Sunday, November 19, 2017

Woodyfest #3, It's Up to Us

July's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival presentation on Daniel Wolff's book, Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913, took place on the front porch of the replica Guthrie family home in the Okemah Historical Society. The setting was entirely appropriate. For an hour, Wolff, Pastures of Plenty editor Dave Marsh and musicians Chris Buhalis and Michael Fracasso discussed what Marsh called the focus of Wolff’s book, “How do all these people fit inside that one question that animates ‘Like a Rolling Stone,” ‘how does it feel’? The answers came from somewhere near that front porch, Guthrie only being a year old when the events behind his “1913 Massacre” took place. The answers also came from each individual history in Wolff’s book, on that porch and in that room.                         

               Wolff started the talk the way the book starts, considering why his 13-year old self responded to the anger he heard in “Like a Rolling Stone.” He knew the world wasn’t fair, it wasn’t just, and he heard the appropriate response in that song. His book recalls the inadequate answers adults would give him to the questions of the day, “’Sure the present system is messed up,’ some grown-up would say in a sympathetic voice, ‘but it’s still the best that . . . .’ And so on, and so on, til I just wanted to change the channel.”
                Marsh’s talk began with the contrast between his background and Wolff’s, which in some ways paralleled the distinctions between Guthrie’s Oklahoman ‘middle class’ roots in the early decades of the century and Dylan’s more comfortable background in the middle of the century. Wolff’s father was a commuter who took the train into the city, and Marsh’s father was a conductor who carried commuters. What they shared, and what Guthrie and Dylan shared, was a sense of loneliness, even though Guthrie had a sense of community that sprung from the labor movements still alive in his day, and Dylan struggled to find community in the post-McCarthy era of his career.
                Once, when Marsh asked his mother about his grandfather’s politics (he lived on the other side of the Upper Peninsula from Calumet), she replied, “A lot like yours.” She then helped him piece together a story from his youth when he first met his Uncle Elgin on his grandparents’ farm. Elgin showed up one day looking for his grandfather, and Marsh remembered his grandmother dropping whatever was in her hands. She told her grandson, “Those two haven’t talked to each other in forty years.”   
During a railroad strike that would help ignite the anticommunist Palmer raids of the 1920s, Marsh’s great uncle crossed the picket. His grandfather painted his brother’s name on the side of a boxcar, calling him a scab, and rolled it down a hill so that the whole town would know. With this, Marsh underscored the importance of all that seemingly small stuff that people do because they don’t have control, want control and feel isolated.
This set up Michael Fracasso singing “1913 Massacre,” but he didn’t just start singing. He also began with his roots. Fracasso explained that this song always hit home because his father was a steelworker in Ohio, and Christmas time was always a special childhood memory for him. The workers would have a big Christmas party and all of the kids would get “a bag of candy with maybe a toy inside.” This is the setting for the song, described so eloquently in Wolff’s book, about just such a happy moment destroyed by “copper boss thugs” who shout fire into Calumet’s Italian Hall during the party and then hold the doors shut while seventy three partygoers suffocated and were trampled in the panic that followed. Listening to Fracasso’s sweet, heartrending vocals, it’s hard to imagine anyone speaking more forcefully for the fifty-nine children in that number killed on what should be one of the happiest nights of their young lives.
                Buhalis then sang Dylan’s version of the same tune, “Song to Woody.” With a nod to Fracasso, he also recalled the stockings of candy at the Christmas parties he went to as the son of a Detroit ironworker. As Fracasso had done with “1913 Massacre,” Buhalis personalized his tribute to Guthrie as well as “Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly, too, all the good people who traveled with you.” The intensity of his voice told of the struggle to find a place to stand in a world that “seems like it’s dying but it’s hardly been born.” 
                After some discussion of Dylan’s question—what do we do today as opposed to what made sense in the past—Buhalis sang Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson’s “Joe Hill,” the tribute to the great folksinger martyred in 1915, a song that insists Joe Hill isn’t dead. It’s hard to imagine a sound more convincing than Buhalis’s plainspoken baritone, but after the song ended, he admitted he struggled with the “ridiculous optimism” over those sorts of labor songs, those ones about winning in the face of one hard loss after another. Buhalis added, “I know it’s metaphorical—“
                To which Marsh responded, “It’s musical too….I mean, you’re only about 3/4ths from putting Jimmy LaFave in the room.”
                “No,” Chris nodded, “Jimmy LaFave’s in the room.”
                For those who might not know (and unfortunately, that’s most of the world), Jimmy LaFave was a great Texas-born/Oklahoma-formed songwriter who was unrivaled as an interpreter of just about anyone he set out to interpret, but for our purposes, it’s easy to say he was unmatched for the way he made Guthrie and Dylan his own. He was a dear friend to the members of this discussion, performing with Buhalis and Fracasso many times, and he'd only just died two months before Woodyfest.
                Marsh continued, “I was thinking about that as you sang the song today. I never heard Joe Hill that way . . . the understanding that there are people that this will happen to in any person’s lifetime, and it isn’t because Joe Hill was a hero (although he WAS a hero), it’s because….Martin Luther King said that the problem with communism was that it forgot that life is individual and….”
                At this moment, Marsh choked up a little, thinking of LaFave. “Shouldn’t have brought up Jimmy,” he said.
                He went on. “The problem of capitalism is that it forgets that life is collective . . . . and everything my brothers have been saying today, and everything this festival’s about, that’s what it says”—Life is collective.
                Fracasso then delivered a gorgeous reading of Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” The inescapably vivid lyrics being “No martyrs among you now whom you can call your own. Go on your way accordingly, but know you’re not alone.” Wolff called it an answer to Joe Hill, reading his book’s opening John Berger quote, “How do the living live with the dead.”
                Wolff emphasized the point. “We continue to live with them. How do we do that? How do we honor them? How does this what I call ‘line of anger’ that goes back in time continue? And it was never easy. [He pointed at Buhalis.] As you say, Joe Hill didn’t have an easy route and neither did Woody Guthrie or a whole bunch of other people.”
                In that room, at that moment last July, Jimmy LaFave was, in fact, present, as was Joe Hill, as was Woody Guthrie, as were the seventy three whose Christmastime deaths inspired this particular cry. Dylan was there, too, as was every one of us who found our way down to Woody Guthrie’s hometown to celebrate the great collective fight for justice Guthrie’s career represents.
                The question how the living carry on that fight was indeed the question at the heart of it all. What worked for Guthrie, in the end, couldn’t work for Dylan, and Dylan’s lonesome search for meaningful community presaged the isolation that today threatens to swallow us whole even in the midst of intense political uproar. Talks like this are groundwork for further discussion on what to do with our anger and our desire for justice when the world doesn’t look like it did in the past. The strategies and tactics are no easy prescription because they’re as individual and ever-changing as the lives we lead, but at least one point made that day is inescapable and, if we can grab hold of our own strength, inspiring.
                Recalling the moment the memory of Jimmy LaFave halted his speech, Marsh said, “You know, what I got so weepy about is the fact that it’s up to us.”

