Kempton's likening of Gordy to a pimp borders on libelous -- the section is interspersed with quotes from Iceberg Slim's Pimp: The Story of My Life -- but he views Gordy as a sympathetic character whose control obsession was the result of his early observation of how other black entrepreneurs were misused by the record business.

In the closing section, Kempton divides his attention between Death Row Records impresario Suge Knight -- the evil opposite of Russell Simmons, the real Gordy of the hip hop era -- and P-Funk top dog George Clinton (whose inspirations, he reveals, include Ishmael Reed's novel Mumbo Jumbo). Nowhere else in the book is it as evident how many rings Kempton has around his trunk as when he refers to "a 'song' entitled 'F___ tha Police'," or a period "[a]fter televised radio took hold in the early 1980s." While the author might not dig hip hop, he at least hears it: "[Snoop Doggy Dogg's] sinuous flow emitted in a cadenced stream of vestigial old-country drawl that would soften a lyric's nasty edge." Knight and his competitors' propensity for real violence ends the book on a note devoid of hope.

Kempton's more sympathetic toward Clinton's "countercultural strain of boogaloo" -- interesting, since George isn't primarily a balladeer, and Kempton has little use for anything as tainted by rock as Funkadelic -- but his main point here is that while P-Funk was still ahead of its time in the mid-'70s, it was right on time for the '80s hip hop artists who started making hits out of source material sampled from Clinton's catalog as soon as they'd exhausted James Brown's. What's unique in his take on P-Funk is his focus on Clinton's dementia as marketing.

No doubt about it, Kempton's a hell of a writer; three pages into his narrative, he socked me in the chops with this sentence, worthy of Thomas Wolfe: "Aframericans are a tribe marked once by bondage and again by the lie of their freedom, which for most of those unleashed meant only conscription into an indefinite term of volunteer slavery." The few pages he devotes to Curtis Mayfield are some of the finest music writing I've ever read. In the interview I linked to above, he calls his book "a reproach to rock critics who, as far as I am concerned, are the ashcan of journalism—which is a fairly degraded profession anyway."

In his review of Boogaloo, "dean of American rock critics" Robert Christgau sniffed that Kempton was "tied to the tastes of his youth like so many aging R&B fans" -- but then again, Bob, who among us isn't? Kempton attributes doowop with paving the way for the civil rights movement in the same way Joe Nick Patoski credits Jimmy Reed for kicking open the door for Martin Luther King. Whether or not you agree with Kempton, you've got to be impressed by his command of his subject and his way with words.

2) Thanks to Big Mike Richardson, I'm drowning in a sea of live Allman Brothers Band. While I wasn't paying attention, there's been a plethora of live Duane-era stuff released, and now I've heard the recordings of the ABB's stands at Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati in April 1970 and the American University in Washington, D.C., that December. They're more of a blues-rock band on the former, although there's a monumental (if embryonic) 44-minute "Mountain Jam" that includes (among other things) an episode based on Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." On the latter, they play a shorter set, but they're moving closer to their Live At Fillmore East apotheosis, and the highlights include a "You Don't Love Me" that features more interplay between Duane and Dickey Betts than the epochal Fillmore version, somewhat diminished by a truncated "Stormy Monday" that ends mid-guitar solo. Makes me want to hear the one from the Atlanta Pop Festival that summer, where the ABB played two sets and had Johnny Winter sitting in on "Mountain Jam."

Before Dickey's acrimonious 2001 removal, I always felt like the ABB was as only good as its non-Dickey guitar player was, and so I'm a little less high on Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas, a mid-'70s artifact of their post-Brothers and Sisters commercial peak that I owned on vinyl back when it was new but don't remember ever listening to much. In those days, with Dickey writing and singing more of the tunes, they were starting to sound more like a "country rock" band than the bluesy-rock-band-with-jazz-leanings they'd been when Duane and Berry Oakley still drew breath. Like Eric Clapton, Dickey's rhythmically straight-up-and-down, and seems to go for the sweet notes where Duane went for the nasty ones. The band, with pianist Chuck Leavell serving as the band's second solo voice, has a lighter sound -- both brighter and less substantial.

I was pleasantly surprised by the two volumes of An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band that feature the reconstituted ABB in its early '90s Warren Haynes-Allen Woody incarnation. A guitarist of my acquaintance once described Allan Holdsworth as sounding like "Billy Gibbons with ideas." Using the same logic, one might describe Haynes as sounding like Paul Kossoff with ideas. He has the same round, saturated, English tone, replete with wobbly vibrato, that sprung from the one Clapton employed on Cream's Disraeli Gears, and when he leaves the blues pentatonics behind to venture into modal territory, he sometimes recalls Humble Pie-era Peter Frampton -- a good thing, to these feedback-scorched ears. With him on hand to goad Betts, old Brothers and Sisters standbys like "Southbound" and "Jessica" (into which the ABB, by this time, were interpolating the Donovan-penned "Mountain Jam" theme) are transformed, and Haynes' writing and singing provide a nice contrast with Gregg's, too. The acoustic "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" is the icing on the cake.

3) All of which is not intended to make you think that I'm over my Dylan obsession. Oh, no. Far from it.

While I'm making every effort to avoid getting sucked down the Dylan bootleg wormhole, one of my favorite spins of late (besides Columbia's The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 -- a sort of alternate universe version of my beloved Biograph) has been a 1995 "Never Ending Tour" show from Philly's Electric Ballroom that a friend supplied me with. Speaking of blues-rock, Denny Freeman's on guitar, and one of the highlights of the set (which features opening act Patti Smith guesting on a couple of songs) is a version of "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" that transforms the Blonde On Blonde classic into a Texas roadhouse shuffle as the Fabulous Thunderbirds might have played it at the Bluebird on Horne Street.

In fact, who'd a thunk it, one of the things that impresses me most about the latter day Bob I've been listening to (Love and Theft and Modern Times on CD and a cassette of World Gone Wrong I found in my sweetie's pile) is what a great bluesman he is. And how great his Millennial bands are, for their ability to invoke a style or mood without, um, injecting too much of their personalities into the mix. One of the things that spoils Infidels for me is Mick Taylor playing "Hey! Remember me?" Even Mike Bloomfield, whom I love, sounds nervous-to-be-playing-with-Bob on Highway 61 Revisited -- maybe one reason why Bob hooked up with the Hawks (besides the fact the Paul Butterfield band was probably unavailable for touring).

One surprising thing I've discovered is my preference for acoustic Bob. My favorite Bootleg Series volume is the first one, which ends in the Freewheelin' era, and those garage-recorded blues covers on World Gone Wrong hit the spot because (as Phil Overeem points out) Bob knows 'em well enough to capture the spirit of the originals, and feels sufficiently at home there not to try and ape the letter. I told Phil that I find the Hawks obtrusive on the few Basement Tapes tracks I've heard, and he challenged me to listen to them in their entirety, so I'll probably be doing so at some point in the near future. Music's such a deep well; I'm amazed how much stuff I still haven't heard after all these years. All I ever need is something to look forward to.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A bunch of new shiny silver discs

While it's more ecologically responsible for promo peeps to furnish scribes like your humble chronicler o' events hyperlinks to new releases, there's nothing to prompt Protestant-ethic remorse like a stack of shiny silver discs that makes its way from the magic mailbox to every flat surface in the house before I get around to spinning and reviewing 'em.

