Friday, September 30, 2011

OUR BELOVED REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER: Alex Cline Says Mo Phat* to the AACM (2 of 2)

*Vietnamese Buddhist Greeting

Alex Cline
[photo courtesy of Peak]

THE BEAST: When you were approached to perform at the Angel City Festival, was there a choice of recordings you wanted to pay tribute to?
ALEX CLINE: Nope. People In Sorrow was the one thing I wanted to do. I did a set with my Band of the Moment at the [2009] Angel City Jazz Festival where we played a set that was basically all music from the seventies; we started with “Nan Madol” by Edward Vasala and then we did “Virtually” by the Soft Machine and finished with Joe Zawinul’s “Second Sunday In August.” In a way, that was part of wanting to share and interpret as repertoire some of the music that was really influential to me at a particular time when there was so much great music happening and such deep misery in my personal life…After that, I kind of re-excavated this idea of trying to do People In Sorrow because after having the experience at the second Angel City concert and having it work, it seemed like a valid idea. I had spent years mulling this over as something that was either really worth doing or a complete waste of time.


Maybe a little bit of both…
Well, honestly, who wants to remake a masterpiece? People do it all the time. I think it has to be deeply personalized to work, and my goal for this concert is to be referential enough so as to pay the original its due respect while still diverting enough so that it becomes something new and different...I discussed the idea with a few musician friends of mine and got some feedback based on their own experiences. The only two people I did that with other than [my brother] Nels are two of the people playing, [trumpeter] Dan Clucas and Vinny Golia. Dan in particular was very enthusiastic, which was good because he was the only person I could imagine playing that brass role and he understands that milieu intimately and thoroughly. The other thing I realized in talking to musicians – or in Vinny’s case, his stories of sharing music with his [CalArts] students – was that an amazing and somewhat egregious number of people are completely unaware of this piece. I thought that I'd like people to go find it and listen to it because I think it’s an important and deeply moving piece of music...[It] had such a deep impact on my own composing that I felt like I did with that set at Angel City: If people had never heard it and just walked in and heard this they might think it’s not that different from my own music, because there is such a direct link conceptually…Now, the only thing that continued to be a niggling concern was that why would a West L.A. white guy want to resurrect a piece that was conceived during this incredibly tumultuous time in American history? I mean, there’s a racial component to all this and deservedly so. So why would anyone want to hear my take on that?

A performance from last year's festival with many
 of the same players of the People In Sorrow ensemble

A salient question.
Yeah. I still have concerns about that. But there are a few things that have come into play since that have made me feel a little less self-conscious about it. Amazingly, when I pitched this to the Angel City guys they came back to me and said, “What if we were to get Roscoe Mitchell on the bill?’ I said, “Uhhh, that would be nice!” [laughter] That was the beginning of an amazing series of smooth confluences. [Angel City co-organizer] Jeff Gauthier’s wife Maggie Parkins, who’s playing the concert, was involved with commissioning Roscoe to write a piece for the group she’s in – the Eclipse String Quartet. They were going up to Oakland and perform it. Anyway, one thing led to another and somehow when Jeff was up there he arranged a lunch meeting with Roscoe, who teaches up at Mill College and lives in the Bay Area now. I actually wrote a letter to him explaining what I was doing with this piece why, and basically wanted him to react to that.

Must have been quite a letter to write.
It was. One of the things that was somewhat compelling...was that People In Sorrow was to me an example of how music can deeply transform a person. That time of my life was so unhappy and confused, and the music I was listening to really indicated to me that there was something more to life, something meaningful and significant, which was not the way I was viewing things. I was utterly convinced that everything was meaningless and it was ultimately the music and a lot of the inspiration behind it saved my life. So I told him that in so many words…that I wanted to honor that piece, him, the Art Ensemble and the AACM together with a whole movement of music that showed me that there was something beyond what I had grown up thinking life was all about.

Roscoe Mitchell

How did that lunch meeting go?
Well, it turned out he was very cool about it, very nice, very friendly and very open to the idea and therefore indicated his blessing. Jeff asked him if he'd be interested in playing the same concert and if I’m correct he said something like, “Well, if the date works and the conditions are agreeable, yeah sure!” Literally within three days the idea for this concert existed – because he agreed to do it.

So how did you proceed to line up the musicians?
The thing that was really amazing was that virtually all of the musicians I contacted were not only available but totally into the idea. So were the people I was nervous about even asking, like Oliver Lake. I sent him this email laying out my idea and my intentions, and he sent me back -- Oliver sends these very minimalist, very cogent emails – ‘great idea, great piece, love to do it.’ [laughter] So I was ecstatic.

I thought your choice of Mr. Lake was interesting, considering he and Julius Hemphill founded the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis along similar lines as the AACM. Lake even initially proposed that they should be a branch of it. When did you first play with him?
I first played with him when I was 20 years old. It was January 1, 1976.

New Year’s Day?
Yep, he was in town visiting relatives, and we had a friend named Lee Kaplan who for whatever reason seemed to know everybody and what they were doing and was this great catalyst in the scene here back then. He somehow knew Oliver was in town and wasn’t doing anything and had his horn with him. Lee invited him to come over to my folk’s house and play with me. Then Nels got roped in to it and Lee sat in on synthesizer. I was twenty years old and I was playing with Oliver Lake! I was totally into Heavy Spirits, which had just come out. My folks always made entertaining comments about all the people who came though the house: dancers, musicians of different stripes, eccentrics. It was quite a parade! But my parents remember Oliver showing up and how on guard he seemed, not comfortable, very circumspect and sort of checking everything out. But it was incredibly impressive to me that he was willing do do that. And playing with him was just an unbelievable experience. A year later, I was playing with Julius Hemphill. At that age, things progress very rapidly.

Oliver Lake

Why would you be nervous asking Lake to play on this project? I mean, if both you and your brother have played with the guy…
Well yeah, but he’s flying out from New York to play this set of music. So we have to make sure that everything else is in line so that this would not appear to be for any reason a waste of people’s time and energy. So it’s been an amazing journey for me and the festival, because they’re kind of putting their whole thing on the line for this concert. Technically speaking, even if they sell out every seat, [REDCAT] still isn’t big enough of a hall to cover the costs for the concert.

