Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)



Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.



Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.


rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.


Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)


Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Gary Clark, Jr.: Live Proves that Hearing is Believing


Over the years I’ve found myself defending bands who cover classic blues, ranging from the good (Yardbirds, Animals), to the occasionally good (Rolling Stones, Beatles), to the occasionally great (Led Zeppelin), to… Eric Clapton.

One thing I tend to repeat, without cynicism: Even the most earnest if unconvincing renditions are worthwhile if they serve as a gateway to the source material. If, for instance, someone hears Jack White doing an overly stylized cover of Son House or the Black Keys doing remarkable service to the still-unjustly-unheralded Junior Kimbrough, or even the aforementioned Mick Jagger mumbling Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s all to the greater good. Quick, raise your hand if you knew about Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon before you heard Led Zeppelin or the Allman Brothers, or Howlin’ Wolf before you head the Doors cover of “Back Door Man”.

And so on.

And so, what to do when you not only hear faithful, bordering-on-unbelievable covers of blues classics, but a young (!) artist who is doing more than anyone in decades (Robert Cray comes to mind, but in a Rated PG way, and Stevie Ray has been gone, alas, for a very long time) to recreate, reimagine and rechannel the old blues grooves into the here-and-now? Enter Gary Clark, Jr.

A few years back, when the Bright Lights EP started garnering rapturous reviews, I picked up a copy. It did not disappoint, but left me wanting more, so I made a mental note to check him out live, if I could. I did, and saw—and heard—what all the hype was about. I converted as many friends as I could, sending breathless emails with YouTube clips, saying things like “This is the real deal” and “We’re talking potential once-in-a-generation-type-talent.”

I saw him live, again, this time with some of those friends. They still thank me for ensuring they caught the soon-to-be superstar in a small-ish venue. We were hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR. Eventually, his big label debut, Blak and Blu, was released in late 2012. Perhaps inevitably, it was a mixed affair: Overly produced at times, too calculated by half in others, it seemed like product being tampered with by a kitchen full of PR chefs, all convinced they knew the best way to break Clark into the big leagues. It felt like what it was: an overly ambitious, uneven document, trying too hard to be all things to all people.

But it still was the official introduction of a major new voice. My mantra to naysayers was simple and succinct: You have to catch this dude live. The last time I saw him, at a larger venue in DC, he opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. He commands the stage like no one else has in a long time. Tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December; he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate. And what’s it like to see him live, to believe with your eyes what your ears are hearing? Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling you can’t fake.

And now, finally, we have proper documentation of what Clark sounds like, live and unfettered. This is the album many of us, including those who will understand in short order, have been waiting for. This is, in fact, about as perfect an album as anyone could hope for, at once an introduction to Clark and a summation of what he’s accomplished. And what has he accomplished, exactly? Well, he’s made it possible to use the words “blues” and “21st Century” with neither irony nor resignation.

If it’s too easy, equal parts lazy and unimaginative, to invoke Jimi Hendrix, it is nevertheless obligatory. It’s not necessarily because of the guitar prowess (Clark is formidable, to be certain, but no need to commit sacrilege) or his vocal gifts (although he has an extraordinarily sensitive, at times laconic delivery that, coupled with his sometimes explosive solos, is emotionally devastating). Rather, it is because he mixes blues and rock, incorporating folk and jazz-y elements as well as anyone, arguably, since Hendrix—or at least Shuggie Otis. Plus, it would be wrong to label him, like Hendrix before him, a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

Where Hendrix used the blues as a launching pad for his otherworldly excursions, Clark is content to (mostly) stake his claim in traditional terrain, adding a unique imprint courtesy of those aforementioned solos. On this outing, we hear an inexhaustible mind matched by relentless energy: On multiple numbers, the solos are not aesthetic showcases so much as statements of purpose. Covering Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money”, Clark seems to be suggesting, Yes, you may recognize this song, but you won’t recognize this. Over and over, he puts his own distinctive stamp on everything he touches, be it original, cover, or point of departure (see Hendrix’s uncoverable “Third Stone From The Sun”).

