ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL
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MY GENERATION… I have a passion for obituaries. I like to read them, I like writing them, and even on my radio show there’s still something fascinating about trying to come up with something relatively brief that, with musical accompaniment, helps others define somebody. Somebody they think they know or know a lot about, somebody they never heard of, sometimes even someone they really do know.
I am starting not to like it so much. Since January, I have done at least a dozen obits. In no order at all: B.B. King, Ben E. King, Ornette Coleman, Joe Cocker, Jack Ely, Jean Ritchie, Guy Carawan, Don Covay, Lesley Gore, John Renbourn, Evelyn Starks, Percy Sledge, Marcus Belgrave, Errol Brown, Bruce Lundvall, Lenore Travis and Lyle Centola.
That list includes the Kings, two of the greatest R&B/soul artists ever; one of that genre’s greatest songwriters, Covay; a pair of its most singular and spectacular voices, Sledge and Cocker; two great proselytizers of folk songs and folk singing, Ritchie and Carawan. It has Ely of the Kingsmen, who is perhaps the greatest one-hit wonder of all time (especially since his hit was swiped and his name temporarily erased from history, forget about royalties); in Gore, arguably the first female vocal star of the modern rock era; and two great discoverers and trainers of talent in Starks, who found the nonpareil singer/songwriter Dorothy Love Coates, who then led Evelyn’s Gospel Harmonettes to great glory, and Belgrave, whose great work with Ray Charles led him to Detroit where he played with damn near everybody and nurtured almost all the recent jazz grandees from the Motor City: James Carter, Regina Carter, Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett and many many others (and not only jazzers, for that matter). Jean Ritchie brought her beloved Appalachian culture to the rest of the nation, if not the world, at the time of the folk revival; she was a major instrumentalist, a key discoverer and historian of song, and a fine songwriter. Renbourn’s work with Pentangle redefined English folk as a searching, yearning counterpart of jazz. Guy Carawan gave “We Shall Overcome” to this country’s greatest liberation movement of our time, the Southern civil rights movement, a signature song that now speaks for freedom-seekers across the planet; he too was a significant song collector, a historian and writer, perhaps our greatest musical activist after Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. Erroll Brown of Hot Chocolate was, in the United States, a one-hit wonder but what a hit, a love song whose core was the audacious declaration, “I believe in miracles!”
What about Ornette Coleman, a jazz giant who believed his most complicated harmelodic ideas could fit on a jukebox or at least in the head of a juke box oriented listener, who recorded with orchestras, quintets, quartets, duos, trios, and yeah, motherfucker, rock bands? Ornette Coleman was (and for that matter, is ) a miracle. Several of them.
Bruce Lundvall had rare degrees of both vision and integrity as a record company executive, not a big deal unless you know that the total number of such executives over the past century barely reaches two figures. Lenore Travis, one of the first women to achieve success in concert production, left the business to raise her kids and her husband George but never stopped being involved in everything from the seeds of FarmAid to Cambridge’s legendary Revels. I don’t know the exact reach of her relentless community activism, but every single person who shared any one of her convictions was inspired by her—that is testimony of the most personal kind. Lyle Centola, a little guy tough enough to be a Louisiana state wrestling champion, was a tour director, stage manager, rigger, and one of the key figures in professionalizing a once sleazy and haphazard industry.
All of them made their mark over an explosive fifty-year period when American music, in all of its variety and madness, became a worldwide phenomenon. Each of them brought to his or her labors a sense of integrity and a vision, whether verbalized or not, whether politicized or not, that bursts forth from the music they made, or wrote or explored or championed or presented or, come to that, sold.
I mourn them all. I can hardly believe that I will never again be greeted by Ben E. King’s beautiful smile, or Lenore’s intense questions and descriptions of what needed to be fixed or done and how or, for that matter, a new record by Joe Cocker on which he redefines a song I love or one I’d never imagined had greatness in it.
None of them died prematurely—Ritchie and Starks were 92, Coleman, Carawan and B.B. in their 80s; the youngest on that list is Lyle, and he was 60. That’s not how old you have to be to die. It’s how old you have to be to have participated in even the latter stages of that 50 year transformation of the world of music (and perhaps culture in its entirety). Every last one of us.
There’s a portion of the music world that probably welcomes this. Those of us who lived it have, after all, been righteous and self-righteous, arrogant in our convictions, slow to yield to, or even obstinate about rejecting, current changes for the worse that are presented as inevitabilities, aggressive in our musical tastes and willingness to speak our minds. We have been told since we were teenagers that you can't change the world or fight city hall, and as things have changed and city halls have fallen into disgrace, we've been something like smug, some of the time, about how to go about remaking our world, and certainly contemptuous of the idea that it can't be remade. Some of it can and should be toned down before the last of us, who won't be me, shuffles off. Not a single aspect of it needs to be apologized for.
We were quite often wrong. My friend Ben Eicher reminded me the other day of a discussion, which probably took place sometime in the ‘80s, about “Hope I die before I get old,” the key line in the Who’s “My Generation.” Pete Townshend, who wrote it, turned 70 a couple weeks ago and tonight I find myself thinking about the dreadful day when his time comes and every obituary leads with “My Generation,” as it reasonably ought to.
In that conversation thirty-odd years ago, Ben talked about how right “Hope I die before I get old” was, how it spelled out the whole rock’n’roll philosophy.
I loved that record from the moment I heard it in 1965, but, even though I recognized the psychological truth in that line, I disagreed about dying, and by then, I had seen enough to know why. So I asked Ben, “How is this world a better place without Keith Moon or Jimi Hendrix in it ?”
I wonder if any Townshend obituary will have the courage, after quoting "My Generation," to end with the lines from Quadrophenia’s “I’ve Had Enough”: I've had enough of childhood / I've had enough of graves.”
If people don’t get entangled so much in songs and lyrics these days, and mostly they don’t, it’s not because no one writes them. I can think of several dozen songwriters, in pretty much any genre you might name, who write and sing them very well. But I can't think of one of them who could have a hit single doing it.
