Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Adele Bertei's "Peter and the Wolves"

Smog Veil Records' Peter Laughner box set was my most anticipated release of the millennium. I'd been fascinated by Laughner ever since When the Velvets to the Voidoids made me aware of the fertile Northern Ohio music scene that spawned Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. Fellow fans shared tapes of Laughner's band Rocket from the Tombs, which before fragmenting into the two aforementioned outfits, managed to contain the "art" and "rock" impulses that they, respectively, came to embody. Moonlighting in a record store, I was able to obtain a copy of Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, the compendium of lo-fi Laughner recordings Velvets to Voidoids author Clinton Heylin compiled for Tim/Kerr, which only inspired more curiosity. Who was this muso/scribe, whose world could encompass punk progenitors, arty experimentalists, and singer-songwriters, who would destroy himself at age 24 for what his friend Lester Bangs called "something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions?" The Smog Veil box gave a fuller and more complete picture of the musical Laughner (surprisingly, the most emotionally resonant tracks were performed solo acoustic). But I continued to be troubled by the idea of his death-wish romanticism. 

Now Smog Veil has republished a slim memoir by Laughner's last collaborator, Adele Bertei, of the time they spent together (and her own emergence as an artist). Bertei's probably best known as a player on the "no wave" scene that germinated on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the late '70s. It was through her agency that Brian Eno produced the No New York compilation that introduced the world to the sounds of the Contortions (for whom Adele played Acetone organ), Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. Beyond that, she's read her prose and poetry on stages with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; acted in underground films; sung with Tears for Fears and Whitney Houston; cut dance tracks with Thomas Dolby and Jellybean Benitez; and taught songwriting to the incarcerated with Wayne Kramer's Jail Guitar Doors. As a writer, she offers a unique perspective on Laughner: that of a compassionate friend and confidante, rather than a sensation-seeking voyeur.

Bertei's narrative sets the scene with vividly rendered sketches of Cleveland and her own troubled beginnings, with music as her refuge and sanctuary. Hanging out in Cleveland's gay bars, she encounters photographer Nan Goldin, who gives her an inkling of a more hospitable world, "a queer utopia by the sea." The first time she meets Laughner, she's channeling Janis Joplin at a local blues jam. "You're really good," he tells her. They get together to sing and write together. (Sorry, Mr. Heylin, but they weren't an item -- she likes girls, remember.) Laughner introduces her to a whole world of music and literature, gives her an electric guitar -- a Fender Duosonic -- and provides her entry into Cleveland's underground music scene, which is noteworthy for the relatively high number of women musicians active there. It remains a boys' club, though. "Violence as art performed by men who use it to shock and abuse," Bertei writes, "impresses certain male critics -- those who'd rather celebrate white male rage spewing misguided testosterone than give a great female artist two cents-worth of deserved praise."

Her portrait of Laughner is more nuanced than the self-immolating wannabe rock star other accounts have painted. Besides being a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist (albeit one plagued by self-doubt and the need for peer approval), he was a great cheerleader and advocate for fellow musicians he liked -- Pere Ubu's David Thomas, Television's Tom Verlaine, Bertei herself. Her prose conjures the magic of their shared enthusiasm in a way any music geek will get: "Hearing that snap of cellophane ripping over the sleeve, the soft crackle of the needle on the first grooves of wax and BAM, new songs, new stories to get lost in for a good forty minutes of rollercoaster bliss." She traces the roots of his alcoholism, drug addiction, and penchant for gunplay to his upscale suburban family. A trip to NYC to see Peter's friend Lester Bangs provides Bertei with a couple of musical epiphanies (seeing the Ramones, hearing Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), while the two men's manic substance abuse foreshadows their early demise. Bertei accompanied Laughner only part of the way on that journey, arriving in New York to seek her fortune there on the very day of his death. 

Peter and the Wolves is, among other things, Bertei's way of processing grief and loss, which is another way of saying "being human." "Ghost of a hope," she writes, "a prayer of life filling in the lines of the remembered, conjured." She pays her friend and early mentor great heartfelt tribute with this remembrance. She has other stories to tell; a book about Labelle (whom I saw almost booed off stage opening for the Who in Forest Hills in '71) will be published by University of Texas Press next year. I look forward to reading her more.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Things we like: Joe Nick Patoski's "The Ballad of Robert Ealey and the Five Careless Lovers," Maria Golia's "Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure"

I wasn't born in Fort Worth, Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. A buddy who just moved to Austin told me that folks he meets down there say they'd never live here; too conservative, and it's true -- Tarrant County is the last red urban county in the Lone Star State. But demographics are shifting, and this election may surprise some folks. We'll see. In the meantime, a couple of new books have arrived to remind me of some of the underappreciated richness of this city's musical culture.

