Monday, August 31, 2009

Roundup of Recent Reading - Books on Music, Pt. 1

Radio City (33-1/3 Series) by Bruce Eaton

[Disclosure: I submitted a book proposal to 33-1/3. It was rejected. In my limited dealings with them, the 33-1/3 people were very professional and it was a positive experience that I'm glad I went through. I'm fairly confident that the proposals that were chosen were better than mine. I don't feel that my comments below are colored by these facts, except perhaps that I was more surprised to see the errors I discuss after experiencing 33-1/3's professionalism first-hand, but I put this out there so the reader can decide.]

Perhaps it's somehow appropriate for a book about an album that contains songs titled "What's Goin Ahn" and "September Gurls" to be full of proofreading errors/omissions. On the other hand, one of the major themes of the book is the quest for sonic perfection that Big Star undertook and the technical expertise of Ardent Studios' John Fry that made it's realization possible. Sloppy but with flashes of brilliance, 33-1/3's Radio City could be the Like Flies on Sherbert [sic] of rock books, except that in Sherbert's case the "mistakes" were part of the scheme, perfectly in tune with Alex Chilton's unconventional aesthetic at the time. Radio City, the album, was the product of meticulous care and attention to detail. The book about the album deserved the same attention.

Many of the errors seem to be in the interview transcripts. My guess is that they were transcribed quickly from the recorded interviews with the thought that they would be cleaned up later, but that the clean-up never really got finished. In any case, I haven't encountered anything like this in other 33-1/3 volumes.

Whatever the cause, the errors distract from, but don't ruin, an enjoyable treatment of a great album. Eaton's acquaintance with Alex Chilton and success in getting him to talk extensively about Big Star (a rare feat, apparently) made the book possible, but his interviews with other key figures (Jody Stephens, John Fry, Richard Roseborough) are crucial in filling out the story and giving other perspectives, especially as Chilton is rather dismissive of much of his own Radio City-era work. Eaton's reminiscences of meeting and playing with Chilton might strike some as indulgent, but I got a vicarious thrill out of his rock'n'roll dream-come-true story. He manages to convey the excitement of an encounter with a hero that both defies and exceeds expectations.

While the Radio City book is understandably Chilton-centric, I would love to read a companion volume on #1 Record that focused more on Chris Bell. I don't know how many times I've reread the liner notes to the I Am The Cosmos compilation (written by Chris' brother David), which tell the bittersweet story of Bell's post-Big Star adventures, including a brief encounter with Paul McCartney. Liner notes aren't a widely appreciated art form, to say the least, but David Bell's personal, loving Cosmos notes are something special.

Considering Genius by Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch is a man with hobby horses. Anyone who's read more than two or three of Crouch's jazz pieces will never again want to hear about the four basic elements of jazz (blues, swing, ballads, "Latin tinge"). But he's also a very good writer, capable of elucidating sound with words at the highest level. Crouch is at his best when he digs deep into the music and highlights aspects of an artist's style or personality that the listener might have otherwise overlooked or been unable to express.

It's always a good sign when a music writer makes you want to return to the music to relisten with fresh ears and new insights. Crouch achieves this again and again in Considering Genius. His Monk and Mingus pieces are particularly strong investigations into the specific nature of the genius of these two musician/composer/bandleaders. Even his piece on the supposed "sell out" of Miles Davis, a piece whose conclusions I disagree strongly with, taught me a lot about Miles' early career and gave me a whole list of recordings I now want to explore.

Crouch seems to be comfortable dismissing so-called "avant-garde" or "experimental" jazz artists in the abstract, frequently mentioning that many of this breed use avant-garde techniques or "Eurocentric" concepts to cover the fact that they can't really play their instruments. But when it comes down to specific artists, he tends to qualify his statements, and to my mind comes across as much more fair. The piece "The Presence is Always the Point", from 2000, is a prime example. In this piece, he discusses his first-hand experiences in the New York jazz scene of the late '70s and early '80s, a time often thought of as a low-point for the music (commercially, this might be a somewhat accurate perception, but in terms of creativity, it's just wrong). Though he's been portrayed as fighting on the opposite side of the "Jazz Wars" from the AACM and their allies and associates, he has kind words in this piece for artists such as Sam Rivers, Air, and even the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And though he makes clear that he doesn't consider it jazz, he dubs Cecil Taylor's music "a massive achievement on a human level".

