Mom, Johnny Mathis and Me

jm

Despite accusations to the contrary leveled by friends (and especially family), I don’t hate Christmas music so much as I’m allergic to cliché and kitsch — and as such this covers about 90% of pop culture, particularly rom-coms and, yes, holiday jingles. But I do have a soul, and I’m not immune to happy memories and nostalgia; one of my all-time favorite memories is being out in the car, Christmas shopping with my mom, as a rare December snowstorm made the sky dance all around the Ford Grenada, circa early 1980-something. On the 8-Track? The Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis masterpiece, my number one pick for best Christmas album ever, only John Fahey’s Guitar Soli and of course A Charlie Brown Christmas even close to second place.

It’s not (necessarily) my favorite track on a collection crammed with impossible-to-improve upon takes of beloved chestnuts (roasting on an open fire), but this is the one I associate with that day with moms, and, clichés be damned, it fills my heart with joy every time I hear it.

Question: has anyone ever sounded happier than Mathis does on “Sleigh Ride”?

This stuff is cynicism-proof. Whether or not Mathis actually means it is as irrelevant as whether Laurence Olivier was actually insane when he played King Lear. Mathis is invested in the artifice: he’s selling these songs— and he’s doing it with the conviction (and confidence) of a man who could persuade a guy in Miami he needed a down jacket in July.

Happy holidays!

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

 

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14, and is featured in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14.

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My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

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

a_band_called_death

10. Material: Hallucination Engine

Speaking of Bill Laswell, if any single artist can be said to suffer from being too good, and too productive, it’s him. He is music’s quintessential shape-shifter, his hands in so many diverse projects and stretching himself, seamlessly, in so many directions. While any number of his productions could serve as proof for this claim, Hallucination Engine might best represent his uncanny brilliance. What can one say about a recording that brings together the likes of Wayne Shorter, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Sly Dunbar and, for a special—and hilarious—cameo, William Burroughs? Throw all that history and diversity into a studio and, unsurprisingly, a filthy gumbo of funk, dub and old-school jazz emerges, all with a driving beat and traditional Indian music vibe.

It’s entirely too easy to suggest this is a successful take on “East meets West”, but Laswell & Co. deserve considerable credit for using ancient, sacred music as a springboard for extended excursions into a postmodern mash-up: the moods swing from buoyant to serene, and conjure bright, blinking lights one moment and a drift into calm darkness the next. The final result is exhaustive but not exhausting and this isn’t a cynical instance of genre-trolling: this is the real deal delivered by a collective that has been there and done that in order to do this.

material

9. Dr. Octagon: Instrumentalyst: Octagon Beats

The backstory here is crucial for a proper understanding of the perfect storm of personalities and timing that created this album, but the music is ultimately all that matters. And it’s all music: this is a companion piece to the previous volume, Dr. Octagonecologyst. Dr. Octagon being the brainchild and alter ego of Kool Keith (Keith Thornton). While his rhymes and rapping on the first album are distinctive, disturbing and sui generis, he uses his voice, samples and well-timed outbursts to embellish this all-instrumental session (“vocals surgically removed” the cover boasts). The spotlight, then, shines on turntable wizard DJ Qbert and production maestro Dan “The Automator” Nakamura—both of whom are legendary in the appropriate circles.

This is an exceedingly dark, occasionally hilarious, wholly unique album. Nothing else sounds like this, and no amount of musical science could ever duplicate the spooky atmosphere these three men create. It’s a trip, in several senses of the word, through the night shift of an insane asylum inside a mad doctor’s brain, where bizarre announcements escape from muffled intercoms and sly laughter creeps around ill-lit hallways. It’s a homemade B-movie where one hand holds the camera, the other a scalpel, and it’s too dark to tell if that’s his sweat, your tears or somebody else’s blood.

dr octagon

8. DJ Spooky: Optometry

DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) is proof that one can never be too smart or too ambitious. Of course, many artists who are too smart or ambitious for their own goods quickly cross the line of pretension or else become too enamored with their ingenuity. Spooky is incapable of thinking small, and his varied interests are obvious by the projects he’s undertaken: turntablist, producer, philosopher, author, professor, editor. But it’s his work in the studio, making music, that finds him combining all of these passions into enduring works of art. Put in more personal terms, I’d followed—and enjoyed—Spooky’s career to this point, but the second I popped this disc in, summer 2002, I knew the ante had been upped. Big time.

