Improving Upon Perfection, Part Two: Brian Wilson and Danny Gatton

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One of the best ballads ever?

No question.

Brian Wilson, whom one can never say enough about, evinced such astonishing growth in such a short period of time, only The Beatles can really hold a candle to what he achieved, artistically, in a similar period.

Along with “Don’t Worry Baby” (another of the all-time great rock ballads), “In My Room” signaled the full flowering of his early –already staggering– proficiency and potential. This was later realized, in spades, during the Pet Sounds sessions. Debate still rages, but this writer and fan considers the next steps, represented by the aborted (but now available!) Smile sessions, a possibly unparalleled achievement in pop music. (More on that later, and of course more on that has been said before: an in-depth examination and appreciation of Smile can be found HERE.)

Danny Gatton’s story is, unbelievably, almost sadder than Wilson’s. At least Wilson made it out of his self-imposed sabbatical from planet earth alive. Gatton, never able to attain the attention and approbation his incredible skills warranted, and allegedly battling depression, took his own life at the age of 49. More (much more) on him another time, but suffice it to say this is one musician you will be glad to get to know. His playing is almost uncommonly sensitive, advanced and he covers the spectrum in terms of style and range. He was one of the most gifted guitar players of the 20th century. That he was relatively unknown is a travesty. His music, his art, survives him and we are much better for it.

Check him out here, doing the damn near impossible: taking Wilson’s short, bittersweet burst of pop perfection and turning it into a gorgeous, yearning tone poem. If this one doesn’t go directly to your heart and shatter it into a million pieces, you should seek medical assistance, immediately…because you are either near death or a robot.

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Three (Revisited)

SKIP-M-300x198

30. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. (The less said about Supernatural, the better.) Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced far-off vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and futuristic all at the same time.

santana caravanserai

29. Eyvind Kang: Theater of Mineral Nades

Eyvind Kang inhabits other worlds so that the rest of us don’t have to.

There are many ways to explain Eyvind Kang, but for the uninitiated, it may be helpful to describe him an artist who is inspired by and incorporates other times and foreign places, always interpreting history and humanity with the curiosity of an explorer and the delight of a devoted scholar. He manages to make strange and exquisite music, at once embracing improvisation yet always guided by central themes and feelings.

Theater of Mineral Nades manages to be all things at once: a history-of-the-universe as sonic experiment. In an ideal world Kang would be, if not a household name, an artist properly appreciated by a curious and discerning majority that did not depend upon network television to tell them whom they should idolize. No matter. By continuing to depict forgotten as well as imagined worlds, Eyvind Kang manages to tell us new things about the one in which we dwell.

eyvind kang

28. New Zion Trio: Fight Against Babylon

As a player equally comfortable behind a piano or an organ (as well as keyboards of any kind), Jamie Saft has delivered convincing performances as an acoustic player as well as one who happily plugs in. At times sounding like Klezmer meets King Tubby, this joint is heavy without being dark, and ever-so-slightly unsettling. Saft achieves the improbable: a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the classic Dub it up blacker than Dread aesthetic perfected by Lee “Scratch” Perry in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Capable of seemingly anything, Saft shrewdly utilizes a less-is-more approach to create a music that no one else could have conceived. He boasts the full range of his influences and ability, summoning sounds and feelings from multiple genres. The results are strikingly original and may inspire you to dig up some dub classics from your closet, or listen to contemporary jazz with reawakened ears. They should also remind you that while Saft has never before done anything quite like this, Fight Against Babylon is an obvious and welcome continuation of the distinctive and unclassifiable work he has been doing for many years now.

new zion trio

27. Danny Gatton: 88 Elmira Street

The best guitarist too many people are unaware of, Danny Gatton blended unparalleled musical chops with a seemingly all-encompassing range (You think I’m kidding you? I’m not kidding you. Check this and this and especially this.) From blues to folk to jazz (his own trademarked “redneck jazz” is brilliantly self-deprecating nod to his considerable proficiency) to spirited and original takes on rock/pop standards, Gatton is an American icon. This album is an obvious and easy way to get hooked on a player who is never less than interesting and consistently capable of making your heart stop with one lick. Speaking of heart, Gatton’s heart was like his ability: possibly too big for his own good. Impossible to pigeonhole (and therefore successfully market), Gatton knew he was great, but our world is often unkind or at best indifferent to real genius. He took his own life in 1993, one of the more intolerable tragedies in a profession full of them.