It's almost as if Crouch, despite his unwillingness to bend his definition of jazz, was wishing to move on from some of the ideological conflicts he had helped stir up. This is the Crouch, more generous, appreciative and open than his pugilistic image, that comes through in parts of Ethan Iverson's excellent interview posted on Do The Math. Strange to think, then, that between the 2000 piece and the DTM interview from 2007 came quite possibly the peak of Crouch controversy, his stint as a columnist for Jazz Times that ended in an abrupt dismissal, the last straw being his highly questionably use of trumpeter Dave Douglas as a bludgeon to bash white critics with whom Crouch had a beef. The Jazz Times columns are included in Considering Genius, and to me they are not up to the standard of much of his other writing. They are provocative, but not as instructive, insightful, or well-written as many of the other pieces in the collection, more polemic than thoughtful criticism. At Jazz Times, Crouch was in the belly of what he considered the sick beast of contemporary jazz criticism. He kicked at the sides and got spit out.

Despite being limited to his writings on music, Considering Genius presents multiple facets of Crouch's complex personality. Reading him requires being open to this complexity, and even contradiction, but the rewards are substantial. I hope Crouch continues to stir the pot, because no one does it better.

Living With Music by Ralph Ellison

Along with Albert Murray (whose Stomping The Blues I plan to read at some point), Ralph Ellison was something of a mentor and model for Stanley Crouch as a music writer. Known by most only as the author of Invisible Man, Ellison wrote frequently and well about jazz, blues and classical music (blues being for Ellison the critical, indispensible component and foundation element of jazz). This collection combines pieces both specifically and tangentially dealing with music, from reviews, essays, and letters to short stories and even excerpts from Invisible Man. While the short stories are very good, many of them seem to be more informed by music than about music, or else music appears only in the background. I don't fault the editorial decision to include these stories, though, since I might not have encountered them otherwise.

Some of the most interesting strictly musical content comes in Ellison's letters, mostly to Murray, in which the more measured criticism of his published pieces gives way to sharp, sometimes harsh, opinions on the jazz of the day. In the published criticism, it's clear that Ellison preferred big band jazz, especially Ellington but also Basie, to bebop and post-Charlie Parker small combo jazz. In the letter recounting the famous Columbia Records jazz party at the Plaza Hotel featuring Duke Ellington and Miles Davis (documented on the records Jazz At The Plaza Vols. 1 & 2), he minces no words in stating his preference for Ellington's performance, referring to Davis as "poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis" and the group as "a bunch of little masturbators", as opposed to Duke, "the master of a bunch of masters". He also suggests that Duke and his men shared his opinion of Miles' performance and were not shy about making it known at the time. Keep in mind that this was the Kind of Blue quintet with John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Cannonball Adderley (the only one Ellison has a kind word for).

Much of the pleasure of this book is simply in reading a great writer on an interesting subject, but there's also the added historical interest derived from Ellison's firsthand accounts of figures such as Count Basie, Charlie Christian, and Duke Ellington. These men are the stuff of legend today, but Ellison's portraits of them, while recognizing their grand stature, have the incalculable advantage of being drawn from life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Richard Nixon, Big Fan Of The Kennedys

The Nixon Tapes are just full of gems, including this timely one (highlighted by the AP) in which Nixon discusses his motives for offering Secret Service protection to Ted Kennedy:

"You understand what the problem is," Nixon told Haldeman and Ehrlichman on Sept. 7, 1972. "If the (SOB) gets shot they'll say we didn't furnish it (protection). So you just buy his insurance.

"After the election, he doesn't get a ... thing. If he gets shot, it's too damn bad. Do it under the basis, though, that we pick the Secret Service men.

"Understand what I'm talking about?"

As the additional quotes in the AP story make clear, what Nixon was talking about was recruiting Secret Service agents for the Kennedy detail that would be willing to dish any dirt they uncovered back to the White House. That's some evil genius s**t right there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Payday Someday

Listened to some Jim Dickinson last night, in the form of Mud Boy & The Neutrons' They Walk Among Us.

If you do nothing else with your life today, I strongly recommend downloading this track. In a career full of fine moments, this has to be one of Dickinson's finest. Hard to imagine a better way to spend $0.99.

