Someone’s Son

 

My father had some admirable qualities, but equanimity wasn’t one of them.  For example, once, during my teenaged years, when the phone rang once too often to his liking, he ripped its wires from the socket and hurled the entire apparatus against the wall.  Although incidents like this were rare, they occurred often enough to put us on edge. Unfortunately, after I left for college and his business started to go under, financial pressure exacerbated his anger.  When my younger brother Fleming and sister Sue Ellen entered their adolescence, the household became more and more turbulent.

Not too surprisingly, Fleming started to get into trouble.  Anger is contagious – or at least it was for us.  While I was up in Columbia playing the role of angry young man, Fleming was back in Summerville mouthing off, experimenting with drugs, and getting arrested for this and that.  Eventually, he was expelled from Summerville High School.

Nevertheless, he earned a GED and later a BA in mathematics and got a job teaching high school for Berkeley County.

Thanks to a fairly robust his drug habit, his teaching career was short-lived, and Fleming spent years in and out of rehab, ultimately getting hooked on crack.  Oh yeah, before that, he suffered a couple of strokes and had a heart valve replaced while still in his twenties.

Young Fleming

Although I do not believe in a personal god, I know that Jesus can save lost souls, because he saved Fleming, who has been sober/straight now for going on a decade.

During this time, he has been writing and playing music.  Just recently, reverb.com invited him to Brooklyn for a recording session.

My hope is that some established star records one of his songs because they’re really good, both melodically and lyric-wise.

Here’s a clip from a recent gig at Bowties in James Island.

The song is entitled “In the Holy City,” a tribute to the love offering of the relatives of  the victims of the Charleston massacre.

Anyway, never give up on someone.  If you’re in the Charleston area, you can catch Fleming and his band at Bowties Thursday 18 October at 7.  I’ll certainly be there.

A Tribute to David Bromberg

I discovered David Bromberg late, in ’76, during my farcical impersonation of a graduate school student. Instead of [forgive the vulgar patriarchal terminology] boning up on feminist theory, I was tending bar with a broken heart until about midnight, and as you bartenders know (right Charlie?), you don’t get off and go straight home.  You go to some early morning alcohol dispensary to wind down, which makes showing up an eight o’clock class on 18th Century English journalism seem as unlikely as Jackie Collins winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

From left to right, Bob Dylan, Leon Redbone, and David Bromberg

But I digress.  This post is about David Bromberg, whom I consider a woefully underappreciated American treasure.  The first record of his I copped was this one: David Bromberg Songs (1972).  Two tunes that really caught by attention were “Delia,” an obscure yet widely covered (if that’s possible) murder narrative and “Sammy’s Song,” a Hemingwayesque tale about a sixteen-year-old’s uncle-sponsored trip to a brothel.

Take a listen to this snippet from “Delia.”

 

And here’s “Sammy’s Song.”

 

Although most noted for his superb guitar playing, whether he’s laying down blues licks on a Son House cover or finger picking bluegrass at breakneck velocity, it’s Bromberg’s distinctive narrow ranged voice that slays me.  Rather than trying to imitate African Americans or white Southerners, Bromberg employs his very own Tarrytown baritone to great effect.  In addition to the acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars, he also plays fiddle and dobro in an eclectic array of genres: bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, country and western, and rock-n-roll.

I finally got to see him live last March at the Pour House.  His quintet featured Nate Grower on fiddle, Mark Cosgrove on guitar and mandolin, Josh Kanusky on drums, and Butch Amiot on bass.  They ran through a fifteen song set whose highlights included his great cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “Summer Wages,” an acapella rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and his signature version of  “New Lee Highway Blues.”

David Bromberg at the Pour House, photo by Wesley Moore

And, oh yeah, and “Delia.” He provided a more complete history of the song’s origin, which is absolutely fascinating. Delia Green was a 14-year-old girl shot on Christmas Day in 1900 in Savannah. For whatever reason, her murder inspired several songs, the two most famous by Blind Willie McTell and Blake Alphonso Higgs.  In addition to Bromberg, Bob Dylan, Josh White, Pete Seeger, Harry Bellafonte, Burl Ives, the Kingtson Trio, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash have all covered the song.  Of yeah, one more, Pat Boone.

Pat Boone? WTF?

Anyway, do yourself a favor and go out and buy a couple of his records, and if you ever get the chance to see him live, jump at it.

I’ll leave you with this.

 

 

 

Goodbye for Good

On the train you get smaller, as you get farther away.
The roar covers everything you wanted to say.
Was that a raindrop or a tear in the corner of your eye?
Were you drying your nails or waving goodbye?

 Tom Waits, “2:19”


In “Madame George,” the second song of Side Two of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, I love it when Madame George says to the narrator, “Hey love, you forgot your gloves.”

And then the narrator, (rather than Madame George, I think) says

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

To say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George.”

 

 

Wonder why about what?

In the last stanza, it’s as if the narrator has to self-hypnotize himself leave, as if he has to verbally will his very locomotion:

Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train
This is the train, this is the train
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train, get on the train.

 

Glove equals love, liltingly. Gloves sometimes wave goodbye.