Fort Worth-based ambient rockers Drift Era gots a new EP that you can stream or download via Soundcloud, or go to a show to acquire in corporeal form. I was once in an instrumental band which went Tango Uniform because one of the musos believed (this was about 15 years ago) that "they'll kill us if we go out there without a singer!" And I remember watching Confusatron at the Black Dog about ten years ago with a jazzer friend who scoffed, "Every song sounds like a long intro, but then they never do anything." Things have changed and non-jazz instrumental bands playing music without harmonic movement are, if not a dime a dozen, a lot more commonplace than they once were, and Drift Era's one of the best ones in my neck of the woods. The obvious audible inspirations are Radiohead (it's a generational thang) and local '90s dub juggernaut Sub Oslo (a couple of members of which are working together again under the rubric Wire Nest). While one man's hypnosis is another's monotony, Drift Era have a cinematic sensibility that lets you create the movie to accompany their soundtrack in your mind.

A package arrived the other day from Saustex Media, the label run by Hickoids frontman Jeff Smith, a man with an ear for the slightly-left-of-center in "roots" musics -- like an evil amalgam of Arhoolie's Chris Strachwitz and Estrus' Dave Crider. (He also rocks a pair of duct tape pants like no other label impresario in the history of recorded sound. Eat your postmortem hearts out, Sam Phillips/Leonard Chess/Don Robey.)

Los Ninos de Cobre is the debut full-length (they previously released an EP) from The Copper Gamins, a punk blues duo from the industrial backwaters of Mexico. After playing together in a cover band as teenagers and spending some time acquiring life experiences (collegiate music studies and European travel for Claus Lafania, busking and coffeehouse gigs for Jose Carmen), they traded instruments and started blasting out a primitive brand of crash and thump that's as redolent of the Sonics as it is of the Delta daddies. Their failure to take Mexico City by storm recalls Radio Birdman's initial descent on Sydney from Woolongong and necessitated a trek north of the Texas border, where folks are suckers for this kind of jive. Back in the '90s, before White Stripes and Black Keys were household names, these guys would have been right at home in the Estrus stable, home of my favorite purveyors of such sounds, the Immortal Lee County Killers. When Carmen's plaintive yelp sails out over the metallic clangor of his reverb-drenched guitar and the holy thunder of Lafania's primordial percussives, the effect is as soul-cleansing as it's house-shaking.

The Beaumonts hail from Lubbock, home of Buddy Holly and the Flatlanders, but also the launching pad for the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Their particular aesthetic combines a genuine love of honky-tonk country with monumental substance abuse proclivities and a propensity for scatological lyrics that pretty much guarantees that you'll never hear anything from "Where Do You Want It?" on the radio (as if such was a possibility for music released on a tee-tiny San Antonio-based indie, anyway). Sample lyrics: "If you don't love the Lord, you're fucking fucked" (from "(If You Don't) Love the Lord"), or "I think I deserve a fucking drink" (from "I Deserve A Drink"). Imagine an extremely dissolute Waylon Jennings spewing out all the accumulated vitriol and bile from the deepest recesses of his subconscious and you've got a fair idea of what these guys are up to. Bonus points awarded for character assassination of Toby Keith.

Churchwood's self-titled debut inspired comparisons with Captain Beefheart and his late '70s simulacra Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band. On their sophomore full-length, cleverly entitled Churchwood 2, they ride that pony a little farther down the line, revealing themselves as a more individuated entity at every turn. A couple of the tracks were previously available on a vinyl single and digital download, respectively, but they blend seamlessly into the corporeal digital mix here. Joe Doerr's tortured tonsils and perspicacious pen remain the primary focus, ably abetted by slashing dual guitars and an agile riddim section. The band adds some West Coast spice to their gutty blues-rock attack on "Aranzazu," which features Doerr at his most Beefheartian. "You Be the Mountain (I'll Be Mohammad)" churns up a welter of funk that hits like an alternate-universe amalgam of Little Feat, Westbound-era Funkadelic, and The Cry of Love. "Money Shot Man" gets some Nawlins spice from the addition of a three-piece horn section, while the closing "New Moon" progresses in fits and starts to shuffle along like an outtake from the first Moby Grape album. Pick of the litter, and a powerful incentive to see these guys live if you can.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Down by the old mainstream 4: The Beatles and the beatless

My buddy Geoff from Philly said it, and I believe it: "The Beatles are the greatest rock band of all time. They might not be what I like, but still...the greatest rock band of all time."

I've never been a big Beatle fan. When they played on Sullivan, I figured they couldn't be that cool if everybody I knew who dug 'em was a seven-year-old girl. But then, I was a seven-year-old boy, so whatthefuck did I know about anything?

Looking through a pile of cassettes recently, I stumbled on John "The Mailman" Bargas' Beatle mixtape from ca. '95. Uncle Johnny has always made a good case for whatever music he was advocating for, whether it was the Beatles and Dylan or Minutemen/Replacements/Husker Du (his response when I came to him after sitting out the '80s Guarding Freedom's Frontier and asked, "What did I miss?" -- which is why I could give a toss about Black Flag now). He gave me 36 songs, in alphabetical order, that, along with my sister's old copy of Rubber Soul that she gave me the last time I was in New Jersey, still make a pretty good case today.

When I first started buying records, my first 45 was "Hey Jude"/"Revolution," and it took me a long time to decide which was my favorite side (and favorite Beatle). Eventually "Revolution," John, and artiness/alienation won out over "Hey Jude," Paul, and craft/congeniality. Later, my best friend in junior high school used to spin Let It Be along with RamAfter the Gold Rush, and Steppenwolf's Monster after he graduated from Roger Miller and Peter, Paul and Mary. As a result, it's probably my favorite Beatle album, even though it documents their dissolution, and has Phil Spector's syrupy strings all over it. I have actually sung "Two of Us" with my oldest, guitar-slinging daughter, and will again. And I like the strings on "The Long and Winding Road." So there.

Back then, my sister had Meet the Beatles and Abbey Road -- the Fab Four's alpha and omega (at least U.S. release-wise). The gulf between those two records was incomprehensible to me. I was perplexed by Paul shouting out what I heard as "One, two, three, FAHHHK!" (which inspired Dee Dee Ramone's signature count-ins just as Paul's early stage name inspired Duh Brudduhs') at the beginning of "I Saw Her Standing There," but the song's energy pulled me in, and my ear was seduced by Ringo's hi-hat on "All I've Got To Do," and the rapidly-strummed chords on "All My Loving" (novice guitar pickers are always suckers for velocity).