                Spurred on by Jimmy, Joe, Woody, Bob and all the others “who come with the dust and are gone with the wind,” no one left the room without feeling that call.

P.S. The video is on YouTube and well worth watching, here--

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Reflections on Our Subscription Drives

Some thoughts on the subscription drives for Rally Comrades, the People's Tribune and Tribuno del Pueblo--

 Anger’s all around us today. On social media, we don’t just disagree; we often attack. And while some attack the larger forces that are making our lives increasingly miserable, most of us lash out at whoever's handy—the people who have elsewhere loved us, supported us, nurtured us, helped us solve problems from time to time and often helped us simply get through our problems. On Facebook, which some shrewdly avoid, we tend to lash out at our “friends,” sometimes directly but more often in some passive aggressive flailing declaration. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. When I realize I’ve done this, I take those comments down.

 But that doesn’t make the anger go away. It’s simply not smart or strategic or, when I get right down to it, kind. In these tender times, that consideration of others and their vulnerability certainly matters (at least to me) in new ways every day.

 Of course, it’s not just social media. Virtually every form of media is filled with hostility, and anger’s close to the surface almost anywhere. People cut in line and rail at people who cut in line. I feel it in my car driving to and from work. People begin frantically honking when someone drives too slowly. Others dart back and forth through traffic like they’re shooting The Fast and the Furious. I brake for them and swerve so they won’t hit me so that they can race ahead only to be sitting next to me at the next red light.

 At that light, the anger still exists, as a contagion, in both of us. But, usually, we don’t look at each other. As angry as we know the world to be today, we don’t want things to escalate. We both simply want to get to work on time.

In the end, the anger isn’t the real problem. Anger is a natural response, albeit not always the healthiest one but sometimes absolutely involuntary, to the frustration of our hopes and dreams and desires, even the simplest ones. You take away a child’s ice cream cone, and it’s liable to come out in screams and tears. You take away an adult’s ice cream cone, and, if you get a more mature response, the difference comes from some learned way to distance oneself from the impulse.

 I am thankful for the work I get to do in this world because it all helps me find a distance on my most childish impulses and tackle the underlying causes of the problems in front of me. This is how I get through my days in the classroom, which fortunately offer all kinds of unforeseen rewards. (People working face to face with each other tend to find a way to resolve their differences.) But it’s also how I’ve manage to gain a practical perspective outside of the classroom.

In my college years, my anger at the KKK on my campus, the reasons Central Americans sought refuge in my neighborhoods because of wars my country funded, the loss of thousands of jobs in my hometown and the vanishing certainty of anything like stability in even my own future led me to work with a series of organizations—on campus, the African-American Student Organization, Amnesty International and various organizations fighting for peace and justice. After school, I started a music and politics newsletter in Oklahoma called The Red Dirt Runner, which would become A Sign of the Times in Kansas City, both based on the national music and politics networking newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential. I worked with In Defense of Music, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, the Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, the Music Alliance, the KCMO Union of the Homeless, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, my teacher’s union and many other organizations, increasingly focused on the reasons we all have to be justifiably angry at the way the world works.

 At least since 1993, the through-line (my lifeline?) for all of this activity has been my membership in the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA). While the world seems filled with people both at each others’ throats and avoiding one another, the League focuses on building a practical unity that can carry us forward. We do this by examining what we really know about root causes for the conditions we live in and how that can help us reach across ideological divisions. People who have not engaged with our ideas sometimes react to our assessments as if they are utopian, but I don't see it that way. A group of people active in today’s struggles on every front you can imagine, League members come together and gain our conclusions methodically. We collectively study our personal experiences as well as scientific and written history. We study technology and today’s headlines, particularly those buried on page 6. It’s the best liberal arts education I’ve ever been engaged with, and it never stops because conditions never stop changing. Perhaps most importantly, this education brings hope.

 The League focuses on common denominators. There are baseline reasons the world has become so unstable and will continue to grow more unstable until it transforms into something more humane. These changes are rooted in changing technologies that are currently being used against us. We famously repeat the notion that the world is going through objective revolutionary change because, without that recognition, we can’t begin to think in new ways to deal with a new world.

 Mainstream thinkers have been talking about our post-industrial future for about four decades, and mainstream art and literature is filled with dystopian nightmares of various kinds of dictatorship that will destroy quality of life for the great masses of the people. The LRNA recognizes the profound technological revolution that is transforming our society, and we work in agreement that it can be steered to serve the people. We can live in a better world, but the great masses of people will have to find ways to come together as one in order to midwife that world into existence.

 The sins of our fathers loom large. Ten thousand years ago, our hunter-gatherer society transformed into more sedentary structures that allowed for the accumulation of wealth. The ancient divisions of labor within the social structure (which took many forms by age and gender and varied abilities) were, in terms of human history, replaced fairly quickly by male dominance in the politics of commerce, which relegated women to positions of less power. National racial identities formed which, after thousands of years, were supplanted by imperialist power and the slave trade which based identities on skin color. The political maneuverings of the capitalist era gave birth to most of the ideological divisions we still suffer today. None of those division are going away any time soon, and we still have to fight on those ideological battlegrounds, but the underlying structure of society has changed in ways that give us advantages.

Even as it was exploited against us, technology has always offered ways to liberate individual human existence. The birth of the printing press in the 1400s led to the European renaissance and scientific and political propaganda that would increase our life spans and help us understand the world around us and how we fit into this world. Since the 1950s and the invention of the transistor, technology has allowed us to eliminate the objective need for much of our human labor. It is much more than coincidence that, in 2017, the world rests in the palms of our hands, and we are perhaps angrier than ever before.

Deep down, we know a better world is possible, and we each have pieces of the puzzle, but the power structure tends to turn us against each other so that we cannot come together constructively. We live in a world of mass incarceration with neverending wars where people who do try to do a little good are often attacked for those efforts. When I was a child, I could not have imagined, in my 50s I’d live in a world where people could be arrested for feeding the homeless or housing others who are running for their lives.