The theory now seems to be that pop music, since it is an entertainment product, ought to be as shallow as the music, broadcasting and advertising industries originally intended it to be. Now, even "Lust for Life" can be turned into a silly ass pitch for a cruise line. My own evaluation of this jibes with something the musicologist Christopher Small wrote in Music of the Common Tongue: “They call it ‘giving the people what they want,’ but in fact it is a matter of giving the people all they are thought to deserve.”
So the classic rockers, perhaps even the classic rock (though ticket sales deny it) get hated. We’re boomers, like that was our fault. We're old, therefore becoming underproductive. We’re in the way!
That’s some of it. Hardly all. What’s left of us has the clearest memories of the justice movements and for that matter, the far superior public facilities available up to the tightening of the screws in 1972 or so. We have, many of us, some sense of critical thinking, the ability to ask questions, to not take a governmental or military or media boss’s "No" for a definitive final answer. We are considered to have "started all that shit about the war and black rights.' We do not believe in TINA (There is No Alternative), which is the only spine neoliberal capitalism has. In fact, we basically bleieve that alternatives is all we have, what we need, and what our species will die without
Music of the Common Tongue is about many things, among the most important “the idea that the arts and especially the great performance art of music-dance-drama-masking-
costume for which we lack a name, are vital means by which human identities and relationships are explored, affirmed and celebrated, and human societies criticized.”
This is what ties together all the people I’m writing about, from the giants to the rigger and the record exec, what makes “We Shall Overcome” a partner of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” It makes sense of how a British pipe fitter wound up singing one of the great versions of Don Covay’s “Chain of Fools,” shows why the subtle excesses of Percy Sledge’s great ballads have the same heart as the Gospel Harmonettes social gospel and, here's the hard part unless you already get it, Jack Ely’s all-but-incoherent vocal on “Louie Louie” makes a fitting companion for Ornette Coleman’s symphonic Skies of America. It is most certainly what links those who play and sing (and sometimes, even sell) with those who listen, dance and refuse to forget. We are the outsiders who wanted to be part of something bigger and better than ourselves. There is nothing shallow about that.
So I write those obituaries to remember the people who helped me so much to dream those dreams and not just talk about them but try to make them real, to fight those fights, to love what I love and to despise what I cannot help but despise. I write about the dead to try and live up to the responsibilities one takes on after reading and grasping those great lines by James Baldwin: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."
My own obituary is not so very far off, I suppose, and I have no wish to control what it says. But I can tell you this. If it says I lived in the darkness by choice it's a lie.—D.M.
L.A. STORY… “I was a little gangster, we jacked people,” says Kamasi Washington, 34-year-old tenor saxophonist and leader of the Los Angeles-based jazz band called the West Coast Get Down. “Then my cousin gave me this tape with Art Blakey on it and it felt like N.W.A., it felt gangster, it felt hood, it felt like something my friends would like if they knew about it. I was lettin’ everybody borrow my tape and all of a sudden all these little hood kids from 74th Street School were into Art Blakey.”
The woodshedding began soon thereafter. “I stopped hanging out with people,” Washington says, “and my mom thought there was something wrong with me. I was spending eight to ten hours a day playing the saxophone.”
Kamasi’s father, Rickey Washington, is a saxophonist and music teacher who gave his son a test before he would agree to teach him what he knew. “I told him he had to sing a Charlie Parker solo and get it right. He nailed it.”
There were some other kids in South Central LA finding their way to jazz and they eventually wound up in the same multi-school high school ensemble, not to mention playing in each other’s church bands.
They stuck together and, twenty years later, went into a studio and worked around the clock for a month on several different albums, recording a total of 190 different tunes. The first effort to be released is Kamasi Washington’s three CD The Epic (Brainfeeder). Kamasi’s core band has two drummers, two bassists, two keyboard players, percussion, vocalists and horns. They are joined on the album by a string orchestra and a chorus.
The music is complex but not at all abstract, as it rides its many-headed rhythm section like a driver with a team of horses. I would often find my conscious mind thinking “What the fuck are they doing here?” and then I would notice that I had tears in my eyes. Strut your stuff soloing is encouraged but always within a predetermined context, yet a context susceptible to mutation and surprising changes. Washington writes strong tunes which give the extended pieces a home to return to and as a saxophonist he is extremely effective, whether pushing the limits of his instrument or just doling out a few notes or chords.
This is nothing like the mix of strings and jazz instruments that surfaced in the 60s under the banner of Third Stream or the use of strings by Charlie Parker or Grover Washington, where they were mainly a sweetener. It’s more like the strings and voices in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” except they never take center stage, but come at the band from all angles, commenting, pushing, amplifying, whether it’s during a bass solo or an ensemble voicing.
The CD release show at LA’s Regent Theater on May 4 took things even further. DJs were part of the mix, filling in the breaks between sets and taking star turns in the band. The spirit of the evening could be seen in the way the musicians were dressed. Some of the string players were in traditional classical garb, but others looked like they’d just gotten off their nine to five. A cellist wore a baseball cap and the conductor wore a hoodie. The band members attire ranged from 60s Black Power to 80s MTV to the non-style styles of today. It was all part of the palpable joy of performing together, echoing Walt Whitman’s declaration that “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
You can watch the show at:
music/402062824/kamasi- washingtons-the-epic-in- concert?utm_campaign= storyshare&utm_source= facebook.com&utm_medium= social&fb_ref=Default
No jazz snob, Washington told Chris Barton of the LA Times that when he toured with Snoop he found out that the rapper was a knowledgeable and exacting bandleader. “He knew how good we were, so he’d just call stuff out in front of 60,000 people. ‘Let’s play this Rick James song I was listening to in the dressing room twenty minutes ago.’ I learned a lot at that level, musically. The whole notion of jazz being the more intellectual music is not really true…These hip-hop dudes, they hear rhythm with a sense of detail that a lot of jazz musicians are not privy to.”
That sense of detail is part of what makes rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly the hip-hop/jazz/soul masterpiece it is, in the process representing Compton as well as N.W.A. did. It also benefits from Kamasi Washington’s playing and from his string arrangements, plus contributions from several other members of the West Coast Get Down.