Yeah that was actually my next question. The AC organizers just concluded a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to get all of the musicians out here for this show. It reminded me of something I recently read about Lester Bowie selling all of his furniture back in ’68 to fund the AACM’s relocation to France. I struck me, ‘Wow, so the infrastructure for this music is still shaky and still needs to be improvised from scratch.’ But now there’s the web and social networking. Has this made it at all easier or even harder to get the word out than it was when you first started your career?
I don’t think it’s easier or harder, just different. Part of the problem is that every time you have esoteric music you have an uphill struggle and it’s always going to be that way. It’s easier to get the word out now assuming it doesn’t get lost in the sheer mass of messages sent and received. It’s certainly helpful. One thing that’s dramatically different is you can pretty easily find out what’s going on at any given night in the city now…When Nels and I really started to get into this stuff we were totally unaware of almost anything that was going on on the other side of town – or the other side of any town for that matter. There really wasn’t any way to find out unless you knew where to look, and if you did you already knew what was happening. Certainly there is more appreciation for what was going on then then when it was actually going on; historically speaking people have caught up to what was going on in the city. But it’s still hard. You have all these shifting generations coming and you have the phenomena of learning to play jazz in college, which is really different from what it was when I was college-age, but still have very little in terms of involvement or interest in jazz in the more -- dare I say it -- "avant-garde" quadrants. I’m not a big champion of the avant-garde. I’m not doctrinaire about it. It’s not the only thing I care about. When Nels and I were listening to this music we were listening to a lot of other music that wasn’t as challenging. But for us, it was all the same, just different expressions of something deeper for us and that took many of different forms. We haven’t really changed much, or really changed at all, in that respect. In fact, we’ve gotten more open and broad in our acceptance and tolerance. The thing that is really challenging is dealing with people who can’t get past the notions that people have about the so called avant-garde: That it's inherently difficult, impenetrable, irritating, inaccessible, indulgent, whatever…that’s just so annoying, so frustrating, especially when people remain really stuck in those narrow points of view.

There’s definitely something about getting older that entrenches one in certain positions.
I guess so, and that’s where I’m going with this. These younger generations are people who should be absolutely wide open, and I don’t see a lot of young people who even want to play music along these lines. So what happens? Our generation of players, we’re getting older, and for a lot of us that means out lives are very different from when we were first doing this. That’s certainly true in my case. I can rarely go out to hear music anymore. I still play gigs, but I have to expertly craft how to do that with the least amount of negative impact on my family situation. I’m not the best example of someone who’s remained the relentlessly active and dedicated performer because like many of my peers life intervenes. So has it gotten easier or harder? Don’t know. It’s different. Our lives are, for sure. Those years when Vinny would practically be living at our parents’ house and we’d spend every waking minute in our guest room playing music, listening to music, talking about music, or John Carter calling on the phone and saying “Whaddya doin’ right now?” and driving up from his teaching gig in his Porsche to play with us. Nowadays I know I can’t do that anymore.

Vinny Golia (left) and Alex Cline onstage, 1980
[Photo courtesy of Mark Weber]

That’s why I really enjoy meeting the younger musicians now who are into this music, because they’re young enough that they have all this time to listen and play and absorb, and thankfully they listen to what some of us older guys have to recommend in terms of what they might have missed…This goes back to the reason to do this piece now, because it seems it passed a lot of people by the first or second time around. A lot of people don’t want to hear a piece that is so subtle and demanding and sustains this deep emotional intensity and meditative feeling. When people think of the Art Ensemble, they think of their more high-energy compositions and these flamboyant representations but that obviously is a very one dimensional view.

Have you ever met any of them?
I have never met Roscoe Mitchell before, but I was very lucky to have met and played with Joseph Jarman.

Ever see them live?
Oh yeah. What’s interesting is that back then so many of those guys in their various projects actually were able to tour their own country. They’d came though L.A. and gave concerts and that’s how I was able to see them. I'll have to think about when and where.

[Alex later adds in an email: I saw the Art Ensemble at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall in what was probably 1979. John Carter and Bobby Bradford opened as a duo. The previous night Anthony Braxton played solo – on Tim Berne’s horn; Tim was in town to do some gigs, and Anthony’s horn got bashed in transit – and the Vinny Golia Trio with Roberto Miranda and yours truly opened for him…[They] also played in L.A. once at an upstairs space called the Studio, later called Studio Z, on Slauson Avenue, I can’t remember what year. I missed it because I was out of town playing, probably with Julius. Alex also recommends his favorite AACM recordings: Other than the obvious People in Sorrow would be Fanfare for the Warriors, Phase One, Chi-Congo, Bap-Tizm and Nice GuysThat’s obviously barely even a drop in the proverbial bucket. Related albums I feel I should mention which are from the members’ earlier AACM days are Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, Joseph Jarman’s Song For and As If It Were the Seasons (a particular favorite of mine), and Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2These all reveal a lot about what was happening in Chicago during the late sixties and why the development of the AACM and its artists remains important and inspirational.]


The original People In Sorrow had only four players; your reinterpretation has an ensemble of eleven. How did you select the musicians?
I knew it was going to be a bigger ensemble simply because of the way I was hearing it in my head. The orchestration I knew was going to include sounds that were not than the original. I also knew that sounds that I really liked on the original I wouldn’t be able to reproduce – like the celeste, most people don’t have a celeste. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of sounds that I wanted and then of course the people I wanted to play them were to be not only in debt to this music but who also were seasoned improvisers whom I’ve worked with before. So Oliver, of course, was a no-brainer. Then Vinny, obviously because of our history together and because he was so affected by the music of the AACM and consequently has all these bazillions of woodwind instruments. I wanted Dan Clucas not only because he understands the music but in his own personal way can reference Lester Bowie's playing successfully without sounding like someone trying to imitate it. I have to confess that I am partial to strings, and so having Jeff Gauthier on violin and Maggie Parkins on cello was another no-brainer. [Bassist] Mark Dresser is flawless, he can do everything, so that was easy. Obviously there are no chordal instruments on the original although they did play some keyboards and mallet instruments on it; I decided early on I didn’t just want a mallet to recall those glockenspiel-marimba moments in the record. I knew I wanted Myra Melford because she’s from Chicago and is heavily influenced by the AACM, plus she has the harmonium thing that will come handy. In lieu of instruments like the celeste, I brought in Zeena Parkins on harp – not the wacky electric harp she plays but acoustic. And that leaves G.E. Stinson as the one player dealing with the most electronics.

G.E. was in Shadowfax, they were from Chicago as well, right?
G.E. was originally from Oklahoma, but he spent his coming-of-age years in Chicago, so a lot of the history of the AACM has a real intensity and immediacy for him. In a way he’s the wild card because instead of playing actual musical parts he’s the “free agent” as it were…There are certain things that he’ll have to do, but most of the time he’ll be responding to what going on.

