Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Music Snerd's Stocking 2012

Yes, yes, we know, a year-end list. But there’s a reason, yo: The Beast is currently supplementing our writing career with seasonal hours at a local bookstore. So, if you don’t trust our opinion as a “music, etc.” blogger, at least trust a bookseller who fondles…er, peruses new shiny volumes before they even hit the sales floor. Below are the Beast’s annual picks for the 20 best books for the music-obsessed:

Less an autobio than a 21st-century version of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick TracesHow Music Works (McSweeney's) eschews the rote tell-all about David Byrne's life with Talking Heads (although the book’s title could be a lost Heads record circa ‘79) and as a solo journeyman. Instead, he reveals the byways of his absorption a variety of musical influences and intellectual pursuits—from prehistoric bone flutes and MIDI software to pie charts of his album sales and handy tips on creating your own awesome music club. True to Byrne’s (and publisher McSweeney’s) cleverer-than-you form, HMW is paginated backwards.
“If you don’t like this you might like…” Beck Hansen’s hobby-craft project Song Reader (also McSweeney’s), in which L.A.’s cheeky shapesurfer publishes the sheet music to his new album and it’s up to the reader to play them—or at least make fast friends with some musicians. There’s even a website where people have posted their takes on songs like “Mutilation Rag,” “Do We? We Do” and “Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings.”

We love anything from historian Ted Goia (West Coast Jazz, Delta Blues). His latest, The Jazz Standards, is a compendium of 250 jazz classics like “Tear For Two,” “My Funny Valentine” and “St. James Infirmary”—who wrote them, how they were written, who did the definitive versions of them—was well worth the wait. In many ways, Goia’s book is the grandchild of the underground “fake books” of compiled sheet music that jazz musicians used to carry around with them; reading this book like finally hearing Dylan’s “Basement Tapes,” a public secret being shared with the outside world.
“If you don’t like this you might like…” Jason WeissAlways In Trouble (Wesleyan Press) is a long-overdue oral history of Bernard Stollman’s Esperanto Disko (ESP) Records. The pioneering indie label released 125 albums between 1964 and 1975 from everyone from the Lester Bangs-approved trifecta of The Godz, the Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders to free-jazz titans like Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Gato Barbieri. This read was a particular treat for the Beast, who used to work for an indie jazz label and knows firsthand the daily in(s)anities of keeping a labor of love afloat in a market economy.
Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem, two award-winning contemporary American white-guy-with-glasses neo-realist writers (see also: Eugenides, Jeff; Chabon, Mike; Franzen, John) who have always weaved rock music into their novels and short stories finally just go for it, non-fiction memoir style in respectively, On Celestial Music (Back Bay) and Fear of Music (Bloomsbury USA). Like their late compatriot David Foster Wallace, they attack their chosen topics from every angle: personal, cultural, political, and a few ways we haven’t found words to describe yet.
A book that boasts the title A Natural History of the Piano (Vintage) has no right to be this slim and brisk. In just 385 pages, pianist/teacher Stuart Isacoff profiles this most orchestral of instruments by following all of the hands who took new styles on its 88 keys, from its 18th-century Florencian inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori through Mozart, Horowitz, Cliburn, Rachmaninoff, Rubenstein, van Cliburn and Oscar Peterson (the author’s obvious fave). It’s like a nonfiction version of E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes only much less depressing.
“If you don’t like this you might like…” Speaking of accordions, our vote for ‘Best Title’ alongside ‘Best Reconsideration of a Much Maligned Instrument’ is Squeeze This! (University of Illinois Press), in which author Miriam S. Jacobsen essays a rich and storied history of the squeezebox/bellows/concertina/inverted mini-harmonium, from its classical roots in Europe to its embracing by American musicians from N’awlins to East Los Angeles
Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend (Harper)
On and Off Bass by Mike Watt (Three Rooms Press)
Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press)
Read our 2-part interview with RJ Smith, author of
When a customer asks for an “inspirational biography,” it usually means something in the “Religion” or “Metaphysics” section, but we like to divert them to the ‘Music’ section for Where The Heart Beats (Penguin), art critic Kay Lawson’s handsome volume on the iconic avant-garde composer John Cage. This year, many new and reprinted books have accompanied the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth, but they haven’t carried Lawson’s with an unusual—and liberating—perspective: the shift in the composer’s musical outlook when he discovered the practice of Zen Buddhism.
You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band by Bob Gluck (University of Chicago Press)
Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland by Paul De Barros (St. Martin’s)
The Best of Punk Magazine by John Holmstrom (It Books)
These just came out. The Beast put bar code stickers on both of them and our wrists trembled with the spasm to toss them in our Employee Discount pile (30% off, bay-beeee…) but resisted. We needed to bring them into the light to put their new covers in the ‘Music’ Section. But we checked them out in the break room first and they’ve already held our rapt attention.
How does a song evolve from the mind of its creator to something larger in the popular imagination? And how does four simple notes—da-da-da-DUM—inspire everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mao Zedong to both the Nazis and the Allies in WWII? In The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination (Knopf), Matthew Guerrieri uncovers everything you’d ever want to know about Beethoven’s most famous symphony, from its composition in 1808 to its memorable premiere (a disaster) through its more recent incarnation as a rallying cry for discotheques and cellphone ringtones alike.
“If you don’t like this you might like…” What’s fascinating about this take on a famous song is how it grew to prominence as an anthem only within the last twenty or so years. Alan Light’s The Holy and the Broken (Atria Books) tracks Leonard Cohen’s much-covered acidic lament “Hallelujah” through its many cover versions, finally settling on Jeff Buckley’s definitive 1994 version, which pushed the song into the popular unconscious.
We Got Power! Hardcore Punk Scenes from 1980s Southern California by David Markey & Jordan Schwartz (Bazillion Points)
What would the holiday season be without arty coffee table-type books? The concepts of power (and exclamation points) to the powerless through collective, grassroots musical action join these two lovely looking volumes. (We’ll ignore the queasy conundrum this bodes. For now.)