Optometry is a masterpiece, and one of the most satisfying musical-cultural mash-ups of the new millennium. Conceived as another installment of the excellent Blue Series, the vision here combined with the stunning cadre of musicians assembled could (should?) have been recipe for disaster or, at least, pretension. Instead, Optometry manages to be many things that succeed as a seamless whole: a rather straightforward—and banging—jazz release, and a fully experimental, heavily avant-garde exercise in illbient. William Parker, one of the premier contemporary bassists, is joined by Matthew Shipp (one of the premier pianists) and the always-excellent Guillermo Brown (drums) and Joe McPhee (sax), throw down sonic cage match style: the proceedings are clearly thought out, but there is plenty of room for improvisation. Words, as always, are hopeless and inadequate when the music can speak for itself: the title track is a triumph of postmodern style: genres smashing and scattering to the margins, all pulled together by Spooky, getting his Sorcerer’s Apprentice on. This is magic.

dj spooky

7. John Fahey: Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes

John Fahey poses one significant concern for the uninitiated: he’s so great, and his recordings are all so superlative that once you’re in, you stay in. This ain’t a bad thing, but be forewarned: a little will never be enough. Fahey made a long, remarkable career out of tapping into an understated American expression, infusing traditional blues with folk and progressive elements. He is a guidepost that connects lines between the earliest, acoustic guitar blues of the early 20th Century and the more adventurous yet authentic blues-influenced music of the post-MTV world (think of the basement recordings of early Black Keys or Beck’s stripped down serenades).

Fahey’s work is always a history lesson: he draws freely on familiar (and, especially, unfamiliar) blues standards and, like a jazz player, improvises, embellishes and puts his own distinctive stamp on them. His original compositions emphasize repetition, and an unhurried impulse to get from here to there. Where here or there are is, of course, dependent upon the listener, but as Fahey himself would point out, he was trying to respect and preserve a roots music that was already largely forgotten by the early ‘60s. As his song (and album) titles suggest, he had a sense of humor and did not take himself too seriously even though this music is dead serious. Listening to these songs, you start to feel drawn back to a different time (no computers; no electricity even), and once the music gets inside you, it reminds you of places you’ve never been or don’t exist. Then you realize they do exist, because Fahey made them possible.

john fahey

6. Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The songs “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor.

If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

mighty diamonds

5. Fela Kuti: The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions

Kuti’s legend continues to grow as more people get their minds around how ridiculously productive and consistently awesome he was all the way up to his premature death in 1997. Lauded for inventing and/or popularizing Afrobeat, the work he did, especially throughout the ‘70s, is now correctly considered alongside some of James Brown’s extended funkfests. Leading large bands heavy on brass and percussion, Kuti was comfortable as bandleader and ringleader (and agitator, leading him to clash with and repeatedly be hassled by Nigerian authorities). He would become famous for his epic side-long jams, and just about anything he did in the ‘70s is excellent, but he is captured here, stateside, trying to find the groove. He succeeds, and this document stands as evidence of a master-in-the-making’s introductory statement.

There is an attempt at commerciality here, or at least accessibility he would dispense with altogether in short order. As such the songs are shorter, punchier and in many cases, booty-shaking mini miracles. There is an obvious amalgamation of African and western pop influences, and Kuti, seemingly making it up as he goes along, creates something that defies any type of easy description or categorization. Album closer “This is Sad” serves as a preview for the sprawling instrumental workouts he’d mastermind, but sometimes shorter is better, and there is as much emotion and concentrated intensity in this number as anything he’d go on to do.

fela kuti

4. Death: …For the Whole World to See

First order of business: if you’ve not seen the excellent documentary A Band Called Death, get thee to Netflix. The genuinely unbelievable story of this band and how they failed to launch (for all the wrong reasons) and finally found some semblance of recognition (for all the right reasons) is imperative viewing for artistic, historical and sociological factors.

Their story in a nutshell: music they recorded in 1975 (!!) finally saw the light of day in 2009, and minds were blown. Here is more or less what I thought when I first listened: This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, or can’t get around to acquiring all of, but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story. Simply put and without any overstatement, the tracks these three brothers (literally and figuratively) from Detroit laid down is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, Ramones before Ramones. Punk before punk, as mind boggling as that is.

(Sidenote: It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarrassment, because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least. And that the rock impresario Clive Davis, while allegedly digging what he heard, refused to get on board until the band changed its name. Fuck that, Death said, and the rest was, until 2009, three decades and change of unwritten and almost unheard history.)