Alex Cline, circa 1980
[Photo courtesy of Mark Weber] 

You’ve also added a lot of voice accompaniment, from poets and a Buddhist chant to Mr. Dwight Trible.
I’ve aways loved voice, like strings I have a thing for it. I had been looking for a reason to work with Dwight for years. I always like what he does in a more “free” setting and he doesn’t do it very much. There’s this moment early on in the original People In Sorrow where someone hums the theme quietly, and it’s a very arresting moment when it happens. I thought we needed someone who could create this, so Dwight’s the man, right?…The Buddhist chant is something I wanted to incorporate as part of the extra-musical material that is informing this for me. I invited Sister Dang Nghiem to do it and since she’s a monastic, I knew she wouldn’t be able to be here physically and I knew was a very strange request…We arranged to have it recorded by my friend Phil Stein, who told me, “You’ve gotta have her on video!" So this was recorded and filmed at Deer Park monastery down in Escondido in their Ocean of Peace meditation hall at 6:30 am. When I asked "Sister D," as everyone calls her, I explained the background of the piece and indicated that I wanted her to select something that she thought would be appropriate. She wound up choosing something called “Verses for Contemplation” and in Vietnamese and it’s really amazing and very intense. This connection stems not only from the fact that Sister D is a nun in a spiritual tradition that I practice, but that the time People I Sorrow was recorded in 1969 was the time of the two significant world events that most affected me – civil rights and the Vietnam War. In a sense, because of things like racism and war, I see People In Sorrow as being about suffering, how to face suffering, how to learn to not be afraid of it and ultimately transform it. Music like this helped me transform my own suffering. And transforming suffering is what Buddhism is all about. That’s the whole point of it.

 MO PHAT FROM SISTER D


For People In Sorrow: An Homage by Alex Cline will unfurl itself at the REDCAT Theater on Sunday, Oct, 2 at 7pm. The Roscoe Mitchell Trio will play the second half of this concert at 8:30PM.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

OUR BELOVED REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER: Alex Cline Says Thank You to the AACM (1 of 2)


[Photo courtesy of Ernestine Lona]

If you unleash Alex Cline on his own record collection, you may have to cancel your plans for the evening. But you will get to see and handle many rare and precious artifacts, the fruit of the percussionist/composer’s musical obsessions that date back to pre-search engine days. (If anything, the “search engine” would be the two buses one had to take to some dusty record/head shop in some obscure corner of Los Angeles to dig though stacks of hard-to-find imports from labels like BYG, Delmark and Pathé-Marconi.)

Tonight, in the memory-piled guest house/music room/man cave of his L.A. home, Cline is pulling landmarks from the Chicago avant-garde jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s: an original copy of Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 or a gonzo handmade hard-plastic cover to Live in Egypt, inked in neon-colored marker with no title or track listing. (“They would just hand these out after shows,” Cline remarks warmly, as if reveling in the pre-punk D.I.Y.-ness of it all.) There’s a copies of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Fanfare for the Warriors with Christian Piper’s provocative red-and-black cover, or Oliver Lake’s Heavy Spirits, with its glaring black and white photo of the saxophonist daring you to listen to what’s inside.

Due to the demands of family and day job, Cline hasn’t listened to many of these memories in years. But these are records that the 55-year old admits in his youth “I played every day for months, just totally immersing myself in them as listening experiences.” The Art Ensemble’s 1969 People In Sorrow is another one of “those records”; he carefully hands the sleeve to me, with its pale wheatgrain cover and minimalist-handbill artwork.


This weekend, Cline will mount the most ambitious and audacious project of his 35+ year career, a one-off concert that will reinterpret People In Sorrow, an epic 40-minute suite of exacting musical sculpture and deep spiritual mood swings. The show, which will feature an 11-even piece ensemble of Cline’s frequent collaborators from both coasts – Vinny Golia, Oliver Lake, Dan Clucas, Dwight Trible, Jeff Gauthier, Maggie Parkins, Mark Dresser, Myra Melford, Zeena Parkins, G.E. Stinson – is arguably the most anticipated concert of this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival. The festival’s official programs, flyers and t-shirts all carry the Kio Griffith-designed image of elder Art Ensemble saxophonist and People composer Roscoe Mitchell in nutty-looking swimmer’s goggles. (Mitchell will follow Cline’s tribute with his own trio when they play REDCAT on October 2, tix available here.)

Recorded in Paris in July 1969 with just four musicians -- multi-reedmen Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors People In Sorrow remains one of the signposts of the AEC aesthetic: a long-form tone poem performed on a cornucopia of instruments that deftly blends improvisation with composition. It also remains an hugely influential record despite being as hard to find now as it was when it was was released 42 years ago. (Despite being from Chicago, the AEC’s fifteen recordings after relocating briefly to Europe from 1969 to 1971 were essentially imports.) Critic Gary Giddins proclaimed that People In Sorrow “may well be the Art Ensemble’s masterpiece” – although AllMusic’s Scott Yanow added cautiously that the record “is not for everyone's taste, but worth the struggle.”


“Struggle” is the optimum word here, not just in the emotional commitment needed to play this music but also the apocalyptic boil the world was coming to when it was first recorded – especially in the area of race relations, a subject as inseparable from the music of the AEC as its home city. (Their mantra was “Great Black Music.”) Much of People In Sorrow's sustained power comes from its eerie, monastic calm in the midst of rapidly spreading chaos. One of Mitchell’s most famous quotes is that “fifty percent of music is silence.”


With his Buddhist powers of recall, Cline remembers the year vividly. “1969 was an incredibly violent year in American life,” he says softly over a steam-leaking cup of tea. “Despite Woodstock -- which, depending on who you are seems like either an inspiring high mark or just an embarrassment -- there was a point when peace and love gave way to anger and frustration and throwing rocks and bottles. Lyndon Johnson’s civil right and poverty-related advances eventually gave way to a really dismal escalation in Vietnam. I was 13 years old at the time, and yet the harsh realities of ‘Where is the country going?’ and most importantly ‘Will I be drafted?’ leaned pretty heavily on everyone I associated with back with in those days. Then Nixon was elected president. And all during this time, the Art Ensemble was in France making this great music.”

What’s strange in more cosmic turns was that Alex Cline actually beat the AEC to Europe by a year. In Spring 1968, his schoolteacher parents took Cline and his twin brother Nels on a five-month sabbatical to Europe just as the continent was chewing itself to bits. Packed into a Volkswagen squareback, they hit Paris two months before the violent student demonstrations. They saw red paint splattered on the gates of Hamburg. In Madrid, they watched Franco’s police surround protestors with drawn guns. And they couldn’t seem to outrun the unrest even in their own country: On an April morning at a cafe in Lisbon, their Portuguese waiter approached the Clines and cocked a finger to his head, saying, “Dr. King, Dr. King, boom boom boom.”