 We will not gain a more humane future without struggle, but we will not gain that future by attacking everyone else struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table. I believe we have more than a good chance if we come together and share what we know and strategize a way forward. As a member of the LRNA, I collectivize what I know with others for just that reason, and our paper, Rally Comrades, is the place where League members share that information and strategy for further study. We also support and distribute The People’s Tribune and Tribuno del Pueblo, to publish the stories of people fighting for their human rights in their own words, often from varied ideological perspectives. It is the practical need for unity that concerns me, and it’s that call that concerns the LRNA, which is why I am calling for my friends and loved ones to do what they can to help support our presses. You can support the League paper here-- The People’s Tribune here-- and Tribuno del Pueblo here-- You can donate as little or as much as you want to in order to help us achieve these goals.

After a quarter century doing this work, I know we’re approaching the day with a focus that’s needed now more than ever before. I hope some of you will hear my appeal for the sincere summation of my experience that it is and consider helping out. It’s been a great gift in my life, and I ask because we need it, certainly, but also because I want to share this gift with others.

As my friend Ron Casanova used to sign off, “Through Peace, Love and Understanding,”


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Love and Everyday Hope: The Wickham Brothers Go Solo

          Though they both have moments reminiscent of their great band Hadacol, this year’s two solo albums by Fred Wickham and brother Greg are a study in contrasts. Being brothers is no doubt polarizing, but being bandmates, it’s amazing they still work together two decades down the road. The great news is they’ve each found their own voices, intertwined by that Hadacol sensibility, but expansive in their distinction. A crude way to say it would be Greg goes big with a rare, brave excellence while brother Fred fingers heartache with quiet, heartrending precision. Another crude way to put it is Greg’s If I Left This World is a pop album, a pop album about death, and Fred’s Mariosa Delta is a blues album, a blues album about the promise of love.

           But all that’s too simplistic. Fred Wickham’s album is firmly rooted in a pop sensibility almost a century old while Greg’s album focuses on more recent sounds. They both reach wide for listeners, and the spindle of these two albums is mortality, the big tent anthemic album revolving around silent grief, and the humble swing record spinning round a tale of cold blooded murder.

            If I Left This World has been out half a year, so let’s start with that one. It’s a big record, but grounded. Greg starts and ends the record with prayers for his daughters. “Angel of Mercy (Song for Sophie)” uses a waltzing wall of sound to drive off his daughter’s pain and to encourage a life truly lived—“let her dance through the shadows til she finds her way home.” Closer “Elsie’s Lullaby” dreams equally grand dreams with a quieter, string-laden touch.

Sounds and styles shift gracefully--from the fiery bluegrass prayer of “Oh Me Oh My” to the rock anthem call for hope (against hope), “Waterfall,” to the dark blues of “Clear,” and the quiet country ballad “If I Left This World.” Greg Wickham sings of people befuddled, defiant, extraordinarily loving and somewhat suicidal. Whatever Greg is singing about at any given time, he’s singing life and death stakes with a sense of humor and a vision big enough to be his final act.

Fred Wickham plays at equally high stakes but he plays them closer to the vest. It takes a while listening to opener “Big Fat Moon” to realize this c’mon the singer’s making is to a memory in his head. For all his swagger, he may well be the saddest of the hard cases that follow.

            And there’s some pretty hard cases. The rockabilly grind of “Rock Bottom Again” promises that the worst so far is nowhere near the worst that’s yet to come. The stubbornly clear vision of the lost soul in “Red Light” promises no hope or redemption. The ‘Better Man’ of “You Don’t Need Me’s” only plan is to “get stoned.” There’s a murder at the heart of this story, and you find yourself wondering how close other fingers are to other triggers. 

Both albums are gorgeous, and daring. Both singers have astounding voices. Both emerge absolutely themselves, using strings and horns over hard-hitting combos that couldn't sound more different.

And they’ve both got me writing tonight at a point in my life where writing doesn’t come easy. There’s times when you’ve lost too much to count and yet you still can't help but count the losses. There's times when you can't remember why you do the things you do, but you still know you need to do them. Both If I Left This World and Mariosa Delta are albums that know how to take that loss and confusion and turn it into a way to keep going. I don't know whether to sing praise or give thanks.

A spare live version of Fred Wickham's "You Don't Need Me"-- featuring Fred and bassist Richard Burgess.

Greg Wickham's "Waterfall" from last March's record release-- featuring guest/co-producer Kristie Stremel. Springfield, Missouri's legendary producer Lou Whitney took the helm on the Fred Wickham record.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Love in Need of Love Today: Greetings from Kitchener-Waterloo

The leap going on in our society has convinced me to turn my attention to my eleven-year-old blog as the main story I am trying to tell. Occasionally, I will post stories here that were originally published elsewhere. Last spring, I posted at some length about Janice Jo Lee and Alysha Brilla, two Kitchener-Waterloo musicians I first heard at the 2017 KC Folk Alliance Conference, "Forbidden Folk." Their music has been central to my year so far, and I did brief profile interviews on both of them for The People's Tribune. I'm reposting these below. 

Covering the stories of those entirely left out of the mainstream media and deepening the understanding of headline struggles through the stories of the real people fighting for our survival all over the U.S. and the world, the People's Tribune has been central to my grounded understanding of conditions in America since 1990. Check out the paper here--

If I have any artist or musician friends who would like to do a similar profile for this forum for everyday fighters' hopes, dreams, struggles and triumphs, please let me know. You can write me directly at

Alysha Brilla's New Album Envisions a Future Founded on Love, PT, May 2017

Editor’s note: Multi-instrumentalist songwriter Alysha Brilla’s new album, Human, has the power of a unifying manifesto. Inspired by singers Selena Perez, Amy Winehouse and Bob Marley, Brilla’s vocals are, at once, fun, soulful and exciting. The music she makes is every bit as remarkable as that mix. A Canadian of Tanzanian and Indian heritage, Brilla weaves a tapestry of sounds from every reach of the African diaspora. With eclectic hip hop-flavored mixes, R&B and jazz horns vamp off Indian tabla over reggae and African rhythms, creating a sound both inviting and invigorating. Thematically, Human climbs the walls people try to build between one another (“Bigger than That”), dreams of a future founded on love (“No More Violence”) and embraces the process of change before us (“Change the World”). In an interview with the People’s Tribune’s Danny Alexander, Brilla explains her vision, a brilliant counterpoint to that of our corporately-run government and media.