So yeah, the story beggars belief, and the eventual documentary was pretty much a foregone conclusion years before it was made, and that is regardless of the actual quality of the music. But as it happens, the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians In My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. It can stand alongside pretty much anything; it’s that vital, that perfect, that real. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.

death

3. The Plugz: Better Luck

Check this out.

Isn’t that one of the greatest things you’ve ever heard? Using Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin (who would later make memorable contributions to REM’s Document), and beefing up the sound with Bruce Fowler’s trombone, this song should have been a number one hit, and should be considered an absolute classic. There is no way to say enough good things: the lyrics, mixing unrequited lust and self-loathing, the music (that trombone adding comic relief to the angst), the tongue-in-cheek melodrama of the vocals, and a guitar-bass-drum assault that is tight as a clam in a vise.

How about this for an album opener—and title track? Again, the lyrics, the vocals, the vibe. These guys aren’t just channeling Los Angeles, they are Los Angeles. And not the Hollywood mansion L.A., but the old Sunset Strip, Jim Morrison high-fiving Charles Bukowski shot and a beer, back-alley on a steamy, stinking summer night L.A. 1981: L.A., like The Big Apple, was still dirty, desperate and an unrivaled breeding ground for art. Not for nothing were The Plugz prominently featured on the soundtrack of consummate L.A. flick, Repo Man.

Right? It is another depressing dissertation on the way we let genius rot on the vine while watered-down, derivative twaddle makes millions. Certainly this was true yesterday, it’s true today and it’ll be true tomorrow. And who cares? Anyone who knows anything understands you have to get outside the margins and beneath even the underground to find the really good shit. And yet…it’s a travesty that Better Luck is not heralded as one of the great American rock albums. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it: let’s get a proper reissue of this masterpiece as soon as possible. I’ll write the liner notes.

plugz

2. Bad Brains: 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 thousand mosh pits. One of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in modern rock history. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and anything else you ever imagined. And it’s all good.

The album could be described the same way Thomas Hobbes described the state of mankind in the 17th Century: nasty, brutish and short. Add brilliant, soulful, impossible to compartmentalize. It’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of punk, hardcore, classic rock and the time warp that bridges progressive and alternative. Or, if you took the best things about The Clash and Black Sabbath (bookended by Death and Living Colour), it hints at the glories contained within these grooves. Side One of this sucker has to be one of the all-time adrenaline rushes in all popular music, and it stands alongside anything anyone has ever done.

bad brains

1. Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information

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”.

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. But here’s the thing: that is not acceptable. Shuggie deserves better, certainly, but it is intolerable that this album is not regularly talked about when we talk about albums everyone should own. Everyone should own this album because it is as perfect as anything anyone did that decade. Anything. Anyone.

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. I continue to hope that the time is always right for a full reappraisal of how important, and essential this album is. I’m also willing to bet if you’re not yet in the club, you’ll be glad to join. Are you experienced? It’s never too late.

shuggie otis

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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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

MT

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak*

Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

i.

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14.

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

a_band_called_death

10. Material: Hallucination Engine

Speaking of Bill Laswell, if any single artist can be said to suffer from being too good, and too productive, it’s him. He is music’s quintessential shape-shifter, his hands in so many diverse projects and stretching himself, seamlessly, in so many directions. While any number of his productions could serve as proof for this claim, Hallucination Engine might best represent his uncanny brilliance. What can one say about a recording that brings together the likes of Wayne Shorter, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Sly Dunbar and, for a special—and hilarious—cameo, William Burroughs? Throw all that history and diversity into a studio and, unsurprisingly, a filthy gumbo of funk, dub and old-school jazz emerges, all with a driving beat and traditional Indian music vibe.

It’s entirely too easy to suggest this is a successful take on “East meets West”, but Laswell & Co. deserve considerable credit for using ancient, sacred music as a springboard for extended excursions into a postmodern mash-up: the moods swing from  buoyant to serene, and conjure bright, blinking lights one moment and a drift into calm darkness the next. The final result is exhaustive but not exhausting and this isn’t a cynical instance of genre-trolling: this is the real deal delivered by a collective that has been there and done that in order to do this.

material

9. Dr. Octagon: Instrumentalyst: Octagon Beats

The backstory here is crucial for a proper understanding of the perfect storm of personalities and timing that created this album, but the music is ultimately all that matters. And it’s all music: this is a companion piece to the previous volume, Dr. Octagonecologyst. Dr. Octagon being the brainchild and alter ego of Kool Keith (Keith Thornton). While his rhymes and rapping on the first album are distinctive, disturbing and sui generis, he uses his voice, samples and well-timed outbursts to embellish this all-instrumental session (“vocals surgically removed” the cover boasts). The spotlight, then, shines on turntable wizard DJ Qbert and production maestro Dan “The Automator” Nakamura—both of whom are legendary in the appropriate circles.