danny gatton

26. Kronos Quartet: Performs Philip Glass

How to get one’s ears around this contemporary master, equal parts prolific and peripatetic? This is an ideal point of entry, courtesy of some of his finest compositions, performed to perfection by the ever-reliable Kronos Quartet. Many of Glass’s stylistic quirks and affects are on display, including his looping use of repeated themes: at his best Glass disorients, circles back and ultimately comforts. Celebrated and/or derided for his so-called minimalist style (a lazy critical crutch if there ever was one), there are moments of intensity here—particularly on “String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)” that unnerve before finally allowing release. A cathartic, emotional listen every time.

kronos quartet

25. Little Axe: Hard Grind

Folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly, on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. (Also: Google Skip McDonald. He’s kind of a big deal.)

Hard Grind is from the underground, where so many of the strange and interesting things occur. This is a surreal, always satisfying trip through a sonic funhouse where blues strains back to its African roots and rock stretches past the Internet, into the beyond. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more in-depth (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time and, as anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

little axe

24. Cowboy Junkies: Whites Off Earth Now!!

Whites Off Earth Now! is a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a group of young Caucasians (from Canada no less!) made an album largely comprised of covers of old African-American blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Bukka White. The arrangements are stripped down and unpolished, but sound like what they in fact are: live recordings. The true ear-opener of this band is Margo Timmins, who supplies a gracefully dangerous female voice to songs originally sung by gravelly-voiced hombres. Her sparse, but affecting delivery on veritable American treasures such as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (which, unlike Van Morrison’s well-known, up-tempo rockabilly treatment is slowed down to a brooding, almost lugubrious pace), “I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive”, and “Me and the Devil” are remarkable.

Two particular highlights: an astounding take on Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”—a stark, somber, uncoverable song. Where Springsteen’s version is sparse with just a haunting, distant vocal and acoustic guitar, the CJ’s create musical tension that veritably sweats danger and foreboding. The album closes with a treatment of “Crossroads” that is so restrained and reticent it makes much of the rest of the album seem festive, if that’s possible.

cowboy junkies

23. Critters Buggin’: Host

Skerik (née Eric Walton) is like a Zelig of the musical antiestablishment, having associated and performed with an impressive roster of some of the more beloved avant-garde cult figures of our time, including Les Claypool, Charlie Hunter, Stanton Moore, and Bobby Previte. He is leader and mastermind of the ensembles Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois, and Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet.

Skerik is an architect of sounds: he constructs sonic scenes, and you are never quite sure how or what is making all of those strange yet exultant noises, but the results are always stylized and immediately recognizable. He operates mostly on tenor and baritone saxophone, but between the gadgets and effects it can sound like a small orchestra, albeit one emerging like steam from a sewage drain during a thunderstorm (in a good way).

critters buggin

22. Lee Perry: Lee Perry Presents…African Roots from the Black Ark Featuring Seke Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo

Be wary of anyone who tells you an album you’ve never heard is a masterpiece. This album is a masterpiece.

African Roots will grow on you, if you let it. It’s definitely filed under reggae, but the fact that Molenga and Kawongolo are African gives it a delightfully, if at first vaguely disorienting non-Western vibe. The vocals, with few exceptions, are not in English and this will oblige the listener to step outside preconceived notions and comfort zones. As a result, the focus inevitably is on the feeling being conjured, and this is most definitely a joyful noise. The album is a throwback in the sense that it demands to be absorbed as a whole, in a single setting, the way music works best when approached with the reverence it deserves. The songs employ double-tracked vocals and plenty of Lee Perry-produced echo and reverb, but the chants and repeated phrases are absolutely mesmerizing. Once you fall under its spell—and you will—it serves as a reminder that human beings are capable of extraordinary things: it’s righteous being humbled by art that makes you feel so good.

african roots

21. Fantomas: Fantomas

Mike Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible—and more than a little amusing—to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream. Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

fantomas

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Three

SKIP M

30. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. (The less said about Supernatural, the better.) Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced far-off vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and futuristic all at the same time.

santana caravanserai

29. Eyvind Kang: Theater of Mineral Nades

Eyvind Kang inhabits other worlds so that the rest of us don’t have to.

There are many ways to explain Eyvind Kang, but for the uninitiated, it may be helpful to describe him an artist who is inspired by and incorporates other times and foreign places, always interpreting history and humanity with the curiosity of an explorer and the delight of a devoted scholar. He manages to make strange and exquisite music, at once embracing improvisation yet always guided by central themes and feelings.

