Thursday, March 23, 2017

Chuck Berry's Gradual Ascent to Heaven

[Apologies to Nels Cline for the title.]

I took a silly test on Facebook that, based on my musical preferences, guesstimated my age at 74. (I'll be 60 in a couple of months, if I still be livin'.) It's a fair cop. For the last decade or so, I've played in a band with guys aging from nine to 18 years younger than me. I'm the only one of us who doesn't like Van Halen. And I'm the right age for that shit -- turned 21 the year their first LP dropped.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, when I picked up a Julian Cope tome I didn't know existed: Copendium. It's basically an analog version of his Head Heritage website, crammed with musical arcana from "my era" of music (late '60s on up), floridly described in his highly idiosyncratic and unremittingly enthusiastic prose style that makes the relative brevity of the entries advantageous. The pieces are arranged chronologically by the decade in which the subject rekkids appeared. (The '80s are thin because that was the decade Julian was busy telling the world to shut its mouth. I can relate; that was the decade I mostly spent Guarding Freedom's Frontier.) Looking at the entries for the '90s on up, I realized that there isn't a lot of music there that I care about. At a certain point (ca. 1990), everything new I heard started reminding me of something old. And it was surprising to me how much of that "something old" was Black Sabbath.

As a high schooler, I was an oddity among my age cohort for preferring first generation Brit invaders (Animals/Yardbirds/Stones) and their Meercun forebears (Chuck 'n' Bo, Wolf 'n' Muddy, John Lee Hooker) to the Holy Trinity of Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, and Led Zep. (True, I was enough of a partisan of the MC5 and Stooges to earn a trip to the school shrink for my sub-Bangsian English journal droolings over them, and there honestly wasn't a lot separating the bands I dug from the ones I didn't, sonically speaking. But that was the child I was.) And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that when I was first able to lay hands on the Chess catalog, a lot of what I heard seemed to me, as it did to St. Lester's nephew, "kind of bare without the feedback." But I acclimated.

So when I read the news that Chuck Berry had passed, I went to the cabinet where I keep my records and pulled out the copy of Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits that I bought when I was 13, abandoned when I moved to Texas, and got back a couple of years ago via my sister. I wanted to hear "Nadine" for the line "campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat." Like Dylan, there are lines of Chuck's that have seeped into the argot and our consciousness. In songs like the oft-quoted "You Never Can Tell," the oft-covered "You Can't Catch Me," and the secret Freedom Rider homage "Promised Land" (penned in a prison cell), as well as the ones everyone of A Certain Age knows by heart, Charles Edward Anderson Berry (1926-2017) captured the cadences of American speech better than any poet.

As deracinated as his music was -- besides Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, and Springsteen, contemporaries like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran owed him their jobs -- Berry's life experience, which included stints in prison as well as in the charts, was that of a 20th century African American man. He wanted to get paid, and he demanded respect -- played with pickup bands for years to keep his touring expenses down, then delighted in fucking with them by changing keys and tempos on the fly. In the Hail, Hail Rock and Roll doco (DVD copies of which are fetching a pretty penny right now, along with copies of his out-of-print autobiography), you can see him handing his acolyte and advocate Keef Richards his head for trivializing his lead guitar style.

Chuck was the whole package: an instantly recognizable musical stylist (if not an innovator), a dynamic performer, and the great mythologizer of post-WW2 American consumer culture. Of his generation, only Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis remain, and he casts a longer shadow than any of them. I always say Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, as a guitarist, but in a very real sense, Chuck was the air I grew up breathing, as a fan. He has a new album, his first in damn near 40 years, coming out later this year. It might be great. It might be shit. No matter. We will not see his like again.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Brendan Toller's "Danny Says"

Since the music I love became popular fodder for documentary films (gotta catch those folks before they shuffle off this mortal coil), it's seemed a no-brainer to me that Danny Fields deserved his own movie. Aesthete, sensation seeker, and scintillating raconteur, Fields was present at the creation of punk (book readers, refer to Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids): a fixture at Warhol's Factory and Max's Kansas City, he edited teen magazines, got the MC5 and Stooges signed to Elektra, managed the Ramones, and lived to tell about it all with impeccable grace and charm. If some people's beef with Jarmusch's Stooges movie was that it's basically one guy talking for an hour and a half, what Brendan Toller's documentary portrait of Fields, Danny Says, has going for it is a subject whom you could listen to without getting bored for even longer than that.