Some highlights include “Next Door Neighbor Blues”, which, with its slide guitar and rambling pace, will remind some of what both the Black Keys and the White Stripes have done, with varying degrees of success. Scorcher “When My Train Pulls In” is perhaps the best example of the way Clark impeccably blends past and present, at times taking tradition and handling it with care, love, and a welcome dash of irreverence, at others taking the idiom for a test drive and never coming back. Both “Three O’clock Blues” and “Things Are Changin’” feature top-notch playing (and fantastic support from second guitarist Eric “King” Zapata) and some so-laid-back-they’re-almost-languorous vocal stylings that quickly become addictive. There are, believe it or not, more definitive versions to be found online, but this take on “Please Come Home” is far superior to the too-saccharine studio version, as Clark’s (convincing) falsetto bookends the tasteful shredfest that comprises the meat of the number.

An already terrific disc is put over the top by a handful of tour de forces. “Numb”, again featuring some tasty and filthy slide work, creeps through the smoke and detonates into a deconstruction of every blues cliché those shades-and-fedora wearing imitators have been milking for decades. There are now multiple, all enjoyable, renditions of his signature song “Bright Lights”, and the latest installment serves as confirmation that only a handful of players can pick up an electric guitar and make these sorts of sounds happen. “Blak and Blu” is a rare achievement, using weary menace to push past exhaustion into defiance. It’s just one man, one instrument, one voice and several thousand spellbound fans. “When the Sun Goes Down”, an appropriate album-closer, is once again a solo showcase, unfiltered and without a net. Clark kills it, illustrating that a soft-spoken young man can—and often should—let his playing and singing do the talking.

To recap: If you have a chance to check him out live, do so. Like most of the better acts, especially in the jazz and blues circles, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future. For now, this latest, most welcome installment, will tide us over until he returns to make us believe, all over again.

Postscript: If this album entices anyone to check out Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King or, hell, Jimi Hendrix, Clark deserves extra accolades for being a brilliant ambassador for the legends whose torch he carries with style and pride.


Lou Reed: Rock and Roll’s Dark, Beautiful Heart: One Year Later



The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.

And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.

Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.


1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.

Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.

Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.

Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.

As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.

One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.

lou old

Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.

More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 11/04/2013.


Hell’s Not Gonna Be Hot Enough: Johnny Winter, R.I.P.

Johnny Winter,  03/06/70 San Francisco, CA

Hell is not gonna be hot enough for this cat.

R.I.P. Johnny Winter, an American bad-ass of the first rank.

An albino playing the blues? Duh.

Most young, uninitiated punks would know him only as the brother of Edgar, the other albino who had a couple of immortal ’70s songs, Frankenstein and Free Ride.

Fact of the matter: dude was around before Hendrix (played with him, too), worshiped Muddy Waters (played with and produced him, too), and MFer was at Woodstock.

He also made a LOT of very good albums.

An excellent overview of his life and times can be found HERE.

His early stuff, cut many years before his late-’60s explosion, are restrained, rootsy and revelatory in their way.

His performance at Woodstock was not included in the film. That had to hurt. But like a good blues man, he simply soldiered on.

For the uninitiated.

1984: You were wearing parachute pants and Members Only, listening to synth rock.

Johnny Winter was getting his gutbucket blues on with Dr. John.

This is REE.DIC.U.LOUS. And no, none of us are worthy.

No matter what path we choose, the best we can do in this life is feel it, be as honest as possible, and work at it every day.

If anyone was true to his vision, it was Johnny. He died, literally doing what he loved to do (playing music; on tour). How could he not? He was always on tour; he was always playing music.

He made his music. He made his mark.

We are all better off for having had him with us.


Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment


The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.


Five Songs for Tax Day


Happy Tax Day!

The Beatles:

Pink Floyd:

Jethro Tull:

Jimi Hendrix:

Spinal Tap:


Howard Sounes’ ’27’ Has That Train Wreck Kind of Appeal


“You’re drinking with number three,” Jim Morrison allegedly declared, equal parts sardonic and prescient, following the successive deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in 1970. As it happened, he was correct. In less than a year these superstars were gone, all at the age of 27.