Theater of Mineral Nades manages to be all things at once: a history-of-the-universe as sonic experiment. In an ideal world Kang would be, if not a household name, an artist properly appreciated by a curious and discerning majority that did not depend upon network television to tell them whom they should idolize. No matter. By continuing to depict forgotten as well as imagined worlds, Eyvind Kang manages to tell us new things about the one in which we dwell.

eyvind kang

28. New Zion Trio: Fight Against Babylon

As a player equally comfortable behind a piano or an organ (as well as keyboards of any kind), Jamie Saft has delivered convincing performances as an acoustic player as well as one who happily plugs in. At times sounding like Klezmer meets King Tubby, this joint is heavy without being dark, and ever-so-slightly unsettling. Saft achieves the improbable: a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the classic Dub it up blacker than Dread aesthetic perfected by Lee “Scratch” Perry in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Capable of seemingly anything, Saft shrewdly utilizes a less-is-more approach to create a music that no one else could have conceived. He boasts the full range of his influences and ability, summoning sounds and feelings from multiple genres. The results are strikingly original and may inspire you to dig up some dub classics from your closet, or listen to contemporary jazz with reawakened ears. They should also remind you that while Saft has never before done anything quite like this, Fight Against Babylon is an obvious and welcome continuation of the distinctive and unclassifiable work he has been doing for many years now.

new zion trio

27. Danny Gatton: 88 Elmira Street

The best guitarist too many people are unaware of, Danny Gatton blended unparalleled musical chops with a seemingly all-encompassing range (You think I’m kidding you? I’m not kidding you. Check this and this and especially this.) From blues to folk to jazz (his own trademarked “redneck jazz” is brilliantly self-deprecating nod to his considerable proficiency) to spirited and original takes on rock/pop standards, Gatton is an American icon. This album is an obvious and easy way to get hooked on a player who is never less than interesting and consistently capable of making your heart stop with one lick. Speaking of heart, Gatton’s heart was like his ability: possibly too big for his own good. Impossible to pigeonhole (and therefore successfully market), Gatton knew he was great, but our world is often unkind or at best indifferent to real genius. He took his own life in 1993, one of the more intolerable tragedies in a profession full of them.

danny gatton

26. Kronos Quartet: Performs Philip Glass

How to get one’s ears around this contemporary master, equal parts prolific and peripatetic? This is an ideal point of entry, courtesy of some of his finest compositions, performed to perfection by the ever-reliable Kronos Quartet. Many of Glass’s stylistic quirks and affects are on display, including his looping use of repeated themes: at his best Glass disorients, circles back and ultimately comforts. Celebrated and/or derided for his so-called minimalist style (a lazy critical crutch if there ever was one), there are moments of intensity here—particularly on “String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)” that unnerve before finally allowing release. A cathartic, emotional listen every time.

kronos quartet

25. Little Axe: Hard Grind

Folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly, on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. (Also: Google Skip McDonald. He’s kind of a big deal.)

Hard Grind is from the underground, where so many of the strange and interesting things occur. This is a surreal, always satisfying trip through a sonic funhouse where blues strains back to its African roots and rock stretches past the Internet, into the beyond. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more in-depth (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time and, as anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

little axe

24. Cowboy Junkies: Whites Off Earth Now!!

Whites Off Earth Now! is a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a group of young Caucasians (from Canada no less!) made an album largely comprised of covers of old African-American blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Bukka White.  The arrangements are stripped down and unpolished, but sound like what they in fact are:  live recordings. The true ear-opener of this band is Margo Timmins, who supplies a gracefully dangerous female voice to songs originally sung by gravelly-voiced hombres.  Her sparse, but affecting delivery on veritable American treasures such as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (which, unlike Van Morrison’s well-known, up-tempo rockabilly treatment is slowed down to a brooding, almost lugubrious pace), “I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive”, and “Me and the Devil” are remarkable.

Two particular highlights: an astounding take on Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”—a stark, somber, uncoverable song.  Where Springsteen’s version is sparse with just a haunting, distant vocal and acoustic guitar, the CJ’s create musical tension that veritably sweats danger and foreboding. The album closes with a treatment of “Crossroads” that is so restrained and reticent it makes much of the rest of the album seem festive, if that’s possible.

cowboy junkies

23. Critters Buggin’: Host

Skerik (née Eric Walton) is like a Zelig of the musical antiestablishment, having associated and performed with an impressive roster of some of the more beloved avant-garde cult figures of our time, including Les Claypool, Charlie Hunter, Stanton Moore, and Bobby Previte. He is leader and mastermind of the ensembles Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois, and Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet.