PT: When I first heard you sing “Bigger Than That,” I was in awe of how you could say so much so playfully. How do you remember music shaping your perspective as a child?
Brilla: Music was a huge life source for me as a child. I was always the odd one in my family and in general, so music became a language with which I could translate my thoughts and feelings, and one that people would respond to positively. My mom sang to me, making up lyrics, and my father played guitar on occasion. I was completely fascinated.
PT: How would you describe your approach?
Brilla: Growing up near Toronto, in a mixed household, I heard a lot of different music. I have always loved rhythm. Good rhythm. Good melody. Good lyrics. A song doesn’t need to be complicated. My love for pop music is that it embraces simplicity, as does most folk music around the world. It’s music for people to sing along to, and gather. It connects us to ourselves, each other and a greater unifying force.
PT: What is the story behind your decision to write “Human,” a song about being one of 7 billion others?
Brilla: I like the idea of objectivity. I like the idea of humans having a capacity to zoom out, over ourselves, and look from a bird’s eye view. To look at where we fit in our families, societies and in the world. I think there is nothing more important at this time in history than understanding ourselves and each other. It’s our only hope.
PT: You seem to be a part of a strong, nurturing community of musicians. How did that community and/or that approach develop?
Brilla: I was welcomed by different communities, especially in K-W (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario). I have a friend and artist named Janice Lee [a wonderful musician herself] whose love for community always inspires me. Without community we feel empty.
PT: If you could change the world, what do you imagine that world might look like?
Brilla: It would look balanced because humanity would collectively be doing the work to ensure that voices formerly silenced now have a platform to express and teach us.It would be a lot greener, too. Borders wouldn’t be so strict because nationalism would be a dated value.

Without Justice There Can Be No Love, PT, June 2017

Editor's Note: Janice Jo Lee’s album, Sing Hey, begins with three deep breaths, as if she’s thinking through what she has to say before launching into a kind of slam-sung poem of tough self-talk. That opener, “All the Times You Were Silent,” kicks off a seamless and stunning mix of soulful folk, blues and hip hop about struggling to pay the bills, standing up for one’s self and fighting for justice and community. Known for her music, poetry and theatrical work in Kitchener, Ontario, Lee offered great insight into her work when she spoke with the People’s Tribune’s Danny Alexander.

PT: “Why do you focus on social justice?”
Janice Jo Lee: “When we talk about social justice, we are talking about society, which for me is made up of the relationships between people—friendships. I believe strongly in what Bell Hooks says, that without justice there can be no love. If you love me, and I love you, we must be dedicated to do the work to build bridges across our differences so that they do not become issues. This is what I write about in my music, the struggles of loving the people around you.”
PT: “And music’s role?”
Lee: “Music can transcend words because you feel music in your body, in your ears, in your head, in your heart, in your chest. There’s so much joy in music, and I think that’s necessary to prioritize as we build communities. To remember why we’re doing this. It is very celebratory.”
PT: “Many of our readers have suffered from the poisoning of their water supply, and you sing about this subject. What inspired it?”

Lee: “The song is called “Oil in the Grand.” It’s a new song.  It will be on my new album Ancestor Song. My song is directly tied to the oil spill in Michigan. There’s a pipeline that crosses the Grand River called line 9. It will be carrying diluted bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta all the way across Southern Ontario to Montreal. It crosses our watershed in Waterloo Region, the Grand River. It crosses Six Nations Treaty territory. And there has been a lot of organizing around stopping this pipeline and the reverse of its flow.”
PT: Your album begins with a kind of political toolbox, but climaxes with some gorgeous pop music, like the wonderful “40 km to Pickle Lake.” How did you see it fitting together?
Lee: My intention with the album was to put the songs I think are the most urgent at the front. Organizing, politics and education is the means, and living a fulfilled joyous wonderful life full of friendship is the ends.
“Pickle Lake” [a song Lee wrote about a time in her life when she had to walk all day to reach a store] ends with a sing-along on the oohs. I’m a folk musician. I want everyone to sing along always. It’s a love lullaby for friendship…
My art is embedded in my community. Building relationships takes time, building trust takes time. I think if we were able to communicate and not be afraid about what we feel, be patient and understanding with each other instead of suppressing our feelings, we could be so much closer.
Janice Jo Lee photo: Hannah Marie

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Final Note: Alysha Brilla has just finished recording a new album, Rooted, to be released at the end of September. Certainly more of what the world needs right now. Janice Jo Lee will also be playing the album release party.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

WoodyFest #2, To Serve The Song: Interview with Terry "Buffalo" Ware

Terry “Buffalo” Ware serves at the heart of the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (Woodyfest). He’s seemingly everywhere at once—at every venue, playing his own sets with collaborator Gregg Standridge and up on the main “Pastures of Plenty” stage behind various artists every night before leading the band in the Hootenanny for Huntington’s (Chorea, the disease that took Woody) on Sunday afternoon. The first time I visited the festival, I only hit the hootenanny, and I was blown away by the way Ware’s band seamlessly gave lift to over twenty different acts during the two hour set. My most distinct memory from that show was Ware’s presence, not drawing attention to himself but making sure everything worked as it should. I particularly remember the performance by the stunning Australian singer Audrey Auld (herself taken by cancer just four years later). She playfully called Ware “Buffy” and bragged that she alone among musicians could get away with this.

As Ware told The Oklahoman’s Brandy McDonnell, “Buffalo” actually came from a trip home to Woodward, Oklahoma during his college years. By college, Ware was already in his second rock band. He looked the part. “I had shoulder-length hair, wearing a fringe jacket, and I wore knee-high moccasins. And a friend of mine’s father saw me and said, ‘You know, you look like Buffalo Bill or something.’” His friends thought it was funny, and the razzing settled into a term of endearment and a nickname that clearly suggests something legendary about the guitarist.

That’s why Auld knew “Buffy” was mildly inappropriate. Terry “Buffalo” Ware is a musician’s musician. He’s backed everyone from Wanda Jackson to David Amram, Sam Baker, the Red Dirt Rangers and Eliza Gilkyson because all of these musicians want to play with him. He’s best known as a sideman with three greats—Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jimmy LaFave and John Fullbright. His playing makes anyone up front shine more brightly. On the four instrumental records he’s released since 2004, he dazzles in surprising, unassuming ways.