Interviewed by Arun Rath for NPR, Washington described that experience: “I had a little keyboard in the room, and I was just writing all these parts out. After I would finish, he would say, ‘OK, we should put this here and that there. Let’s take this part and start it four bars later.’ It was great, ‘cause you don’t get that a lot. A lot of times, people are just like ‘Do it, and I’ll see it when the album comes out.’”
What’s going on here? Kamasi told Barton: “In general in LA, there’s a movement of sincere music that’s just people expressing who they are. That’s what I got from Kendrick when I went to hear his album. He wasn’t concerned with anything but doing music he thought would be great.”
The third leg of this South Central LA triangle is Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. Ellison owns the Brainfeeder label, which has a roster of thirty diverse LA-based artists and has issued both The Epic and an album of psychedelic avant-soul by West Coast Get Down bassist Thundercat. The new Flying Lotus album You’re Dead is some kind of electronica on the surface, but it has an intense jazz feel at its heart. Guests include Herbie Hancock, Snoop, and Kamasi Washington.
The video for Flying Lotus’s “Never Catch Me” is the best I‘ve seen in years. It begins in a church. There are two coffins up front, one holding a young boy, the other a young girl. Suddenly the kids jump out and begin to dance with each other down the aisle. It’s high energy, a performance. The church service drones on. The kids run outside, followed by several other young people. They dive into the back of the hearse they were meant to ride to the cemetery in and before you know it they are driving it down the street. Kendrick Lamar raps: “I can sing a song and I can unite the youth that I love.” The music operates like a coiled snake—gather and strike, gather and strike—while it drips bits of the church music just left behind. The kids’ faces project a joy you can reach out and take a drink of. They face death but embrace life. Freedom! Follow us! https://www.youtube.com/watch?
The “Never Catch Me” video sets a tone of liberation that finds its counterpart in To Pimp A Butterfly’s conclusion, a constructed dialogue between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac in which Tupac says: “The ground is the symbol for the poor people, the poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people.” The Epic connects to that with its version of Terence Blanchard’s “Malcolm’s Theme,” which swirls around a recasting of Ossie Davis’s funeral eulogy for Malcolm X.
There was a hip-hop musical explosion out of South Central Los Angeles in the 90s. This time out it’s not defined by genre, it’s defined by Kamasi Washington’s attitude: “The universe is a vast, vast place. There’s room for everything.”—L.B.
IN THE GREAT WIDE OPEN… Stephen King’s Kansas City stop in November 2014 to promote his new book Revival, which is told from the point of view of a working rhythm guitarist, turned into a kind of rock and roll show, even ending with a few bars of “Gloria.”
King was up against a constricting format--a live conversation with Vivien Jennings, the owner of Kansas City’s most prestigious independent bookstore, in a church filled with over 1200 people.
Wearing a crowd-pleasing Royals cap, King took the stage and began to overturn the conventions of “literary conversation.” He railed against the elitist division in bookstores between “literature” and “fiction.” When Jennings said her store wasn’t organized that way, he eyed her suspiciously, but when she described the store’s customer-driven plan a little further, he conceded, “That’s cool.”
But King was just warming up. He said he was pretty pleased that his books don’t get taught much in schools because he always thought the best reading was “outlaw reading.” He recalled a kid in high school who approached him one day, saying, “I got something I think you’ll like.” King said, “The way he was acting, I thought he had dope, but he pulled out this book and it was Blackboard Jungle.” The teacher took it away from him, and King ran out and bought another copy.
He praised Harry Potter and the Hunger Games and the Gone Series before he bragged about at least trying Fifty Shades of Gray. This served as the set-up for the story of a middle-aged carpenter who came up to him and said, “So, have you read the second one?” King said he probably wasn’t going to hang in that long. The man gave him a punch line, “If you stop now, you’ll miss the jet-ski and the butt plug.”
He then took a more personal turn related to the new novel’s mix of religion and rock and roll. He talked about the Young Methodists group in the book and how it related to the one he grew up in. He remembered a poster on the church wall—“Methodists say ‘No, Thank You to Smoking, to Drinking, to Drugs and to Premarital Sex.’” Sounding like N.W.A., he then added, “I said yes to all of ‘em!” King went on to paraphrase the ugly truths from Revival’s “Terrible Sermon” that get the book’s minister fired.
But he also talked about how beautiful it was when his mother played hymns on the church piano every Sunday morning. Then, on Thursdays, he would go over to his aunt’s, and she and King’s mom would have a few drinks. King and his brother would get her back over to that church to play the rags and boogie woogie tucked away in the piano bench. “They were both church to me,” King said.
Such truths, about what feels good to us not being bad and about the ways art connects us, kept bringing the talk back to the connections between writing and music. After talking lovingly about Lisey’s Story and why it was his personal favorite, King laughed when the crowd cheered a mention of The Stand, saying, “I feel like Led Zeppelin…better yet, Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
King ended with a reading from Revival, about the moment the protagonist first picks up his brother’s guitar. “This was largely autobiographical,” he explained, “except I was writing about the moment I walked by my brother’s typewriter and had the thought, ‘Maybe I could write a story.’”
Still, King admitted, he wrote about a guitar player because he loves rock and roll, and he loves to play the little bit that he can. Vivian Jennings and KC’s premier music shop, Big Dude’s, had hatched a scheme to provide a guitar to see if King would play. The writer hesitated as he strummed, laughing and saying, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” Then he started playing the chords from the Shadows of Knight version of “Gloria.” He sang a little of that first verse, in a somewhat timid voice, before shouting to the crowd, “You can all sing along.” He eyed the singing audience closely to see where this might go, but then shut it down after a verse.
But that was only the encore. The church had been ringing with rock and roll truths all evening.—D.A.
TIME TRAVEL…. The fight for control of the narrative of history rages mainly underground in America. The one percent is intent on defining that narrative—they seek to limit it and narrow it to the point that the only truth their narrative contains is a shiny coat of painted-over individual facts. There is a lot at stake here. As Rage Against the Machine put it in their song “Testify”:
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?