Under such circumstances, it’s not difficult to imagine the impact the AEC and its attendant arts umbrella the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had on a self-confessed “white kid from West Los Angeles.” When the AACM was making its first epoch-shattering recordings, the twins were coming into their own as rapacious music snerds. “Adolescence was just one of those grin-and-bear-it kind of experiences for me and Alex,” Nels Cline once told an interviewer in 1999. “By that time, we were completely music-obsessed to the point where our friends just stopped talking to us. At [Daniel Webster] Junior High they spread the rumor that we were heroin addicts.”

Music for the AACM was an artistic experience en total embracing performance art, poetry, costumes, face paint and improvisation. Even at such a young age, the Cline boys' had a love of surrealist imposture and a penchant for Dadaist whimsy along similar – if much more Romper Room -- lines. They formed various fetal-stage “bands” with geek-chic names (Android Funnel, Frog Prints, Glirendree). They put together chapbooks of absurdist poetry with titles like Burnt Toast and James Thurberesque short sketches called “Goo Stories.” From Junior High all the way to what Alex refers to dryly as “our jazz-musically-formative, alienated, and thoroughly depressed high school years,” their best friend may have been a Wollensak tape recorder, upon which they taught themselves the joys of overdubbing. Inspired by the cut-and-slice artistry of Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, they made concept tapes full of spoken word, original “songs” like “Slippery Elephant Trunks" and “Non-Stop Chicken Flight” and plain adenoidal silliness on 3-inch reels with psychedelic-colored dot stickers all over the boxes and their own hand-drawn inserts. They conspired to enter the junior high school talent contest with something they called “The Dead Plastic Ballet” in which they offered to play their self-taught noize while wearing scuba masks and flippers, concluding the act by riding vacuum cleaners like motorcycles. They were turned down flat.


Of course, later in their lives the Clines would make that rare and hallowed crossover from fans to serious and respected players in their own right. In many ways, their seperate but ever-entwined careers have attempted to bridge the gap between California and Chicago -- fusing Zappa’s cathartic outrage with the Art Ensemble’s mystical textures. (Nels is the lead guitarist for the Windy City-based rock group Wilco...you may now pass through Ellis Island.) Alex, in particular, seems to have absorbed the liberating lessons of the AACM right down his voluminous collection of percussion instruments, which used to take him around 2 1/2 hours to set up for a gig.

It was in this dense forest that we sat down for a brief, pre-concert chat:


THE BEAST: Do you remember when you first heard People In Sorrow? How did it sort of bleed into your head and into what was going on in your life?
ALEX CLINE: I got into the Art Ensemble when I was in high school, from ‘71-74 and it was was not one of the first recordings of theirs I heard. My brother and I were already pretty far gone when it came to scouring the bins for obscure recorded material at that point. [laughter] I don’t remember exactly how things lined up for People In Sorrow to come my way, but it stood out for a number of reasons. First, it essentially takes up a whole record. Second, when I heard it, it was so intensely subtle and meditative compared to most of the stuff I had heard up to that point, and it was a breathtaking experience hearing it. I was just telling [guitarist] G.E. Stinson last night, at that time I was hearing so many influential and inspiring recordings and seeing so many performances by people that were life changing to me. There were certain recordings that were so indelible that I listened to them almost daily for a very long time. Then there were the other recordings that were equally inspirational but were so intense a listening experience that I could only listen to them if the conditions were right. They wouldn’t work at just any time, at all. People In Sorrow was in the second category. It wasn’t one of those records I listened to over and over and tried to learn every note because I felt it was too deep for that. It demanded full concentration, and not just musically…There was some strong, extra-musical context that was somehow being communicated to me, some deep emotional and spiritual sort of quality.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago (from left): Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell,
Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors
[Photo courtesy of Enid Farber]

I guess there are the albums you share – 'Dude, you gotta hear this!' – and the ones you sort of keep to yourself. Closed door, candles, meditative sunset…is People In Sorrow one of the latter?
Yeah it was in that category, but because I had a twin brother who had similar musical interests, I never really kept anything to myself and vice versa…[saxophonist] Vinny Golia mentioned something me when I was trying to rope him into doing this concert. He remembered early in our association, back in the mid-70s, sitting in the back room of my parents' guest house with me and Nels and talking about this record and I was sharing how deeply I was into it. Obviously, the Art Ensemble and the AACM were people who had a great impact on all of us. The whole idea of me and Vinny amassing our instruments wasn't purely an AACM thing, but certainly a big part of their influence in that these were musicians who did not limit themselves in any way to any one instrument. Anything and everything was fair game, and as a result the musical vocabulary became so broad, the palette so expansive, that people like me and my brother who were so captivated with sound and did instrumental textures and colors were immediately impressed by that. I listen to these records now and I’m hit with how so many of the elements that wound up being important in my own music-making are clearly in evidence, and People In Sorrow is one of those, which is part of what led me to the crazy idea of redoing it.

[Tune in Friday for the conclusion of this interview, where Alex recommends his top AACM recordings, embarks on acquiring his People In Sorrow ensemble, and recalls one very important lunch with its original composer.]


For People In Sorrow: An Homage by Alex Cline will unfurl itself at the REDCAT Theater on Sunday, Oct, 2 at 7pm. The Roscoe Mitchell Trio will play the second half of this concert at 8:30PM.

Monday, September 26, 2011

ANGEL CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2011: The Edge of Song


How is one supposed to write "reviews" of music that does not conform to any of the normal aural signposts of melody, structure, even harmony? It is music like this -- it's footprints splattered all over the first few shows of this year's world jazz-themed Angel City Jazz Festival -- that reveals to a music writer how ultimately pointless what we do is. The words will never be able to catch up to the music because the vocabulary of music moves ahead so fast into uncharted waters that it exists beyond them. So we close the notebook, cap the pen, and order some appetizers while simply becoming a listener again. Ah, there you are.

Not that these realizations stopped us from pulling every 10-cent adjectives out of liquid-nitrogen storage when we attended a few choice shows for the ACJF's fourth year:

THE NECKS
(The Blue Whale, 9/22/11)
[Photo courtesy of Myles Regan]

For some reason, we expected a group with a name like "The Necks" to be one of those punky, post-modern bands like Kneebody or Gutpuppet who skronk with a harDCcore heart. Head-slamming improvisors, right? El Wrongo. Granted, we knew next to nothing about this Australian trio, and we didn't want to know; we wanted to walk in to this -- the opening night performance of the ACJF -- like we've been walking into movies lately: no advance hype, no trailer/scene-hunting on YouTube, no spoilers. And the Necks completely befuddled us from the first note: an unsettling subterranean drone that breathed, then weakened, then breathed again. Bassist Lloyd Swanson barely touched his strings, preferring to itch or tickle them at the neck (ahh, now we get the name). They sustained this eerie single note for the entire 45-minute set like this was a Terrence Malick film, creating -- depending on what head space you were in -- either an unbearable tension without any release or a release unburdened by any tension whatsoever. There was eve a stretch where the band created a vibratiing sensation that sounded like when you leave one window in your car open and its creates that thumping suction sound that nearly causes you to drive off the road. Not entirely pleasant, not entirely not. The most startling effect of the set was Chris Abrahams' piano, whose hammers sounded like they had been altered with carpet tacks, giving off a jangling, metallic sound as if a saloon pianist was attempting this very dense and sophisticated music.