Looks like most of the Mud Boy albums are hard to find these days (I don't think they were ever easy to find), but maybe there are some other tracks out there on iTunes or something. Dickinson apparently was saddled with some serious medical bills at the end of his life, so making an effort to, you know, actually pay for his music through legit channels would probably be appreciated by his family. If his death does nothing else, maybe it will motivate someone to reissue the Mud Boy catalog.

Actually, the whole It Came From Memphis compilation is excellent, as is the book it was created to accompany. I picked up the album some time after reading the book years ago, but they both shaped my musical outlook and turned me on to some good stuff.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Post of the Week (From Last Week) - Best Embed Category

Thank you, Alex Balk, for this.

As much as British and American pop music have fed on each other and gradually melded together over the years, there are still things like the career of Ian Dury and the massive success of "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" that demonstrate the cultural gap that still exists (or at least existed 30 years ago). Dury had some strange mix of art school weirdness and naughty boy "lad" humor and attitude which seemed to resonate with a significant segment of the British pop single buying public. Whatever it was, it doesn't quite piece together into an appealing whole for me.

While I'm not 100% on-board with "Rhythm Stick", I do find it remarkable that a song with aggressively off-key talk-singing and a Roland Kirk-style double sax solo could make the top of the charts. Take a look at the top singles from the US and UK in 1979, and you'll see that there was more room for weirdness, stuff that was edging toward the avant-garde, on the British charts. Tom Ewing, as usual in his ongoing quest to review every UK #1, throws some light on the matter. I love the phrase "goblinoid malice" - watch the YouTube clip embedded in Balk's post and try to come up with a better description of Dury's stage prescence.

Something I am 100% on-board with is Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World"*. Why do I love Eric's vocals, none too pleasing to the ear in any conventional pop sense, and find Dury's off-putting? Maybe because the vocals on "Whole Wide World" sound urgent, desperate, a punk kid's jumble of emotions pushing past technical limitations toward expression, whereas the vocals on "Rhythm Stick" seem like an art move, a piss take, a challenge. Dury is flaunting the fact that he can't (or won't) sing, daring us to take him on his own terms.

Maybe I'm just not a fan of talk singing (I'm not much of a Lou Reed fan either), or maybe I've fallen into Dury's trap, let myself be provoked by his subversion of my expectation of what a pop (or even punk) vocal should sound like. I can see that the contrast between what the band is doing and what Dury is doing gives the song its essential tension, but I still have a hard time warming to it. Maybe I just haven't heard it enough to get over the shock that it still carries after all these years.

If "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" could be considered post-punk with its incorporation of jazz and funk elements, then "Whole Wide World" is the purest fulfillment of the promise of punk as a "back to basics" movement, stripping rock'n'roll down to its most basic elements. In fact, it goes farther than that, taking the rudimentary I-IV-V progression of early rock'n'roll and blues and chucking out the V as an unnecessary ornamentation. "Whole Wide World" makes "Roadrunner" sound like "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Mr. Blue Sky" (slight exaggeration!). The abrupt ending just shy of two minutes in the video is painful. I want the two chord groove to go on and on until it washes away all the world's problems and ushers in the era of Pax Ericanus.

The greatness of Nick Lowe's "So It Goes" is an essay that will have to wait for another time, though the video has a different version than I'm used to (is this the album version and I'm used to the single version? The backing vocals are definitely different).

*Seeing Eric perform WWW live a few years ago in a small bar with Amy Rigby was a highlight of my concertgoing life. Rigby had to talk him into doing it as an encore (maybe it's a schtick they do every night, but it didn't seem like it). Maybe he just felt like taking a break from his big hit for one night, but really, who could've gone home happy without hearing it? Not me.

Bonus Link

An online exhibit of the brilliant single sleeve designs of Barney Bubbles (including many Dury and Lowe sleeves)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One of the True Greats is Gone - Jim Dickinson R.I.P.

I just found out about this.

James Luther Dickinson. One of the secret, underground heroes of rock'n'roll. Truly great as a producer, sideman, and solo artist.

I guess this fulfills the "rule of three" following the deaths of Rashied Ali and Les Paul, but as huge as those other two were, Dickinson meant the most to me.

I'll have to write more on this later.

This obit/tribute has been linked to by several people, and with good reason.

Update #2:
Chuck Prophet's reminiscences of his friend. Way worth reading. Even includes a Mantan Moreland reference!