Music is often part of a battle to wrest control of that historical narrative or at least to create a counter-narrative. In the 1980s and 1990s, a much more accurate version of history than that taught in schools was a major component of hip-hop. Under commercial and political pressures, that faded. But a Massachusetts rapper named Mega Trife brings it back on his new EP, The Wormhole Project (email@example.com).
Slavery is the primary thread which connects “Gladiator,” where Mega Trife wonders what it was like to face the lion, to “Slaves,” where the emphasis is on slavery as a business, to “World Traveler,” where our protagonist travels around the world and back in time to take in the life of Jesus, the Renaissance, the journey of Columbus, the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement, even having a conversation with Lee Harvey Oswald on the morning of the Kennedy assassination. And of course he takes in slavery, where Mega Trife “Played a part in the Civil War/Where the North side took the victory.”
Wherever Mega Trife goes, he jumps in and takes sides. And he’s a helluva rapper, sharp and crisp and a master of complex wordplay. His music is soaring and cinematic until he pares it down on “World Traveler,” where he uses just beats and a viola to help carry the story (https://www.youtube.com/
The Wormhole Trilogy brings us up to the present day where we run headlong into the video for “Call the Cops” by Rob Hustle. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=IlY9C6pzxKc). “This is what happens/When you call the cops/You get your rights violated/Or you all get shot!” Rob Hustle raps fiercely as, dressed in a suit and tie, he provides a soundtrack for a terrifying montage of video clips in which cops beat, shoot, Mace, and run over men, women, and children. He describes the militarization of the police and compares today’s police state to the one which enforced slavery, concluding:
Making the poor commodities
Profiting off of poverty
Support prison economies
No one’s making money
When the violence stops
Can we have a future where the violence stops, where there is no poverty to profit from? The 2013 video for Portugal. The Man’s “Modern Jesus” doesn’t address those questions but it may offer a path to the answer. It begins and ends by rejecting the church: “Don’t pray for us/We don’t need no modern Jesus/To roll with us/The only rule we need is never giving up/The only faith we have is faith in us.”
Who is “us”? The video, powered by a loopy synth track, caroms through a head-spinning funhouse of small town America (Portugal. The Man is from Wasila, Alaska, where Sarah Palin once was mayor). There’s an elderly white dancer. Mexican horsemen. A crew of young blacks who live in a trailer park. Bayous. Porches. Improvised skate parks. Although the pieces are shown separately, this rainbow run generates a palpable, communal sense of joy. How far can that take us in the future?
The only rule we need is never giving up
The only faith we have is faith in us
ROCK CRITICS OF THE MONTH… "Can you imagine me in Heaven? Imagine the orchestra we'd have." He tosses a macadamia nut in his mouth, unscrews an Oreo, and takes a long swig of purple soda, and ponders that. "Oh, man, what a band. I'll want to go twenty-four hours a day...won't never get tired. Won't never stop."
from Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg
“N.W.A. had put Compton on the map two years earlier with their 1988 album Straight Outta Compton,” Stereo Williams wrote recently in The Daily Beast. “But where that classic focused on hedonism and machismo, Cube’s solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, offered a more insightful and fully-developed portrait of a misunderstood and marginalized culture. Cube’s acclaimed and controversial first album is 25 now, and with a biopic about his legendary former group set to hit theaters this summer, Cube reflects on those days and admits that his time in N.W.A. was always a mixed blessing.
“’The members of the group wasn’t as political as me,’ Ice Cube explained. ‘They didn’t really want to talk about all of these different angles that we were faced with. They wanted to just talk about street shit. Street shit is cool, but you’ve gotta understand why you’re street. You’ve got to understand where it’s coming from. Why do we act the way that we act? There’s a source for that. I was a big fan of Public Enemy, who explored all of that. I wanted to do the same thing.’”
Twenty-year-old Jason Brown received a standing ovation at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on January 23 for his on-ice interpretation of Little Walter’s classic harmonica tune “Juke.” Brown echoed Little Walter’s power with his spins and jumps and explored the song’s subtleties with dips and feints and shimmies. Brown, who also plays piano, even offered a few dance moves you might have seen, sans skates, at a juke joint in the 1950s.
HOME XEROXING TIPS…. Herbie Hancock’s autobiography, Possibilities (Viking, $29.95), reveals a life filled with contradictions. Hancock’s grandmother was born into a Georgia sharecropper’s family which worked for the Griffins. But she hooked up with one of the Griffin sons and “just like that, went from being a sharecropper to being a landowner’s wife.” But that landowner lost his fortune in the 1920s, died soon after, and Herbie’s grandmother and mother moved to Chicago where they ended up working as maids and living in the South Side ghetto.
Hancock began his musical life as a street corner doowop singer but, with support and pressure from his parents, became an accomplished classical pianist and a jazz snob. He struggled with that snobbery all his life (he once tried to tell Miles Davis he would not play a Fender Rhodes since it was “a toy”), even as he overcame it by starting a funk band (the Headhunters) and, at one time or another, covering everyone from Joni Mitchell to Nirvana to Sade.
All his life, he’s ridden the contradiction between art and commerce. At age twenty, he was playing with free jazz pioneer Eric Dolphy who assured him that yes, they did play actual tunes with chord changes. Hancock was able to follow his artistic muse in part because of the financial cushion created because he owned the publishing on his big early hit “Watermelon Man” and because he was a prolific writer of music for jingles.
Hancock’s avant garde jazz band, Mwandishi, was signed by Warner Brothers and made a debut album with only three songs, the first of which was an epic thirteen-minute tribute to Angela Davis in 15/8 time. The label tried to dump the band. Trying to expand its audience, Mwandishi once opened for Iron Butterfly and had the Pointer Sisters open for them. For one of his solo albums, The Prisoner, Herbie Hancock took a jingle he’d written for a cigarette company and turned it into “He Who Lives in Fear,” a tune about Martin Luther King.