Each of his instrumental albums uses a sort of surf and drag framework but tackles the whole of popular music. Unlike any 21st Century radio station or music “scene,” he ties 70s guitar rock to 50s dance music, ancient folk songs lace with cool jazz, a cinematic reverie called “Cloud Dancer” casually attains all the heights suggested by its name, and he follows that with the grounded Western trot of “Lonely Dreams of the Silver Sparkle.” Latin rock folds into country rock and a gorgeous closing cover of Lulu’s 1967, “To Sir With Love.” 

For all of us who increasingly wonder where our place is in today’s celebrity-driven, commodity-oriented, genre-divided and individualistic music world, the music and musicianship of Terry “Buffalo” Ware is a lifeline. I’ve certainly clung to his music over the years. For all of the reasons above, I am thankful he granted an interview for my blog.

While I’m going to focus on Man with Guitar and Amp, I want to ask you about your career as a whole. I know one thing my friends and I have talked about a great deal is your empathy as a player. Not that showing off is a bad thing, but it’s not your style. Your playing stays in service to the singer and/or the arrangement as a whole. Would you say there’s something about what drew you to the guitar that gave you that sensibility?

The first music that I remember really affecting me was the rock 'n roll on the radio in my childhood, I was born in 1950, and also what I saw and heard on American Bandstand after we got our first television set. The first record I ever bought was "Breathless" by Jerry Lee Lewis, and I ordered the "autographed" copy from Bandstand. As far as guitar music in particular, I was a big fan of Al Caiola and The Ventures. I started piano lessons at 9, even though I'd been pecking around on it since I can remember, but even though I loved the early Ventures and other guitar instrumental music like "Apache" and "Raunchy," it took seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to really light the guitar fire under me. I got my first guitar for Christmas in 1964. It was a Kay acoustic that my folks got with S&H Green Stamps. The first thing I did on it was pick out "Pipeline."

Both you and John Fullbright have a long piano history before the guitar, does that play a role here?

I know the piano background had a big impact on my guitar playing from the start because I immediately could "see" the notes. I also think with those early instrumentals and The Beatles influence, I had the importance of melody ingrained in me. I think that's the basic reason that I'm empathetic when I back up other artists. There's also two other major things that really steered me musically early on. One was an elective music theory course I took that was offered after school when I was in the 9th grade by a wonderful music teacher. The other was an intersession improvisation class I took in college during a Christmas break one year. The teacher of that course emphasized that the whole idea of improvising was that you are creating another melody. So I feel like I've always had a melodic approach to my guitar playing. I can't remember who I heard say it first, but I believe that when you play a solo it ought to be something you can sing. And as you pointed out, the most important thing is to serve the song. Without it, you don't have anything.

How would you describe the progression between your albums? Is each one simply a series of new instrumental ideas, or have you found yourself looking at the goal of each album in a slightly different way? To that point, this album doesn’t have the “reverb” in the title [the past three were Ridin’ the Reverb Range, Reverb Confidential and Reverb Babylon], which suggests it’s not part of the trilogy, yet it sounds to me like an extension. Is there a break in your mind or simply a different title idea?

The first album I did, Caffeine Dreams, was in 1979. Side 1 was vocal, side 2 was instrumental. The vocal side is pretty painful. The songs really aren't good at all. I wound up putting the tracks from the instrumental side on my second album, Buffalo Tracks, which was those songs and some other instrumentals I'd recorded on my old 4-track reel-to-reel over the years. Not long after I threw that one out I started writing and recording Riding the Reverb Range. By that time the reel-to-reel had broken down and I had a hard disc recorder. That was before I had my little studio in my converted garage, and I had the recorder set up on the coffee table in my living room. I might add that my wife, Jeannie, is very supportive, understanding and patient. I followed that album with Reverb Confidential and "Reverb Babylon. I decided three albums with "reverb" in the title was enough, and even though they weren't conceived as a trilogy I guess they are so to speak. And yeah, I'd say that each album is pretty much just a series of new ideas. I've always got a few instrumental ideas in various stages cooking.

I love “Jessie’s Eyes” (a very good quality in an album opener) because I get lost in it every time it comes on. You begin with this Thin Lizzy-type rhythm and something like a 15 note riff that defies expectations. Then, a new riff structure slows down the movement over the rhythm before building a kind of cathedral of sound. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for this?

That song evolved from an idea I had for a shuffle type feel that I'd tried writing a couple of different times. I was revisiting it and wasn't getting anywhere with it, again. I put it aside and just started hitting a drone on my low E string and fooling around on top of it and came up with the melody of the first section. I made a rough recording of that much of it and the rest just fell into place. I think I should mention that I do all my tracking in my home studio except for the drums, which I do at The Mousetrap here in Norman. My friend, Carl Amburn who has the studio is a great engineer and he mixes all my albums too. Anyway, Michael McCarty who played drums on the album was doing the drum track. He made the comment that the groove reminded him of "Doctor My Eyes." I blurted out Jesse's Eyes! Jesse Ed Davis is one of my favorite guitarists and a huge inspiration of mine. His solo on that song is legendary.

Did you know him? [The great Native American guitarist was from Norman, Oklahoma, where Ware went to college.]

No, I never had the opportunity to meet Jesse Ed Davis. I first became aware of him and his playing when I was in college listening to the Taj Mahal albums, Taj Mahal and Giant Step. I loved those albums and I still do. The main band I was in back then also played Taj’s arrangement of  “Six Days on the Road.” Then when Jesse Ed’s solo album was released, I got it and wore it out. I did meet Roger Tillison who wrote “Rock and Roll Gypsies,” that’s on that record around that time. He was living in Norman and I first met him one afternoon after setting up for a gig at a bar called “The Bar.” 

Jim Hoke, who plays everything from King Curtis-style sax to pedal steel here, seems particularly valuable as an instrumentalist on your records. What can you tell us about him?

Jim's contributions to the album really put it over the top for me. He's, without a doubt, the best musician I've ever known. He can play just about any instrument you can think of and play it as well or better than anybody. He also has an encyclopedic musical vocabulary. I've known him since the early '70s when he lived in Oklahoma. The first time I remember seeing him play was at a little place in Norman around 1970 or 71. I really got to know him a couple of years later when he was playing drums and sax mostly with The Lienke Brothers City Band, which was a great band from OKC. Jim moved out to California for a few years and then relocated to Nashville in the early '80s. He eventually became a master session player and also has had a lot of other projects. I feel really lucky that he likes my stuff well enough to play on it.

