Old Dog, New Tricks, featuring Dick Dale and Jimi Hendrix

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“Don’t know much about history.” Sam Cooke: “(What a) Wonderful World”


This semester I’m teaching my first history course ever, America in the ‘60s, which has been a challenge because (one) I wasn’t even a history minor, much less a major, (two) I’ve never taken a course on the ‘60s [1], and (three) I’m beat (as in Ginsberged/Kerouaced [2]), i.e., beaten down. Like, every glance in the fluorescently brutal faculty restroom mirror finds me staring into the red-rimmed eyes of Charles Bukowski’s doppelgänger, a visage that makes Bill Murray look dewy.[3] It’s not the face of a novice teacher. Or a middle-aged teacher.

Charles Bukowski

And this teaching a new course takes energy. I find myself in a sort of a footrace with my students, maybe half a block ahead, as I learn the material and create content through multimedia lectures. It always feels as if they’re gaining on me.

On the other hand, I have learned a great deal about civil rights and Vietnam. Ask me about the Little Rock Nine, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, or My Lai, and I can name names, Calley and Colburn, for example. In fact, when that trove of Kennedy assassination papers came out last week, I could better appreciate LBJ’s’ theory that JFK’s offing was tit-for-tat revenge after the CIA had sanctioned the assassination of South Vietnam’s sorry-ass Premier Diệm.

Of course, acquiring knowledge is a valuable side benefit of teaching. You reread Emerson and discover you were too young to appreciate him back when it was pimples, not crevices, you saw in the mirror. The Faulkner sentences you couldn’t unravel back then start singing. Hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Those hairs begin to samba.

Anyway, with those students in hot pursuit, I decided to segue from campus protests to the counterculture and the evolution of 60s pop music. I figured with my not inconsiderable knowledge of those areas, [4] I wouldn’t have to prepare as much, which hasn’t been quite true, but getting the scoop on Berry Gordy isn’t as nearly a downer as revisiting the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I don’t have a text, so, like I said, I’m creating the factual content in Keynote presentations that students download from my website. They’re pretty cool because you can embed videos without jumping off to access YouTube. You can watch Elvis swivel instead of reading descriptions of him swiveling.

I’ve divided the decade into four mini-eras: Early 60s (1960-3)[5], the British Invasion (1964-66), the Summer of Love (1967), and the Late 60s (1968-1970, including Woodstock and Altamont).

Of course, this division is overly simplistic. I’ve put Motown and Stax in the early 60s despite Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Otis Redding’s triumphant, heartbreaking performance at Monterey in ’67.

One of the subdivisions of early 60’s is surf music, which I divide into vocal groups (Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys) and instrumental groups (The Safaris, Dick Dale). What occurs to me after watching some Dick Dale performances and interviews is that he might be one of the most under-appreciated innovators and influences in rock history.

Methamphetic bio: Arab descent, Eastern music scales, California surf breaks, Stratocaster reverb, souped-up riffs.

Dig this from 1963.

 

Hendrix in 1969

 

 

Hendrix famously said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” Did he mean the Beach Boys? That Hendrix was so good surf guitars wouldn’t hack it?

Here’s what Dale says in an interview with Surfer Magazine:

I read that when Jimi Hendrix said, “You’ll never hear Surf music again,” that was in reference to your battle with cancer. Is that true?

You know what’s so funny? Why didn’t they say the rest of his sentence? Do you know what the rest of the sentence is?

No, I have no idea. What is it?

I had never missed a gig in my life, and I had a temperature of 104, and I couldn’t even talk…and had got hit real bad with rectal cancer. Jimi was recording in the studio and said, “I heard Dale did a no-show. That’s not like him. You know?”

His guitar player said, “No man, he’s dying.”

They had given me three months to live.

Then Jimi said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” And then he said, “I bet that’s a big lie. Let’s pack up, boys, and go home.”

That was the full f–king sentence.

Gotta go.  I got class tomorrow and the British Invasion to tee up.


[1] I did, though, pay attention while stuff was happening like the assassinations, the fire-hosing, the ’68 convention, etc.

[2] Pronounced Karo-whacked.

[3] The trade off in losing 25 pounds is resulting gaunt face looks older because facial fat has a Botox like effect.

[4] Note the arrogant modesty in the double-negative.

[5] I place Motown and Stax in this unit, though, of course, those artists flourished in the mid-to-late 60s as well.