Herbie Hancock the jazz snob who started a funk band also helped to make hip-hop history in 1983 with “Rockit.” Grandmaster DST played a key role on that single and on the Future Shock album, showing the world what turntablists are capable of. Up front with a handheld keyboard, Hancock writes that he found he liked being a rock star and he pushed hard to get his videos on MTV. According to Hancock’s manager, David Rubinson, Columbia came close to refusing to put out the album because they knew it would alienate his fans. It went platinum.
An overwhelming presence in the book is Miles Davis, with whom Herbie Hancock made several albums now regarded as classics. Miles is always in the mix--encouraging, pushing, joking, critiquing, and blazing trails.
A dabbler in the likes of coke and acid for most of his adult life, Hancock became addicted to crack in his fifties and had a very difficult time getting sober. When he did, it allowed his mind to return to the questions of human liberation which had often informed his early work.
“I found myself wondering: What if the planet were run like a jazz collective?” he writes. “What if we could find a way to harness globalization for the common good, rather than just suffering from its ill effects?”
Hancock’s answer to his own question was to record an album called The Imagine Project, which recognized America as the “largest immigrant country, with roots in every other country on the planet. We’re always hearing about immigrants supposedly overrunning our borders and taking our jobs, but almost everybody in America is an immigrant.” The centerpiece is a version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” by Pink, Seal, and India Arie, with other songs from a total of eleven countries in seven languages (Juanes, K’naan, Anoushka Shankar).
David Cantwell’s ”Lee Ann Womack Returns to the Roots She Never (Really) Left,” a 7000 word overview of the great country singer’s career for No Depression, describes how “quite possibly the best country singer of her generation…has mostly been unable to get her music released, let alone played on the radio.” Though the article focuses on the country music world’s narrow view of such a complex artist, it serves as a fine description of the barriers faced by most women trying to make adult music in the 21st Century music industry. It also tells the particulars of the story behind Womack’s brilliant new album, The Way I’m Livin’, thirteen performances that define the potential of Americana of as a genre, if only by allowing for the bluesy realities and vocal nuance that once defined country itself.
PAINT YOUR WAGON… In 1984, photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant authored Subway Art, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Their stunning panoramas of New York City graffiti artists using subway cars as canvases fired the imagination of youth the world over. Subway Art, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, benefited from the explosion of hip-hop even as it contributed to it. The book was directly responsible for the spread of the graffiti art form to all seven continents where it continues to expand in all directions today.
We take hip-hop and its integral place in world culture for granted now, but think about how strange its elements were at first: Painting while police and city officials try to put you in jail for it, putting your hands on records to make them go backwards, talking instead of singing, dancing with your head on the ground. Not to mention beatboxing, an urban form of Tuvan throat singing. So hip-hop needed a little help from its friends and one of them was Subway Art. The book also helped to initiate the process of the different elements of hip-hop becoming separate entities unto themselves, something that seems near complete today.
A new book, Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now by Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins, is an oral history of twelve of the seminal New York graffiti artists of the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe you are left cold by graffiti art or just mystified by the stories and messages woven into its complex styles--stories and messages indecipherable to outsiders. Maybe you look at graffiti pieces, either in person or in photographs, and are swept away as you might be by a power chord or by a beautiful song in a language you do not speak. With Training Days, it doesn’t matter. While it contains plenty of graffiti minutiae and arcane history, what comes across most clearly is the power of the human spirit. In a volume only six inches by eight inches, photographs add flavor but, unlike most graffiti books, the words dominate. For example:
“According to old school graffiti writer James Top, the [1977 New York City] blackout was the event that gave birth to hip-hop. The spoils of the looting included huge quantities of spray paint and electronic equipment such as speakers, amplifiers, and turntables—enough material to expand the power and reach of the art and music that the young kids were creating.”—Henry Chalfant
“Our first outside train was on Gun Hill Road, on the 2s and 5s, back in ’81. At that time, gangs were undergoing a transition and morphing into crews. There was a reason they could do this so easily: hip-hop. Hip-hop brought a lot of people together—Hispanic, black, white. But it was graffiti that made it possible for everyone to link up. With graffiti, it didn’t matter what color you were.”—Breezer
“In April 1980 there was a transit strike…This was one of the few times in history that writers were able to work as if they were in a studio, with plenty of time to paint carefully and make corrections. Conditions were not usually so favorable, with the dirt, darkness, and cramped space, as well as the many dangers from police raids, worker assaults, beatdowns, and paint thefts from rival crews, turning the whole process into something more akin to performance art in a war zone.”—Henry Chalfant
“You’re just terrified and hoping you can see in the dark and do a straight line and not get arrested. Your heart is in your throat and any loud noise will make you jump out of your sneakers and pee on yourself. But amongst all that, you have to create a piece of artwork.”—Lady Pink
“Wheat 1 and I went inside 145th to the tunnel to smoke and to write our names. I was like ‘Yo, this shit is me. This is my life. This is my future.’ I felt power. I felt like Superman. I felt like there were two powerful worlds: there was the world where you tried to succeed in life—accumulating wealth or pursuing the American Dream—and here I was, Jon One, which was something completely different, on an artistic adventure. Having a voice is having a power, so for me that was more fulfilling than anything else. Communication is very important to me.”—Jon One
“Police would grab these interracial groups of teenagers and search them for graffiti materials because these groups didn’t really exist outside the graffiti community. We had white kids, black kids, Asian kids, and Latino kids all hanging together and not missing a beat.”—Lady Pink
“Nobody knew what the fuck we were talking about, which was the point. Graffiti had its own language. It was secretive—an underground society made up of cats from all over the city. At that time, there were only a couple of thousand people writing, but that all changed when Subway Art came out. Now there might even be millions of people writing graffiti.”—KR
“Most of us artists paint and create and work not because there’s a market out there, and not because people like it or want to exhibit it. We paint because we have to.”—Lady Pink
“We were branded as criminals back in the day, and now the art form we created is mainstream and used by rich corporations to sell products. I would love to ask the Transit Authority what the difference is between Swatch running ten full cars of ads on the 6 line in 2011 and Erni and I and other Art & Design writers basically doing the same thing in the 1980s. I guess, to them, it’s all about the money. But it was never about the money for us. It was all about personal expression. That’s what makes me feel so good about the worldwide explosion of graffiti. Every state, every region, every country, and every writer has his own personal spin on the art form. Ha!”—Spin
Every state, every region, every country. To begin to see the truth of Spin’s words, check out two new coffee table books, Detroit Graffiti by Chris Freitag and Graffiti South Africa by Cale Waddacor.