I grew up in New York and became a blues fan after investigating the songwriting credits on my British Invasion LPs, but all the Black people I knew there hated blues, and all the white people I knew thought Led Zeppelin was blues. I moved to Texas in June 1978, saw the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and thought they were The Thing Itself. But when I came to Fort Worth to open a record store on Camp Bowie Blvd that fall, I got introduced to something even more authentic. The New Bluebird Night Club at Horne and Wellesley in the predominantly Black Como neighborhood was as close to Utopia as I will experience in this life. Besides neighborhood folks, you got gassed-back-hair-and-soul-patch sporting white blues fans, hipis, punks, TCU frat and sorority kids, and those kids' parents, who used to go see chitlin' circuit stars like Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, and Bobby Bland play at the Skyline Ballroom. 

Singer-drummer Robert Ealey bossed the Bluebird back then, fronting the house band with his big, booming voice, his indecipherable diction, and his vocal harmonica imitations. The Juke Jumpers were the band I saw there most often, a white band with a guitar player, Sumter Bruton, who had clearly heard some T-Bone Walker. During the week, you could find Sumter behind the counter at Record Town across from the TCU campus, an enterprise his father -- a big band drummer from New Jersey -- had founded in 1957. I got a lot of free guitar lessons from behind that counter, and also a copy of a privately released LP (the cover was a sheet of paper stuck to the plain white sleeve) entitled Robert Ealey and His Five Careless Lovers Live at the New Blue Bird Nite Club.

The Five Careless Lovers were Sumter, guitarist Freddie Cisneros, bassist (and future SRV sideman) Jackie Newhouse, drummer Mike Buck (who was already a Fabulous Thunderbird by the time I encountered him), and keyboardist Ralph Owen. They existed for about five years in the early '70s, when there was still a vital Black club scene in Fort Worth and racially mixed bands were still a novelty in this segregated town. Veteran Texas scribe Joe Nick Patoski recently self-published (under the Horne & Wellesley Publishers imprint) a slim volume of oral history, drawn from the testimony of all the surviving band members (Ealey passed in 2001, Owen in 2006), and it's a welcome memento of a cherished scene, replete with great photos in an appealing layout. If you were there, you've gotta have one. And it sets the table for the projected re-release by Record Town's new management of the Five Careless Lovers record.

I first caught wind of Maria Golia's new Ornette Coleman biography last fall, when I was one of the speakers for the Jazz Bike Tour of Fort Worth organized by Tammy Melody Gomez and Laney Yarber. (I got to speak at I.M. Terrell High School; the spiel I penned for the occasion is here.) Golia's a journalist based in Egypt who's written extensively on non-musical subjects, but from 1985 to 1992 she managed Caravan of Dreams, the late, lamented arts center in the heart of downtown Fort Worth which Ornette opened in 1983 and where, in its heyday, he and musicians from his orbit like Ronald Shannon Jackson and James "Blood" Ulmer regularly performed. (When I met Mike Watt at SXSW 2001 and told him I was from Fort Worth, his face lit up and he beamed, "Caravan of Dreams!" I had to tell him that the wonderful room with its perfect sightlines and immaculate sound system was gone, replaced by a restaurant the name of which I'll still not utter, but to which Golia pays a bittersweet visit in her epilogue.) She'd met Ornette back then, but was preoccupied with management tasks and admits that she didn't connect with his music until years later.

So what, then, could she add to the story already told (from a music critic's perspective) by John Litweiler in his Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life or (from a musician's perspective) by Peter Niklas Wilson in his Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music? Well, plenty. First, no one else can match her in chronicling Ornette's early years in Fort Worth and placing him in the milieu he inhabited (including the church, I.M. Terrell, and the aforementioned club scene). She's an ace researcher, drawing on interviews with Coleman familiars not previously heard from (like the late Fort Worth educator Marjorie Crenshaw), as well as published material. She brings the Fort Worth where Ornette grew up to vibrant life and fleshes out legendary characters like two of Ornette's formative musical influences, saxophonists Buster Smith and Red Conner. 