I didn't realize then that Please Please Me was actually their first LP, in which capacity it makes more sense: both sides of the first two singles -- a rarity for a UK album; there, where wartime rationing lasted almost until Elvis arrived, record companies were more about value for money than their U.S. counterparts, and usually didn't include previously released singles on LPs -- plus ten songs, mostly covers, that they'd recorded in just 12 hours, including Lennon's incandescent "There's A Place" and his demolition of the Isley Brothers on "Twist and Shout." (And am I reading in too much to think that the sexual dynamic implied by the line "Please please me, oh yeah, like I please you" is pretty advanced for 1963? Ah, nevermind.)

Abbey Road sounded almost too perfect, and in the fullness of time sounds like it could have been their crowning achievement, but if you read history, you realize that it was Paul's last-ditch attempt to salvage something after the debacle of the Get Back sessions. The medley on Side Two sounds like a masterpiece of arranger's art, even though it's really just a bunch of unfinished songs kloodged together. On the jam at the end, after the drum solo that Ringo's pal Keith Moon would ape on "Won't Get Fooled Again," there's a brief three-way guitar exchange between Paul (who, besides being the most economically inventive bassplayer in rock, was also a highly effective lead player in the blues-based Eric Clapton mold), George (who, pre-Ravi Shankar, was a throwback to the Chet Atkins-rockabilly chord melody style -- dig his little fills between the verses on "I'm Looking Through You" and "I Will" -- although he learned from Eric, too), and John (bull in a china shop on guitar and in life, until four bullets in the back stopped him cold).

If nothing else, you've got to admire the way Sir Paul survived '60s celebrity in the same way Dylan and the Stones did and so many others didn't, and has managed to continue as a performing entity for 40 years since the Beatles folded the tent. Sure, he retreated into his family in the immediate aftermath -- isn't that what 30something guys are supposed to do? -- but he kept his creative spark alive on records like the aforementioned Ram and Band On the Run, which was almost a Sgt. Pepper for the '70s in its form, if not its social impact. Like 'em or not, you can't buy a better produced record.

He must have been sick to death of Beatlemania, after being catapulted from Reeperbahn toilets to the stadiums full of screaming girls that the Beatles played with less gear than a band today would use for a club gig, and the post-Rubber Soul expectation that they'd continually surpass themselves (while across an ocean and a continent, poor acid-addled Brian Wilson sat in his sandbox trying to come up with a sound celestial enough to compete). They all must have been sick of it, as sick as Dylan was of every earnest folknik that cursed him for giving up protest for mad visionary poetics, and every consciousness-expanded Brit Lit undergrad who pestered him to find out Who He Really Was and What He Was Really Saying, sick enough (in Bob's case) to do the next best thing to faking his own death, disappearing into the wilds of Woodstock in preparation for innumerable rebirths.

Lennon, the archetypal angry, fucked-up kid, the clever bully who transcended and redeemed himself through his music and all the things he said after the press gave him a pulpit (as if anyone would give two shits what a guitar-picker from Liverpool thought about the state of the world at large), tried disappearing himself at the ass-end of the '70s, after making a spectacle of himself for most of the decade, one way (a plethora of political causes) or another (embarrassing L.A. midlife crisis). He checked out of the scene, became a family man, seemed to find happiness and peace before a mentally ill fan murdered him, aged 40. Someone said, "It's always the ones that give people hope that they have to kill."

I remember the day he died. The alarm went off just as I spilled a glass of water on my head, and I heard the announcement of his murder on NPR. My future ex-wife came to pick me up for work. On the way out of the parking lot, we noticed that someone had torched the apartment office overnight. At the record store where we worked, there was a line of weeping Beatle fans waiting to pay their respects to Double Fantasy, exactly like the line of weeping Elvis fans outside my store in New York four years earlier, waiting to pay their respects to Having Fun With Elvis Onstage.

I never thought the Beatles were a joke the way I thought Elvis was (at least until I spent a weekend, winter of '97, in bed with a bad cold, a bottle of NyQuil, and The Sun Sessions). In fact, in '76, I had 1967-1970 (aka the "Blue Album") and Revolver on cassette in my first car. As hyped as Sgt. Pepper was in its day, in the fullness of time, Revolver has become the conventional-wisdom "best Beatle album," and it holds up. I still love Lennon's depressive "She Said She Said," which has the same bruising rock sound as mid-period faves like "Rain" and "Paperback Writer," and "Tomorrow Never Knows," which I have fond memories of playing with Lee Allen at the Wreck Room (attempting to channel Phil Manzanera's 801 Live version). Then there's "And Your Bird Can Sing," which I swear I remember hearing on the cassette in my car, although it wasn't actually on a U.S.-released Revolver until the CD era, and has the "golden rain" (Greil Marcus' phrase) of Paul and George's harmonized leads cascading through it.

The "Blue Album" remains, IMO, the closest thing to "all the Beatle music you and your family will ever need" as your money can buy, and a reminder of what a great singles band the Big Album Era Beatles were. In the year when everybody but Richard Goldstein went apeshit over Sgt. Pepper, they released two killer double A-sided singles, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" and "I Am the Walrus"/"Hello, Goodbye," both of which contrasted the claustrophobic paranoia of John's songs (which Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne sought to emulate in ELO) with the sheer tunefulness of Paul's, which serve as proof positive that, as Nick Hornsby reminds us, the major difference between '60s Brit rockers and their 'Meercun counterparts was that the Brits liked their parents more. And I still remember schoolyard arguments over whether the gasping chorus on "Walrus" was singing "Everybody's fucked up" or "Everybody smoke pot."

Speaking of Pepper, the "Blue Album" and Bargas' tape both include its closing statement "A Day In the Life," which is the perfect balance not only of Lennon and McCartney's signature strengths, but also of their songcraft and George Martin's orchestral vision. When the "White Album" followed in '68, it was hailed as a "back-to-the-roots" move, that being the flavor of the particular moment, and while it seems like an absurd assertion when applied to an album that also contained "Revolution 9," it's true that on songs like "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" -- inspired by Fats Domino, Yoko, or John's heroin jones, depending on who you believe -- the Fab Four rocked harder than they had since abandoning the stage in '66.

These days, however, Rubber Soul -- inspired by Dylan and, um, weed (is it just me, or does John really sound like he's toking during the chorus of "Girl?") -- seems like their finest work: its pleasures more subtle and less beguiling than either Revolver or Pepper, less sprawling and more direct than the "White Album."

Hearing "I've Just Seen A Face" now is funny, having recently viewed Charlie Is My Darling, in which Keef takes the piss out of it, sitting and strumming in some Irish hotel room. (Also, I first heard the song sung by Andy Haskett, the Singing Australian Cowboy, when I used to play music with his future ex-wife in the late '70s.) "Norwegian Wood" was Everykid's introduction to the durable 6/8 strum, not to mention the sitar (although I preferred Jeff Beck's fuzzed-out simulacrum on the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul"). I remember hearing a band in my town playing "You Won't See Me," and having someone explain to me that the chorus was the same as "Frere Jacques." "Think For Yourself," with its monstro fuzz bass line and lilting harmonies, anticipates much that the Move and the Pretty Things (to name only two) would do over the next couple of years, while "The Word" is nice brittle Brit R&B like "Taxman," with Ringo thrashing and bashing like he was Keith Moon or something.