Update #3: A thought on Dickinson's solo work

Dickinson's first, and for many years only, solo album, Dixie Fried, is quite rightly considered an underground classic. One thing his more recent work has going for it, though, is the more mature Dickinson voice. As he aged, his voice grew into a rich, deep, formidable growl. For me, this deepened the impact of his vocals in the fashion of a veteran blues singer (which Dickinson was, among many other things). He even put that voice to good use on a spoken word album, parts of which are as close as most of us could ever come to the experience of sitting around on a porch with the man, listening to his stories.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

List Making #3 - Names From The Musical Past

The following is a list of bands, artists or musical groups (not all country) mentioned in Nick Tosches' Country (the book has had various subtitles in different editions, including "The Biggest Music in America", "The Twisted Roots of Rock'n'Roll" and "Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music").

Hunkie Smith (who recorded "Hunkie Tunkie Blues")
Moonshine Kate
Jules Verne Allen
Isom Dart
Bull Moose Jackson
Denver Darling
Snoozer Quinn
Henry Hornbuckle
Stick McGhee
Old Man Carol Williams
Scrapper Blackwell
Hardrock Gunter
Nat Love (aka Deadwood Dick)
Dick Justice

Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers
Ming's Pep Steppers
Clyde Leoppard's Snearly Ranch Boys
Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers
Dr. Bates's Possum Hunters
Oscar Stone and His Possum Hunters
The Mississippi Possum Hunters
Curly Fox, Texas Ruby and the Fox Hunters
Paul Womack and His Gully Jumpers
Curly Williams and His Georgia Peach Pickers
Grandpappy Wilkerson and His Fruit Far Drinkers
Smoky Wood and His Wood Chips
Homer Clemons and His Texas Swingbillies
Charlie Ryan and His Timberline Riders
Kitty Gray and Her Wampus Cats
Peg Leg Howell and His Gang
Joe Almond and His Hillbilly Rockers
Luis Russel and His Ginger Snaps
Luis Russel and His Burning Eight
Russel's Hot Six
Luis Russel's Heebie Jeebie Stompers
Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers
Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters

The Poe Sisters
The Cackle Sisters
The DeZurik Sisters

Mustard and Gravy
Tarheel Slim and Little Ann

The Tune Wranglers
The Modern Mountaineers
The Hi Neighbor Boys
The Ripley Cotton Choppers (the 1st country act on Sun Records)
The Shreveport Home Wreckers
The Maple City Four
The Hoosier Hot Shots
The Black Shirts
The Novelodeons
The Sod Busters

What Are You Doing With The Next Fifty-Five Minutes Of Your Life?

If the answer is "nothing" or "not much", you could listen to this - Sonny Fortune and the recently departed Rashied Ali playing John Coltrane's "Impressions". For 55 minutes. Ali was 68 at the time. Fortune was 65.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hot (Or At Least Still Warm) Off The Grill(z)

I'm a little late to the party considering that it came out in June, but I just downloaded the R. Kelly mixtape, "The 'Demo' Tape" (Gangsta Grillz Special Edition). Can't wait to find out how he'll make the phrase "Tip the Waiter" into something dirty. Expect a follow-up post on this subject.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Automotive Mystery in Popular Song Lyrics - Two Examples

For some reason, the song "Dreamin' Man" from Harvest Moon popped into my head today. It contains one of my favorite Neil Young lyrics (and certainly my favorite lyric referencing a minivan):

In the meadow dust I park my Aerostar
With a loaded gun and sweet dreams of you

It's like one of those William Eggleston photos that makes you wonder, "What kind of s**t is about to go down here?"

The lines from "Dreamin' Man" then made me think of a similarly mysterious, though slightly less ominous, moment in The Clientele's "Porcelain" from The Violet Hour:

Driving through the forest in the empty afternoon
a Japanese car stalled inside a glade

Note: In looking up "Dreamin' Man" to check my memory, I noticed that the lyric is actually "meadow dusk" not "meadow dust" as I remembered it. I guess "dusk" is a little better.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eaten Lately, NYC (#4 in a Series) - John's

With all the new pizza places opening around town, old-time Village landmark John's on Bleecker Street has now become old hat. Already viewed by many as just a tourist joint, the opening of the much-hyped, much-debated Keste across the street has set up a face-to-face old school vs. new school showdown (although Keste and many of the other new schoolers would probably argue that the Neapolitan style they're trying to replicate is actually older and more "authentic" than what's served at old school places like John's).