The overleaf for Detroit Graffiti sets the scene—vast expanses of empty space in the middle of a once dense and powerful industrial city. Freitag notes: “One in every five structures in the city is vacant, abandoned, or dilapidated—usually all three.” This has created a lot of places to paint and made Detroit a graffiti hotbed—blazing colors and intricate designs cover empty factories, houses, stores, stairways, and fire escapes. This includes the towering Brewster-Douglass housing projects, which once housed the members of the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson. Joe Louis began his boxing career in the Brewster-Douglass rec center. On a brick wall in a lot overgrown with weeds, there is a portrait of a natty Barack Obama, smiling like the cat who ate the canary as if to say: “This town is fucked and I’m not going to do anything about it.”
While in Detroit there is relative freedom to paint, South Africa is a different story. Since the end of apartheid there has been a tremendous polarization of wealth and a lot more private property to protect. An army of private and public security does the job and graffiti writers are often shot at as they ply their trade, including painting the trains that are now out of reach in New York City. Some of the tension may also be political, as writers emblazon South Africa with slogans such as “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth” or “All Shall Be Equal Before the Law.” South African graffiti writers readily acknowledge that their scene struggles to move beyond being derivative of the U.S. and Europe but, especially in various styles of lettering, a distinctly African aesthetic is emerging.
That process will continue. As Wealz130 puts it: “Every time you see a tag, you know there is somebody behind it—there is a bit of art history happening. I feel good about being part of what I believe to be the biggest art movement the planet has ever seen.”—L.B.
THIS MONTH’S DOWNLOADING PROSPECTS…. Landmarks, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band (Mid City/Blue Note)—This music is rooted above all where it started back in the day—in Louisiana, with the feelings of upstate more prominent than the traditions of New Orleans. The title track is typical, beginning like a rural Southern sunrise--hot, lazy, in the moment. Pianist Jon Cowherd begins with a simple figure, toying with it like breakfast at the local café as other players amble in to join the meal. The track goes on like this for over eight minutes and it’s only toward the end that you realize the overwhelming emotional impact it conveys. Landmarks is also about family: Blades’ niece (“Bonnie Be Good”), mother (“Friends Called Her Dot”), and civil rights leader grandfather (“He Died Fighting”). You can get an expanded look at that clan on the video for “Trouble in My Way,” which features Brian Blade along with his minister father and drummer brother (http://vimeo.com/32975487).
Cama Incendiada, Mana (Warner)--Kicking off the Guadalajara band’s third decade, this ninth studio album has all the vitality of a great debut. A single cut may be wall-of-sound techno one moment, then acoustically delicate before storming into a guitar and drum build. What matters is the way it all works together, the political silencing suggested by the gorgeous ballad with Shakira, “Mi Verdad” echoed later by the explosive Los Tigres del Norte cover “Somos Mas Americanos.”
Songs, John Fullbright (Blue Dirt Records)--Fullbright’s breakthrough, From the Ground Up, established this Okemah, Oklahoman’s ability to make a big noise, but this collection focuses almost exclusively on the sacred spaces he creates in his quieter moments. Each song is a beautiful place to linger—from the exquisite tribute of “That One That Lives Too Far” to the tale of a marriage that transcends death in “High Road.” Still, it’s nice when the record threatens to rock even a little, as on the insistently repetitious “Going Home,” an exhilarating highlight built out of some weary blues.
Red Clay/Straight Neuroplasticity, Cold Specks (Mute)— Canadian singer Al Spx calls this “deep soul,” which makes some kind of sense, but it might be better to imagine how an art rock version of Black Sabbath could be haunting, convicted and beautiful. A star here is trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, whose Don Cherry fevers burn through the mix.
Life/First Light, Freddie Hubbard (BGO)—The first three albums trumpeter Hubbard recorded for CTI in the early 1970s as part of a widespread effort to make jazz more marketable. But this is nothing like today’s loathsome smooth jazz. These Hubbard albums were, after all, made in the immediate aftermath of jazz’s greatest decade and carry that forward thrust with them, with some of the 1960s best musicians—Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, George Benson—on the sessions. Hubbard’s writing is excellent and the tunes extend until their seas are dried up. As a trumpet player, Hubbard is a bit of a showoff but he mainly uses his virtuosity like, say, an Eddie Van Halen, getting himself off emotionally while dragging the listener deep into the song with him.
Organ Donor Blues, John Velghe & the Prodigal Sons (Lakeshore Records)--A solid horn section and Velghe’s yearning vocals give this garage rock an epic reach. And this album needs that kind of reach because it’s about big ideas—what music can mean, what can make it seem meaningless and how it fights its way forward through the hardest of losses. Velghe’s comrade in arms Alejandro Escovedo is in here for some of the toughest battles, including the defiant “Beaten by Pretenders” and the nightmarish “Poison the Well.”
Live at the Jazz Café, London, D’Angelo (Virgin)—This 1995 show, only just recently released, was recorded just before the release of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar debut. Live at the Jazz Cafe about half covers (Mandrill, Smokey Robinson, Ohio Players, Al Green) and half originals, some short like a haiku and some extended to good effect. It works because D’Angelo has a vision of the historical flow of R&B, a band (especially guitarist Mike Campbell, not the one in Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), and fine singers (including Angie Stone). Above all, he has a compelling voice--born in church, raised on the street, struggling to move forward.