Over the years, "Michelle" has been as overplayed as "Eleanor Rigby," if not as much as "Yesterday," while "In My Life" has become high school prom music; among songs of similar ilk, I dig the Faces' "Love Lived Here" and John Sebastian's "The Room Nobody Lives In" more. "Wait" is the hidden gem of Rubber Soul's second side, while "Run For Your Life" lifted a line from "Baby Let's Play House" and displayed a harsher attitude than one might have expected from a cuddly mop top.

I think what I dig the most about Rubber Soul is the potential it overflows with. Like Bringing It All Back Home, which it followed, and Aftermath, which followed it, it's the sound of artists at the top of their game and on the cusp of something new. And if where they wound up was someplace so dramatically different than what preceded it as to blow people's minds, that was part of the fun of being a fan, wasn't it? Such surprise will not come our way again, I fear.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Here's the flyer for the benefit Stoogeaphilia is playing at the Grotto on March 1st

Click on the image to make it big.

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna see the Who playing "Smokestack Lightning" at the Marquee Club in 1965?

Friday, February 08, 2013

Petra Haden's "Petra Goes To the Movies"

Back in 2005, your humble chronicler o' events waxed rhapsodic over singer-arranger extraordinaire Petra Haden's album on which she covered The Who Sell Out in its entirety -- a bravura feat, and one guaranteed to appeal to only the smallest possible niche audience (fans of the pre-Tommy Who that'd be interested in listening to a whole album of acapella singing). She's kept a low profile since then, so the arrival of this new collection -- which her label, Anti-, has seen fit to stream on Youtube, complete with amusing images (scroll down a couple of posts to listen) -- was greeted like a Candygram from the gods at my house.

On Petra Goes To the Movies, Haden applies her skills to a selection of film music, crafting full acapella arrangements for most, singing lyrics over instrumental accompaniment (from guitarist Bill Frisell, father-bassist Charlie Haden, and pianist Brad Mehldau) on a small handful. The result is a varied program that combines the strengths of her Sell Out cover with those of her self-titled 2003 collaboration with Frisell.

The selection of tunes is ace, and the album plays like a love letter to the masterworks of composers Bernard Herrmann (the claustrophobic "God's Lonely Man" from Taxi Driver and the archetypal horror movie theme from Psycho), Ennio Morricone ("Cinema Paradiso" and "A Fistful of Dollars Theme"), Nino Rota (the madcap "Carlota's Galop" from 8 1/2, which recalls Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance"), and Lalo Schifrin (the wistful main title theme from Cool Hand Luke).

Inevitably, the melodies evoke not only the plots of the films they served, but personal experential signifiers -- I can't hear "God's Lonely Man," for instance, without remembering that I took my girlfriend at the time to see it thinking it was a comedy (true story), or John Williams' "The Planet Krypton" and "Superman Theme" without remembering walking a mile in the rain to see Superman in the theater (I was young, single, and bored). But where the listener has no reference point besides the music itself (as I don't for Trent Reznor's "Hand Covers Bruise" from The Social Network), Haden's craft still beguiles the ear. Her vocal arrangements are clever and exquisitely detailed, whether the material she's adapting is dense or lush.

That's not to sell her lyric readings short, however. In fact, the best way into this for Haden novices might just be through one of these performances: Dave Grusin's "It Might Be You" from Tootsie, say, where you can see the lyricist pulling the strings, but the sentiment pulls you in anyway, or Pat Metheny's "This Is Not America," which David Bowie sang in The Falcon and the Snowman. Haden's as skillful an interpreter as she is an arranger. Hopefully she won't have to wait another eight years for her next release.

Helen Money's "Arriving Angels"

Helen Money is the solo performing alias of Cali-born, Chicago-based cellist Alison Chesley, who holds a Master's in cello performance, played in the '90s band Verbow, and works around the Windy City as a composer and session player. On her new album, Arriving Angels, produced by noted curmudgeon Steve Albini, she's a veritable one-woman stoner rock juggernaut, employing effects and sampling to produce a menacing forest of sound, joined on four tracks by Neurosis/Sleep drummer Jason Roeder.

As I am reminded by all the damn guitar compilations I've been reviewing lately, it's possible to electronically alter the sound of instruments these days to make them sound like almost anything, and Chesley uses this capability to striking effect. On the opening "Rift," you'll guess that the sounds were made by anything but a cello. The instrument's dark and moody natural texture appears on "Beautiful Friends," setting a ruminative tone before Roeder makes his entrance, then blasting away at a hypnotic minimalist drone and introducing pulsing variations. It's astonishing the way a single player can create so much sonic tension.

On "Radio Recorders," Chesley plays a repeated figure with tremolo against Roeder's blast beats, then overlays a monstrous bassline worthy of Boris with skirling dissonance in her upper register. "Midwestern Nights Dream" backs off the intensity for an interval of reflective chamber music that continues with the title track -- until a feelthy fuzztone shatters the mood. Helen Money's music resonates with the stark beauty of alienation. Its creator is a no-fooling virtuoso who channels her gift not to call attention to itself, but rather, to make the sounds breathe.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna see some live Parliament/Funkadelic from 1969?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Ronald Shannon Jackson: Legend In the Shadows

This piece originally appeared in the January 2-8, 2003 edition of Fort Worth Weekly.

The haunting music wafts out of the black-painted frame house. The notes have no trouble negotiating the double layers of wrought-iron fence, surrounding first the porch and then the yard of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s home. The music elicits no whisper from what looks like an old school bell, or the myriad other bells and chimes hung on the porch enclosure, and raises nary a rustle from the dozens of potted plants that crowd the yard. The strange tunes float around the black 280Z parked in the driveway and out to a visitor on the sidewalk.

Despite the chill of an October night, the front door stands open. Inside, the house is filled with books, c.d.’s, videos, drums, African masks, piles of printed-out e-mails and musical compositions in progress, and odd-looking instruments. An organ and a piano sit in facing corners of the front room. Two large, colorful paintings by Jackson’s lifelong friend Sonny Benton hang in the den.

Follow the music down a hall whose walls are covered with snapshots and scrawled fragments of sheet music. Turn left, and there you find the source of the sounds — Rachella Parks, saxophone player from Jackson’s band, the Decoding Society, playing keyboard, and violinist Lawrence Haywood, auditioning to join the group.

Now a slight but solidly built man with spectacles picks up a strange instrument with multiple bells, like a Medusan version of a clarinet. That’s Jackson, 62, intelligent, articulate, wryly humorous, his hair braided with rivets and New York City subway tokens. What he’s playing is a schalmei, a medieval ancestor of the oboe, and he leads the two musicians through the piece they’ve been rehearsing, the violin echoing Jackson’s plaintive melody over a lush bed of keyboard chords.