SHUTZ VTET / LARRY KARUSH QUINTET
(LACMA, 9/23/11)
Read Tom Meek's L.A. Weekly review of the show here.
[Photo courtesy of Myles Regan]

BURKINA ELECTRIC & LUKAS LIGETI with DJ SPOOKY
(The Echoplex, 9/24/11)
Greg Burk reviews the show here. Read Andrea Raymond's interview with ACJF organizer Jeff Gauthier about the Burkina/Spooky show here.

[Photo courtesy of Myles Regan]

THEO BLECKMANN / TODD SICKAFOOSE and TINY RESISTORS
(REDCAT, 9/25/11)
[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

You have to respect the stones of anyone who walks unannounced onstage at a tres-hip jazz festival without any instruments and immediately launches a cappella into song called "Duet For One." Then, when they do pull out instruments to play, they turn into Carrot Top: a tiny bear doll with a screen for a face and a creepy recorded voice ("Let's plaaaaaay!"), a neon-pink plastic toy horn or the rubber-nippled end of a toilet plunger. All assisted by a couple of effects pedals and a voice sampler, the German-born Theo Bleckmann [pictured above] took the bemused audience on a surreal blimp-ride through the human voice and all the different ways it van be perverted, mangled and morphed through technology, whimsy and sheer force of will. He covered Meredith Monk's "Wa-Lie-Oh" and the old cabaret standard "Lillie Marleen" (using afrementioned toy horn) and turned the jazz standard "I Remember You" into a fever dream from David Lynch's nursery. He made unutterable noise -- a pepper grinder filled with gravel? bullfrog love-calls in pea soup? a sped-up recording of two Korean men arguing sports? -- and then made music out of that. Funny thing: This sometimes veered into self-conscious cleverness, but rarely into self-indulgence.

[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

Bassist Todd Sickafoose and his nonet were already standing onstage after the intermission, patiently waiting for the audience to file back in so they could proceed to lively it up with an eight-song set brimming with groove-based post-fusion. There was a constant albeit good-natured tension between the Alpha players of the ensemble (electric guitar, bass, trumpet, drums) and the Omegas (strings, piano). Of the Alphas, the standouts included the startlingly inventive trumpet of Ara Anderson, who yawped like Louis Armstrong at his sassiest on the N'awlins-flavored slo-drag "Paper Trombones" and then ached and breathed like Mark Isham on the lyrical "Whistle." Steve Cardenas' gorgeously evocative guitar playing sampled the crystal-clear treble of Bill Frisell on the opener "Future Flora," then did a 180 and mimicked Joe Zawinul's electric piano on "Bye Bye Bees." Hyper drummer Ted Poor kept up an aggressive, meth-addict skiffle that caught most of the "Who's that guy?" attention. Sickafoose himself exhibited his ability to helm a large band without letting on he's doing so -- he's more of an instigator than a leader. He repeatedly let his presence known with his rubberband pizzicato, smacking and popping his strings, treating the instrument like it was one of Tex Avery's cartoons.

[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

As for the Omegas, they swam and spun around the Alphas, finding their pockets in little gestures and deft seasonings. Sickafoose paid tribute to violinist Jeff Gauthier [pictured below, at left] -- not only one of the co-organizers of the festival but also the label owner who released Tiny Resistors' 2008 self-titled debut -- by showcasing Gauthier's deft intergration of classical, jazz and Appalachian styles on three seperate instrumentals. Pianist Adam Benjamin seemed marooned at stage left behind the strings, but he chose to keep his low profile by crumpling pieces of paper into his miked piano bed and prodding its strings with drumsticks and rings of keys. At one point, not satisfied with the sounds he was getting by hitting a percussion bell, he simply switched to his metal music-sheet stand and found the tone he was looking for. Creativity -- in the moment and hot out of the oven!

[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

Meanwhile, outside on 3rd Street, the filming of The Dark Knight Rises rolled relentlessly on...

Friday, September 23, 2011

THE 100 BEST SNL PERFORMANCES (5 of 5)





PART V: 1981-1975
21. Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns – “Don’t Bug Me, Baby” (1/24/1981)
Another submission for the Best SNL Musical Season Ever -- even if it was the Worst Season Ever in every other respect. Jean Doumanian may have never learned the ropes of producing a comedy show in Lorne Michaels' giant shoes, but her previous duties -- which included the booking and facilitation of SNL's musical guests -- really paid off for the sheer amount of terrific underground acts not normally seen on network television. Case in point: Carrasco, an Austin-based dervish who wore a giant crown and James Brown-influenced cape and played a caffeine-jittered brand of modern Tex-Mex rock & roll he dubbed "Nuevo Wavo." The Crowns made their vaunted New York debut during the previous spring of 1980, often introduced by one of their biggest champions, rock critic Lester Bangs. Nobody knew quite what to make of these party-mad nutsos from the brazos -- this was the year that Styx, Journey and Steely Dan dominated the charts. Doumanian and talent coordinator Neil Levy wisely snapped him up for posterity. He did not disappoint.

20. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – “Hot Head” (11/22/1980)
Our second entry for Best Musical Season Ever is from a show widely considered to be the Worst Episode of SNL Ever. On top of a series of nasty, incoherent and grotesque sketches ("Jack the Stripper," "The Leather Weather Report"), Doumanian & Co. had the stones to bring ol' Don Van Vliet out of cold storage for some nasty, incoherent and grotesque music. Turns out, they got Beefheart at the beginning of his last, great career phase with a newly constituted Magic Band and the now-classic comeback album Doc at the Radar Station under his size 42 belt. We remember witnessing this in pure, undiluted ecstasy.