I love the “To Sir with Love” cover. I hear you reveling in the melody, and the possibilities of how to deliver that melody for the first couple of verses, then it seems to become about this massive arrangement. How do you approach your covers?

It's all about the melody. My friend, and another of my big inspirations, the late Bugs Henderson used to do a killer instrumental version of "When a Man Loves a Woman." I've listened to it a bunch and got to see him play it a few times too and it made me want to do something similar. I knew that when I was putting Riding the Reverb Range together I wanted to do a cover of a vocal song. I was in my car one day and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" came on and halfway through the first verse I knew that was going to be the one. It's a great melody and I love Dusty Springfield too. Then with each album finding a song I love to cover has been something I intentionally do, but what I decide on has always happened when I hear something sort of out of the blue and I think it'd make for a fun song to do instrumentally.

You seem to have worked yourself to a place where you can pretty much do what you want to do musically…

Yeah, I feel like I'm in a good place right now. I've been really lucky in my career. I've had full time stints with three of the best, Ray Wylie Hubbard (two full time stints with him), Jimmy LaFave and John Fullbright. And I got to perform with John a couple of years ago on the David Letterman Show in the Ed Sullivan Theater on the stage where the Beatle lightning bolt zapped me from back in 1964. For me, it was a big deal. When we were there for the sound check, camera blocking and all that, there was some time to just go out and stand there and soak it in. I really had a reflective moment doing that. It really got to me. On top of all that, I've made some really great lifelong friends in the process of playing all that music and traveling all those miles. I'm sincerely grateful for all of it, too. 

Those three stints--Ray, Jimmy and John. Do you want to say a little about what it was/is like working with each of them? Is there something distinct you took from each of those experiences?

Working with Ray really shaped my career and set its course. Playing with him I got introduced to a lot of music I’d never known about and also met a lot of great songwriters and musicians, and a lot of them became good friends. My first full time stint with him was at the beginning of the “progressive country” movement in the early ‘70s and we were smack dab in the middle off all that.

I left Ray in early 1979 and played locally in a Norman based band, The Sensational Shoes, until I went back with him in 1986 and stayed full time with him until 1998 and saw him reinvent his career. We did a lot of touring in the states, Europe and Canada.

One of the tours we did was a songwriter tour in early 1998 with Kevin Welch and Jimmy LaFave. Randy Glines was playing bass with Jimmy and he and I backed all three of them. Ray and Jimmy were both being booked by Val Denn. Jimmy didn’t have a regular guitar player at the time and not long after that he was making a run to do some shows in Florida and asked if I could do it. I could and did. For a few months I wound up playing with both Ray and Jimmy. I’d do a tour with one of them, get home for a few days and then go out and do the exact same tour with the other. After a while, Ray started doing quite a few solo shows and I joined up with Jimmy full time.

The great pleasure of playing with Jimmy was getting to hear him sing. He truly had a distinctive voice both in texture and in his phrasing, not to mention a great range. He also let the band stretch out and I got to play with some really good players in his band. And as it'd been with Ray, I met a lot of great songwriters through Jimmy.

I left Jimmy in April of 2000 and instead of trying to find a full time gig with somebody, I decided to freelance. I worked semi-regularly with a band out of Dallas, Macon Greyson and also semi-regularly with a local singer, Camille Harp. I was also backing up a lot of artists at The Blue Door in OKC. Some of them were friends of mine and some were people I didn't know. Greg Johnson, who owns the place, would tell people about me and if they wanted a guitar player to back them up when they played there he'd arrange for me to be that guy. Between shows there with Ray and Jimmy and backing up other folks, I'm pretty sure I've been on that stage more than anyone.

I started teaching guitar in a local teaching studio in mid 2004. I enjoyed it, but by the time I turned 60 in 2010 I was getting pretty burned out. I kept teaching, but quit taking on new students. Not long before that, I started doing some shows with John Fullbright.

The first I became aware of him was at the Woody Guthrie Festival a couple of years before that. People were talking about this young kid from Okemah hanging around the campgrounds who was really good. It was Greg Johnson who suggested to John that he might ask me to back him up on some shows.

I started playing with John quite a bit and traveling some with him. Then I started traveling with him a bit more. Then we recorded the From the Ground Up record and I started touring with him a whole lot. I was down to about a dozen students and had been shuffling my schedule around my work with John. It didn't show any signs of slowing down. I'd been wanting to quit teaching altogether, so that gave me my reason.

Working with John is great. His writing and musicianship is at a really high level and it's been some of the most enjoyable and fulfilling music I've ever played. Through my playing with John, as with Ray and Jimmy, I've been lucky to play some great gigs and meet even more great songwriters and musicians. I guess that's what I've really taken away with my time with all three of them and I think that it's helped me become a better musician along the way. I'm still working on it though. You never stop learning.

What’s next?

I'm always working on something or another. I've got an instrumental project I've been working on. So far it's a bit more stripped down than the previous ones, but we'll see what happens. I've also been working on a vocal project that I think I'll eventually get out. It's stuff that I've written and that I've co-written with my partner, Gregg Standridge. We've been writing together for about 8 years or so and did an album together, Everybody's Got One. [Editor’s note: a beautiful record, by the way, reviewed in my year end list….Not on the album, check out their new protest single, "Can't Stand Still" ]

I also play my piano quite a bit these days. I write on it and just for my own amusement like sitting and playing standards; looking for different ways to voice the chords. I even    took a piano lesson fairly recently with Louise Goldberg, who is just a great player and can play those tunes as good as anybody, looking at that kind of thing.

I made a decision this past fall that I wanted to take an extended break from touring, not just with John, but with anybody. I'd just like to not be in a lot of motion for a while. I'm still playing quite a bit, but I'm not going very far to do it. I haven't played a gig since September that I couldn't get back to my house after it was over. I'm producing an album for [Tulsa artist] Susan Herndon that we've been working on and are taking our time with, and I've got another possible production coming up in the fall. Over the last couple of years quite a few folks have told me I should write a memoir. I've written down some things and have a vague outline, so I may pursue that. I'm not sure the world needs another one.  I plan to keep writing more of my own music as much as I can, instrumentally and otherwise. Actually, I don't have choice in that matter.