And that, my friends, is the Beast’s 365-day series of dispatches from 2012. We’re going dark for one exact month. See ya back here on 1/22/2013.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brief Account of A Regrettable Incident in a Small Town During Wartime

The following is fiction based partly on fact...

The grit-grey industrial city on the shores of Lake Michigan was known for the peculiar orneriness of its people. John Dillinger found that out when he drove into downtown on a windy day in 1933 to rob the American Bank and Trust and was told, If you didn’t have that gun you wouldn't have that much guts.
The prickly dispositions had something to do with drinking, which also made for lousy and remorseful witnesses. People die in bars here, generations of Racine, Wisconsin homicide detectives advised their successors. Double- and triple-check everything—and even then you won’t get everything.
This became painfully clear after the massacre at Rev’s Place on Wisconsin Avenue. None of the survivors were able to confirm exactly when the shooter first entered the corner tavern. They left investigators with a murky composite: dark-hooded jacket over blue worker’s overalls and scuffed crème-colored boots. One patron who sat next to him at the bar before he retreated to a corner pinball machine noticed a tattoo on the web of his left hand and a yellow lighter with the Green Bay Packers logo. Another insisted the Packers logo was the tattoo and the lighter was merely smudged.

As it was constructed later with great difficulty and waste of time in witness interviews, the trouble started with the arrival of “the Mexicans”—five! No, three! No, twenty! Some said they sat at a table near the door; others insisted they stood near the back. The regulars were collectively well-oiled, particularly a bull-necked Army recruiter with a fade-shave haircut named Harry J. Gelding, who wore white tennis shoes with no socks and long tan shorts advertising knees crisscrossed with surgery scars. Gelding kept stumbling into others in a friendly but aggressive way and nearly falling to the floor; like a cranked-up Russian he wanted everything around him to be as drunk and unruly as he and damn the cost.

Harry had a mouth and the Mexicans were not happy. They were part of a new influx that had seen many taquerías and carnicerías—signs hand-painted in blotchy deformed red and green lettering—appear on forgotten wet stretches of the rust-brown and cream-brick beige city where many of the old factories had moved south or east. Indeed, a few Latin-themed records had crept into the jukeboxes of the local taverns; they had just introduced a giant Chorizo to the grand costumed sausage race at Miller Park. But Gelding and his friends—the majority of people in the bar—were the remnants of the German and Danish sectors, the Slavs and the Poles and the Armenians, undemonstrative drinkers whose necks sunk into their collars as the night wore itself down and smeared halos grew around the beer lights. Gelding—charming some women nearby and laughing ar-har-har—was the only exception. As it turned out, the Mexicans thought so, too.

The next day, the Journal Times landed outside his second floor apartment, its front page showing the gaping ruins of Rev’s Place. Harry J. Gelding opened the paper, fuzzily rescreening the large brown women, two of them, strolling over in winter coats that swished like insect wings; oily ringlet hair and dark lines around their silver mouths; flat noses like bulbs of mushrooms and moles rat-a-tatted on their jowled cheeks; dangerously long nails just waiting to be stuck right in your eyes.

They chose their moment when he was in mid-swig: “Hey, choo spell my friend’s dreenk.”

Harry knew their men were pulling some sort of asymmetrical warfare: sending their women over to test the waters, to nudge him with the implicit knowledge that he was being nudged. The drink? Who knows? He might have spilled it, not the first time mind you. But he knew the drill: Every scrap-iron oldster in town was his friend for life after one beer spilled and rebought five years ago. It was shorthand that most of the city understood.

Harry told them, “Sure, sure I’ll buy you a dreenk, no problem.”

The hot radio-tube taste was already in his mouth, and he heard the downward chop of fate as the air became cold and hot and the Schlitz lamp above the pool table jumped to a heartbeat rhythm. Down the bar, Rev had fallen off his stool and was being picked up by the hands of his laughing friends, who were slapping him on the cheeks. Gelding saw then it was the Wild West. No police would even come into this neighborhood at this hour. If they did, someone would already have to be dead.
It had the queer slo-mo logic of gutter confrontations. It spun Gelding’s head around. These gorditas and their phoney-tough esses. They swaggered into this place and expected los gringos to shrink away to the shadows, trembling, backs against the pull-tab machines. Oh, oh no. No. Gelding knew crazy white boys. He considered himself one—of the Don’t Tread Here variety. And there was Guy.

Guy. One of the first to re-enlist when the country was attacked. Even before he left for the desert he was fond of saying, If this is going to be a death struggle I say we get down to it for once and forever, toe to toe, just slam away at each other until there’s only one side left standing. “And I wanna be there to kill ‘em on contact!” he’d add with a whoop, smacking his knees together and thumping his breastplate, unaware how much he sounded like a pesticide commercial. “Hell yeah we’re gonna come and take your oil!”

Gelding had never seen combat in twenty-three years in the military—only its edges in Germany and South Korea—while Guy rocked the Mog, Asscrackistan and Eye-Rag II. The only story Harry had to match ten of his was the Sergeant at the Eau Claire Recruiting Station who popped himself through the mouth a few weeks ago—sitting at his desk, no less—just as Harry was jumping in the car to go up to give him a review. Couldn’t handle the pressure of keeping his quota during such a hot time for the Company. Maybe the poor fuck had food spoiling at home. Gelding didn’t think much of it, really.