Goodbye for good?

I don’t pretend to know what’s happening here, but it’s something very, very sad; we’re in a world of woe, outré, impressionistic, hypnotic.

You can feel the inarticulate hurt, and it’s bad to feel so good to know you’re not the only one hurting.

We’ve all felt this. This is the train. Get on the train. Dry your eyes. This is the bed. Get out of the bed. Put Visine in your eyes.

Your eyes, your eyes, your eyes.

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, So What?

Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

If it weren’t for his furtive, occasionally darting eyes, Mile’s Davis’s 1959 performance of “So What?” (see below) might serve as an ideal video embodiment of the word nonchalance.[1]

I.e., the projecting an aura of a relaxed, confident detachment.[2]

It seems as if no one’s all that into it, maybe not all that interested.

For example, at 2:41, notice Coltrane looking impassive in the background during Miles’s solo, eventually, however, nodding his head in half-assed admiration.

When Coltrane begins his solo, Miles splits for backstage. At 4:28, check out the two white fellows behind Coltrane actually conversing, seemingly deaf to gorgeous notes streaming from the tenor saxophone five feet in front of them.

At 4:40-ish there’s Miles himself in the background smoking a cigarette, detached.

At 5:03, though still offstage, he’s back into the flow of the music, swaying.

Throughout the entire performance, you see people who should be behind the scenes casually milling around, talking.

The obliviousness to momentousness of the music reminds me of that Auden poem describing an “untidy spot” on the canvas of an Old Master’s painting depicting an unnamed martyrdom where “dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Anyway, when the camera’s on Miles in profile, his body appropriately takes the shape of a question mark.

It’s like Miles is cool cubed, which being too too too cool, threatens to heat up into violence.

There’s tension, calculation in those eyes looking backwards into their skull. They’re not looking at what’s ever opposite of them in that studio.

But it’s the music that really matters. Check it out for yourself. The trumpet saying so what, so what, so what.

Do it, Miles.


[1] I’m imagining an on-line dictionary that provides multiple multimedia examples so that you really get a feel for the word

[2] My definition.

 

The Briefest of Tributes to John Hiatt

I just read Wikipedia’s account of John Hiatt’s career, a disjointed narrative that comes off more like a collection of bullet points than it does an essay. However, I did learn something there that surprised me. Because my first Hiatt record was Slug Line, I always assumed that he started as a new wave musician, but as it turns out, Hiatt moved from the rock/country rock of his first two albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats (1974), to the punkish, ska-ish Slug Line (1979) and, finally, then back to rock/country rock. When he ran away to Nashville after dropping out of school, Hiatt worked for Tree Publishing earning $25 a week as a songwriter. Although Hangin’ Round the Observatory wasn’t a commercial success, a Three Dog Night cover of “Sure As I’m Sitting Here” hit #16 on Billboard.

In fact, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t covered a Hiatt song. Dylan has, the Neville Brothers have, Springsteen has, even one of his boyhood heroes, Mitch Ryder has. Of course, Bonnie Raitt scored a big hit with “A Thing Called Love.”

Whatever the genre, Hiatt delivers solid melodies and clever lyrics, often in the form of narratives. Here’s a snippet from Slug Line’s “The Night That Kenny Died,” a tale of teen hypocrisy as high schoolers go all hooey when a classmate they disliked dies suddenly.

 

It was so touching all the girls that would not touch him
He drew their pictures in his books I used to watch him
And then he’d pick his nose
And wipe it on his clothes
But everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Died on a motorcycle
We never understood
That he was holdin’ on tight
Through the middle of the night
Starin’ at a [?] one Mercury hood
It seemed so spooky that the nerd we all detested
Would die so gloriously and so unexpected
A wonderful guy God knows
They kept the casket closed
And everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
And everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died

Perhaps his two best records are Bring the Family (1987) and Slow Turning (1988), recorded with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner.

Hiatt’s wit, I think, rivals Warren Zevon’s. In “Your Dad Did,” Note the sitar during the daughter’s prayer,  which she immediately undercuts with her coda.

 

Well, the day was long now, supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah, the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two year old says grace
She says, “Help the starving children to get well
But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell.”
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did.

Check out this from “Perfectly Good Guitar.”

:

Well he threw one down form the top of the stairs
Beautiful women were standing everywhere
They all got wet when he smashed that thing
But off in the dark you could hear somebody sing
Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
I don’t know who they think they are
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
It started back in 1963
His momma wouldn’t buy him
That new red harmony
He settled for a sunburt with a crack
But he’s still trying to break his momma’s back.

 

I finally got to see Mr. Hiatt live on his 2014 Terms of My Surrender Tour,[1] a great show but a melancholy one for me personally. My wife Judy had just been diagnosed with lymphoma, and it would be her last concert.

Although he John play it at the show, this was Judy’s favorite (and you ought to check out the Johnny Adams cover).  Dig the lyrics.

 


[1] I had seen him with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and the late Guy Clark but not by himself.

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

Stratocaster

“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”

stones

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.

best-htw
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.

mick-jagger