A Very Cursory Review of The Stones’ “Blue and Lonesome”

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When I was a teenager, I came awfully damned close to becoming an idolater, a worshiper of Mick Jagger, whom I considered the coolest cat in non-Christendom. He provided non-athletes like I-and-I a deviant path to popularity. Rather than snagging winning touchdown passes on the gridiron, we could pump and grind on the dance floor, slouch down the halls instead of swagger, ditch rah! rah! rah! for so what.

Plus Jagger somehow transcended his ugliness. Livered-lipped and as muscular as a spear of asparagus, his charisma, aided and abetted by that 200-watt grin of his, dazzled away those physical shortcomings. He made us ugly boy children with pepperoni complexions feel as if we had a shot.

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Actually, as far as music went, I preferred the mid-60s Animals to the mid-‘60s Stones, but when “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” hit the airwaves, I became a true Stones believer. In fact, even now when I hear Charlie Watts hit the cowbell that initiates “Honky Tonk Women,” I let loose a beatific smile.

A string of Stones’ albums of the Late ‘60s and Early ‘70s are arguably the greatest rock-n-roll records in the history of the genre – Beggers’ Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street – a series of masterpieces. In both sound and sense, they expressed my anger, my disdain for society. I can remember fantasizing in high school about taking over the main building and blasting “Midnight Rambler” over the intercom system as a clarion call for destruction.

However, as the hormones settled down, my fascination with Jagger and Company waned. Truth be told, I haven’t bought a new Stones album since Tattoo You. Let’s face it: in the realm of rock, it’s hard for performers to maintain their creativity past middle age.

On the other hand, in the realm of the blues, it is not only possible but not all that unusual for a bluesman or woman to continue to improve –like Yeats, to continue to create masterworks right up to the end. Sure, Etta James lost some of her range over the years, but it didn’t diminish her artistry. She had so much more heartache to tap into. As they say, you got to suffer if you want to sing the blues, and I’m here to tell you getting old is all about suffering – looks fade, loved ones die, minds go bad, civilization declines.

As Willie B himself put it:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.

Old age is all about tatters, and so is the blues.

Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell

So when I heard the Stones were going to come out with an album dedicated solely to the blues, I looked forward to it. Jagger actually plays a pretty mean harp. Charlie Watts is a great drummer. Keith and Ronnie can hold their own. However, after one, albeit cursory, listen of Blue and Lonesome, I have to express some mild disappointment.

The tracks sound to me – how should I put this – like approximations – maybe mannered? – though I wouldn’t go far enough to say inauthentic. My favorite cut on the record, “I Hate to See You Go,” is a fine rendition, but then again, as Mick himself once said in an interview way back when, “Why listen to us do ‘King Bee’ when you can listen to Slim Harpo do ‘King Bee?’” – or in this case, why listen to Mick do “I Hate to See You Go” when you can listen to Little Walter do it?

 

You can check out the Stones’ version here.

Maybe the problem lies in that the Stones tried to make these tunes sound too authentic instead of making them sound fresh. Certainly, their cover of “I Should Have Quit You, Baby” pales, not only to Little Milton’s version, but also Led Zeppelin’s.

That said, I’ll probably end up buying Blue and Lonesome anyway. Maybe it will grow on me. I wouldn’t be surprised.  When it comes to records, sometimes not being wowed at first is good for longevity’s sake.

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Springsteen’s Autobiography

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I’m reading Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run, and as much as I admire the Boss, I have to admit at first I was somewhat put off by his prose, which seemed mannered in that it was a bit too wham bam for my ear – too self-conscious — or as Richard Ford puts it in his Times review, “a tad more rock ’n’ roll highfalutin” than I [Ford]” needed.”

One example: “There, even that great tragedian Roy Orbison, a man who had to sing his way out of an apocalypse waiting around every corner, had his ‘pretty woman’ and a home on ‘Blue Bayou.’”

Not that it’s bad prose– not at all – how inconceivable would it be for the lyricist of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” to produce lousy prose:

Oh, and a press roll drummer go, ballerina to-and-fro

Cartwheelin’ up on that tightrope

With a cannon blast, lightnin’ flash, movin’ fast through the tent, Mars-bent

He’s gonna miss his fall, oh, God save the human cannonball

And the flyin’ Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist

And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along, ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven

However, 165 pages in, I’ve grown accustomed to his narrative voice and am completely immersed in his story, especially now that Springsteen’s bittersweet childhood has come to an end – though bittersweet might be a bit too cheery a descriptor for what amounts to living in a series of ramshackle rental houses with a father who considered his son “an intruder, a stranger, a competitor [. . .] and a fearful disappointment.”

young Springsteen

young Springsteen

Truth is, the late 60’s weren’t all that conducive for filial felicity given the zeitgeist of revolution, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, longhair, and lawlessness (not to mention bralessness). Some mothers and fathers throughout the land were slow to concede that their sons and daughters were beyond their command. It took my old man a couple of years to get the picture, and several of Springsteen’s descriptions of his father could very well describe the man for whom I’m named:

At our house, there were no dates, no restaurants or nights out on the town. My father had neither the inclination, the money, nor the health for a normal married social life. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until I was well into my twenties [. . .] My father was a misanthrope who shunned most of humankind.