With the sickly-sweet light of the sun poking though the broken blinds and the sparkled dust floating over the tops of the beer bottles on his abraded coffee table, Gelding read on in stunned hungover silence,. A survivor, questioned by a young reporter for the Racine Journal Times, explained that “an Army-looking guy” had held up his hands to the Mexican women and offered to replace the drinks everyone watching and listening knew never existed. That was the first checkpoint, Gelding thought, absently touching the top of his head.
The second arrived less than five minutes later when, explaining to someone about how an Army quack botched his snip job, he was tapped on the shoulder and informed, “Yeah our men want drinks, too.”

That was it. Gelding wheeled his body full around on the stool and was about to lay into this burrito grande in a Raiders parka (Raiders?!) when Gelding’s Army girlfriend, a fireplug of a woman with pointed-up tits named Kelly-Lynn, stepped up and curled a sneer out along with her cig smoke: “Get your asses back to the ghetto where you belong.”

The whole line at the bar went hooaahh and there was the chittering sound of breaths being drawn into rib cages and held tight like rubber bands.

Bam. The gorditas were on Gelding’s lady like hot thrown tar. They surrounded her and pushed her back nearly halfway across the room, flattening her against the rail of the pool table, drowning her face in their palms, raking it red as pigmeat, upsetting the billiard placement. No one was prepared for the ferocity of the attack—even Gelding was taken aback. When Kelly-Lynn was pulled out of the twin wall of black parkas she had a piece of scalp missing from the top of her head and both her eyes were closed and glistening. Gelding could not believe it: she was crying.

Kelly-Lynn was sexy in that sturdy tomboyish way: carrying Viagra in her purse and dropping it in his drink without warning; fucking him right through a flimsy shower stall wall in Bamberg wearing her combat boots; playing topless golf at Camp Bonifas and blowing kisses towards Pyongyang and the snipers of the Supreme Leader. Why couldn’t she use that moxie now, in this fine moment of step-up street theater?

Rev, awoken from his brown-liquor stupor, promptly ejected her from the bar. That pit-faced old redneck—how many beers bought for him?—was siding with the Mexicans. Gelding didn’t know what made his ankles wobbly at that moment but he hoped it wasn’t fear. (He wouldn’t know what that felt like anyway!) He managed to grab his coat and Kelly-Lynn in the same hand and backed them out of the front door into the whiplash cold. It sobered him up and Kelly-Lynn’s shrieking woke him up even more—except, wait, she was angry at him! Grabbing—no, pawing—his jacket and coughing up words like Harry Harry Harry oh god fuckin Harry I always stand up for you and you let them do that to me Harry. That made Gelding hot, and he turned and unleashed on Rev, who himself stood unsteadily in the open doorway and yelled, “Yer barred for life! Both o’ ye! Barred for life!” Behind him, behind the hands holding him back, behind the formless faces at the bar looking on in soused shock, Gelding heard the jukebox start up on a Selena tune.

That’s when the nausea started—every punch he had taken in every fight since he was five years old came back to him in one horrid whollop of gut pain like his stomach was being pan-fried. And lo, Army Staff Sergeant First Class Harry J. Gelding actually backed off the second time that night, grabbing Kelly-Lynn with her ropes of snot and wrestling the car door open and stuffing his wet mewling lady in the passenger side like she was a suit bag. It was an exquisite and agonizing opera on the cold dark street corner. Turns out, leaving at that moment saved their lives.