This is an exceedingly dark, occasionally hilarious, wholly unique album. Nothing else sounds like this, and no amount of musical science could ever duplicate the spooky atmosphere these three men create. It’s a trip, in several senses of the word, through the night shift of an insane asylum inside a mad doctor’s brain, where bizarre announcements escape from muffled intercoms and sly laughter creeps around ill-lit hallways. It’s a homemade B-movie where one hand holds the camera, the other a scalpel, and it’s too dark to tell if that’s his sweat, your tears or somebody else’s blood.

dr octagon

8. DJ Spooky: Optometry

DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) is proof that one can never be too smart or too ambitious. Of course, many artists who are too smart or ambitious for their own goods quickly cross the line of pretension or else become too enamored with their ingenuity. Spooky is incapable of thinking small, and his varied interests are obvious by the projects he’s undertaken: turntablist, producer, philosopher, author, professor, editor. But it’s his work in the studio, making music, that finds him combining all of these passions into enduring works of art. Put in more personal terms, I’d followed—and enjoyed—Spooky’s career to this point, but the second I popped this disc in, summer 2002, I knew the ante had been upped. Big time.

Optometry is a masterpiece, and one of the most satisfying musical-cultural mash-ups of the new millennium. Conceived as another installment of the excellent Blue Series, the vision here combined with the stunning cadre of musicians assembled could (should?) have been recipe for disaster or, at least, pretension. Instead, Optometry manages to be many things that succeed as a seamless whole: a rather straightforward—and banging—jazz release, and a fully experimental, heavily avant-garde exercise in illbient. William Parker, one of the premier contemporary bassists, is joined by Matthew Shipp (one of the premier pianists) and the always-excellent Guillermo Brown (drums) and Joe McPhee (sax), throw down sonic cage match style: the proceedings are clearly thought out, but there is plenty of room for improvisation. Words, as always, are hopeless and inadequate when the music can speak for itself: the title track is a triumph of postmodern style: genres smashing and scattering to the margins, all pulled together by Spooky, getting his Sorcerer’s Apprentice on. This is magic.

dj spooky

7. John Fahey: Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes

John Fahey poses one significant concern for the uninitiated: he’s so great, and his recordings are all so superlative that once you’re in, you stay in. This ain’t a bad thing, but be forewarned: a little will never be enough. Fahey made a long, remarkable career out of tapping into an understated American expression, infusing traditional blues with folk and progressive elements. He is a guidepost that connects lines between the earliest, acoustic guitar blues of the early 20th Century and the more adventurous yet authentic blues-influenced music of the post-MTV world (think of the basement recordings of early Black Keys or Beck’s stripped down serenades).

Fahey’s work is always a history lesson: he draws freely on familiar (and, especially, unfamiliar) blues standards and, like a jazz player, improvises, embellishes and puts his own distinctive stamp on them. His original compositions emphasize repetition, and an unhurried impulse to get from here to there. Where here or there are is, of course, dependent upon the listener, but as Fahey himself would point out, he was trying to respect and preserve a roots music that was already largely forgotten by the early ‘60s. As his song (and album) titles suggest, he had a sense of humor and did not take himself too seriously even though this music is dead serious. Listening to these songs, you start to feel drawn back to a different time (no computers; no electricity even), and once the music gets inside you, it reminds you of places you’ve never been or don’t exist. Then you realize they do exist, because Fahey made them possible.

john fahey

6. Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The songs “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor.

If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

mighty diamonds

5. Fela Kuti: The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions

Kuti’s legend continues to grow as more people get their minds around how ridiculously productive and consistently awesome he was all the way up to his premature death in 1997. Lauded for inventing and/or popularizing Afrobeat, the work he did, especially throughout the ‘70s, is now correctly considered alongside some of James Brown’s extended funkfests. Leading large bands heavy on brass and percussion, Kuti was comfortable as bandleader and ringleader (and agitator, leading him to clash with and repeatedly be hassled by Nigerian authorities). He would become famous for his epic side-long jams, and just about anything he did in the ‘70s is excellent, but he is captured here, stateside, trying to find the groove. He succeeds, and this document stands as evidence of a master-in-the-making’s introductory statement.