Springsteen does a spectacular job for depicting the sociological tribalism of Central New Jersey with the rah-rahs (preppies), greasers (northeastern rednecks), blacks, and working class kids, and also, he’s really good at creating tangible settings for the dramas he cinematically recreates. The dramatization of his rise from garage guitarist to regional phenom is especially instructive. We’re talking grit – crashing beneath a boardwalk on the Jersey Shore, shivering in the back of a truck racing through the frigid heartland, living at nineteen on his own in commercial spaces where his “bedroom” consisted of a mattress lying on cold, hard concrete.

What I have discovered about Springsteen himself so far is that from the very beginning he was tremendously ambitious, straight-edged (no booze or drugs ever), meticulous, and obsessive when it came to producing a genre of music he had studied with the profundity of a scholar possessing an encyclopedic historical knowledge of his subject matter.

I’m only a quarter of the way through, but I can assure you that the Springsteen has paid his dues and remained true to the workingman ethos of his background. He doesn’t claim to be a genius – and I agree he’s not a genius the way I consider Tom Waits a genius – but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, I can’t think of any rocker’s body of work that can compete with his in light of Matthew Arnold’s criteria for greatness, i.e., the total number of superb works produced in light of the breadth and significance of those works’ themes.

 

Leonard Cohen’s Saunter into ‘That Good Night’

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I first heard Leonard Cohen in David Williams’s black pick-up truck, and it was the very first time I had seen a cassette deck. As far as I knew, 8-tracks were still the only way to listen to recorded music in a moving vehicle. I think Robin Kellam was with us. I think we were driving north on Highway 61. But one thing I do remember for sure: it was the song “So Long, Marianne” that snatched my attention.

 

 

The female back-up singer in the chorus struck me as deliciously retro bordering on clunky, and then there was that gypsy vibe, those exotic Middle Eastern instruments[1] and the lush religious imagery. In the David Remnick profile that appears in this week’s New Yorker, Cohen describes the audience he sought to reach: “inner directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

In other words, Keatsian/Yeatsian romantics like I-and-I.

I lit a thin green candle

to make you jealous of me,

but the room just filled up with mosquitos.

They heard my body was free.

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Yes, I was a romantic back in those days but thankfully not of incurable variety. By the time I was out of college, Cohen had begun to bore me a little (and still does). Even his former lover Joni Mitchell dismisses his as “a boudoir poet.”

Bores me except for the occasional killer composition like “Tower of Song” and “First We Take Manhattan,” which I heard Warren Zevon cover explosively at the old Music Farm on East Bay Street.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

For trying to change the system from within

I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

However, what do I know? Here’s Remnick quoting Dylan:

I asked Dylan whether he preferred Cohen’s later work, so colored with intimations of the end. “I like all of Leonard’s songs, early or late,” he said. “” ‘Going Home,’ ‘Show Me the Place,’ ‘The Darkness.’ These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel. I like some of his later songs even better than his early ones. Yet, there’s a simplicity to his early ones that I like, too.”

Speaking of the end, when Cohen learned his former lover and muse Marianne Ihlen, the Marianne of the song, was dying, he sent her this email:

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more because you know all that… Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

Leonard Cohen at home, Los Angeles, September, 2016. PHOTOGRAPH BY GRAEME MITCHELL FOR THE NEW YORKER

Leonard Cohen at home, Los Angeles, September, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GRAEME MITCHELL FOR THE NEW YORKER

One night you’re barreling up Highway 61, and the next thing you know you’re an old man getting your house in order.

It’s clear from Remnick’s article that Cohen wasn’t joking in his email to Marianne. He’s “not long for this world.”

Again Remnick quoting Cohen:

“I’ve got some work to do.  Take care of business.  I am ready to die.  I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.  That’s about it for me.”

Let’s cue up some Yeats, one of Cohen’s boyhood heroes:

The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath—
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades,
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

Whatever else you can say about Cohen, you cannot deny this: he is, in the phrase of my dear friend Jim Klein, “a cat.”