What happened next: The kid who had wandered into the bar two hours earlier with his face drowned in the shadows of his hooded jacket save for a single orange glow of a cigarette came to life. No one saw him until he loomed like a Golem out from the corner with the pinball machine, already wielding a pool cue he had snatched up from the floor. Swinging it in an arc, he landed the lead handle against the side of the Mexican girl’s skull, making a large thok sound, snapping her head back and bouncing the cue so it hit the lamp over the pool table, vaporizing it in a grenade blast of colored glass and plunging the whole room into a harsh white light. Dead black specks of insects trapped inside the exposed bulbs threw tall deformed shadows against the black windows and imitation wood paneling of the pool room. A return-arc of the cue brought the big girl down, her body jack-knifing as she went to the floor.
Seeing this from next room, the Mexican men were as ready as cobras, launching off their chairs, spinning the tall bar table until it fell over with a crash. The assailant had made his way to the back hallway right off the pool room, where the second girl was emerging from the ladies’ room, wiping the corners of her mouth with a piece of toilet paper. He came straight at her and used the pool cue like a spear and made a perfectly ruthless jab of the pointy blue end straight into the girl’s cheekbone, popping the eye socket. She made a sort of huhhnnhh sound and covered her face, sinking to one knee against the wall, the eye hanging at an odd angle like a tiny onion between her bloody fingers, iris furiously focusing and refocusing to the swinging pool lamp.
By this time, the esses were jamming their truck frames into the tiny hallway. The Men’s Room door was already bolted. Rev had passed out again and people were trying to raise him up off his oaken, USMC-tatted forearm to get him to pay attention to what was unfolding in the next room, where the bathroom door rumbled from the men’s hammering fists. One pulled something short and curled from his back pocket and started punching the door with its tip, making long ugly streaks of yellow woodgrain. Behind them, along with the shrieks of their one-eyed gordita whom they had passed without bending to help, pool players cradled the dented head of her partner, who had a queer clear fluid collecting under her nose
The one witness in the tiny bathroom, a retired custodian at St. Catherine’s High School named Bob Steak, had emerged from the single shit stall to see an extremely skinny kid, stalk of his neck sticking out of mounds of clothing, newly shaved head, whole body resting against the door as he listened to the pounding and cries of Muerto! coming from the other side. Steak was hard of hearing and therefore didn’t appreciate the situation. “Everything okay there son,” was his gentlemanly way of trying to get the kid to move to the side so he could wash his hands in the white sink with the orange rust ring.
The kid didn’t move. He heard the kid say, “Get back if you know what’s good for you.” His voice vibrated slightly from the drum beats against the door. Steak did as he was told. He didn’t like the egg-yolk color of the kid’s eyes, nor that his teeth had braces. Streak stood in the stall as the toilet calmed down behind his knees. It was from there he saw everything.
He saw the kid wrap a blue bandanna around his bald dome and step back from the door and turn towards it as if he were about to start an argument. Up in his hand came something Steak immediately identified as a 9mm semiautomatic. He heard the kid say something very carefully and slowly to him, nodding to make sure it had sunk in, before he fired three rounds through the door, two at waist level and then one straight ahead. He saw the kid daintily unlock the door and crouch as he opened it, springing off one boot into the hallway. Steak knew a 9mm pistol could hold up to 24 rounds but heard so many overlapping shots and screams he lost count.
Steak peered his head out of the bathroom to try to listen to the kid deliver some sort of speech to the now-emptied bar. He couldn’t hear it all so Steak came slowly out of the bathroom. He averted his eyes from the bodies lying in the hallway and walked carefully towards where the kid was pointing the pistol straight down into the face of a large woman in a dark parka who lay half-under the pool table with one leg twisted outwards at an intolerable angle. As he edged closer, he heard the kid speaking to the head beneath the gun’s sights:
“What happened to those tough guys, huh? What happened to them? Was it worth it? Where are they now?”
Steak was wrenched by this scene, his stomach filling up with acid soup and his knee quivering and threatening to give out. It was pornographic, made ridiculous by the movie quality of it all. In Korea, you didn’t make speeches, you just shot them. There wasn’t that much intrigue about it except for what you went through in the dark in the maddeningly quiet nights back home. This kid seemed to roll off his revenge scroll as if he had been practicing before a mirror, with such a robotic quality that it led Steak to believe someone had taught it to him, drilled it into him, had him repeat it over and over until the kid was parroting the voice of the teacher, not his own.
Steak stepped up and said, “Okay son, okay. She’s dying, okay, can’t you see her pupils? Let her alone, alright? See that on her face? That ain’t snot—it’s spinal fluid. Okay?” When Steak added “You won,” the kid shot the woman three times in the face, the chamber snapping itself empty. Steak dropped his hand and stepped back.
The bar was quiet and reeked of liquor, urine, sweat and cordite. Broken glass lay in pools of blood and beer mashed by panicked boot prints into a rancid tapestry. A forest of glasses and bottles sat abandoned on the bar, lit by the beer lights and the fading red pulses of cigarettes dying in separate ashtrays. The swinging bulbs from the broken pool-table lamp had stabilized but their queasiness was replaced by the rotating splashes of red coming from the squad cars that were just beginning to pull up in the cold outside.
Steak did not even think of clocking the kid or grabbing the gun. He was an old man now and he did no such things. Steak watched the kid fasten another clip and stalk into the next room where he found Rev trying to access an old Cold War bomb shelter that opened out of the floor. “For not protecting your people,” the kid hissed after he shot Rev four times.
Steak had heard the pops like the kid had fired the chambers just inches from his ears. His head still rang as the kid then stalked to the front of the bar, crouching and squinting past the red glowing ‘Come On In, Partner!’ sign at the three, four, now five squad cars with their shimmying gumballs throwing funhouse light into the dead tavern.
The kid flipped up his hood, hefted the 9mm and jammed his other hand so deep into his other pocket that it looked as if he was stabbing himself. He looked back at Steak and grinned, the braces on his teeth black and oily. Steak heard the kid as clean and as clear as each single dew drop off a wet twig:
“I’m doing this for you, brother. I’m doing this for us.”

The kid kicked open the front door, shattering it against the side of the building as he walked forward hollering, “Light it up you shitasses, light it up now.” Then the metallic echo of a loudspeaker—“put the gun down put the gun down put it down put the goddamn thing down now now now”—as the kid exploded. The concussion blew out all the windows of the bar and threw the death scene into blackness and caused Steak’s knee to pop as he sank to the floor, passing out from the pain and the drink and the shockwave and his third and final heart attack.
The next morning, the man who had inadvertently started all of this finished the article in the Racine Journal-Times and promptly stumbled to his tiny bathroom to vomit, replaying the factoids he could not get out of his mind: the Neighborhood Bar Bomber, as he was now being called, was wearing a vest made of the powerful explosive RDX and had packed it full of ball bearings to kill as many people as possible. In his car parked one block down the street they found 35 rounds of ammo in the back seat—plus more explosives in the trunk. Wrapped in a plastic Econoprint sack under the front seat was a box of business cards with crimson lettering: ‘The Next Visit Will Not Be Social’.
In that instant, Guy came back to Harry Gelding in a sick rush.
When Guy came home from his second tour his hair had turned a salt-and-pepper color and his teeth seemed permanently browned. He kept talking about parasites and how it took him two days to eat half a sandwich. Mixing and matching his Remeron and Depakote with Zoloft, washing them down with beer, his friend of thirty-two years had concluded: They came from all over the world to kill us.
Harry knew enough not to ask him about the war, just to wait until he was ready. You just knew it was an intimate thing. When Guy Cunniver spoke of it at all, it was with little teasing shreds, not any direct remembrance of what he had seen or inflicted but odd, small facts with no context. He spoke of dreams of smoking meth with his dead mother and the puffs of smoke coming out of her mouth in perfect round black balls, shiny like the beads he saw in a straw basket in some filthy market in Haditha. He referenced the phrase “skull orchard” as he rubbed his neck tattoos red. Since he returned to Racine, he’d walk down the street and a small fox’s head—just the head—would be following him, floating in the air over his right shoulder. Other times, he saw black flags flapping in trees or from the tops of houses. At night he would be pursued by giant camel spiders—shitloads of them, Harry—who snuck in perfect attack formation across lawns and down the sides of his bedroom walls and even up through the cracks in his floor. Whenever he sensed them coming, his ears would cease giving him sound and he would become deathly afraid of smells. I think I was supposed to buy it, Guy said. I just kept missing it.