Every time I've even thought about going to John's, the down-the-block lines have put the idea right out of my head. And for what it's worth, those lines usually do appear to be populated by tourists, including large tour groups. A couple of Saturday nights ago, though, there were only a handful of people in line at John's, barely spilling out of the vestibule, while Keste had a disorganized mob in front with 45 minute waits (or so I overheard from a few people who had given up and crossed the street).

I haven't tried Keste yet, but I've seen some of the press it's been getting, following the classic hype-to-backlash pattern that seems to happen faster and faster these days with restaurants, bands, and anything else that can generate an online buzz. Una Pizza Napoletana's Anthony Mangieri said Keste's pizza "tastes like shit" in the New York Magazine profile that preceded his departure from the NYC food scene. Robert Sietsema generated a great comments thread by leaving Keste out of his Top 10 NYC Pizza list in the Village Voice, saying in response to commenters shocked by the omission that "they can't control their oven" and "their crust is not up to par".

I have to admit that Keste was the original destination on that Saturday night (I'm not immune to hype and wanted to see what all the fuss was about), but seeing the relative size of the crowds made it an easy decision to hit John's instead. I was a little surprised at the weird decor, something like a cross between an old-school Italian restaurant and Southern college town staple the Mellow Mushroom, but I guess the whole hippie-mural-next-to-ancient-brick-oven vibe could be seen as a charming palimpsest of Greenwich Village history (or something like that). Anyway, nobody comes to John's for the ambience, so here are my impressions of the pizza (a half sausage, half basil):
  • just the right amount of char in the crust
  • good, slightly (and naturally) sweet tomato taste in the sauce (a sauce that tastes first and foremost like tomatoes, pure and unmuddled by other flavors, is one thing that most of the classic NYC pizza joints have in common - the original Totonno's might be the best example of this that I've tasted)
  • good ratio of sauce to cheese - I like to see some "exposed" sauce in this style of pizza instead of wall-to-wall cheese
  • toppings - not a lot of basil and what was there was pretty shriveled by its time in the oven, but just enough to make a solid contribution without dominating - the sausage was very flavorful and seemed fresh
Overall, an excellent pizza and definitely not the product of a place resting on its laurels. As St. Louis frozen custard impresario Ted Drewes used to say in his low-budget, high-energy local commercials, "it really is good, guys!" (he later added "and gals" in the name of inclusion).

Recent Reading - And Here's the Kicker

It's a book marketing cliche to say that a book will appeal to specialists as well as casual readers or fans. In the case of this book of interviews with humor writers, though, I think it's true. Mike Sacks digs deep enough with his subjects to hold the attention of insiders and hardcore comedy nerds, but the work being discussed is familiar enough to be of interest to those who like good comedy but aren't necessarily hip to the back stories of the Muppet Show pilot (subtitled "Sex and Violence"!) or George Meyer's Army Man magazine. Sacks knows about all these things. He comes across as the model of the well-prepared interviewer, and, based on the material they give him, his subjects seem to appreciate it. Among the nuggets of anecdote gold: a narrowly averted Marlon Brando/Dick Cavett threesome and Milton Berle's member likened to a cured meat product by SOMEONE WHO ACTUALLY SAW IT!

While some of the interviewees are widely-known names, many others have been the key behind-the-scenes forces responsible for some very big name projects - Annie Hall, The Office (US and British versions), The Simpsons, The Onion, SNL. I alternated between being impressed at the big-name "gets" (Dick Cavett, Buck Henry) and amazed at the extensive resumes of others I was less familiar with than I should've been (Marshall Brickman, Larry Wilmore, Irving Brecher). I read the book out of order, starting with those I was most interested in and jumping around from there, but I found myself enjoying all of it. For a pop culture junkie like me, it's a pretty strong hit.

Bonus Link

One of the best of interviewee Jack "Deep Thoughts" Handey's pieces for The New Yorker

Rock Thoughts of the Day (with Triple Question Marks!)

Those two preview tracks from the upcoming Flaming Lips album sound pretty good to these ears. If it was going to be a single rather than a double album, I could already imagine the reviews - "return to form", "their best since Yoshimi", "their best since Soft Bulletin", "their weirdest since Clouds Taste Metallic". But a double...can they pull it off???

That Jeff Tweedy Spin cover kind of scares me a little when I see it at newsstands. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. And is that what I think it is on the sleeve of his Nudie suit???