For his new book, 27, Howard Sounes researched the number of musicians who’ve actually died at 27 and discovered the total was 50. But the list of famous, or infamous cases comprising the so-called “27 Club” is much shorter, six to be exact. They are, in chronological order, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

What ties these six artists together, aside from their obvious ages and occupations, is the fact that some measure of controversy dogs each death, and Sounes sets out to examine the various coincidences and conflicting stories, seeing what they all add up to.

Conclusion: not much. Despite the considerable talent, promise and tragedy we can attribute to each of these artists, they all serve as cautionary tales of excess, poor judgment and wasted potential. In the cases of Morrison and Hendrix, enough material was recorded to ensure a definitive legacy; with Cobain and Winehouse we are left wondering how many years, even decades, of genius they forfeited.

In the cases of Jones and, to a lesser extent Joplin, they seemed hell-bent on self-destruction, and might well have viewed death as a refuge of sorts. And while Joplin arguably did her best work at the end, Jones had ceased to contribute much of anything, and was a bloated, neurotic mess long before his ill-advised midnight swim.

Sounes constructs mini-biographies of each musician, making Winehouse, who receives quite a bit more attention and time, the centerpiece. The author admits that he has more personal interest in Winehouse, particularly as a fellow Londoner, and it was presumably much easier to find family and friends to speak with. For the four who died between 1969 and 1971, he relies on myriad sources, and his bibliography is impressive, if intimidating. Make no mistake, Sounes did heavy lifting to make this book as authoritative as possible.

If you are already familiar with these musicians, there are not a ton of new or especially interesting insights to be found. On the other hand, if you want exhaustive, at times exhausting detail regarding their collective debauchery, 27 may have that kind of perverse train wreck appeal.

Interestingly, or not, while Winehouse gets more than twice as much ink as the others, much of it is spent in the service of depressingly redundant recollections of her binges and outbursts. Not unlike with Joplin, Jones and Morrison, one comes away wondering not why they died so young, but how they managed to live as long as they did.

Indeed, Sounes betrays a soft spot for Winehouse, at times acting like a priest or psychiatrist, where he is mostly content to dismiss Morrison and Jones as burned out buffoons. In the latter’s case, there weren’t too many people willing to say many nice things: Jones comes off as a petulant, abusive bully, a man-child who might have ended up in jail or in a ditch if not for his musical skills and fortuitous association with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Morrison, on the other hand, warrants more nuance and empathy than Sounes is capable of conjuring. True, the Lizard King was, by most accounts, all too often a braying, inebriated ass. On the other hand, there are plenty of friends and acquaintances who describe him as the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde: when not drunk, he was capable of humor, kindness and generosity. And he was also capable of ethereal brilliance; lost on Sounes are the ways Morrison channeled his vices into unique and affecting visions. A simple assessment of his material dealing with alcohol reveals a trifecta of masterful songs that also work as poetry: “Roadhouse Blues”, “End of the Night” and especially what might rank as rock music’s finest meditation on the irresistible pull of drink, “The Crystal Ship”.

Like Hendrix, Joplin simply seemed to get caught up in the chaos that accompanies life in the spotlight; unlike Hendrix, she had deep-rooted insecurities and a profound self-loathing (like Cobain and Winehouse) that led her to seek solace from miscellaneous chemicals. Hendrix is the only one who seems relatively well-adjusted and mostly in control of his faculties throughout. He enjoyed the party because he could, but he took his life, and his music, very seriously. More, he harbored no apparent desire to harm or annihilate himself, so his death still seems a genuine misadventure, a freak incident that still stings to this day.

Sounes helpfully demolishes any/all conspiracy theories, ranging from the familiar (Morrison lives!) to the far-fetched (Hendrix was murdered), and while we’ll never know exactly what happened to Jones and Joplin, the drugs found in their systems combined with the backstory of their final months in this earthly form leave little to the imagination.