Later that day, Harry J. Gelding cleaned himself up and went to his bartending shift at the Ice Box, all the while expecting the cops to call him downtown to make a statement. Kelly hadn’t called him; she probably wouldn’t after last night, when he simply dropped her off at her place after she had gotten nasty and turned on him, berating him for his snipped balls and the fact that he would never be able to give her a child. He let her go without saying anything and went back to the horrid black alone of his apartment.
The massacre was all over the local news—Good lord, they couldn't get over it!—and Harry switched all the screens in the bar to the Badgers game. Strangely, they played to a dead room and Gelding was unnerved by the lack of customers—not one of his friends came in or called to ask, Dude what happened last night? It left him alone with his thoughts. Right before dusk, a guy wobbled up to the bar and handed him back a plastic Bud Lite bucket full of empty shorties and icewater: “Hey guy, take care of these dead soldiers.”
Memories came flooding through Harry’s head again. Lately, Guy had been making cracks that on the surface sounded like his usual sick jokes: Your recruiting station with all those shiny new government vehicles, Harry, I could hit that place so easily. “88th Regional Readiness Command”?—Shit, I could kill every Fobbit in there if I wanted. I could even go to the cop station downtown and rain a little Najaf or Ramadi on their sleepy fat asses. I could make them tapdance and moonwalk.
I know you could, Harry would tell him. As if it were enough that someone knew this.
Only once his friend had slipped and said, I think I left Guy back there.
It hit Gelding like a crab’s claw crushing his chest. Gelding wondered if that kid last night was the part Guy had been talking about—the part he left behind in the desert that somehow had followed him back home and walked uninvited into the bar last night to deliver death like Halloween candy. He and Katie had just missed the Reaper by minutes—no, seconds. Gelding’s knee felt like something was chewing on it from the inside as he unloaded a case of Leinenkugel’s from the walk-in freezer. The notion began growing in his head that bad things were going to start breaking out like blood flowers all over this reedy, unfettered place at the center of the continent.
Gelding shivered in the cold smoke. His ears plugged themselves and left him vulnerable to voices he had never heard before. Everything that has not yet exploded will now, they said. You didn’t see any of it coming. And you should have.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Searching for Shuggie, Man

A little over an hour into cult soul singer/guitarist Shuggie Otis’ L.A. homecoming, the Beast was sitting out on the patio of the Echoplex listening to the baffled reactions of respectful but frustrated attendees, one of whom just was in the midst of typing out a tweet: ‘This is a f*cking DISASTER’.

We leaned over and asked them, “Who do you blame for this?”

This is why the Beast prefers underground or “experimental” shows done in performance spaces or galleries; yes, it sounds snobby and pretentious, but bear with us: those places almost always get it right. Their skeletal requirements for tickets, sound and staff precludes a leaner, meaner machine with no rote rock-club B.S. And there was a shovelful of B.S. at the Echoplex for Otis’ appearance on Wednesday night. Endless wait in long-ass line, check. Confused, slightly hostile security detail possibly outsourced from the TSA, got it. Disorganized, seat-of-the-pants ticketing/will call policy requiring people reform lines repeatedly, holla! Yet this was all nothing new and the Beast patiently went through the motions, confident that it would all be rewarded by seeing a multiracial, omni-talented wunderkind and member of L.A. music royalty (Shug’s the son of pioneering R&B impresario Johnny Otis and son-in-law of jazz bandleader Gerald Wilson) who was signed to a record deal at age 14 and has been referred to as the "lost" link between Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Prince and the harbinger of Maxwell, Frank Ocean and Lil Wayne. Riiight?

It wasn’t. Even after the the 59-year-old Otis – dressed like a badass toreador in black boots, tight black pants, crisp white blouse and black satin vest (“Danny Trejo could play him in the biopic!” one kid noted) – and his seven piece band took the stage 45 minutes late, it took at least fifteen more minutes for persistent problems with his guitar amp (he blew up two of them) and non-functioning AC chords before the music even lurched to a wobbly start. (Soundboard guy to pianist: “Hey, Nick! You guys wanna play something just to warm up?” Pianist: “It’s up to the man himself what he wants to do.”) When Otis finally stepped up to the mike to sing the first lines of “Inspiration Information” from his 1972 cult classic of the same name – hey presto! No vocals! And no vocals for the rest of the song to boot! Wheeee!

The crowd was endlessly deferential and forgiving, constantly shouting out encouragement (“We’re with you Shug!”, “No rush, man! We’ll wait!”) to a leader who looked increasingly embarrassed and, yes, pissed off. “I’m just Shuggie’s brother, okay?” he joked tensely. “He’ll be out in a few minutes and then we can finish that tune.” Even a blast of errant feedback from his shiny new Gibson guitar brought hopeful applause. Things settled a bit for “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” at least to showcase (briefly, tantalizingly) Otis’s supple, almost jazzy guitar lines, which ran almost in direct contrast to the aggressive, horn-heavy groove of the band. Then everything fell apart again, with woodwind player Michael Turre marking time with a flute solo not heard since the hanging-terrarium ‘70s or Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Otis kept flashing stone-faced glares at the sound peeps while the cheers of the crowd made him crack a tight smile.