19. Kid Creole & the Coconuts – “Mister Softee” (11/15/1980)
The first show of the brutally short Doumanian Era tapped into the sexual and racial confusion of post-Disco New York. (It began with the entire new cast waking up in bed with host Elliott Gould.) Nobody did this with more twisted flair than one August Darnell and his Calloway-at-the-Cotton-Club-from-Hell ensemble. The second song they did, "There But for the Grace of God Go I," which Darnell composed for his art-disco sextet Machine, is a legitmate classic, but here it gets an entirely different arrangement. We prefer the daffy first number, a song-story about getting mocked for having a limp dick -- by a trio of whiny, full-figured backup singers, no less -- that entwines itself metaphorically with the popular Mister Softee ice cream trucks that were popular on the East Coast during this time. And Darnell, in his woozy white zoot suit, pulls out all the stops with his energetic leg spasms and B-movie mugging. Nifty fake-fade freeze at the end -- where you can tell the Kid has given it his all. Bit o' trivia: bald, xylophone-playing voo-dude Andy "Coati Mundi" Hernandez was the MC at cast member Charles Rocket’s 2005 memorial.

18. The Specials – “Gangsters” (4/19/1980)
This booking brought Two-Tone ska to a young corn-fed, towheaded kid from the farm fields of Wisconsin. (Scene from following day: Going into local record store, asking for "The Specials?" and being told by the walking biker beard behind the counter "What? Who? Fuck That! MOL-ly HAT-chet!" as if he were Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Crappin' you negative, pholks.) Always admired how snotty and menacing these guys looked while they performed, and love how they all clear the stage at the end like they have better places to be.

17. The B-52’s – “Dance This Mess Around” (1/26/1980)
See above entry, replace "Two Tone ska" with "alien surf music." Add: The look of confusion and disgust in our father's face as we watched this.


16. David Bowie – “The Man Who Sold the World” (12/15/1979)
One of those rare occasions when we can see David Bowie ripping off someone as it's actually happening. The ripee: backup singer Klaus Nomi, whose unearthly, operatic vibrato and Weimer-fuck-doll fashion sense seemed to propel Bowie into more outrageous territory. (That suit!) For the somewhat acidic aftermath of this strange collaboration -- Nomi thought Bowie was his shot at stardom and was crushed when Bowie never called him again -- is discussed in the recent documentary The Nomi Song.

15. The Roches – “Hallelujah Chorus” (11/17/1979)
I had three plaited-hair sisters who all played folk instruments and sang harmony on songs like Skeeter Davis' "Sad Situation." When I first saw this, I asked my parents: "What are Martha, Althea and Leora doing on the TV?" A Kodak moment.


14. Ornette Coleman – “Times Square” (4/14/1979)
Thanks to the monumental embarrassment that was host Milton Berle's performance (crooning the treacly "September Song" and then talking over the song about how great life is before plugging his new book), Lorne Michaels refused to let this episode into syndication. O.K. fine, Dr. Evil, but why punish Ornette?

13. Eubie Blake w/ Gregory Hines - "Low-down Blues," "I'm Just Simply Full of Jazz"
& "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (3/10/1979)
James Hubert Blake was the son of two former slaves, born in Baltimore around 1887 as the only surviving member of eight siblings, who accompanied the great bandleader/composer James Reese Europe and the ballroom dance pioneers Vernon & Irene Castle, who made short-film reels with radio pioneer Lee De Forest, who in 1921 with his longtime collaborator Noble Sissle wrote the first all-African-American musical to appear on Broadway. Blake had just turned 92 the month before this broadcast and was experiencing his umpteenth career revival with the success of the Broadway tribute Eubie! This warm and moving collaboration between the elder pianist (those wonderful long fingers!) and the young dance prodigy Gregory Hines made this another one of those rare evenings where SNL transcended its pop-culture-of-the-moment fizziness and went into the area of historical documentation, especially now that both men are now gone.

12. Devo – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (10/14/1978)
Pretty obvious why it's on the list, right? See also: Captain Beefheart, The Specials, replacing "Two Tone ska" and "alien surf music" with "uhhhh, ummmm, errr, well, I think they're, like, robots, or something..." Molly Hatchet record-store clerk nearly has an aneurysm.

11. Sun Ra – “Space is the Place” (5/20/1978)
Like Snoop Dogg's first appearance sixteen years later, we were confused and borderline hostile to this performance. (Perhaps it was the fact that Buck Henry hosted for the 111th time). But hey, give us a break, we were only ten. Now, the cacaphonous blat of Ra's horn section makes the back of our calves quiver.

10. Keith Jarrett (4/15/1978)
Like Sun Ra, we didn't understand this booking when we first saw it -- but that didn't stop us from being mesmerized by Jarrett's THREE solo piano performances. (Would this even happen today, much less ten years ago?) By this time in his controversial and mercurial career, Jarrett played next to nothing but long improvised explorations that took you on a journey that was much richer and deeper than any four-minute performance on a live network could possibly allow and still respect itself in the morning. But Jarrett managed to stop time. How often has that happened?

9. The Dirt Band w/ Steve Martin - "White Russia" (1/21/1978)
Remember the last time Steve Martin hosted SNL in 2009 and played some cheesy bluegrass with his Steep Canyon Rangers? No? Well, then, this performance was much better, as Martin squared off with the great John McEuen for some fancy pickin' and pluckin'. The Dirt Band had just returned from the behind the Iron Curtain as the first American band to play the Soviet Union...I guess they were sorta our enemies back then?

8. Ray Charles – “I Can See Clearly Now,” “I Believe To My Soul,”
“Hit the Road, Jack” & “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (11/12/1977)
Remember that TV show that was on PBS in the 1970s called Soundstage? (Not the rebooted post-millennial version but the one where Andy Kaufman sat behind that giant desk and mocked his guests with the aid of an angry Tony Clifton puppet.) This performance reminds me of the feel of that show, especially the long medley segment where members of Charles' old horn section (including Marcus Belgraves, Leroy Cooper, Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman) are brought back for a cooking jam session -- marked by a deep-boil take on "Soul" and a startlingly delicate saxophone solo from Brother Ray himself. You can hear the audience go nuts when he does this; I remember leaping off the couch. Later, we found out that all Ray and his old friends were barely speaking because of old grouses over royalites. Sigh. Perhaps all that tension made them kick the roof off of 8H.

7. Dr. John, Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars – “Sing, Sing, Sing”
& The Meters – “Got to Get My Name Up in Lights” (3/19/1977)
Our vote for the Best Overall Musical Episode. To its credit, SNL has always been good to the music of New Orleans, having booked everyone from The Neville Brothers, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Wynton Marsailis, Queen Ida, Harry Connick, Jr., The Wild Tchoupitoulas (who backed Robbie Robertson in 1992) and Randy Newman -- not to mention the disastrous prime-time "SNL Visits New Orleans" special mounted just a month before this epsiode. Almost as an apology, Michaels pulled one of those magical bookings that made SNL seem less like a comedy show and more like a vintage broadcast of Austin City Limits. Dr. John, who along with the great Levon Helm and a ensemble consisting of Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones and Paul Butterfield kick it on one of the Doctor's best and most underrated tunes. Then there's the impossibly funky Meters at the peak of their mid-70s powers. That's their brilliant drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, who just recently passed away, pictured below.