Her prose really pops. She pulled me in from the very first page of her introduction with this: "He was unassuming and soft-spoken; he lisped and wore shirts that looked like painters' drop cloths, but he was tougher than he looked. Self-taught and proud, Ornette had a nonconformist approach to music that attracted ridicule and censure." Or this: "Now that so much contact occurs at a sterile, screen-mediated distance, it's worth recalling the spontaneous complicity of jazz, the palpable exchange of energy that occurs within an ensemble and its audience." Her description of New York jazz clubs captures the ethos and ambience of those storied rooms with the insight of one who knows. 

Her section on Coleman's years in Los Angeles and New York places him in the context not only of musical contemporaries but also writers (besides William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Ornette's wife, Jayne Cortez, was a formidable force in her own right), theatrical and visual artists. Her account of Ornette's triumphal return to Fort Worth in 1983 is also a celebration of Caravan from an insider's perspective. She surpasses all previous Coleman biographers in her approach to his thoughts and philosophy, and his harmolodic theory of music in particular. Ornette's verbal communication could be oblique, but Golia avoids the bemused or patronizing tone other writers have taken in discussing this dimension of his art. Her empathy allows the interested reader to gain a better understanding of Ornette's creative intelligence.

Fort Worth and America have changed a lot since Ornette Coleman "closed his eyes" on June 11, 2015. September 29, 2023, will mark the 40th anniversary of "Ornette Coleman Day," when Mayor Bob Bolen presented Ornette the key to the city and the Fort Worth Symphony performed Ornette's symphony Skies of America. It would seem an appropriate milestone for the city to commemorate. I'm not betting on it. But I'd be delighted to be wrong.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

FTW, 10.1.2020

1) Approaching seven months into pandemic isolation, and there's plenty to worry about, between Trump's racist alpenhorn to white supremacist thugs during the first debate, and his broad hints at refusal to accept the results of the election. He needs to be dealt a crushing electoral blow like nothing ever seen before in our history. Closer to home, our school board has voted to return students to class even as community spread remains high. Weak, vacillating leadership on public health at every level results in a catastrophic death toll that is infuriating because it was so avoidable.

2) Playing music is the only thing that gets my mind off the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that our country has become. To paraphrase Octavia Butler, habit beats inspiration, and I've been playing more than at any time since I was a teenage tyro trying to figure things out. It's going to be a long time before I go out to play with people again, but my ongoing exploration of Beefheart (assisted by my looper pedal) could potentially keep me busy for years. Absent a band, there's no reason to learn crowd-pleasing stuff that might woo an audience, so I'm concentrating on Trout Mask and Decals, the records that offer the most challenge and greatest reward. It's harder to pick out the parts on TMR, although the mix on the Third Man reissue makes them a little easier to hear. I started working on "Sweet Sweet Bulbs" last week, cranking the balance first left, then right, and recording each channel on my phone for study. The transcription (in my musical illiterate's "notation") took a couple of days. Here's what I came up with.

And here's what it sounds like. When I was listening to the original and heard the little quote from "Alouette," it made me laugh out loud. 
3) We just finished watching Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. Possibly the best thing I've ever seen on television: visually stunning, creative, and edgy, with the food serving only as the frame for a larger discussion of politics, culture, and change. With each season, Bourdain's compassion, and his self-loathing, become more evident. Maybe it's trite to say, but he seemed like someone I could have known: about the same age, a wiseass punk rocker from the tri-state area. I cheated and watched the finale of the Lower East Side episode (a cover, by musical director Michael Ruffino, of Johnny Thunders' greatest song, with Bourdain's daughter singing backup) before the episode, but I'm glad the series ended the way it did, with a paean to the '70s-'80s NYC where he journeyed for "heroin and music," rather than something more sentimental (earlier episodes in the season covered his legacy and his relationship with the crew on the show). I was in the middle of my own health drama when he checked out in 2018. I'm sorry his trough of despond was so deep that he came to see death as a way out. But maybe we're all a little closer to that, these days.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Mo' Beefheart geekdom

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a fella named Joel Bakker, who was putting together a podcast about Captain Beefheart's magnum opus Trout Mask Replica under the purple-hued auspices of Darren Husted's "Prince Track by Track" podcast. Joel devoted a separate episode to each of TMR's 28 tracks (plus an intro, an epilogue, and a "bonus track"). They'll run in order from October 1 to October 31 (link in this article, where you can hear a teaser episode now; mine will be up on October 10 and 14). In one of 'em, I tell the story of learning this song from a tape Ken Duvall (of Dog Truck fame) made with his buddy Bruce Crystal, around the time Ken auditioned for Beefheart up in Boston. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Bill Pohl's "Let It Burn"

It's been my privilege to follow Fort Worth prog guitar godfather Bill Pohl's musical peregrinations for a couple of decades now. I first heard him doing a guest shot with Dennis Gonzales's Yells At Eels at the Wreck Room. Since then, I've enjoyed many performances by Bill with the Underground Railroad, Mad Jack McMaddd in its many permutations, and his Allan Holdsworth tribute nights (on visits home from Colorado, where he joined Rock In Opposition stalwarts Thinking Plague, as well as working on his own stuff). 