Skerik is an architect of sounds: he constructs sonic scenes, and you are never quite sure how or what is making all of those strange yet exultant noises, but the results are always stylized and immediately recognizable. He operates mostly on tenor and baritone saxophone, but between the gadgets and effects it can sound like a small orchestra, albeit one emerging like steam from a sewage drain during a thunderstorm (in a good way).

critters buggin

22. Lee Perry: Lee Perry Presents…African Roots from the Black Ark Featuring Seke Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo

Be wary of anyone who tells you an album you’ve never heard is a masterpiece. This album is a masterpiece.

African Roots will grow on you, if you let it. It’s definitely filed under reggae, but the fact that Molenga and Kawongolo are African gives it a delightfully, if at first vaguely disorienting non-Western vibe. The vocals, with few exceptions, are not in English and this will oblige the listener to step outside preconceived notions and comfort zones. As a result, the focus inevitably is on the feeling being conjured, and this is most definitely a joyful noise. The album is a throwback in the sense that it demands to be absorbed as a whole, in a single setting, the way music works best when approached with the reverence it deserves. The songs employ double-tracked vocals and plenty of Lee Perry-produced echo and reverb, but the chants and repeated phrases are absolutely mesmerizing. Once you fall under its spell—and you will—it serves as a reminder that human beings are capable of extraordinary things: it’s righteous being humbled by art that makes you feel so good.

african roots

21. Fantomas: Fantomas

Mike Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible—and more than a little amusing—to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream. Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

fantomas

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

Share

Elvis Is (Still) Dead: Long Live The King (Revisited)

Poor Elvis.

The one-time king is now more often the (big) butt of jokes (see?).

But his musical and cultural imprint remains huge and will forever be impossible to escape from. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Just consider the number of musicians who have covered, copied and imitated the Great White Hype. In part because hype and purloined material aside, the man was, well, kind of a big deal.

In honor of the day he absconded his throne (while on the throne…see? One can’t help oneself), here are ten artistic invocations of Elvis, ranging from the good to the bad to the very ugly.

1. In one of the great scenes from one of the all-time great comedies, here is Spinal Tap saluting The King. It really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it? (Bonus points for Harry Shearer busting out laughing at the improvised line at the end. Bliss.)

2. The immortal Bill Hicks keeping it (un)real:

3. A more reverential tribute from the guitar god Danny Gatton:

4. Speaking of “Mystery Train”, here’s some love for (and from) Jim Jarmusch:

5. You think that’s weird? Ever seen Wild at Heart? (Nic Cage when he was only pretending to be crazy…mostly):

6. No list would be complete without Public Enemy’s eviscerating ‘dis. “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” is one of the great slams in rap history. I’ve never heard a song that could hurt and heal all at once quite like this one:

7. Okay. Some comic relief, STAT. Enter personal hero, Tortelvis. If you are not down with Dread Zeppelin, you should be. If you have never heard them, listen to what your life has been lacking all these years (from the enthusiastically recommended –no, really– album 5,000,000):

8. From Dread to Led. Recently discussed (HERE) from the all-time album that supposedly sucks (but does not), “Hot Dog” is the hilarious and genuinely reverential and rocking Elvis tribute from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door:

(Here’s my take:

And then there’s “Hot Dog”. More than a few people would likely agree that this is the single-worst song Zeppelin recorded. Those people need to be reminded that Zeppelin did not make any bad songs and that, in any event, “Hot Dog” is a better song on every level than well-loved tunes like “Ramble On” and “The Immigrant Song”. On their early work Zep did not exhibit much, if any, sense of humor; certainly nothing self-deprecating. “Hot Dog” reveals the band (or more specifically, Robert Plant) at its most unguarded, and it is at once a hilarious and deeply respectful send up of older school rock. To understand—and appreciate—“Hot Dog” one needs to understand, and appreciate, Plant’s worship of Elvis. Importantly, Elvis had passed away only two years before, making this less a tongue-in-cheek tribute and than a genuine moment of worship. Also worth noting is that Page turns in one of his most truncated, but delectable solos: the mood is light, but the music is serious, and sensational.)