6. Randy Newman – “Sail Away” (2/20/1977)
This was the debacle that was the "Hey, Let's Go Film a Live Comedy Show During Mardi Gras!" episode. (If you can get ahold of this buried half-classic, watch Jane Curtin and Buck Henry's hilarious, flop-sweated patter while waiting for a Bacchus Parade that never arrives.) Luckily, Lorne Michaels realized that such an unpredictable environment needed an anchor and installed his friend Randy Newman at the Theatre of Performing Arts, which he reasoned could always be cut to in case anything went wrong in the French Quarter. It did, quite frequently. But Michaels' instinct also helped capture the perversity of a white, Jewish intellectual native son singing four vicious songs about the Deep South (three are from Newman's 1974 concept record Good Ol' Boys) from smack dab in the middle of it -- and with a mostly white orchestra at that. The capper: "Sail Away," provocative even by Newman's outre standards, which posits the slave trade as just another American hard sell ("You won't have to run though the jungle and scuff up your feet"). You can just see the green bile drip down the French Colonial walls.

5. Frank Zappa – “Peaches en Regalia” (12/11/1976)
From many accounts, Frank Zappa was the biggest asshost on the SNL set besides Robert Blake, Chevy Chase and Steven Seagal. Don't care. This song has always been one of our favorites -- and to see it played live with Frank's crackerjack band (including Terry Bozzio, Jean-Luc Ponty and Ray White and Ruth Underwood)? Fughetaboutit.

4. Paul Simon w/ George Harrison –
“Here Comes the Sun” & "Homeward Bound" (11/20/1976)
If you can ignore Simon's sweater vest, this was one of the show's most intimate performances. SNL would try to repeat this magic when Simon dueted with James Taylor four years later on the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown."

3. Jimmy Cliff - "Many Rivers to Cross" (1/31/1976)
Cliff -- despite a spectacular voice rivaled only by Frederick "Toots" Hibbert -- was always a little too pop friendly for the Beast's ears. But to say anything more about his performance of this classic from The Harder They Come would to be doing it an injustice. The only word that comes to mind? Soaring.

2. Gil Scott-Heron – “Johannesburg” (12/13/1975)
The man who brought us the phrase "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is televised as part of a high-wire episode that should be in some Race Relations Hall of Fame. (Richard Pryor, as his tensest, was the host.) Heron informs people of a little place on the southern tip of Africa that most Americans wouldn't hear about until years later when Peter Gabriel and Little Steven Van Zandt started writing songs about it. Heron's recent passing makes watching this now a bittersweet burn.

1. The Lockers (10/25/1975)
Although this list is sequenced according to year and not in levels of influence, this performance might as well be number one either way. The Lockers were a comedy-tinged West Coast troupe who pioneered street dancing and included people who would go on to fame in much bigger rooms than 8H: Toni "Mickey" Basil, Fred "Rerun" Berry and Aldolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quinones. In this now-legendary performance (you can see it on the Lockers website) from SNL's third show, one can see the Lockers' influence in everything from the Fly Girls of In Living Colour and the krunk crews of South L.A. to Stomp! and just about every other contestant/choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance? (Granted, the outfits have dated a bit.) It also makes sense why Lorne Michaels booked them, as he preferred sketches that "broke the fourth wall" and spread around and out of the studio (i.e., the Bees). The Lockers aptly pick up the gauntlet, using 8H as their own personal piece of cardboard, obliterating the boundaries between different sets and oozing through the audience like goofy, well-meaning goblins. They even have time to trash-talk Shabba Doo!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wolves, Goodbye [*UPDATED]

Party to party
You've been looking
But your search will never end
You've been hanging
With the wrong crowd
You've got all the right friends...



Our Complete Coverage of Other People's Coverage

Salon
CNN
USA Today
The BBC
Rolling Stone
Spin
Washington Post
Consequence of Sound
NME
Slate
The New Yorker
Black Book
Chicago Tribune
Athens Reacts!
Comedians React on Twitter
The Independent
The Atlantic
 Paste
New York Times
Chicago Reader
Riverfront Times
Slicing Up Eyeballs
Mike Mills Reflects...



Our Five Most Salient Memories of R.E.M.

July 3, 1983: Summerfest Rock Stage (Milwaukee, WI)
The Reckoning Tour. Peter Buck breaks a string on his Rickenbacher during a ferocious version of "9-9" and while he's restringing, a soused Michael Stipe kills time by rolling the base of his microphone stand back and forth across the stage. I catch his eye and applaud copiously. He smiles at me and laughs. My friends hate my guts for the rest of the evening.

April 1991: Student-Slum Squat (Minneapolis, MN)
In the midst of a glut of media hype for Out of Time, we watch an interview with the boys on MTV where Michael Stipe reveals two album titles he's always wanted to use: "Cat Butt" and "The Return of Mumbles." Years later, we suggest these titles to Nels Cline for his upcoming album and get the answer, "Unacceptable!!"

November 1, 1995: Great Western Forum (Inglewood, CA)
The Monster Tour. Lindsey Buckingham comes out for the encore to melt some faces during a scorching solo on "Everybody Hurts." This is also the show where we realize what killed R.E.M. as a live act: BIG VENUES.

September 12, 2001: High-Rise Apartment (Beverly Hills, CA)
With news footage of the 9/11 attacks playing on such an endless loop that it begins to serve the same purpose as the Yule Log or Aquarium Channel, we listen over and over again to R.E.M.'s 1998 song "Airportman," which has now taken on a entirely different meaning: "He moves efficiently / Beyond security / Great opportunity awaits / Airport fluorescent / Creature of habit / Labored breathing and sallow skin / Great opportunity blinks." I mean, yikes.

October 2005: The Ice Box Tavern (Racine, WI)
Sittting at bar and listening in bafflement to a pair of drunken frat boys with plugs of tobacco in their cheeks sing along to the jukebox playing "World Leader Pretend" as if it were Nelly's "Hot In Herre." Still not sure if this actually happened.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Whaddaya Say, Neigh-Bahhh?"