Then Parks picks up her tenor sax and Jackson moves behind his enormous Sonor drum kit, painted with African-looking designs, with double bass drums and a full array of cymbals suspended high above the traps. Jackson starts out with some delicate cymbal work, then establishes a steady meter with the sock cymbal and rimshots on the snare. Parks blows a solo of mounting intensity, which Jackson mirrors, his sticks moving like a whirlwind across his battery of tom-toms. The tune winds down, back to a unison passage where the musicians repeatedly play four beats, then three, then two, then one to end the piece. Haywood keeps his eyes on Jackson throughout, watching for cues.

Pick up any book about jazz written in the last 20 years, and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s name is there. He’s performed and recorded with many of the major innovators of jazz’s avant-garde, and his playing is unique in the annals of jazz drumming. Profiling Jackson for Musician, Player and Listener magazine in 1981, writers David Breskin and Rafi Zabor called him “the most stately free-jazz drummer in the history of the idiom, a regal and thundering presence.” As a composer and leader of his own band, the Decoding Society, since 1979, Jackson has created a demanding but accessible synthesis of jazz, funk, rock, and “world music” strains. He’s recorded more than 50 albums, 23 of them as a leader. He’s played concerts and appeared on television all over Europe, Asia, and Africa. He’s been the sole representative of the United States at an international drum festival in Korea and toured Japan twice with Herbie Hancock.

Oh, and he’s from Fort Worth, and he lives here now. Ever heard of him?

If not, it’s easy to understand why. While still based in New York, Jackson and the Decoding Society were regular visitors to Caravan of Dreams during the downtown venue’s ‘80s heyday, but those shows were sparsely attended. Although family ties brought the drummer back to live in Fort Worth in 1996, it’s been three years since he set foot on a stage anywhere in the Metroplex, and his recordings are conspicuously absent from record store shelves. Even his eight incredible CDs released by New York-based Knitting Factory Records in 2000 quickly disappeared from area stores. You’ll have better luck finding his music on the internet, starting with Jackson’s own website, which has a selection of CDs, live digital audiotapes, and videos.

“He’s showed me that there’s no limit to where you can go or what you can do,” said Pete Drungle, a University of North Texas graduate who played keyboards in the late-‘90s Decoding Society and now composes soundtracks in New York City. “He listens on a level most musicians aren’t capable of and pushes you to play things you didn’t know you were capable of.”

But Jackson’s talents have not taken him, careerwise, where he and others think he should be. “Shannon’s a wonderful person, but I think he’s bitter,” Drungle said. “in the ‘80s, he’d travel from one end of Europe to the other, playing, then go do the same thing in Japan, then go and make a record. To go from that to having his thing shut down – almost like people are trying to destroy him – had to be hard.”

Jackson is a pure product of Fort Worth. He grew up amid racism and violence but in a supportive community that nurtured his musicality. Although he started playing music at age five and continued through high school and college, he claims that he didn’t really commit himself to being a professional musician until he was 34. By that time, he’d already spent several years on the New York jazz scene and overcome the scourge of heroin addiction by adopting Nichiren Shosu Buddhism and vegetarianism. He received his first critical notice as a sideman for avant-garde jazz icons Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but financial success was longer in coming. He toured the States, Europe, and Asia extensively through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s and visited Africa to explore the roots of his music. But while his records were consistently lauded by the jazz press, they weren’t always well promoted or distributed by record companies that were sometimes indifferent, sometimes outright hostile to jazz.

In his maturity, Jackson is a proudly uncompromising and creative artist – but one who feels disrespected in his hometown. In part, this is because his asking price for a performance exceeds what local promoters are willing to pay. Also, he feels his challenging music doesn’t fit in with the conservatism of the local jazz community. In music as in other arts, there’s a built-in tension between the avant-garde and the mainstream. But while Jackson is unwilling to return to the kind of jazz playing he did in his formative years – backing strings of solos on well-worn standards – his own music makes liberal use of pop materials and forms. Dissonant, angular melodies rub up against blues shuffles, funk grooves, and gospel cadences. Like him, it is a synthesis of sharp and soft, rough and polished – discord, beauty, achievement, disappointment.

“When I was 9 years old,” Jackson said, “I remember walking in the house and telling my mother and grandmother that I was going to be rich when I was 34. And 34 was when I really decided to be a professional musician. So when I was 34, I became rich, but it was rich in life and playing music.”

Born Ronald Gene Shannon, he had a total of 15 stepparents. (He eventually took his birth father’s last name.) Both of his birth parents came to Fort Worth from Iola, Texas. “My mother was married seven times and my father was married eight times,” he said. His mother, Ella Mae Walton (nee Shannon), was “a teacher, a workaholic, and a gambler. She traveled all around the world before I did, but nobody around here knew it because she’d never tell anybody.” His father, William “Bill” Jackson, ran a jukebox business and had the first black-owned record store in Fort Worth, the House of Music on Evans Avenue, as well as an early black-owned grocery, Jackson’s Drive-In Grocery at Tennessee and Hattie.

Jackson grew up surrounded by music. His mother played piano in St. Andrew’s Methodist Church and would take her son to the gazebo in Greenway Park, just north of downtown, to hear jazz musicians play after they’d completed their paid engagements for the evening. “It wasn’t about rehearsing or playing songs,” he said. “They’d just play.” He also remembers listening to live bands playing between the movies at the Grand Theater at Rosedale and Fabons (now a church).

“Back then,” said Jackson, “the south side was like an African village. All the businesses were black-owned except for the big supermarket and the Grand Theater. It was a self-sustaining community, probably more so in Fort Worth than in Dallas, because Fort Worth was more commercialized. There was plenty of work for black men on the railroad and in the meatpacking plants. That all ended when the civil rights movement came…People wanted to see what there was outside the neighborhood.”

In 1955, when Jackson’s family moved into the Riverside house he now lives in, there weren’t many black families in the neighborhood, and local whites reacted to their arrival with hostility and violence. Shortly after Jackson’s family moved in, the house was firebombed – an event that went unreported in the local press – and his stepfather had to stand guard outside with a shotgun. “There was a florist’s across the street that they moved brick by brick to Haltom City, where the rest of the Ku Klux Klan was,” said Jackson. The following year, a black family down the street had their car bombed, and there were other arson attempts.

Jackson moved back into the house in 1996, after his mother died of Alzheimer’s at age 76. “She was healthy as a horse,” he said. “Nothing else wrong with her besides that disease.” Two of his children live nearby – his sons Clifford, 43, an Alcon employee, and Gregory, 40, a Tarrant County truant officer and father of Jackson’s grandsons Cochise and Solomon. His daughter Sunday, 23, a Juilliard graduate in modern dance, is currently performing in Las Vegas with Celine Dion, while his son Talkeye, 22, is a student at Bard College in New York. Jackson’s wife, Natalie, a Harlem native, lives in their apartment house at 87th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, and they travel between the two cities to see each other. She’s a teacher of gifted students and a reader for the New York Public Library.

Jackson said he knew from age four that he would play the drums, and he used to beat on pots and pans around the house. Instead, his parents started him on piano, which he played from ages five to nine. “My father said that to be a real musician, you had to play a variety of instruments.” Jackson played percussion in the school band and learned from watching the drummers he saw when he went into nightclubs to service his father’s jukeboxes. Jackson’s mother finally bought him a set of drums as an incentive for him to finish high school.