9. And another Elvis-inspired number, this one from the magnificent Freddie Mercury. Rockabilly plus Elvis plus Brian May = epic:

10. Last and far from least, a song that sort of ties it all together, courtesy of Living Colour: guest vocalist Little Richard (!) gets the definitive last word, as well he should. Great vid (attention to detail always making the nice little differences: note the peanut butter and bananas in the shopping cart: RESPECT!):

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Improving Upon Perfection, Part Two: Brian Wilson and Danny Gatton

One of the best ballads ever?

No question.

Brian Wilson, whom one can never say enough about, evinced such astonishing growth in such a short period of time, only The Beatles can really hold a candle to what he achieved, artistically, in a similar period.

Along with “Don’t Worry Baby” (another of the all-time great rock ballads), “In My Room” signaled the full flowering of his early –already staggering– proficiency and potential. This was later realized, in spades, during the Pet Sounds sessions. Debate still rages, but this writer and fan considers the next steps, represented by the aborted (but now available!) Smile sessions, a possibly unparalleled achievement in pop music. (More on that later, and of course more on that has been said before: an in-depth examination and appreciation of Smile can be found HERE.)

Danny Gatton’s story is, unbelievably, almost sadder than Wilson’s. At least Wilson made it out of his self-imposed sabbatical from planet earth alive. Gatton, never able to attain the attention and approbation his incredible skills warranted, and allegedly battling depression, took his own life at the age of 49. More (much more) on him another time, but suffice it to say this is one musician you will be glad to get to know. His playing is almost uncommonly sensitive, advanced and he covers the spectrum in terms of style and range. He was one of the most gifted guitar players of the 20th century. That he was relatively unknown is a travesty. His music, his art, survives him and we are much better for it.

Check him out here, doing the damn near impossible: taking Wilson’s short, bittersweet burst of pop perfection and turning it into a gorgeous, yearning tone poem. If this one doesn’t go directly to your heart and shatter it into a million pieces, you should seek medical assistance, immediately…because you are either near death or a robot.

Share

Elvis Is (Still) Dead: Long Live The King (Revisited)

Poor Elvis.

The one-time king is now more often the (big) butt of jokes (see?).

But his musical and cultural imprint remains huge and will forever be impossible to escape from. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Just consider the number of musicians who have covered, copied and imitated the Great White Hype. In part because hype and purloined material aside, the man was, well, kind of a big deal.

In honor of the day he absconded his throne (while on the throne…see? One can’t help oneself), here are ten artistic invocations of Elvis, ranging from the good to the bad to the very ugly.

1. In one of the great scenes from one of the all-time great comedies, here is Spinal Tap saluting The King (argh: the full scene is not possible to embed, damn it. Go to YouTube and look at up “Spinal Tap Elvis grave” for a bit too much perspective):

2. The immortal Bill Hicks keeping it (un)real:

3. A more reverential tribute from the guitar god Danny Gatton:

4. Speaking of “Mystery Train”, here’s some love for (and from) Jim Jarmusch:

5. You think that’s weird? Ever seen Wild at Heart? (Nic Cage when he was only pretending to be crazy…mostly):

6. No list would be complete without Public Enemy’s eviscerating ‘dis. “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” is one of the great slams in rap history. I’ve never heard a song that could hurt and heal all at once quite like this one:

7. Okay. Some comic relief, STAT. Enter personal hero, Tortelvis. If you are not down with Dread Zeppelin, you should be. If you have never heard them, listen to what your life has been lacking all these years (from the enthusiastically recommended –no, really– album 5,000,000):

8. From Dread to Led. Recently discussed from the all-time album that supposedly sucks (but does not), “Hot Dog” is the hilarious and genuinely reverential and rocking Elvis tribute from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door:

9. And another Elvis-inspired number, this one from the magnificent Freddie Mercury. Rockabilly plus Elvis plus Brian May = epic:

10. Last and far from least, a song that sort of ties it all together, courtesy of Living Colour: guest vocalist Little Richard (!) gets the definitive last word, as well he should. Great vid (attention to detail always making the nice little differences: note the peanut butter and bananas in the shopping cart: RESPECT!):

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August 26, 2002: Nine Ways of Looking at Nine Years