27 also serves as a corrective of sorts for the half-assed mythologizing, particularly of Morrison and Cobain, both of whom have, for a variety of understandable if facile reasons, been posthumously anointed as voices of their generation. Both Cobain and Morrison had upbringings that left them ill-prepared for adulthood, much less celebrity. But there was no shortage of self-indulgence as well, and while anyone with a heart can feel genuine empathy, the record leaves no question these men were surrounded by concerned support systems, and wealth, that might have made a difference.

In a fascinating twist, just about all the maligned parents obtain an odd, non-rock and roll vindication, courtesy of their offspring. In the cases of Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison, all were estranged from their parents, all of whom ended up wealthy beneficiaries of careers they never approved of, but perhaps unintentionally did much to inspire.


Just Like a Big Daydream in the Middle of the Night: The Return of Shuggie Otis (Revisited)

True story: Already an industry veteran although barely legal drinking age, Shuggie Otis was asked to join the Rolling Stones. Famously, he declined the offer.

Had he accepted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two things are certain. One, he would have become wealthy and a household name. Two, many millions of people might have more easily discovered—and fallen under the spell of—his 1974 tour-de-force, Inspiration Information. By refusing, on admirable principle, a chance to snatch the biggest of brass rings (he was more interested in his own things), Otis transformed into one of the all-time rock music mysteries, equal parts Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson.

Shuggie Otis endures as one of those inscrutable figures many people are familiar with, even if they don’t know his name. Sadly, though revealingly, he is likely best known to contemporary ears through the work of other artists. He’s been sampled by Beyonce (“Gift From Virgo”), OutKast (“Mrs. Jackson”) and most notably, The Brothers Johnson, who hit #5 on the charts in 1977 with their excellent, if inferior cover of “Strawberry Letter 23”.

Still a teenager when he wrote and performed it, this song alone should have put Otis in a class by himself. As a composition, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a near perfect synthesis of funk, soul and rock. Sly Stone got (real) close; so did Stevie Wonder, but neither hit the trifecta as indelibly. More than anything anyone else did for the entire decade, “Strawberry Letter 23” picks up what Hendrix was putting down and takes it further into the future: The phased fade-out of the coda is like Side Three of Axis: Bold as Love. And it works as a wholly organic and original vibe; Otis is not trying to recapture (or copy) Hendrix, which is what so many inferior musicians have done. If Hendrix, especially on his ballads like “Little Wing” and “Drifting”, was refining the best work Curtis Mayfield did with the Impressions, “Strawberry Letter 23” anticipates the farther-out freakiness of Funkadelic and the watered down, not-so-solid gold white boys would take to the bank too many times to count.

There are a couple of basic questions fans, like this writer, have asked themselves for entirely too long. Why isn’t Shuggie Otis recognized by more people as a genius? And why isn’t Inspiration Information regarded as one of the best albums of the ‘70s? Otis, and his masterpiece, have belonged to the underground, enigmas that attract word-of-mouth followings each generation. Ultimately there are no good, or acceptable answers for why Otis has labored so long in semi-obscurity. He has, however, continued to work, and occasionally record. The arrival of this remastered version of Inspiration Information, along with an entire bonus disc of unreleased material, sheds overdue light on what he was doing while the time he could and should have owned ostensibly passed us all by.

Certain albums, for whatever reason, never find the audience they deserve, failing to connect due to fashion or fate, or because too many souls have been sold in the service of crossover pop candy. It’s one of the oldest, if saddest stories in the music business: same as it ever was. A possibility that at once explains and justifies—however belatedly—the unique potential of Inspiration Information is that, unlike certain cult classics (Love’s Forever Changes) or unrealized masterworks (The Beach Boys’ SMiLE), Otis’ album can, and should, resonate with any listener, anytime. Like right now.

Perhaps Shuggie needed to wait until 2013 to finally come unstuck in time. Maybe Inspiration Information has always-already been in the present tense; it’s that real, that alive. It reminds us about the best of what we’ve done, and nostalgia packs a convincing punch. It is also an antidote for despair and/or cynicism: Musical history is too often written by the winners (the votes counted in cash), but there is constantly art being made in the margins, work that is always on the verge of being discussed. There is always music kicking around somewhere that will eventually announce itself in a way that realigns our proper understanding of who really did what, when.