Outisde, the talk was nasty. Many patrons seemed to lay the problems at the feet of the Echoplex, but this wasn’t the only show on Otis’ mini-tour marking the 40th anniversary re-release of Inspiration Information that was marred by such difficulties. (Ditto for his debacle of a comeback tour back in 2001.) “I just can’t believe the game face the musicians are putting on,” said one blonde club-type girl. “All because a fucking roadie can’t set up a fucking mike!”; “No, that was like a high school pickup band in there,” her shaggy-haired companion disagreed. “They looked like they had never played together before.” (Perhaps unfair, as the band was comprised mostly of vets like trumpeter Jerry Douglas and drummer Marvin “Smitty’ Smith.) “There are people waiting in line to leave,” said another dude in an orange fedora as he swiped at his iPhone.

Back inside, the band was lurching through “All Night Long,” the kind of boilerplate blues jam that Otis’s father used to oversee back in the days of Central Avenue and the Club Alabam. The only problem: It looked like one of the roadies had jumped onstage to showcase some Hendrix-meets-Van Halen style fretboard wanking while Otis stood off to the side in a secondary role, dutifully trying to salvage his night while possibly working up to an exquisite tongue-lashing at someone once this D&P show had gone dark.

That’s when we had to leave. We stayed as long as we could. We jumped back to the long wait in line before the show and recalled the excited stories of the patrons waiting to see their idol. “Shuggie is so SoCal!” one woman gushed. One aging blond hippie-with-glasses type told his friends: “I saw this film once. It was, I think, a home movie shot at Leon Russell’s house in Laurel Canyon. It’s little Shuggie cutting heads with T-Bone Walker. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen for sixteen at the time, and he was amazing even then.” Yes, oh yes, he was.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The first black man that I ever saw...
my dad took me to see a friend of his
and asked him "'Open your shirt for Dave."
There was a brand on his chest.
And my dad said, "These things can't happen."
That's why I fought for what I fought for.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nubby Sweaters, Costco Pies, Bar Codes, Nog Stains, Clove Stink, Tinsel Clumps...

...these AREN'T a few of our favorite things this holiday season -- we just couldn't think of a title for our monthly compendium of musicy links. Enjoy...

(Via Chicago)
(Huffington Post)
(Slicing Up Eyeballs)
(The Quietus)
(Outer Worlds #3)
(Pacific Standard)
(L.A. Weekly)
(Pitchfork Media)
(Black Clock)
(Mostly Music)
(New York Times)
(Turn It Up)
(Pitchfork Media)
(Chicago Reader)
(Perfect Sound Forever)
(Austin Chronicle)
(David Fricke's Alternate Take)
(The Revivalist)
(West Coast Sound)
(Sound of the City)
(Jazz Beyond Jazz)
(International Review of Music)
(Aquarium Drunkard)
(A Blog Supreme)
(L.A. Record)
(Boing Boing)
(destination: OUT)
(SF Gate)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reflections on Young, Gone Pianists

Make a new sound on the earth
  Play skillfully with a loud noise…
Austin Peralta, 1990-2012

“The joint is mobbed – it’s Friday night,” the saxophonist remembers. “Funky club, great session, great players – but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to meet the piano player…All I noticed was a little guy, playing music I’d never heard before hunched over the piano with an inch thick pile of hand-written music on the bench beside him…The piano player turned around, slightly dazed – and I saw a kid.”

The saxophonist’s name is Leroy “Sam” Perkins, and he’s recalling the night at Boston’s Bowdoin Bar & Grill in 1945 when he first saw and heard a young 14-year-old prodigy named Richard Henryk Twardzik. Within a decade the kid would be dead of a heroin overdose in a Paris hotel—even before the release of his groundbreaking (and only) trio session on Richard Bock’s L.A.-based Pacific Jazz Records. Years later, fellow Boston pianist Marc Puricelli would tell writer James Gavin: “If he had lived, [Twardzik] probably would have changed the course of jazz piano.” No less than Charles “Yardbird” Parker and Chet Baker – both of whom he backed – considered him a genius.
On this rainier-than-usual final week of November, as the city’s music community is still reeling from the ripple effects of the death of 22-year-old L.A.-based pianist Austin Peralta, we returned to this brilliant, near-forgotten artist to find some sort of solace for losing someone so promising at such a damnably young age. The jazz world, of course, is full of such tales: Parker, Buddy Bolden, Bix Biederbecke, Scott LaFaro, Charlie Christian, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy. (If you want to get even more general about the vulnerabilities of young musicians, you might want to add in Jay Reatard, D. Boon, Richie ValensKurt Cobain or The Notorious B.I.G.)