Toller's interviews are all conducted in the present day (with the exception of a bit swiped from the excellent MC5: A True Testimonial), but rather than showing us a talking head for an hour and 45 minutes, he avails himself of photos and ephemera from Fields' personal collection (much of which has been donated to Yale University) as well as using archival footage and animation (the signature device of so many recent docos) to provide visual interest.

Danny Says delves into some areas of Fields' life of which I was unaware (graduated from Penn State at 19 and spent a year at Harvard Law before landing in Greenwich Village; as editor of Datebook, he pubbed John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remarks that resulted in the Beatles receiving death threats while touring the American South), as well as all the well-known tales, presented here with Fields' distinctive panache. Interviews with Fields' familiars such as Iggy, Elektra founder Jac Holzman, Leee Black Childers, Judy Collins, Alice Cooper, Lenny Kaye (who offers a heartfelt homage) and a particularly perceptive Legs McNeil help flesh out the picture.

Fields understood intuitively, perhaps better than anyone else, rockaroll's appeal to oddballs and outcasts, and how it could unify them and bring them (us) a sense of community -- although he would probably shudder at the very notion. His story, like James D. Cooper's Lambert and Stamp of a couple of years ago, proves that the people behind the scenes can have stories as compelling as the performers. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Things we like (songs and other things for insane times)

With a tip o' the lid to Kevin Ayers.

1) The Move Magnetic Waves of Sound -- Yet another comp by the estimable Brummers, with the added bonus of a DVD that includes three songs by the original five-piece from Beat Beat Beat (including a definitive "I Can Hear the Grass Grow") and the complete Colour Me Pop session (proving, if there was any doubt, that Trevor Burton was one flash bastard). Sure, it's all on Youtube, but I hate watching things on the puter as much as I hate reading PDFs.

2) Wadada Leo Smith Ten Freedom Summers -- Currently, I'm three months into a music-buying moratorium, but right after New Year's, I saw an Amazon deal on this I couldn't pass up. (Yes, I know, Stuff Central is evil. But too damn convenient.) While I need to listen a lot more to analyze in depth, I'll say that the contrast between the small jazz group (with one or two drummers) and chamber orchestra is seamless, and that the music is as immediately satisfying as anything I've heard recently.

3) Playing. Having had two Stoogeaphilia shows in as many months, in February I finally got to play synth and guitar improv with Jon Teague -- who leaves for Europe with Pinkish Black in April, then hits the west coast -- the end of February. We'd only been talking about it for like ten years. Maybe we'll even do it in public sometime. Recording with Brokegrove Lads the end of the month, then looking forward to my 60th (!) birthday show with the li'l Stooge band the end of June, and accompanying the jam at the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival at TCU in September. If I can contrive playing opportunities for all the other months, I'll consider 2017 a success in one area, at least.

4) Anticipation. Is making me late, is keeping me waiting...for April 22, when Pretties for You NYC performs the first Alice Cooper LP in its entahrty at Good Records in Dallas; April 28-30, when I Am Not Your Negro screens at the Modern Art Museum here; and TBD, when Tsi'iibil Chaaltun, double vinyl from Dennis Gonzalez's Ataraxia Trio drops. Also, sometime in November or December, the opening of Panther City Vinyl, which my old, dear friend, gifted visual artist and old school record man Dan Lightner will operate in a spot on Magnolia that's currently under construction. All I ever need is something to look forward to.

5) Divestiture. Getting rid of some records and CDs to eliminate some (but not all) duplication where I had both formats. Discovered a McCoy Tyner LP I thought I'd given away (actually I think I did, I just bought another copy) and a promo CD that was sent to me a couple of years ago, when I was too busy to write about it.

6) Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (which an estimable Brit scribe of my online acquaintance referrred to as "trendy") is disturbingly relevant these days. It seems all I need to do after getting my daily fix of outrage via the headlines is open her book and some particularly apropos passage will appear. F'rinstance: "The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality. Its most cherished value, correspondingly, is loyalty to the Leader, who, like a talisman, assures the ultimate victory of lie and fiction over truth and reality." I'm hoping to have her finished in time to start a Baldwin binge around the time I Am Not Your Negro screens at the Modern next month.