FROM THE "PARTIALLY SUBSTANTIATED RUMOR" DEPARTMENT:


"The important thing is that we're a team."
"I hope it works out as well as being neighbors."
Thomas Berger, Neighbors (1980)

Living in Los Angeles, one cannot always avoid the tabloid-poisoned air of rumor and innuendo. Because this is a Company Town, you inevitably run into wisps and whispers in the air about the ever-so-flawed antics of our famous betters. But gossip in this town takes on many interesting and organic forms that come from people who have actually witnessed what they are talking about from their anonymous, lower-tiered vantage points. In other words, L.A.'s greatest source of inside info doesn't come from Perez Hilton or the cancerous lab rats of TMZ but from the guy who buys the paint for the studio, or the woman whose job it is to rejigger Ryan Gosling's vest mike, or the entire tattooed metal band who works the same Craft Services shift. Not that they are any more/less trustworthy than the dirty laundriers who do this sh*t for a living, mind you, but they usually reveal these things after punishing, 18-hour days shlepping as one of the faceless pyramid-builders for the Greatest and Most Powerful Industry on Earth.

It is for this magical by-product of being an Angeleno that we got to hear some pretty tasty stuff: We heard about Christian Bale's meltdown on the set of Terminator Salvation six months before it hit the press (and actually in a more sympathetic context than the tattle rags even attempted); we heard of Kiefer Sutherland's *alleged* worsening liver condition from years of heavy alcoholism; we heard of the *alleged* "slowing down to a snail's pace" of the filming of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. But what as locals are we supposed to do with this information? Simply shrug and go, Meh. But these were nothing compared with what just came down the pike from an overheard conversation between two harried TV producers.


The story is thus: The Beast and his new bride live in a hamlet-like nook in the city of Pasadena, California. Upon hearing this, someone we know who has lived in the same area for years related that one of the celebrities who have bought houses here in order to live more quiet and unseen lives was the re-upped bachelor guitarist Eddie Van Halen. "OK, wow, cool," was our jaded reply.

The Van Halen family has long roots in Pasadena; the family home that Ed and Alex grew up in at 1881 Las Lunas Street is still there. As it turns out, right after Ed move din a few years back, our inadvertent mole and all the neighbors ended up getting a letter (signed 'Edward Van Halen') from from their newest resident proposing the creation of a Homeowners' Association. Essentially, Ed was attempting to impose Condo-style rules (including monthly dues) on residents who had already been living there for years without any such thing. The bug up Ed's ass seemed to center widely on neighborhood beautification and upkeep and specifically on an elderly woman whose growing infirmities led to her yard becoming unsightly and overgrown.

Now we were hooked. "Wow, that's pretty fucked up. What about doing the right thing and raising some funds to pay for a gardener for the old lady?" We started getting a little self-righteous with it all until our confessee held up a finger, "Wait, you haven't even heard the best part. David Lee Roth has a right next door."

Whaaaaaa???

"Heyyyy, Eddie! Fancy meetin' you here, boychick!"

OK, interest by now definitely piqued. And many questions, starting with: "Is that just a coincidence?" "Nope. It was totally planned." "Don't they hate each other?" "Yes. In fact, that was the reason David Lee Roth moved in. He never sets foot in the place, he just parks his cars there. He bought it just to show Eddie he could."

Again, this is all unsubstantiated. But another weird by-product of living in L.A. is that you are directly privvy to decadent and excessive behavior to such a degree that the more unbelievable the story, the more likely it is that it actually happened. And somehow, as committed to veracity and getting things right as the Beast tries to be, I want to believe that this mini-morality play did happen. Living where we've chosen to live, we need to be believe that comeuppance works in mysterious ways.


Friday, September 16, 2011

THE VOICE: Garland Jeffreys

OK THEN. Let's jump back in from our late summer solstice with both feet...


Garland Jeffreys is a music geek's wet dream. He's had one of those odd and singular careers where he has been present at the edge of a variety of iconic musical scenes. Originally from Brooklyn (more specifically, Sheepshead Bay), Jeffreys attended Syracuse University, where he knew Lou Reed BEFORE Reed was in the Velvet Underground and even later got to play guitar on John Cale's solo debut Vintage Violence. (He also wrote one of that record's best tunes, "Farweather Friend.") In the mid-1960s, Jeffreys was a haunt of the Greenwich Village folk scene that birthed Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Odetta and Dave Van Ronk; influenced by that gaggle, he later formed the country-soul combo Grinder's Switch the same year as the Flying Burritos Brothers released The Gilded Palace of Sin. In the late 70s, the half-black, half-Puerto Rican was part of a loose confederation of musicians (Mink De Ville, August Darnell, Hector Lavoe, the rosters of Fania and Salsoul Records) who were broadcasting the ethnic underbelly of New York music that was quietly and inexorably shifting away from the legacies of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. And, at his 1977-1982 peak, he even skirted the edge of Gothamite New Wave and Two-Tone Ska.



When Clarence Clemons died this year, music journalists waxed rhapsodic about the unique and groundbreaking interracial bromance between Clemons and his boss, Bruce Springsteen. But Garland Jeffreys embodied this in one body and one career. His persona was arguably as groundbreaking: onstage he cut the figure of an Afro-Rican toughie, like he always expected to get into it after the show, and his literate songs could be as operatic and cinematic as anything off The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle but with a better integration on the legacies of reggae and soul. His voice carried all the grit of a dog day afternoon in '77 Brooklyn, but was undercut with the tiniest amount of vulnerabity -- the vato who secretly sheds a tear on the tenement staircase -- that could only have come from the tradition of corner doo wop and sweat-soaked rocksteady. All told, Jeffreys was the Dion DiMucci for the John Lindsay-Abraham Beame-Ed Koch era.


Jeffreys, now nearing 70, still records and tours -- in fact, he just recently released his 14th record The King of In Between. But he has released at least four legitimate classics that if there were any justice, will soon be reissued in deluxe packages by Rhino or Sundazed with 62-page liner notes by Greil Marcus or Jonathan Lethem: Ghost Writer (1977), One-Eyed Jack (1978), Escape Artist (1980) and the smokin' gunfight that was Rock 'n' Roll Adult (1982), arguably the second greatest live album ever made. There are his now-classic songs: "Wild in the Streets," "35mm Dreams," "Graveyard Rock" "New York Skyline" and the haunting "Ghost Writer" -- not to mention his revelatory covers of "96 Tears," "No Woman No Cry" and "Streets of Philadelphia." Jeffreys stands with George Clinton as one of the godfathers of the "Black Bands CAN Play Rock & Roll" aesthetic later championed by Prince, Living Colour, Ice T's Body Count, Lenny Kravitz and Lil Wayne. And Jeffreys was a bit of an agitateur racial, appearing onstage in minstrel makeup and with a disturbing puppet named Ramon. "Wild in the Streets," with its Springsteenesque title, had dark inspiration coming from a rape and murder of a young girl in the Bronx; it later became an inadvertent influence on the SoCal skatepunk culture, with covers coming from such unlikely inheritors as the Circle Jerks and Hot Water Music.

I guess what we're getting at with all this is that we should start our harrassing of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination committee now. They have a lot of catching up to do.