“I worked seven days a week growing up, because my father had all these different businesses. And growing up with him, I knew all of his businesses, and I’d take care of them. So I was working all the time, and my release was playing drums. I’d be walking to the store from where I lived, and I’d just hear these rhythms. I used to dream about being on a slave ship coming from Africa, and I think I must have been a drummer back then. I’d hear these African rhythms, and in my mind, I’d put them over Frank Sinatra or whatever I heard on the radio.”

A couple of local musicians fostered Jackson’s teenage enthusiasm for jazz: his friend Thomas Reese, who lent him an album by drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and multi-instrumentalist Charles Scott, who encouraged him to build up his leg strength to keep the beat on the sock cymbal. “Shannon had the right idea about how to play right off,” said Reese, who was a freshman in college when he started playing with high schooler Jackson. “Some of us had to grapple with the language; he didn’t.”

At age 15, Jackson was playing R&B and jazz gigs with saxophonist James Clay – who later played in the Ray Charles band alongside Dallas reedman David “Fathead” Newman – and learning about jazz accompaniment from backing visiting singers like Dakota Staton. “In those days you could actually work as a musician here. We were playing four nights a week, with two gigs each on Saturday and Sunday, anything from Ray Charles to bebop. People were dancing, and when it was time to listen, they’d listen. But I was brainwashed into thinking that you couldn’t make a living playing music.”

The ‘50s Fort Worth scene spawned an impressive number of future avant-garde jazz notables, all of them students of I.M. Terrell High School band director G.A. Baxter, a perfectionist who took his students from Sousa to Wagner. Besides Jackson and Ornette Coleman, who started his performing career here as a honking R&B tenor saxman, there was clarinetist John Carter, Jackson’s third-grade music teacher, who later co-led a group with ex-Coleman trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Trumpeter Charles Moffett switched to percussion at 16, played drums in Coleman’s early ‘60s trio, and fathered five children who pursued careers in jazz. Saxophonist Dewey Redman was a schoolteacher when he gigged with the teenage Jackson, but later became a mainstay of Coleman’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s groups and is the father of another young saxophonist, Joshua Redman. Reedman Julius Hemphill, a classmate of Jackson’s was a participant in the ‘70s New York loft jazz scene and helmed the World Saxophone Quartet from 1976 to 1989.

“Mr. Baxter was a trumpet player, very open-minded,” said Reese. “He’d always encourage you. During our lunch hour, he’d let us use the auditorium – which was also the band room – to jam. And he wasn’t the only one. We had a chorus teacher, Miss Adelaide Tresvant, who started a music theory class.” A former classmate recently told Reese that Baxter is still living in Oklahoma. “I.M. Terrell was well known for having the best black high school band in Texas,” he added. “We’d always win the contests at Prairie View A&M, both playing and marching. The cadences from our drum section were always a crowd-pleaser.”

While he values his exposure to music in school, Jackson is disdainful of many collegiate jazz education programs. By and large, he said, “the people who are teaching [there] chose to do so rather than performing, so young musicians are learning to play from people who don’t have the experience of performing.” But after hearing that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik in 1957, Jackson decided to go to college.

“I realized that I didn’t even know what makes airplanes fly, let alone rocket ships,” he said. He had a full scholarship to now-defunct Westlake College of Jazz in L.A., but instead elected to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson County, MO, here Hemphill and Reese were already studying. Hemphill pointed out that, since the school was midway between St. Louis and Kansas City, it provided an extra opportunity to catch touring jazz groups during their weeklong residencies in those cities.

At Lincoln, Jackson played in a quartet with Hemphill, Reese, and his roommate, pianist John Hicks. He also did some experimenting with drugs. “We played at a skating rink once while we were high on nutmeg,” he remembered. “You’d take a handful of it with black coffee, and it would take about six hours to come on, then it was a 16-hour trip. We went to play the gig, and we’d forgotten we took [the nutmeg]. I looked over at Reese, who was playing bass, and he had the bass lying horizontal on the floor, holding onto it. I wondered what was wrong with him, and the next thing I knew, I was holding onto the snare drum to keep from flying away. Somehow the instruments all got packed up and we made it home.”

Jackson later attended Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M before transferring to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. At Prairie View and Bridgeport, he focused on history and sociology. But while staying with an aunt in Connecticut, Jackson had a foreshadowing of his future. “She told me, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll be all right when you go to New York,’ and I didn’t even know I was going there! This woman was a soothsayer, but not like a fortune-teller…What she’d tell people would actually happen. She told me, ‘You’ll go through some hard times, but it’ll be all right.’”

On a visit to New York in 1966, Jackson discovered that his old Lincoln roommate Hicks was working as musical director for Art Blakey. Hicks encouraged Jackson to come to New York, and a scholarship from the New York College of Music enabled the drummer to make the move. Soon, at age 26, he was working with bandleaders as diverse as bassist-composer Charles Mingus, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and singer Betty Carter. Jackson’s first recording session, under saxophonist Charles Tyler’s leadership, was a one-take affair without rehearsal, and it left the drummer in tears of frustration. But it was there that he began his first of several associations with ‘60s free jazz innovators – in this case, with uncompromising avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler.

Ayler’s music was influenced by the Masonic marching bands and blues combos he played in while growing up in Cleveland, but was much freer and more emotionally direct, highlighted by his huge, vibrato-laden sound. “Albert was the first [leader] that really opened me up,” said Jackson. “He let me play the drums the way I did in Fort Worth when I wasn’t playing for other people.” The saxophonist died in 1970 under mysterious circumstances and is now the subject of no fewer than four biographies currently in progress. Now Jackson hopes the biographers will “tell the real story, how it really was, not the Hollywood version. But they’re not talking to the people who really knew Albert.”

Jackson had achieved the jazzman’s dream of making the New York scene, but he still wasn’t fully committed to the musician’s life. The death of saxophone avatar John Coltrane in July 1967 hit the drummer hard emotionally, and he spent the next seven years drifting between music, drugs, and petty crime.

During his time in New York, he’d gone the way of many musicians and started dabbling in heroin. “I was getting so much work that it was frightening,” he recalled of a period that found him playing both society gigs and burlesque houses. “I’d be strung out, but even then, people would come looking for me. I wound up being a heroin addict, and I had $50,000 in the bank. I’d take my first wife down to Bloomingdale’s and buy her diamonds, mink coats. I had money like horseshit. I was fucking up royally, but I learned. There’s something about when you go through that kind of thing, when you need to hustle $300 to $400 a day, which would be equivalent to maybe $1000 now. ... I learned to hustle. The kind of person I am, I couldn’t play drums then, spiritually. ... I just didn’t feel right.”