I had the opportunity to deliver the eulogy at my mother’s funeral (which, incredibly, occurred only a few months after this photo was taken, at my cousin’s wedding in June 2002). I remembered her as fondly as I could which was easy to do; I tried to convey what she meant to me, which was difficult. Everything that is good about me is because of my mother. That was the line I used to open and close my remarks, and looking back, I still reckon it’s the most succinct way of illustrating the role she played–and continues to play–in my life. I tried to steer away from sentiment that was self-absorbed (this was an occasion to remember and celebrate my mother’s life, not how it affected me) or to unintentionally overlook the loved ones gathered whose lives she touched in so many indelible ways (or to give my old man, my boy, inadvertent short-shrift by ostensibly giving his wife all the credit for the heavy lifting he had also done), but as the chosen speaker, her only son, it was my opportunity, and obligation, to pay her the ultimate compliment. It was the most honest and appropriate thing I could do. Here was the crux of my comments, then and my feelings, now: by raising me the way she did, she was instinctively preparing me for when she was no longer around, even if that ended up happening a hell of a lot sooner than any of us could stand.

I’m sure anyone who has lost a parent (or heaven forbid, a child) can understand that when this happens it becomes a line of demarcation: your life before and your life after. It doesn’t mean nothing is ever the same or that you never get past it (everything is the same and you get past it except for the fact that nothing is ever the same and you never get past it. You don’t want to).

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically and anyone who knows me understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I feel obliged to share some of these observations. Indeed, for me this is much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.

Please talk about me when I’m gone.

This is the implicit title of any work of art; a desire to have those thoughts and feelings articulated, read, understand, appreciated. More, it’s the unspoken message of any individual life: we hope to be discussed, loved and celebrated after we’re gone. Mostly, we do not wish to be quickly or easily forgotten.

***

How do you get over the loss?

That was the question I asked an old girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. To cancer, of course. “You don’t,” she said. It’s just as awful as you’d imagine, she did not say. She did not have to; because you can’t imagine and you don’t want to imagine. How could you imagine? And, oddly enough, that succinct, painfully honest answer was more comforting than it sounded. In a way, when you think about it (does everyone think about it? Are some people able to avoid thinking about it?) there is an unexpected salve in that sentiment: you don’t get over it. Or, by not getting over it, that is how you survive it. It becomes part of you, and it is henceforth an inviolable aspect of your existence, like a chronic condition you inherit or develop along the way and manage as best you can.

This is important, because as Americans, we tend to think in terms of explanations and equations: how do I solve this riddle? We tend to inquire: how long until it’s okay again? I can handle the pain (I think) if I know how to endure it. Once you get your mind around the notion that the pain never goes away, it is, strangely enough, easier to incorporate into your life. You keep reading, you keep eating, you keep sleeping, you keep loving, you keep mourning and you never stop remembering. And, above all, you keep living.

***

It always waits until after you are asleep.

Memories. Not the unyielding, excruciating moments near the end, but the better times. Or even worse, the arbitrary moments in life that dig in deep, long before the mind has discarded them.

In the dark, afraid to close your eyes now, afraid of the not-quite-nothingness that awaits you there. Like a boy, again. Afraid of the dark; afraid to close your eyes.

Too much like death?

No. It was too much like life.

Sleep and death can each prolong peacefulness. The quiet, uncomplicated ability to forget suffering and self. Awake: I think, therefore I am, you think.

You can’t find an explanation for how you came to be here, but there has to be a story. There is always a story. (There is a dark space between what you can tell others and what you will only tell yourself, and that is Truth. And there is a darker space that contains the things you cannot even tell yourself; those things speak their own language—in dreams, memories and mistakes—so you try to make sense of them any way you can, and that is Art.)

Here is the story: everything had played out pretty much according to everyone’s expectations. It all more or less happened the way you had envisioned it would. You had plenty of time—all those anxious days, all those empty hours—to imagine how it would unwind. And after the long wait and eventual end of it, there was the afterward, the first day of the rest of your lives. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall, or half-recall, the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction.

We made it.

Yes, you thought: the hard part was over.

No, you knew: it was too soon to say that.

Okay. At least the worst part was behind you. It had taken five years: from first surgery until the day after, almost exactly five years. It had taken more than any of you could give. It had taken more than any of you could bear to give up. Now, (you hoped), all you had to do was somehow go about the business of living. Just live our lives, you thought.

The worst, (you knew), was over.

No, that’s not the truth.

The worst was only beginning?

No, not that either.

Only this: you had the rest of your lives to live.

You can’t go home again, someone once wrote.