Like Peralta, Twardzik was thin and tall with bony, delicate features and a perpetual baby face. (He reminded a fellow musician “of someone you’d see on the streets of Vienna in the twenties.”) Taking equal influence from Art Tatum and Art Rubenstein, Twardzik melded classical harmony (especially Bartok), blues and boogie-woogie with the complex, avant-gardisms of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, making him a forerunner of Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans—and Austin Peralta. “As Twardzik brought these elements into his combo work, he created a provocative hybrid, much more than mere imitation, but rather a fresh trail blazed in the annals of American music,” wrote West Coast jazz historian Ted Goia in a 2009 appreciation. “There are…hints of deranged Harlem stride, oddball walking chords, falling snowflakes of harmonic color alighting on the high register of the keyboard. Only a few jazz pianists of this period would have been able even to imitate this futuristic style back in 1953, let alone create it afresh.”
Richard Twardzik, 1931-1955
(w/ Chet Baker in background)
Peralta’s style was Twardzik brought past the Millennium. Like Twardzik, he was born to an artistically minded father (Z-boy skateboard legend/film director Stacy Peralta) and was classically trained from a young age, later falling under the tutelage of older lions like saxophonist/bandleader Buddy Collette and pianist/composer Alan Pasqua. He could play acoustic standards like “Green Dolphin Street” or “Someday My Prince Will Come” on a Yamaha mini-grand and then switch to a simultaneous, two-handed fusion attack on a Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3. Both pianists, when they performed, seemed to be driving themselves further and further into a trance. Like Twardzik, Peralta was musically omnivorous: electronica, swing, psychedelia, Indian music, groove, funk, hard bop and classical all mixed and fell into new forms under his long fingers. The title of his third solo album (Endless Planets) and its song titles all spoke to some sort of trippy, Siddhartha-like spiritual journey: “The Underwater Mountain Odyssey,” “Renaissance Bubbles,” “Capricornus,” “The Lotus Flower.” You listened to it, and you couldn’t wait to see where it would go next.
Along with such contemporary keyboard iconoclasts as Robert Glasper, Matthew Shipp and Vijay Iyer, Peralta reintroduced a bit of verve and fire to what is still called “Jazz Music” but years ago stopped resembling such a monolithic reduction. Like Shipp, Peralta was certainly not afraid of criticizing the genre’s self-inflicted pretensions. “Jazz can be so stuffy and the audiences can be so pompous that…it needs that kind of energy,” he told L.A. Record in 2011. “It needs to make people feel like they’re having a deathgasm. And it can be through jazz—why not? Who’s to say that punk rock is more hardcore than jazz? It’s not true.” Dig it: he even formed a group called Deathgasm.

Peralta was also a part of the stable of talent for jazz-inflected rapper/producer Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder Records, an extremely exciting and vital musical milieu that – along with Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar of South L.A.’s OFWGKTA collective – has put Los Angeles back on the vanguard musical map. Unfortunately, Peralta is now the scene’s first tragedy – and still a bit of an enigma, as the cause of death has yet to be determined. “[Brainfeeder] was one avenue in which Peralta connected to a greater musical community, one beyond ‘jazz,’” wrote Patrick Jarenwattananon on NPR’s A Blog Supreme. “Of course, it seems likely he would have gotten there anyway.”
Dick Twardzik died on October 21, 1955, thirty-five years and four days before Austin Peralta was born. A thin bronze tombstone in a cemetery near West Newberry, Massachusetts marks Twardzik’s final resting place. It is emblazoned with the words of the 33rd Psalm: ‘MAKE A NEW SOUND ON THE EARTH, PLAY SKILLFULLY WITH A LOUD NOISE."
Amen to that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Harry Partch Explains It All For You

The following is a lecture delivered by composer Harry Partch at UCLA (May 1966):

There has been, at least ever since Aristotle, a certain strong tendency in the West towards explanation -- a kind of syndrome. The first and initial step is fairly innocent -- to consider a verbal explanation of a creative art as necessary to the understanding of the art. The second step is less innocent. In this second step the explanation of the art becomes a substitute for the art. But the third step is really something. It is a sort of apotheosis. Where the explanation actually becomes the art.

Words are not only surrogates for action but are just as good as action, and whole shelves of libraries are eloquent testimony to this tendency. Here is an example. We have preserved and preserved Aristotle and Plato, who explained everything in the then known world, including scales and modes. We have preserved Aristoxenus and Euclid, who also explained scales and modes. But the enharmonic, one of the most beautiful modes invented by man, was lost as an art and as an act long ago. Anyone who knows ancient literature knows the explanation of the enharmonic; Yet, I seriously doubt whether anyone who knows all the explanations of the enharmonic has ever thought to consider it not as an explanation but as an act.

I have noticed that most interviews for radio, TV, magazines and newspapers are far else interested in hearing my music or seeing a show of mine than they are in hearing me explain in words why I have created this music. How does someone explain his reason for existence? If I could come up with a version of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" in unusual timbres, produced, for example, by using beer cans, the interest in my music might suddenly become enlivened. This was actually suggested to me in a phone call from New York by a TV producer. I did not, I hasten to emphasize, include all interviewers in these observations.

There are areas of human endeavor where words are inadequate (the enharmonic is a conspicuous example). where they should be considered as vehicles of illumination, and where they might actually become inhibitory to insight, as they did in the case of the enharmonic. And if I seem to be suggesting something that might tend to undermine the whole university system of education, well I'm not really that radical. it has been said, in public print, that if my ideas were to become dominant in music schools it would be the end of music as we know it. May I say, first, that the danger is singularly slight. However, beyond this is the implication that music must be monolithic, that whatever is decided by the majority or the most powerful must be adhered to by everyone. This idea is totally outside the thrust of western civilization, which has prided itself for over two thousand years, off and on, in the concept of allowing strong individualism without alienation. Monoliths are just dandy -- in stone. They do not belong in the world of ideas. To be sure, they have their advantages: because of the present musical monolith it is possible for twenty or thirty musicians to get together in a recording studio and to create, practically on sight, a sound track for a film or TV series. This is fine. Let the commercial people have their monolith. But in schools of higher education, It is an obstacle to higher creative thinking, and I prophecy that it will not be tolerated forever.

Underlying the various musical systems and philosophies in our libraries is a common, basic assumption: 12 tones, equal temperament -- the piano scale. But when we force acoustic intervals into an octave, or x octaves, we falsify every interval involved, we effectively close all doors to any further adventures of consonance and also, amazingly, we close all doors to any meaningful adventures in dissonance.

A great deal has been said about quarter tones, about cutting each semi-tone exactly in half and creating twenty-four tones to the octave. This would not give us acoustic intervals; on the contrary, as far as I can see, it would simply provide material for a twenty-four tone row.

It is not necessary to assume anti-music or non-music attitudes. It is not necessary to resort to noise or non-rhythmic music, or even excessive dissonance to achieve dynamism in creative art. We have done no more than scratch the surface of possible harmonic music.