But my favorite Pohl performances yet were the ones he did at the Grackle Gallery last year, basically solo with loops and sequences (and occasional assistance from Eddie Dunlap, Craig Shropshire, and Sam Damask). It seemed to me that in this format, without other players possessed of the live imperative to be exciting, it was easier to hear the richness of the chords Bill writes, and the spaces between the trademark nut-to-bridge arpeggios. "Time for a solo album," I thought (realizing that his last one, Solid Earth, is closing in on 30 years old).

Now Bill has delivered that which I was seeking, in a digital-only release via Bandcamp for now, with a limited vinyl edition planned to follow. Bill assures me that Let It Burn's title has nothing to do with any Beatles or Stones references, nor is it a political statement (in spite of the fires engulfing the West -- including Colorado -- as I type this). Rather, it's Bill's way of saying, "Not my monkeys, not my circus." When the world's gone mad (or Maddd), you use the tools you have to express what you need to. 

The episodic track "Owl," which closes the album, is a nice summation of Let It Burn's strengths: gorgeous chords, which the propulsive but unobtrusive backing (some of it provided by a sequencer, some by bassist David Hailey and drummer Kimara Sajn -- can you spot the difference?) allows to breathe, and Pohl solo excursions that are as lyrical and appealing as they are technically impressive. 

There's a lot to enjoy here. "Kaleidoscopy," with its beguiling melodicism; the hauntingly atmospheric "Hypothalmus;" "Zeta Reticuli or Cleburne," bifurcated by birdsong, which might be my favorite Pohl track of all ti-i-ime; "Pleiades Muffin," a surprising, Rush-influenced rocker, repurposed from a pair of old ('90 and '96) tunes; and "Queen Elizabeth," whose liquid melody eventually gives way to the sound of tidal water. If  you've been looking for something to download next "Bandcamp Friday," don't take my word for it. Check it here.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Beefheart as repertoire

December 17 this year will mark ten years that we've been living on a planet without Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart. His idiosyncratic music -- in which, at its most extreme, declaimed Beat poetry and aleatoric saxophone collided head on with rock band instruments playing jarring dissonance and multiple simultaneous time signatures -- is the only music I listened to as a teenager that I still hear with the same sense of wonder today, possibly because 45 years down the road, I'm just beginning to comprehend some of it. Back in '77, when I saw a different group of musicians than the ones that played on the records performing songs from Trout Mask Replica -- Beefheart's 1969 magnum opus  -- note-for-note, I realized that this occasionally chaotic-sounding music wasn't just ordered; it was through-composed. 

Since the pandemic quarantine started (of which I am very mindful because I have heart failure I got from a virus, and don't kid myself I would survive three weeks on a ventilator), I've been playing guitar at home more than I have in 20 years. (Thank Ceiling Cat for the looper pedal; I'm glad I didn't sell it!) Among other things, I've been woodshedding music that I'd always wanted to learn to play but never got around to figuring out. Among those pieces were two from Beefheart's catalog that I posted as YouTube videos: "Peon" (the uncharacteristically lyrical guitar-bass duet from the 1970 LP Lick My Decals Off, Baby that I learned from a tab transcription a friend did for me about 20 years ago) and Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber's solo from "Alice In Blunderland" (the instrumental from 1971's The Spotlight Kid -- the first Beefheart record I owned -- that my last college roommate taught me, minus the solo, while he was schooling me in musical structure the semester before we both dropped out 45 years ago).

The "Alice" solo is unique in Beefheart's discography because he wasn't a fan of guitar solos, and generally wouldn't allow his musicians to improvise; Ingber was an exception. (After improvising the solo nightly on the road, he subsequently learned it note-for-note off the record and played it that way, rather than extemporizing. Go fig.) Ingber's solo -- modal, but suffused with the blues, replete with slides, bends, hammers, glisses, and double stops, a distorted tone that generates light as well as heat, and an attack that throws off jagged shards of notes before winding down to a wistful conclusion -- was edited down to about three minutes from a studio creation that was much longer, according to John "Drumbo" French, Beefheart's drummer and musical director at several crucial points, whose encyclopedic 2010 memoir Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic is an essential read and reference. 