[1] Played, by the way, by David Lindley

A Rahsaan Roland Kirk Rescue

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Let’s say it’s the summer of 1976 and you’re a lost soul, maybe in the throes of a nervous breakdown[1], an impoverished graduate student who washes dishes Monday through Saturday and buses tables from 9 to 1 on Sundays.

You’re so poor you can’t scrape enough scratch to purchase textbooks, so you check them out of a university library that is mostly subterranean, even though you enter through its reflective glass facade on ground level.  The library is, in the words of TS Eliot, an “objective correlative” of your failure as a human being, a painful reminder of your stupidity, sloth, poverty, and cowardice and provokes what back then was called the heebie-jeebies but now is known as a panic attack.

In other words, your problems are elitist. You’ve had acquaintances killed in Viet Nam, your father’s generation fought in WW2, but to you, renewing a library book is the equivalent of identifying your next of kin. It’s pathetic – but not worthy of pity – no, this level of mental weakness deserves derision, mockery, or at the very least, tsk-tsking, sad head shaking.

Anyway, that’s how you feel. You feel ashamed and lost.

And that’s when you become re-acquainted with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose album The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man is like a floating device flung from a blind, half-paralyzed lifeguard.

landscape-1464713250-rahsaan-roland-kirk-gilles-petardRahsaan’s recent problems are more profound than yours. Blind from early childhood, he’s recently suffered a stroke that has left one side of his body partially paralyzed, so he’s had his tenor saxophone modified so he can play with one hand. Kirk was famous for playing more than one instrument at once, two saxes and a nose flute, but obviously, those days are done, yet, good God, you’d never guess that the tenor solos on 5000 Lb. Man are coming from the horn of a one-armed man.

Side A begins with a song called “Theme of the Eulipians,” begins with sound effects, faint whistling, footsteps, muted conversation, and then a beautiful melancholy harmonica tune and a tinkling piano over which someone named Betty Neals recites a poem – but, hey, this is a blog, not a book of essays; listen for yourself.

So you’re awash in a sea of melodic jazz until this:

This improvisation diminuendos into a swinging interchange between bass and piano.

The main melody returns, and surely it sounds like the songs ending, but it’s not; we get this framing coda:

You’ve been temporarily saved by a song, a warm song, and you aren’t about to forget it.

You can listen to the entire thing here, but better yet, go buy it:


[1] For a full-bodied definition of this mental malady, click here.

A Tiny Tribute to Ry Cooder

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Ry Cooder is an underappreciated American treasure. Although his exquisite studio session work (with bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, and Paul Revere and the Raiders) has been invaluable and his delightful original compositions often remarkable, it is his work as an archivist that has enriched my musical knowledge and refined my musical tastes.

Cooder’s an excavator of buried treasures, a discoverer of exotic, beautiful music, whether it be from the Mississippi Delta, Mexico, Cuba, India, or Sub-Saharan Africa. He’s sort of a medium – a vessel through which these songs are filtered and then transformed into a mode that preserves their essence but makes them new.

Check this out, for example, a cover of Washington Phillips’ obscure gospel song “Denomination Blues” from Cooder’s second studio album Into the Purple Valley, released in 1972.

 

This snippet embodies a remarkable paradox of Cooder’s music — his recordings of dated songs never sound dated — they sound the opposite of stale.

His fourth album, Chicken Skin Music, might be my favorite. On this record, Ry embraces both Hawaiian and Tex-Mex music. Essentially, he blends those formats into country and blues numbers. For example, here are legendary Hawaiian musicians Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs contributing to this old Hank Snow tune:

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Chicken Skin Music also features for the first time now long-time collaborator Flaco Jimenez and his diatonic button accordion. Here they are doing Jim Reeves’ 1959 “He’ll Have to Go” in bolero rhythm.

 

Not to give you the wrong impression; the cat can also rock, as he does in this cover of Elvis’s “Little Sister,” from the 1979 album Bop Till You Drop, the first major label album ever to be digitally recorded.

 

Of course, in recent years, Ry’s justly become famous for his collaborations with Cuban musicians in The Buena Vista Social Club, the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and the Indian sitar player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

Here’s a short clip from the Touré collaboration.

 

Add to that concept albums like Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy, not mention his work with Little Village, the band he formed with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner, and you have a body of work deserving of some sort of Presidential Medal.

I bet in a 100 years Cooder’s recording will not have aged – and that’s always been the test of great art. So c’mon Obama, before it’s too late. Don’t let President Trump bypass Ry Cooder for Wayne Newton or some other lounge singer. Let’s get going.