One way in which musicians have endeavored to break out of the monolith is by so-called "improvisation." There are some exceptions to what I am saying, but, generally, the improvisers use the same instruments that were developed by this monolithic culture -- the same harps, celestes, pianos, vibraphones, woodwinds; they even use the same chord progressions we have been hearing for 100 years! The only difference is that now these things are "improvised."

In this matter of breaking down the barriers to individualistic freedom in music, I suggest that the answer is not in improvisation, not in light-hearted chance, but in the contribution of several lifetimes of lonely dedication.

I use the word "ritual," and I also use the word "corporeal," to describe music that is neither on the concert stage nor relegated to a pit. In ritual, the musicians are seen; there meaningful movements were part of the act, and collaboration is automatic with everything else that goes on. How could it be otherwise? The various specialists do not come from sealed spheres of purity -- pure art, pure music, pure theater, pure dance, pure film. As far as large involvements of music in this modern world are concerned, we have really only two choices: we have the pit, or we have the excessive formality of the concert stage.

On the theater stage, with Bertolt Brecht, and occasionally with others, there is something like a ritualistic approach -- a corporeal approach to music as an integrated part of theater. But the degradation of either the actual pit or the mental pit is the fate of nearly all other music. If this ritual or corporeal approach accomplishes nothing else, it frees the beautiful rhythmic movements of musicians from the inhibitory incubus of tight coat and tight shoes.

Reprinted from source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966-1973 by Larry Austin & Douglas Kahn (University of California Press: 2011)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

EXCLUSIVE: Gary Clark, Jr. Live at Berkeley Street Studios

[all photos courtesy of Jeremiah Garcia]
We always love a private show. We get to feel all special and included—and this happens so rarely. Especially when it’s located in a swaggy Westside recording studio owned by legendary rock & roll mixer Bob Clearmountain (The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music) and his wife, Apogee Electronics CEO Betty Bennett. If this wasn’t enough, the place was stocked with a classic Wurlitzer jukebox (Richie Valens, The Dell-Vikings, Dion) and more bottled water than an Electric Daisy Carnival and hung with Gothic, Joel Peter-Witkin-esque prints by legendary Hollywood makeup artist Rick Baker and featuring not one but two free beer/wine bars. It may not be the era of the lavish ‘70s junket, but it sure soothed the savage Beast.

That is, until the Texas guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. and his quartet took the small stage just after 8pm and the "soothe" was replaced by "savage" for a primal, soulful, earsplitting two-hour-concert of KCRW's Berkeley Street Sessions. A protege of Fabulous Thunderbirds axe-man Jimmy Vaughn and Clifford Antone of Austin's legendary Antone’s club, Clark has been releasing albums on his own Hotwire Unlimited label since 2004 but first poked his head above ground with the release of his Bright Lights EP on Warner Brothers in 2011. His new CD Blak & Blu has only upped the critical “savior of the blues” genuflecting that hasn’t been heard of (at least in the mainstream) since Robert Cray in the mid-1980s. To whit: Blak & Blu sold around 35,000 copies its first week out and eventually landed at No. 6 on the Billboard Top 40 Album Charts. Clark has dueted in concert with Alicia Keys (her request) and joined B.B. King, Mick Jagger and Buddy Guy in a performance at The White House (Barry’s request). To paraphrase Junot Diaz, Brother is blowing UP.

Part of it has to do with the stagnating cul-de-sac in which The Blues has found itself in (set in stone by tourist traps like Memphis’ Beale Street and Chicago’s North Lincoln Avenue). Another might have something to do with the fact that a young black artist who grew up on Hip-Hop and Michael Jackson might draw back musicians and fans who felt The Blues was the lingering language of slavery and represented a powerless acceptance to one’s fate. (Given this perspective, who wouldn't find solace in Public Enemy or Ice Cube?) What Clark has done in his embryonic career is join that schism together by not really playing The Blues at all, but making it just part of his seamless mix. And he does like to wear a knit cap onstage...

During a sitdown interview conducted onstage by KCRW DJ Anne Litt, Clark, Jr. revealed in a soft, contemplative voice the mix of his influences that have made people like Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton perk their ears up at his arrival: Al Green, Prince, Snoop Dogg2PAC Shakur, even Tito Jackson (!!), whose “fuzztone solo” on the Jackson 5’s cover of Isaac Hayes “Walk on By” he noted was one of the most influential guitar tracks of his musical upbringing. Growing up in the musical melting pot of Austin didn’t hurt either. “Diversity is here I come from,” he said of the early years honing his craft on Austin’s 6th Street. “Reggae, Jazz, Blues, Country – I just soaked it up.” His openness to seemingly opposing genres may have gelled when he “indulged in turntables and a couple of cheap drum machines while I was learning to play guitar.”

This was evident later on Clark’s gene-splicing of fellow Texan Albert Collins’ “If You Love Me Like You Say” with Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” where he used his guitar to mimic a “scratching” turntablist over a smouldering slow-funk workout. But his powers didn’t end there. Clark offered up clean Chuck Berry riffs on the rockabilly-flavored “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and Johnny Cash’s driving chika-chika sound on “Don’t Owe You A Thang.” He then switched to nasty, molten-magma splats of heavy reverb for the thunderous “When My Train Pulls In” that sounded more like Black Sabbath or Cream than Albert Collins or Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The extraordinary “Travis County” veered more towards power pop. “Things Are Changin’” began with a dewy, autumnal prologue seemingly taken from a nature film, before chugging into some E-Z soul worthy of Al Green or The Chi-Lites, with Clark demonstrating his surprisingly soulful vocals. This wasn’t a mimic at work; this was a lab scientist.

Oh, and there was a raffle, too.

[Check out more photos from the concert here.]