Drugs took a physical toll on Jackson, and there were also intermittent run-ins with the law in New York, when he was arrested for stealing or drugs and spent time in jail. On one occasion, he returned to Fort Worth to try to avoid being entered into a three-year program run by New York’s Narcotic Addiction Control Commission. “My feet were so swollen, I couldn’t even wear a shoe,” Jackson recalled. “My father took me to the doctor who birthed me — who was a heroin addict his whole life — and he filled me up with Dilaudid and put me on a plane.” When Jackson realized that his ticket back to New York was one-way, he was furious. Since he had enough money to buy drugs, he managed to avoid the rehab program, quickly fell back into the junkie life, and didn’t call his family for two years.

That could have been the end for Jackson; the list of musician casualties of the heroin plague is lengthy. But in 1974, bassist Buster Williams introduced Jackson to Nichiren Shosu, a form of Buddhism whose devotees chant the phrase Nam myoho renge kyo for hours daily. It was this discipline and his concurrent adoption of vegetarianism that kept Jackson alive, enabling him to kick his heroin habit and return to music. At first, he was reluctant to commit to the new regimen. “I said, ‘I’m going to try this for three weeks,’” he recalled. “Then three months had passed. It pulled me together and pulled me out and I was able to focus. I was a Buddhist and a vegetarian for 17 years.”

Shortly after his conversion to Buddhism, Jackson ran into his fellow Fort Worthian Ornette Coleman in Manhattan. Coleman asked Jackson to join his new electric band, Prime Time, for four years while the older musician’s son Denardo, also a drummer, was attending business school. Jackson and Prime Time guitarist Bern Nix moved into Coleman’s loft “after we lost our apartments because we weren’t playing any gigs.” Jackson credits the saxophonist with teaching him a great deal about composition and encouraging him to compose on the flute “because he said I was hearing in that piccolo range.” Coleman called his style “harmolodic,” based on a theory of music he devised that posits an equal relationship between harmony, motion (rhythm), and melody and abandons conventional key and pitch. After rehearsing in the loft for months, he and his group traveled to Paris, where they played concerts and recorded the albums Dancing In Your Head and Body Meta.

Upon its release in 1976, Dancing In Your Head set the jazz world on its ear with its combination of harmolodics and electric instruments, but financial reward did not follow. Instead, Jackson remembers the period as the first of several times in his life when he was part of an acclaimed band that had its progress thwarted by the music industry. “We played Carnegie Hall,” he said, “and then we were booked for a tour of 10 or 12 cities in America, but they cancelled that. We had a sold-out show, a big review in the New York Times. Ornette had already been thrown out of the loft and he was staying in the Carter Hotel, so it totally messed him up. They cancelled everything, and [A&M Records] wouldn’t re-press Dancing in Your Head. That’s the first time I realized, [the music business is] not about making money, it’s about control and power.”

Because the Coleman group gigged so infrequently, Jackson also joined the iconoclastic pianist Cecil Taylor’s band for six months in 1979, recording six albums. It was during this period that the jazz press began to single out the drummer’s aggressively extroverted approach. That same year, he formed the Decoding Society. It’s always been a composer’s, rather than a drummer’s band; Jackson integrates his thunderous playing into the ensembles, rather than making the band a vehicle for his solos.

Over the years, the Decoding Society enjoyed great success for a jazz group, particularly overseas, but its achievements were still subject to the vagaries of the music industry. Two early mainstays of the band were guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs, high school and college bandmates from Brooklyn who were enthralled with jazz-rock fusion and somewhat leery of the idiosyncrasies of older players. Both later enjoyed varying degrees of rock stardom, Reid with the group Living Colour and Gibbs as a sideman for punk rocker/poet Henry Rollins. “Shannon didn’t have the stereotypical older jazz cat’s attitude that we younger cats used to make fun of,” said Gibbs, who still lives in New York. “We were just kids, but he didn’t feel like he had to break you down, then build you back up, so he could keep his band together. He wanted a band of strong people, not a bunch of cowards.”

Reid was impressed by Jackson’s willingness to incorporate elements of popular music into his avant-garde approach — unlike many of his contemporaries who made music that was deliberately impenetrable to all but other musicians. “Shannon wasn’t an ideological avant-gardist,” Reid recalled. “He made the music he made from an outsider’s view, but not to the exclusion of rock and pop — he wasn’t mad at pop music for being popular the way some of his generation are. He synthesized blues shuffles with African syncopations through the lens of someone who gave vent to all manner of emotions. I feel that the collision of values in his music really represents American culture.”

By the time the Decoding Society album Mandance appeared on Island Records subsidiary Antilles in 1982, the band had developed into a hard-hitting unit that offered brassy fanfares, free-form funk, and Coleman-like legato ballad themes that often unfolded over roiling rhythm beds of furious drumming and dueling electric basses. But an unsympathetic record company stalled the record. “They printed 3,000 copies,” said Jackson, “then they’d wait two or three months to re-press, even though people all over the country were asking for the record. The A&R [artists and repertoire] man didn’t think drummers could sell records.”

Starting in the late ’70s, major record labels had briefly embraced jazz, signing innovative but relatively noncommercial artists and starting up boutique jazz labels. By the early ’80s, though, the music industry was turning away from jazz, dropping all but the most musically conservative artists and folding most of the major label jazz divisions. The growing control of airwaves by consulting firms also led to the exclusion of jazz from radio programming. “I was making a good living playing colleges. Then around ’83, ’84, one morning we woke up in New York and the jazz station was country-western. And it didn’t just happen in New York. ... It happened in Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, L.A. Straight across the country, they took jazz off the radio.” When jazz returned to the airwaves, it was in the form of homogenized “smooth jazz” that Jackson disdains. “You get in your car and drive from here to California, you’re going to listen to the same stuff all the way. Oasis all over the country!”

In the mid-’80s, while the original Decoding Society was still together, Jackson lived in New York and returned to Fort Worth periodically to play at the Caravan of Dreams. He and the band released five c.d.’s on the club’s in-house label.

But there was a much more distant “hometown” that Jackson also longed to visit. When he finally made that trip, it enriched his music and cemented a connection he’d felt since his earliest days as a drummer.

Aided by a trio of grants, Jackson made the journey to west Africa to hear in person the sounds he’d been imagining in his head since he was a child. “I always wanted to go to Africa,” said Jackson. “When I came to Paris with Ornette, I was meeting all these African cats in the street and they’d been telling me about these secret drum societies.” His three-month African sojourn included visits to nine countries, including Zaire, Cameroon, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Togo, and Mali. At every stop along the way, he listened to local musicians and wrote music inspired by what he heard.

“It’s always hard, you have to really go looking to find the music,” Jackson said in explaining his world travels. “You’ve got to break it all the way down, because they automatically assume that you want to hear the music that’s popular, which is influenced by American music — which I don’t want to hear! The way I was able to get to it was by saying, ‘I want to hear the music your mother and father listen to!’”

Meanwhile, the Decoding Society’s personnel had changed in response to music industry machinations. Jackson attributes the dissolution of the original band to a couple of business associates who saw the potential marketability of young guitarist Reid. “We were together seven years, then they broke my band up — the two agents who were doing my booking. They went with another agency and then, boom! They started that Living Colour group.”

