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.


Blogger wrayb said...

I try to limit my bob downloads to those connected to significant dates (birth of children, day of divorce, etc) or with situation / personnel that make me go WHAH?. Just too much in the universe to spend so much time on one pixie. The Boogaloo book recommends it self if just for the reason that other aspect of pop have be overwritten and the line between (connecting and separating) T.A. Dorsey and Suge Knight needs crossing. Often.

ABB. Sigh.

7:20 PM  

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