There is an attempt at commerciality here, or at least accessibility he would dispense with altogether in short order. As such the songs are shorter, punchier and in many cases, booty-shaking mini miracles. There is an obvious amalgamation of African and western pop influences, and Kuti, seemingly making it up as he goes along, creates something that defies any type of easy description or categorization. Album closer “This is Sad” serves as a preview for the sprawling instrumental workouts he’d mastermind, but sometimes shorter is better, and there is as much emotion and concentrated intensity in this number as anything he’d go on to do.

fela kuti

4. Death: …For the Whole World to See

First order of business: if you’ve not seen the excellent documentary A Band Called Death, get thee to Netflix. The genuinely unbelievable story of this band and how they failed to launch (for all the wrong reasons) and finally found some semblance of recognition (for all the right reasons) is imperative viewing for artistic, historical and sociological factors.

Their story in a nutshell: music they recorded in 1975 (!!) finally saw the light of day in 2009, and minds were blown. Here is more or less what I thought when I first listened: This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, or can’t get around to acquiring all of, but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story. Simply put and without any overstatement, the tracks these three brothers (literally and figuratively) from Detroit laid down is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, Ramones before Ramones. Punk before punk, as mind boggling as that is.

(Sidenote: It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarrassment, because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least.  And that the rock impresario Clive Davis, while allegedly digging what he heard, refused to get on board until the band changed its name. Fuck that, Death said, and the rest was, until 2009, three decades and change of unwritten and almost unheard history.)

So yeah, the story beggars belief, and the eventual documentary was pretty much a foregone conclusion years before it was made, and that is regardless of the actual quality of the music. But as it happens, the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians In My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. It can stand alongside pretty much anything; it’s that vital, that perfect, that real. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.

death

3. The Plugz: Better Luck

Check this out.

Isn’t that one of the greatest things you’ve ever heard? Using Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin (who would later make memorable contributions to REM’s Document), and beefing up the sound with Bruce Fowler’s trombone, this song should have been a number one hit, and should be considered an absolute classic. There is no way to say enough good things: the lyrics, mixing unrequited lust and self-loathing, the music (that trombone adding comic relief to the angst), the tongue-in-cheek melodrama of the vocals, and a guitar-bass-drum assault that is tight as a clam in a vise.

How about this for an album opener—and title track? Again, the lyrics, the vocals, the vibe. These guys aren’t just channeling Los Angeles, they are Los Angeles. And not the Hollywood mansion L.A., but the old Sunset Strip, Jim Morrison high-fiving Charles Bukowski shot and a beer, back-alley on a steamy, stinking summer night L.A. 1981: L.A., like The Big Apple, was still dirty, desperate and an unrivaled breeding ground for art. Not for nothing were The Plugz prominently featured on the soundtrack of consummate L.A. flick, Repo Man.

Right? It is another depressing dissertation on the way we let genius rot on the vine while watered-down, derivative twaddle makes millions. Certainly this was true yesterday, it’s true today and it’ll be true tomorrow. And who cares? Anyone who knows anything understands you have to get outside the margins and beneath even the underground to find the really good shit. And yet…it’s a travesty that Better Luck is not heralded as one of the great American rock albums. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it: let’s get a proper reissue of this masterpiece as soon as possible. I’ll write the liner notes.

plugz

2. Bad Brains: 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 thousand mosh pits. One of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in modern rock history. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and anything else you ever imagined. And it’s all good.

The album could be described the same way Thomas Hobbes described the state of mankind in the 17th Century: nasty, brutish and short. Add brilliant, soulful, impossible to compartmentalize. It’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of punk, hardcore, classic rock and the time warp that bridges progressive and alternative. Or, if you took the best things about The Clash and Black Sabbath (bookended by Death and Living Colour), it hints at the glories contained within these grooves. Side One of this sucker has to be one of the all-time adrenaline rushes in all popular music, and it stands alongside anything anyone has ever done.

bad brains

1. Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information

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”.

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. But here’s the thing: that is not acceptable. Shuggie deserves better, certainly, but it is intolerable that this album is not regularly talked about when we talk about albums everyone should own. Everyone should own this album because it is as perfect as anything anyone did that decade. Anything. Anyone.

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. I continue to hope that the time is always right for a full reappraisal of how important, and essential this album is. I’m also willing to bet if you’re not yet in the club, you’ll be glad to join. Are you experienced? It’s never too late.

shuggie otis

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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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

MT

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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