Special thanks to Vicki Farmer for all the wonderful photos!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

WoodyFest #1, Grown-Up Anger

  It’s times like this when I know why I keep a blog. When I had regular writing gigs (which became a soul-killing complication for me after 25 years), I kept regular writing rhythms, telling one little story at a time. Now….I have these explosions of inspiration that lead to a burst of ideas, and then I can go back to the fiction and political analysis I’m working on the rest of the time.

Last week, I went down to Okemah, Oklahoma to see a group of old friends and to finally experience Woody Fest, which previously I’d only encountered during its end hootenanny. I couldn’t stay the whole time, but what I experienced--with my brother James McGraw, Blue Door owner Greg Johnson, singers and players Michael Fracasso, Chris Buhalis, Marie Burns, Sarah Lee Guthrie, the Red Dirt Rangers, Terry Ware, Gregg Standridge, Ronnie Elliott, Kevin Welch, Dustin Welch, writers Bill Glahn, Daniel Wolff, Dave Marsh and Barry Ollman, encountering the important new book about the “deportees," Tim T. Hernandez's, All They Will Call You, and sharing the excitement with so many others—is fodder for dozens of blogs. I’m resisting the urge to attempt a comprehensive one and focusing on one thing at a time.

First up, a review I wrote at regarding Daniel Wolff’s new book, Grown-Up Anger

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Velvet Underground and the Making of Lou Reed

45 years ago this month, Lou Reed released his first solo album. A couple of years ago, I wrote this article about the latest box set of material surrounding 1969's The Velvet Underground, an album I suggest forecasts Reed's solo career. DA

Lester Bangs’ Rolling Stone review of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous 1969 album asked the question that seems to stand for most of the discussion that came after: “How do you define a group like this, who moved from ‘Heroin’ to ‘Jesus’ in two short years?” Even if he didn’t know what would soon be part of the conventional wisdom (John Cale had left the band, taking a great deal of noise with him), what follows is a smart review that paints a useful picture. Bangs notes the increasing focus on lyricism, spirituality and the Byrds influences that were, indeed, working to soften the band’s touch. He also oversimplifies in ways most discussion still oversimplifies not just the story of The Velvet Underground but the real issue here, Lou Reed as an artist.
It’s great fun but not particularly accurate when Bangs notes that the album’s new sense of compassion is alarming from Reed, “the malevolent Burroughsian Death Dwarf who had previously never written a complimentary song about anybody.” Two things here. First, nothing on The Velvet Underground can be reduced to “complimentary.” In “Some Kind of Love,” Marguerite is called a “bore” but “not without your charm.” So, there’s that. The great love song here, “Pale Blue Eyes,” continuously returns to the summation, “Mostly you just make me mad.” Reed's character also implies his lover’s strange and less than self-aware about the sins she shares with the singer. By contrast, the first album’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is pure love letter. For that matter, all of the World of Warhol characters on the first side of that debut are only interesting because of the compassion in the songwriting. Never mind that the grief in album closer “European Son” and the second album’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and “I Heard Her Call My Name” are a polar distance from insulting.
All of that said, Bangs is capturing a true contrast in tone. Just as there is truth in the ongoing assumptions that, with Cale gone, Reed was now pursuing shades of pop more accessible than the music on the first two albums. Of the Velvets initial collaborators, it is Reed who could and did write the lyric, “her life was saved by rock and roll,” a statement without a trace of irony. For all of his literary aspirations (and pretensions), Lou Reed believed in rock and roll.
So the real irony of The Velvet Underground album is that, left to his own devices (new bassist Doug Yule, original rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker have all spoken frankly about deferring to Cale and Reed when it came to the general direction of the band), Reed made what may be the least conventional of The Velvet Underground albums. The bulk of the more commercial material recorded alongside this work in 1969 (available in the new 67-cut Super Deluxe Velvet Underground set) was shelved until its release after Reed’s departure on 1970’s Loaded and 1985’s V.U. 
Of the three albums the original band crafted together, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico is the most conventionally structured—a sunny morning opener followed by fast rocker, mid-tempo rocker, fast rocker and trippy meditation (Side A) then a weirder second side softened by a couple of very catchy pop songs. It’s the seedy precursor to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1968’s White Light/White Heat is certainly the most aggressive modernist experiment—droning noise from start to finish—but in some ways that simply underscores John Cale’s longstanding relationship with the avant garde (in 1963 classical composer Aaron Copeland helped bring him to the United States and John Cage worked with him on an 18 hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations”). Today, it’s the one that sounds the most artsy and punk.  
Reed’s post-Cale album is not so easily placed in musical history. It starts ragged, in the middle of a conversation, with the sort of quiet number that might be an interlude on another album, and culminates in a lyrical puzzle followed by a borderline-suicidal lullaby. It’s decidedly not a pop album or a punk album or even a Byrds album. What it does sound like, though, is a Lou Reed album, a genre unto itself that presupposes almost nothing about structure or style.

But I think if we take Bangs’ original question and tackled it from a different angle, we might make more sense of the progression. How do you define a band that can follow “Heroin” with “Jesus” at all? I don’t find it a remarkable achievement that there’s a space of two years between that noisy drug reverie and that delicately sung prayer. The achievement is the effort to go deep—first, into the drug experience itself and, second, into the intimacy of a call for spiritual help. In fact, they fit well together, “Jesus” nicely suiting what one of Reed’s favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe, once called “the after-dream of a reveler on opium—the bitter lapsing into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.” After that high in “Heroin” when Reed calls out, “I feel just like Jesus’s son,” a come-to-Jesus is no doubt on the way.

And not a literal come-to-Jesus because, unlike Bob Dylan, Lou Reed made no famous conversions away from Judaism. This is simply a prayer, in American vernacular, as is the whole of The Velvet Underground, at the very least a plea for hope. In an exploding counterculture based upon new technologies and mass media, Lou Reed appeals for legitimate understanding, acceptance and intimacy.