And they were wrong.

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave. Or, leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you. And certainly you can’t be the only grown child who returns often—in dreams, in memories and, of course, in your mind, you must confess: earnestly, often—to the old streets that you came to outgrow the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers.

Remembering: immeasurable moments, IVs and all the unpleasant things you can’t force yourself to forget. Bad days, worse days, glimpses of serenity and then grief; a flash focus of forced perspective: This too shall pass. Then, inevitably, earlier times: you recall when doctors and dentists handled us with bare hands. Still living, then, in a past the future had not crept up on, a time when the truth was believable, because the only lies that children can tell get told to escape tiny troubles they’ve created.

***

I’m scared, you said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.”

And you did know it. You believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight year old knows that is irrational, even if he could not explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, you did not say, because how can an eight year old articulate a concept he can’t quite understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it becomes established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you do not know and a sensation you cannot yet communicate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said.

And you believed her. It was never enough, but it was all she could do, other than never leaving your sight. Even you could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, you finally figured out that you have to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet being aware it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. You had to experience it, get through it, and then that ineradicable fear subsided.

***

I’m so scared, she said, to anyone who was listening.

You know you were, and hoped that God was, the God who may have done this and a million other things in that austere, always unaccountable way. In the end: she feared the truth but not the reasons why awful things always happen to almost everyone. You, you envied the armor of her fear; you understood you could not even rely on those lovely lies about a God you couldn’t bring yourself to believe in.

***

You didn’t need a doctor to tell you that it was over.

On the way to no longer being, a person suffering from a terminal disease, like cancer, ceases to be themselves. It is during this time, which is hopefully as brief as possible for all involved, that family or friends (or medical staff, if they are sufficiently human) will get the message and take immediate action. The objective, you quickly ascertain, is no longer to help the person get back to being the person they were, but to help expedite—or ease—the resolution that Nature is not always interested in accommodating.

You don’t need anyone to tell you when it’s over. At a certain point you understand that the end has begun, because this is no longer your mother sitting—distracted and shaking—before you; this is instead a woman who had entered the last stage of a long, drawn-out, devastating dance with the illness she had loathed and feared more than anything else her entire adult life. She was no longer herself and she was no longer entirely with the rest of you; she was in a different place, that place some of us are obliged to go when our bodies, then our brains are assailed, inhabited by some malignant host, and we heed a primal imperative to follow that path until we arrive at the place where we no longer need to walk or cry or breathe or believe.

In the end you try to do for them what they did for you.

You watch them, filled with concern and fear, hoping that love and care can be enough. You sit there, quiet, trying to radiate what you do not feel inside—all the doubt and grief, the concern and fear. Please, you ask, just let her be peaceful; after all this, allow her to finally find peace. Looking right at her, all over her, you do what you can to provide some semblance of peace. By meditating, praying, focusing (the type of concentration that eventually brings clarity) and trying to will everything to be okay (Everything is going to be okay: this is the one promise you’ve repeated these last two weeks; a message and a mantra). Three hours. Unloading a barrage of comforting, healing thoughts and images, offering up everything that’s ever inspired you: snippets of songs (“While My Lady Sleeps” by Coltrane and “Blue Nile” by his wife Alice, and dozens of others), even fragments of poetry and prose (Ivan Illich: Death is over!; Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; Keats: When I have fears that I may cease to be; Shelley: The lone and level sands stretch far away) and finally thinking, then silently humming the first nursery rhyme I can recall hearing: Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. Then imagining it as a song, then hearing it (composing it?) as a jazz improvisation: with or without words, hearing a trumpet state the theme, then a sax, then the piano, then cymbals cascading in with a warm wash…until it takes off, soaring beyond music, beyond consciousness and somewhere else altogether.

Where was I?

Somewhere else. Out of body but in my mind? Shivering with purpose, glistening with energy and faith—faith in the energy inside, getting back to being inside this house, this situation, inside of myself. Beginning to appreciate that we can’t (shouldn’t?) try to understand everything, especially the things we seek to understand most of all. Just fear and concern becoming concentration, concentrated energy ending up on the other side as love. A soft silence, looking down at her again, like she had gone to sleep. Only more.

***

Later, after it was over, you stand alone by the lake, thinking about all you had seen, about what had happened and what was going to happen.