So what is the first-time listener likely to discover, on the occasion of this third coming of Inspiration Information (the official introduction was in 1974, the second in 2001 when David Byrne re-released it on his Luaka Bop label, including four songs from Shuggie’s second album Freedom Flight, notably “Strawberry Letter 23”)? Any serious fan of music should understand immediately that this album is a significant work by a young man, a brilliant man, a confident man, a calm, cool and collected fellow full of ideas and the uncanny ability to express them. And, it should be noted, Otis made this a solo album in very literal terms: with the exception of some horns and strings, Shuggie played all the instruments himself. Understanding that virtuosity and audacity only serves to amplify what this 21 year old visionary achieved.

The needle could be dropped at virtually any point to make a compelling case for its brilliance, but the high point may be its third track, “Sparkle City”. It still seems nearly impossible that a musician so young could sound this assured, and create a statement of purpose this persuasive. Laid back and unhurried, this song is like walking into a conversation called the ‘70s. Two minutes before the vocals kick in, Otis is on his own time, taking his time—and it’s (somewhat) understandable why this didn’t find its way onto radios all over America. Dreamlike with an irresistible bass line and perfectly-placed horn flourishes, this psychedelic swirl showcases Shuggie’s remarkable voice. “I heard all the news/There is no offer that I wouldn’t refuse”, he sings, sounding wistful but not boastful. And then he follows that up with an astonishing line that practically predicts the rest of his life, intended or not: “Now come time for me to run / Sorry, people, but I’m not the one”. A wink and a nod, and maybe an insight that explains or at least vindicates how—and why—this preternaturally gifted cat could stroll so calmly off center stage.

As we know now, Otis may have stayed more or less out of sight, but he did not retreat into self-imposed exile. Whether he was unfairly ignored by the same record executives who once courted him or he sabotaged his own promise, or simply, like the title of his awesome instrumental, not available, the reality is that Wings Of Love is the first new music the world has heard from Otis since 1974. It is not, strictly speaking, all new material; indeed, some of it goes back to the early ‘70s. It’s a seventeen song anthology covering 1970 through 2000, with several tracks from the mid ‘80s that have, unsurprisingly, dated more poorly than his earlier work.

Newcomers are strongly advised to absorb and understand Inspiration Information (and the two albums that preceded it) before passing judgment on the new stuff. That said, for anyone fearing the worst, they exceed any reasonable expectations. They function, on one level, as the diary of an artist evolving, reflecting the times but always in his unique, uniquely affecting fashion. And they work, on their own terms, as well as evidence of the ways Otis influenced a host of more successful musicians. Listening to the tracks from 1976 and 1977, there are undeniable traces of the sorts of sounds that would dominate MTV a decade later. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” will blow some minds: it’s like the missing link between Sly Stone and Prince, and it’s funky as all get out.

Old school fans will likely find these previously unreleased tracks anything from interesting to indispensable. It is refreshing to have sonic proof that Otis was not entirely silent all these years, and now he won’t (can’t?) be silenced. The meticulous liner notes function as a useful if overdue mini-biography, and include some illuminating comments from Shuggie himself. The inclusion of the live “Black Belt Sheriff”, a solo acoustic track recorded live in 2000, is worth the proverbial price of admission. It’s an update of sorts to “Sparkle City”; a cagey but incisive commentary that addresses unasked questions about the past and begs further ones about the future. That future, of course, is now. Same as it ever was.

Working on this review proven somewhat of a mixed blessing. I’ve waited a long time for an opportunity to spread the word about Shuggie Otis. Better understanding his story, and the stories behind these songs, does take away some of the mystery—but none of the magic. All art, in the final or most objective analysis, must make its own best case, regardless of circumstances, critics or expectations. The only issue, all along, as it relates to Inspiration Information, has been ensuring that as many people as possible are exposed to the work. Once that happens, matters tend to take care of themselves. Here’s hoping now is the time, finally, for this man and his music to get a proper acknowledgment from a larger crowd.


1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors* (Revisited)

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).