The quietest of moments are its hallmark, beginning at the prayerful volume of pillow talk. Lou Reed’s “Closet Mix” of this album went on the original LP, which emphasizes subtleties of breath only possible with lips close to the ear. On album opener “Candy Says,” Reed uses Doug Yule’s considerably sweeter voice to convey the quiet fears of the woman in the song. Much is made of the fact that the Candy in the song is trans-gendered Candy Darling, an actress and writer on the Warhol scene (and that certainly explains the emphasis in the lyric). But the song’s concerns are as universal as self loathing, and that’s what makes it work, regardless of the listener’s familiarity with Warhol’s Factory.
Over the most delicate guitar, bass and brushes, Candy confesses that she hates her body. She doubts and fears the choices she has to make, so she distracts herself every way she can. She confesses these things to the listener with the heartbreaking dream of a question: “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?”
Chugging rhythm guitars and propulsive drums offer the rock and roll response on “What Goes On.” Lou Reed’s sandpaper vocal plays all the characters in this dialogue that reads like a rough draft for the next album’s more narrative “Rock and Roll.” One speaker asks “What’s going on in your mind?” and the other answers, “I think that I am upside down.” The music insists upon the refrain that concludes each movement, “You know it will be alright.” As the Velvet Underground always did so well, the band makes the main argument--pushing forward with the urgency of the rhythm, the wild energy of the soloing guitar and the serene certainty of organ making sure that this moment is worth living to help guarantee the next.

“Some Kind of Love” is the third conversation in a row—on the regular mix with a wonderful dialogue between Morrison’s and Reed’s guitars, on “The Closet Mix” with only Reed’s searching notes to make the point. Marguerita’s explains to Tom the impossibility of her fidelity, and Tom tells her that her adventurousness shows a certain lack of creativity. Though they never come to any long term agreement, the couple uses the argument for foreplay, and the sensuality of the guitar, the cowbell, and Reed’s lip biting vocal all suggest that’ll be all right for the time being.
Still, what follows is the remorse of lost love. If “Pale Blue Eyes” isn’t the most beautiful song Lou Reed ever wrote, it belongs in that conversation. And it is a conversation, if only a conversation with a memory. The instrumentation is quiet and simple—sparkling guitar over chorded organ punctuated by regular flicks of tambourine. Again, the feeling is as universal as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” mourning a relationship and celebrating its beauty at the same time. No line captures the infinite moments of romantic love better than this refrain, “linger on, your pale blue eyes.” 
“Jesus” follows those memories as a scene of quiet desperation. Two notes bounce back and forth on guitar against light chording while Reed and Yule sing with a quiet reverence that won’t wake the neighbors. It’s a prayer for new footing and “my proper place.” Of course, this song might be placed almost anywhere in the Velvet Underground line up because the characters Reed sings about tend to not know where they fit in, a modernist theme if ever there was one--at the end of this side-long effort to communicate that which doesn’t fit into polite conversation. Like so many writers before him, Reed believed that the secret self and the social self were at war, that society was designed to run on lies. “Jesus” is a prayer for a more compassionate world, where all these fears and lies can be brought out in the open.
Another chugging rocker (the Velvet Underground’s specialty, though this one’s decidedly acoustic), “Beginning to See the Light,” suggests old time gospel redemption.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the group sung refrain here comes closest to actually sounding like the country-rock Byrds, who all but created roots-rock incorporating old time gospel elements into a counterculture world view.
What is interesting about that refrain is the way it sums up the social mask The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed would wear so frequently it led to their exotic oversimplification—“Here we go again, playing the fool again/Here we go again, acting hard again.” And there is an irony here that complicates the song considerably. Though this song is about some level of self- acceptance—“I met myself in a dream, and I just want to tell you everything was all right"—it’s also about the light shining on ugly truths. That “Jesus” prayer does not typically get answered, and at the end of the song, the singer’s left asking over and over again, “How does it feel to be loved?”
“I’m Set Free” takes the concept of redemption down another dark hallway. Tucker’s tom toms herald the significance of the hippie declaration of the title. But the kicker is that the singer’s liberation has come through some form of death. He’s let go of past dreams, he’s had a vision of his himself as a decapitated fool, and he’s now “set free to find a new illusion.”

The rollicking little country rocker that follows, “The Story of My Life,” is a return to the conversation format of the album’s first side. A character named Billy (we know today was a Factory photographer, but again, such trivia matters little) says that the concept of “wrong and right” are meaningless. If he’s learned nothing else, he’s learned that. It’s a nihilistic perspective that’s made to not sound cynical. And maybe in the context of an album about society’s tendency to silence differences, it can rightfully be heard as modestly liberated.

Reed then closes with a couple of different kinds of statements of support for the Velvet Underground itself. On “The Murder Mystery,” Sterling Morrison reads a poem in one channel while Lou Reed reads its sister poem in the right channel. Reed’s voice moves deliberately, like the bass; Morrison’s runs fast, alongside the guitar. The verses feature urgent guitar runs and drum punctuation followed by meandering organ and guitar refrains on which Doug Yule and Maureen Tucker sing short verses. You can actually follow each poem by turning the balance fully to one side or another, or you can listen to the whole as a piece of music with largely unintelligible lyrics. One side contemplates the romantic dead ends of political adventurism while the other side contemplates the futile compulsions of poetry itself. In the context of this album, though, the song’s the very definition of making space for what can’t be easily understood—a test of the ears that grows more colorful and dynamic with each listen.

Brokenness, alienation and experimentation, these are the aesthetics of modernism and the themes of this album, but the whole of this album is invested in a fundamental belief in music offering a way to put together the pieces and make new kinds of connections. And if modernism had dominated the “high arts” at least since World War I, it’s telling that Reed reaches back to Tin Pan Alley pop for the final number, “After Hours,” featuring Maureen Tucker with a vocal all-but-child-like in its innocence. There’s an equivalence made here. Next to the grand experiment of “The Murder Mystery,” this ditty of a song breaks all walls down with a simplicity that goes right for the heart. At a key point, Tucker sings over an acoustic guitar that may as well be a uke, “Oh, someday I know, someone will look into my eyes and will say….” The guitar drops out, and she continues in echoed a capella, “Hello, you’re my very special one.” As gentle a moment as it is, it’s liable to make a listener smile and tear over at the same time, all the more poignant because this woman sounds like she wants to give up (or hide away forever), repeating her desire to “never have to see the day again.” She’s the character in every one of these songs, beat up by life but still, in prayers and stolen moments of love, hoping for something better.
What makes The Velvet Underground, at its heart, the first Lou Reed album, is an intimacy inextricably tied to his character that Reed was only fully able to explore when he was freed from the push pull of his relationship with Cale. That intimacy came with a mix of vulnerability and realism Reed no doubt saw as essential to gaining anything like truth through rock and roll. And what made Lou Reed great was that he believed in the power of the music—“despite all the amputation….you could dance to a rock and roll station. And it was all right.” More than anything on the band’s first two albums, The Velvet Underground shows the logic behind this signature understanding.