You look up at the uncommunicative sky and remember what you had once read, ages ago: that the light from a dead star, once it actually reached the earth, was millions of years old. At that moment, this seems to signify everything awesome and immutable, all you are capable or grasping, but neither rationalize nor reconcile. All those things there are no answers for.

You think about your life.

Silently you stand, the same child who had once looked up at the stars, scattered like breadcrumbs in the dark air, wondering if they really led to a kingdom beyond the clouds.

As always, you think about your family, your friends, all the heroes who had created art that made life more worth living, the places and feelings that comprised the pain and profundity of existence. All the questions that belonged without answers: all of this is inside. So long as you live, and made yourself remember, they never ceased to be.

You look out on the water, at your face, reflecting up into the evening, looking down and seeing the world in itself. Then the mirror implodes as you walk forward, leaving your shirt and shoes on the shore. You stride into the dark, warm water, making your way to the middle of the lake and diving deep, not stopping until your hands touch the bottom, gripping the cold marrow of murky mud.

Moments later you emerge, sucking in the air as though you had never tasted life before; as though you were breathing for the first time.

*from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Elvis Is (Still) Dead, Long Live The King!

Poor Elvis.

The one-time king is now more often the (big) butt of jokes (see?).

But his musical and cultural imprint remains huge and will forever be impossible to escape from. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Just consider the number of musicians who have covered, copied and imitated the Great White Hype. In part because hype and purloined material aside, the man was, well, kind of a big deal.

In honor of the day he absconded his throne (while on the throne…see? One can’t help oneself), here are ten artistic invocations of Elvis, ranging from the good to the bad to the very ugly.

1. In one of the great scenes from one of the all-time great comedies, here is Spinal Tap saluting The King (argh: the full scene is not possible to embed, damn it. Go to YouTube and look at up “Spinal Tap Elvis grave” for a bit too much perspective):

2. The immortal Bill Hicks keeping it (un)real:

3. A more reverential tribute from the guitar god Danny Gatton:

4. Speaking of “Mystery Train”, here’s some love for (and from) Jim Jarmusch:

5. You think that’s weird? Ever seen Wild at Heart? (Nic Cage when he was only pretending to be crazy…mostly):

6. No list would be complete without Public Enemy’s eviscerating ‘dis. “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” is one of the great slams in rap history. I’ve never heard a song that could hurt and heal all at once quite like this one:

7. Okay. Some comic relief, STAT. Enter personal hero, Tortelvis. If you are not down with Dread Zeppelin, you should be. If you have never heard them, listen to what your life has been lacking all these years (from the enthusiastically recommended –no, really– album 5,000,000):

8. From Dread to Led. Recently discussed from the all-time album that supposedly sucks (but does not), “Hot Dog” is the hilarious and genuinely reverential and rocking Elvis tribute from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door:

9. And another Elvis-inspired number, this one from the magnificent Freddie Mercury. Rockabilly plus Elvis plus Brian May = epic:

10. Last and far from least, a song that sort of ties it all together, courtesy of Living Colour: guest vocalist Little Richard (!) gets the definitive last word, as well he should. Great vid (attention to detail always making the nice little differences: note the peanut butter and bananas in the shopping cart: RESPECT!):

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The Messiah Will Come Again

No, not that Messiah.

This Messiah:

RoyBuchanan

Actually, that’s not true. We won’t see Roy Buchanan again, since he left us back in 1988. Yet another unspeakably distressing musician suicide. Or was it?

(Buchanan has always been of more than purely artistic interest to me, as he hailed from my hometown and died in Fairfax County, Va. Like another woefully underappreciated guitarist, Danny Gatton –also from D.C.; also a suicide– Roy seemed predestined as the type of artist that people had to catch up to: casual listeners are not interested in, or capable of comprehending this type of virtuosity and intensity. Only with time, and successive generations of intelligent and adventurous listeners, does the legend accrue. The only fate more perplexing –and depressing– than this one are the brave and talented artists who never find any type of audience, for whatever reason. Mostly it is we, the listeners, who are most enriched from the exchange: all of that pain, all of that practice, all of that production, all available anytime for anyone who knows where to look and how to listen.)

The bad news (as usual): he was admired and loved, but not enough, while he was with us. We lost him and will never see him again.

The good news (as always): whenever a great artist dies too soon, it’s a tragedy for all involved; but while the fans are deprived of more joy, they are fortunate to have whatever the genius left behind. Lucky for us, he left plenty of solace for those who will always regret his departure.

RoyBuchanan

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Version 2

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