For his part, Reid credits Jackson with giving him the confidence to strike out on his own. “In Living Colour, we played to empty chairs for the first few months,” said Reid. “Then, by playing relentlessly, we were able to build an audience. Shannon taught me you can do whatever you want to do if you’re willing to pay the price.”

The album Red Warrior, recorded in 1988 and released in 1990, marked the arrival in the Decoding Society lineup of the fiery guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. “You only need one person in the band who you’re in total communication with,” said Jackson. “After Vernon, Jef Lee was the next one who did that.”

Johnson, speaking from his home in Philadelphia, said, “The mistake people make [with Jackson’s music] is trying to listen like it’s a regular piece of music. You have to learn to listen in layers. Then you can see how beautiful it is — this demented orchestral small band with all this drum chaos underneath.” The guitarist recalled his time in the Decoding Society as “like being in a circus. It was always pretty hilarious, even when I wanted to kill [Jackson]. I remember getting a lot of stares in airports. People weren’t used to seeing folks that looked and dressed like us” — like a band of gypsies in colorful African attire.

In the late ’80s, Jackson undertook a number of other projects. He played in the blazing metallic jazz-rock group Last Exit with pioneering free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, and with SXL, a funk-world music fusion group. Another project was Strange Meeting, a 1987 CD by the experimental group Power Tools. The disc teamed Jackson and bassist Gibbs with eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell. The disc made Rolling Stone’s “albums of the year” list but was nearly impossible to find when it was new and remains unavailable. “I got off the plane in Berlin and got in the cab and it was playing on the radio,” said Jackson, “and the same thing happened over in Tokyo. Then they took it off the market and made Frisell a star.” To Jackson, it seemed like a rerun of A&M’s failure to promote Ornette’s Dancing In Your Head, Island’s abandonment of the Decoding Society’s Mandance, and his more recent experience of losing Vernon Reid to Living Colour.

Jackson released his last CD of new material, Shannon’s House, in 1996, the year he returned to Fort Worth to live. The record is full of overt gospel influences, particularly in the work of saxophonist Parks, a church choir director since age 14, whom Jackson’s life-long friend Thomas Reese discovered and brought into the Decoding Society lineup.

Since then, Jackson has rarely performed in the area. “When I left Fort Worth to go to New York,” he said, “they were playing all these corny songs like ‘Days of Wine and Roses’...‘Sunny.’ When I came back [in 1996], they were still playing all those same songs. I’m not about that.”

Jackson’s infrequent appearances since returning to his hometown have added an elusive quality to his legend here. Drew Phelps is one of several local musicians who have played with Jackson and view him as a kind of mentor and sage. The Denton bassist introduced himself to Jackson at a 1998 Caravan of Dreams show. A month later, Jackson heard Phelps play at the Dallas Museum of Art and invited him to a rehearsal. They wound up playing together every Monday night for a year.

The bassist was impressed by Jackson’s near-photographic memory. “He’d be discussing some philosophical idea,” said Phelps, “and if he felt like he wasn’t getting the point across, he’d walk over to a bookshelf, pull down a book, and say, ‘Here, read that!’ He’d always open it to the exact page that he wanted.” Interestingly, Jackson spoke of his former bandleaders Coleman and Taylor having the same ability.

“When he knows a melody, he really knows it forward and backward,” Phelps continued. “We’d be playing a tune and he’d say, ‘Somebody needs to play the melody backwards to accompany the solo.’ We’d be struggling trying to figure it out, and he’d just sing it. I saw him do that lots of times.”

In the year Phelps spent playing with Jackson, there were no paying gigs. “Shannon got an offer from the DMA to play in their Jazz Under the Stars program,” Phelps recalled. “They offered him $2,000 and he wanted $5,000. He felt he should be able to pay us something for all of our rehearsal time. He really believes that artists should be respected. He’d ask, ‘If they can pay a million dollars for a painting, but they can’t afford $5,000 for a band, do they really want us?’”

Jackson learned that philosophy from working with leaders like Coleman and Taylor, who always command top dollar. “They both taught me to never undervalue yourself, because once you do, you’ll never get paid decently again. Before you ask somebody for money, you have to be able to produce, and I can produce.” Eventually, the money disputes were settled, and the Decoding Society played the DMA in 1999 — the last time Jackson has performed in the Metroplex.

“I don’t just play music,” said Jackson, “I create events.” A videotape of a ’99 show at the Warsaw Jazz Festival features an as-yet-unreleased tune called “Horus.” In the middle of the piece, Jackson and trombonist Craig Harris have a dramatic call-and-response vocal exchange that’s filled with the power of myth, ritual, and incantation. Watching the performance, it’s hard not to think about how good “Horus” would sound onstage at the Bass Hall — and how unlikely that is to happen.

Since those performances, Jackson has experienced problems with a nerve in his arm related to his intensive practice regimen on the schalmei, which prevented him from performing or even composing music for two years. He credits Drs. Clinton Battle and David Estes with restoring his ability to play.

Although Jackson safeguards his privacy, young musicians and fans from the UNT jazz claque will occasionally seek him out. “I was playing my drums one night,” he said. “I had to wait until 2 a.m. when the trains were coming by, so I wouldn’t disturb my neighbors. Somebody knocked on the window, and when I went to the front door, there were a boy and girl standing there. Then I looked behind the bush in front of the window — there were six more of them there!” When saxophonist Sam Rivers, a pillar of the ’70s New York loft jazz scene, recently performed on the Denton campus, a UNT jazz instructor sent one of his students to pick up Jackson and take him to the show. Jackson hadn’t set foot in Denton since the ’50s, when he was playing a pool party there. “This boy touched my cymbals, and I knocked him in the pool!”

It’s sobering to confront a fiery avant-gardist in his autumnal years. “All the people who know me are dead,” said Jackson, who turns 63 on Jan. 12. Albert Ayler’s body was found in New York’s East River in 1970. Jackson’s old music teacher John Carter died of cancer in 1991. Julius Hemphill and Charles Moffett died in April 1995 and on Valentine’s Day, 1997, respectively.

But Coleman and Taylor, both a decade older than Jackson, remain their iconoclastic selves. Dewey Redman returned to Fort Worth to play last year’s Juneteenth Festival with a band that included Moffett’s son Codaryl on drums. And Jackson is writing and playing again.

On one of my most recent visits to his house, he met his grandson, 7-month-old Solomon, for the first time. Holding the infant in his lap, the musician picked out a C scale on a piano and softly sang the notes to the boy, who sat quietly against his grandfather’s chest and gazed up, wide-eyed, seemingly enchanted by the sounds.

“Shannon’s music is so alive, so interesting, so colorful,” said Drungle. “I would love to see him treated in the way he deserves based on all that he’s done and all that he’s capable of in music.”

While Fort Worth strives to reinvent itself as an arts mecca, Ronald Shannon Jackson sits in his house in Riverside, a prophet without honor — or, at least without financial reward — in his hometown, composing music and rehearsing musicians. Does anyone dare to pay him what he’s worth to perform his own music here?