Epic Endings, William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up (Live at the Ice House Records)—Sometimes delicate soul/rock still comes across as an open wound as the music cannot soften the listener’s question: “Why did you have to share that with me?” The answer, of course, is that there is no choice and that reality gives the songs much of their power, helped along by guests Exene Cervenka, Blind Boys of Alabama, and Brenton Wood. The band, augmented at times by horns, pedal steel, and accordion and at all times by stringed instrument maestro Doug Osterkamp, serves as a crew of first responders, circling around victims with love and grace. Singer Ishmael Herring, who has spent a lot of time without a roof over his head, punctures any hope of easy answers with his heart-rending plea: “How long will I be in the street?/Will there be peace for me?”
Beautiful Life, Chuck Brown (Raw Venture)--This posthumous final album begins with Doug E. Fresh giving the Godfather of Go-Go props, saying Brown “changed my life.” Brown’s daughter testifies, “I was raised by the stroke of the pick, the drop of the beat, everything sounded like a pocket to me….My daddy started Go-Go that’s why they’re rockin’ with me/He made a way for my whole entire city to eat.” Brown’s version of “Happy Day” with the Howard University Choir is a joy to hear, as is his cover of Lou Rawl’s “You’ll Never Find.” But the originals make the case for the record too, especially the the title track, where he is joined by Wale, and “Best In Me,” with Faith Evans and Raheem.
Tucson, Brad Colerick (Back 9)—Twenty years after abandoning a singing career in order to start working at a jingle house, Nebraska-bred Colerick returns with a CD worth waiting for. Forty-seven years after “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” the title track provides a satisfying followup—a road song about a four hundred mile ride on which to mull over missed opportunities. Those lost opportunities may be personal (“that poem that you wrote for me is still lying on the bed”) or historical (“Matthew lives on a reservation/Doing time for the sins of a nation”). Colerick is heavily influenced by James Taylor and inhabits a similar netherworld between pop and country, only in his case the country strain is more explicit, helped along by musicians who push, nudge, jostle and ultimately dance together.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Interscope)—Vinyl reissue of the 1998 joint debut of two rising rap stars, this is a sonic journey through black history up to the present day and beyond (Talib Kweli was recently held at gunpoint by police when he went to Ferguson, Missouri to support the community). The tracks are inventive yet low key considering the subject matter, which is often political but also includes an ode to the city entitled “Respiration” (“Blastin’ holes in the night til she bleeds sunshine”). The lyrics are smart and wordy and would be considered “literary” if penned by Dylan or Springsteen. The reach is broad and, on “Thieves in the Night," includes an interpolation of a passage from Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye: “And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good but well-behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.”
The Paris Session, The Toure-Raichel Collective (Cumbancha)—Collaboration between Israeli session keyboardist and sometime pop star Idan Raichel and guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, son of legendary Malian singer/guitarist Ali Farka Toure, is a mostly instrumental exploration of emotion, rather than an intellectually concocted combination of styles. It works. The focus is on mood rather than chops and there are few solos as such, just a shifting conversation between Raichel’s piano and Toure’s acoustic guitar.
Bang/Miami, James Gang (BGO)—Twofer from the early 1970s is from the version of James Gang after Joe Walsh left, so the songwriting isn’t generally quite as good. The guitar chair is filled by Tommy Bolin, a talented player who dominates without being domineering. Highlights include the coulda-been-a-classic “Standing in the Rain” and the wistful “Alexis,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Younger Girl.”
SoCal Sessions, P.O.D. (T-Boy/Universal)—Veteran San Diego heavy rockers present twelve of their songs acoustically. That way, the reggae comes out more, the subtleties in Sonny Sandoval’s voice pack more punch, and there is room for piano, accordion, and harmonica. This music is filled with grand sweeping pronouncements about the wickedness of Babylon and the need to transcend it, while embracing killers, cutters, laid off workers, junkies and kids who just don’t fit in with a humanity so intense it’s almost scary. There’s also room for “Will You,” an update thematically of the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” while adding new plot twists.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson--(High Top Mountain Records) Simpson’s Waylon Jennings-full vocals contemplate the hallucinogenic Big Thoughts country folk explore on section roads near as often as those awesome truck parties featured all over the radio. The album’s most gorgeous moment is also one of its scariest, a yawning abyss of a ballad called “The Promise.” What may be the best introduction, though, comes near the end with “It Ain’t All Flowers”—a metaphysical study of that rose and thorn that goes back at least as far as “Barbara Ann,” with lots of hard guitar taking a spacewalk midway through, before closing on a minute or so of backwards looping informed by hip hop.
Wildflowers, Various Artists (Stremeltone)--When Kansas City’s Kristie Stremel became a mother, she pulled together a remarkable array of talent to make this children’s album, a great deal of it mixed by the legendary Springfield, Missouri producer, Lou Whitney (one of the last albums he worked on before his death in October). The spoken word here includes contributions by the Kansas City Star’s music critic as well as the former editor of KC’s leading alternative press and the DJ behind the city’s longest running and most comprehensive local music show. The music bounces from the duo Victor & Penny’s surreal 1920s pop to two very different lullabies (one ornery country music rebellion, one plaintive heartland rock) by the brothers behind the great Whitney-produced band Hadacol.
Think Like a Man Too—Music From and Inspired by the Film, Mary J. Blige (Epic) The London Sessions, Mary J. Blige (Capitol) The London record is getting all of the attention not only because this is the pop music moment for Blige collaborators Disclosure, Emile Sande and Sam Smith but also (and more importantly) because the simplicity of the album’s production—even on the dance numbers—stays out of the way of Blige’s voice. Big statements like “Not Loving You” and “Whole Damn Year” sound like extensions of the transcendent balladry that closed My Life II. Still, Blige doesn’t ever make impersonal music, and her soundtrack for Steve Harvey’s comedy personalizes sophisticated, with a cover of Shalamar’s “A Night to Remember,” and goes way dark. Highlights of this solid set include hip hop that swings from cloud dancing reverie on “Wonderful” to the muscular grab of “Kiss and Make Up.” The extremes welded together here are stunning—from the throbbing Zeppelin-size blues of “I Want You” to the piano and lace of the anthemic “Propose.”