It sounds like a whirlwind or an electrical storm, but upon examination, Ingber's wild ride consists of 17 four-bar phrases that I sat down and "transcribed" in my musical illiterate's way, to help me memorize it. (I'm a lot more analytical today than I was as a drug-addled teenager when I first encountered this music.) The key to learning Beefheart music, I think, is to first cop the licks, then learn the forms. Because the forms can be so different from what one is accustomed to, this might mean counting bars of repetition. The learning task can be complicated by the fact that harmonic dissonance can cause the ear to hear a third note that isn't actually played. (Magic Band musicians have spoken of this in interviews.) I'm just beginning to scratch the surface. All of the dozen-odd Beefheart tunes I've learned, in whole or in part, over the years are relatively straightforward harmonically, lacking the complexities I alluded to at the start of this. I'm working my way up to something from Trout Mask.

For those who would study Beefheart, there are a lot of useful online resources, starting with the Captain Beefheart Radar Station website I linked to at the top of this post, and The Drumbo Club Facebook group. I have a Beefheart videos playlist on YouTube that includes muso/fan performance videos (the Italian guitarist Maurizio Curadi's are particularly good), live performances from the Magic Band reunion that French led from 2003-2017 (their pro-shot Indiegogo DVDs Magnetic Draw and Singing Through You remain tantalizingly elusive), and tutorials (of particular interest is one in which a muso from Beefheart Project Toronto, who had access to the isolated instrument tracks, teaches the arrangement to "Doctor Dark" from Lick My Decals Off, Baby, an instrument at a time. When he shows how Bill "Zoot Horn Rollo" Harkleroad managed to flow 16 bars of guitar over 17 bars of everything else in the same time signature, your head will explode, if you're like me.

Listening to a recent podcast interview with French, in which he recounts an incident during the making of Trout Mask Replica when he was assaulted by his bandmates at Van Vliet's instigation, it was clear how vivid those memories remain for him. Reading the description of the same incident in French's book, one realizes that it was during the aftermath of the attack that Van Vliet first recited the lyrics to "My Human Gets Me Blues," a song from Trout Mask that the reunion Magic Band played throughout its existence. It seems incredible that French could still stand to hear it, let alone play it, with that association so fresh in his mind. But French was sufficiently dedicated to the project to spend hours transcribing compositions Van Vliet -- who had no musical training -- played on piano, whistled or sang, then arranging them and teaching them to the other musicians. In his maturity, French retained enough of that spirit to re-teach the music to new musicians for the Magic Band reunion. (He says the original transcriptions, which Van Vliet kept when French left the band, were destroyed after Van Vliet's passing. A pity.)

I think of Beefheart the same way I think of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, two other 20th century musical titans who were able to communicate their unorthodox approaches to other musicians using non-literary means. Because Taylor had no living musical "heirs," his music was silenced with his passing. When the surviving members of Coleman's Prime Time group reunited at a 2017 festival in San Francisco with some big names in the front line, it felt like there was something missing without Ornette's singular saxophone voice in the mix. Having video documentation of the Beefheart material, performed by musicians who either played with Van Vliet or acquired the information from others who did, will help to preserve his legacy. As remarkable as Van Vliet's poetic, vocal, and instrumental gifts were, his most durable contribution is the musical forms he created. As long as means exist for new generations of musicians to take up their challenge, these will endure.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Winged Eel Fingerling's guitar solo from Captain Beefheart's "Alice in Blunderland"

This is probably my favorite guitar solo of all ti-i-ime. More so even than "Kid Charlemagne," "Maggot Brain," "Marquee Moon," or "Machine Gun." I've been trying to learn it since 1975 (salute, Bruce Wade) and it came to me while I was running the other day after I realized that it's constructed in four-bar sections (17 of 'em!), so I sat down and "charted" it (difficult as I'm a musical illiterate who's too lazy to use tab). It's not exact, but it has the shape and chaos of Winged Eel Fingerling's original, and while there are a couple of things I still need to work on (Ken Duvall pointed out that there's a Bb that should be a B; see if you can spot it!), it made me happy being able to play it. So there.