The Earls of Leicester (Rounder/Concord)—Dobro master Jerry Douglas put together a band of virtuosos to create this tribute to bluegrass pioneers Flatt and Scruggs. They play vintage instruments, use the same unconventional tunings as the original, play songs from the 1954-1965 peak of Flatt and Scruggs, and even wear the same stage clothes. They find a deep new well of emotion to draw from and lead singer Shawn Camp is, well, just different. Highlights include the vibrant threat of “I’ll Go Steppin’ Too,” the flash instrumental “Shuckin’ the Corn,” and the Stanley Brothers “Who Will Sing For Me,” a question answered emphatically by this album.
Show Me Emotion, The Dunwells (Playing in Traffic/Concord)—Two brothers, a cousin, and a drummer who honed their craft apart playing live at Leeds (their hometown) before coming together five years ago. Self-consciously anthemic but kept from being pretentious by subtle prodding from the background and, anyway, big hooks help you to overcome the fears generated by songs which demand that you “Show Me Emotion” or “Communicate.” This EP bodes well for an upcoming full-length.
Half the City, St. Paul & The Broken Bones (Single Lock/Thirty Tigers)—Young band from Alabama heavily influenced by Stax/Volt in spirit, Otis Redding in general, and Otis’s song “Cigarettes and Coffee” in particular. Not holding back or holding on for dear life, from the horns to the bass to the guitar, each part is smart, purposeful, and as nuanced as its inspirations. Singer Paul Janeway can growl and roar but more often he operates in a tense and claustrophobic range, something like Little Esther Philips.
Art Official Age, Prince (Warner Bros.) and Plectrumelectrum, Prince & 3rdeyegirl (Warner Bros.) There’s a common song, “Funknroll,” delivered as a power trio showstopper on the 3rdeyegirl version, while the Art Official Age version is a wondrous synth-heavy remix, pushing space between beats with ricocheting keyboard bleeps and crowd shouts. They’re both great, like these yin and yang releases—six months down the road, the girl-band-anchored rockers only gaining power and the psychedelic R&B taking on new shades and textures.
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar (Interscope)--With some rhymes more slam than rap, this is as much jazz exploration as hip hop album. Compton’s rapper-of-the-decade needs to get all his voices in dialogue, struggling to sort through personal and professional issues with a war raging inside and outside. He confronts the seductiveness of fame on “For Sale,” his ambivalent feelings about a homeless man who confronts him on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” and his own self-loathing time and time again, particularly with the hard fought affirmation, “I.” Even his closing dialogue with the ghost of Tupac raises more questions than it answers, but considering the impasse facing rap since Tupac and Biggie’s deaths, opening dialogue seems like the right thing to do. Extra points lyric: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’/Motherfucker, if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum.”
Live at the Living Room Theatre, Victor & Penny and Their Loose Change Orchestra (www.VictorandPenny.com)--
Kansas City’s jazz age guitar and ukulele combo wears its novelty like a badge of honor, and, indeed, everything about them is an argument against rock and pop prejudices, starting with the notion that a novelty act can’t be great. Part of that is their love of forgotten, lost and little known songs. Two Scatman Crothers songs make this mix as well as some Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and even John Williams’s Star Wars “Cantina Band.” Two stand-out originals include fellow songwriters Theo Bishop and Benny Chadwick’s haunting “Salt” and Howard Iceberg’s playful “Indiscreet.” Throughout, the live setting emphasizes the improvisation in this jazz age music, nowhere better illustrated than in the head-spinning guitar-clarinet duel at the heart of the Iceberg song.
Freedom, Ariana Gillis (http://arianagillis.bandcamp.
com/album/freedom)--Prior to this six-song EP, Gillis has released two multi-colored, elaborately textured albums that build a new universe of sound out of familiar folk and pop elements. This demo-of-an-album is comparatively stark, a bright spotlight on Gillis’s voice and acoustic guitar. That said, these six songs are still multi-colored and elaborately textured because those qualities start with Gillis’s Shakira-sized voice. Featuring the most complex arrangement—heartbeat thumps on an acoustic guitar under banjo and fiery guitar, yearning horn, rumbling tom-toms, and high lonesome, wordless vocals—“Jeremy Woodstock” delivers the story of a disembodied heart in passionate magic realism. Throughout, Gillis writes about the most personal risks in the context of a world at war, crying out “guns and soldiers, bullets, patrollers, freedom never felt so wrong” on the opening cut and later taking on the perspective of a soldier, stating matter-of-factly “I’m going off to war/I know I’m never coming home.” But perhaps the strongest blend of form and content here is “White Blush,” as vulnerable a song about the spotlight as anyone ever wrote that somehow manages to never sound weak—in fact, it rings triumphant.
Chef soundtrack (Milan)—Somebody’s cohesive take on the sounds necessary to make a coastal trip from Miami to LA, which just happens to be the sub-plot of the movie.
The soundtrack combines Latin, hip-hop, funk, and rock. Highlights include the sweet reggae of Courtney John, El Michels Affair’s instrumental take on Wu-Tang, Cavern’s jazzy ripoff of “White Lines,” Perico Hernandez’s version of “Oye Como Va,” Gary Clark, Jr.’s “When My Train Pulls In,” and brass band takes on Trouble Funk and Marvin Gaye.
Leave No Bridge Unburned, Whitehorse (Six Shooter Records)--Canadians Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet get called a folk duo, but that hardly describes this third album. The record starts off with an unrequited love song staged in an Ennio Morricone dreamscape before a spooky portrait of small-town yearning, “Tame as the Wild Ones,” goes epic in a whole different way, snare drum against crashes of guitar. “Downtown” brings Hammond organ and a Bo Diddley beat. “Sweet Disaster” offers garage rock Drifters. And those songs are followed by rockabilly, stark minimalism, 21st Century delta blues and more than a hint of Roy Orbison. As much as anything, this album winds up being about rock and roll as a force of nature. As if to drive home the point, the most Dylanesque number, “The Walls Have Drunken Ears,” sounds like a rumbling train about to jump the next bend.
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