Roky Erickson: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Genius (Revisited)

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(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!)

Preface

You’re Gonna Miss Me is an instant classic and will likely be regarded as essential years from now. Two critical things it has going for it: one, its subject, Roky Erickson, is a filmmaker’s fantasy—the type of character who could never be adequately fictionalized because the story outstrips imagination, and two, instead of being overwhelmed by the material or trying to either sensationalize or sterilize it, director Keven McAlester, by simply standing in the right places at the right times, captures success, insanity, disintegration and redemption. It’s almost impossible to imagine the viewer coming away from this documentary without a better understanding of popular music, mental illness, frailty and faith. It’s likely viewers will something about themselves, as well. What else could one ask for?

I. Pictures (Leave Your Body Behind)
There are a handful of artistic archetypes we know and love—or loathe—in cinema, literature, and music, especially rock ‘n’ roll music. To take just a sampling of some of the more obvious ones, there is the cautionary tale (see Keith Moon); the tragic hero case study (see Jimi Hendrix); the unrecognized master (see Shuggie Otis); the posthumously recognized master (see Nick Drake); the redemption song (see Brian Wilson), et cetera . And yet, has there ever been an individual who encompasses several of the above, creating an entirely unique category? Yes: Roky Erickson. Who? Exactly. Roky Erickson is indeed many things, all at once. The greatest singer not many people have ever heard. The saddest could-have-been-a-contender parable in the annals of rock. An authentic icon who, while written off even by those who at one time followed him, attracted artists such as R.E.M., ZZ Top, Julian Cope and The Jesus and Mary Chain to take part in the excellent 1990 tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye .
So, who was Roky Erickson? Envision a psychedelic era band that combined the darker energy of Love and The Doors with the bluesy kitchen sink vocal assault of Janis Joplin, alongside the musical proficiency of The Yardbirds or The Mothers of Invention. That amalgamation begins to approximate what the 13th Floor Elevators, from Austin Texas, sounded like before the Summer of Love. When they eventually (inevitably) headed up the coast toward the burgeoning Bay Area scene in 1966, they blew the minds, so to speak, of many of the groups who were still cultivating a more mellow, folk-based sound. The Elevators were heavier, edgier and more exotic, drawing on an electric blues foundation that at once assimilated the aggression of The Who and the more cerebral introspection of Dylan. It was anything but a simple, hit-seeking sound, yet their first album yielded a song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”—featuring the full range of Erickson’s vocals and the trademark electric jug playing of Tommy Hall—that caused some excitement, reaching #55 on the charts.
Much like seemingly everyone else on the accelerating edge of the rock scene, Erickson found stimulation, solace and eventually (inevitably) distraction via the LSD he ingested like lemon drops. Along with his better-known acid casualty compatriots Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, Erickson fell to earth. Chronic behavioral and legal issues ensued. Unlike Wilson, who headed for the relative security of his sandbox, and Barrett, who — after turning on and tuning in — dropped out entirely and disengaged from the outside world, Erickson returned to Austin and found himself the target of an overly enthusiastic police department anxious to make an example out of him. Popped for possession of marijuana joint and facing the possibility of serious jail time, Erickson’s lawyer proposed the dubious stratagem of pleading insanity, which led to an eventual confinement in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He remained there for three years.

II. Roller Coaster
You’re Gonna Miss Me traces the early adventures that led Roky to Rusk, and fills in the following decades, which have mostly been a tragic void for all but the most dedicated fans. Erickson may have been gone, but he was far from forgotten, as evidenced by the commentary provided by an impressively disparate array of musicians, including Billy Gibbons (of Texas legends ZZ Top), Patti Smith, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers). It is a documentary that unfolds like a mystery story, each anecdote and interview revealing another layer that helps explain who he was, who he became, and who he is now.

III. Slip Inside This House
Seminal scene number one: Roky Erickson, now under the exclusive care of his mother back in Texas (circa 1999), enters his modest and messy apartment. He turns on the radio. Then he turns on a second radio. Then he turns on a television, and another. Then he turns on an electric Casio piano. Eventually he has plugged in or turned on a beehive of competing sounds; the room is a cacophony of random stimulation. He puts on a pair of sunglasses and announces in a soft voice (barely audible above the chaos) “Okay, I’m gonna lay down now.” His mother, who had presumably seen it all before, remarks matter-of-factly: “He falls asleep with all that stuff on…it’s when I turn it off that he wakes up.”

IV. If You Have Ghosts
A few things that the assembled evidence seems to render indisputable: Roky Erickson was, and remains, a sensitive and sweet human being; he was blessed with an extraordinary voice and had an intense interest in music very early on; his upbringing was complicated, even when measured against the understood assumption that some dysfunctional families are more dysfunctional than others.

V. Earthquake
Seminal scene number two: The camera pans down a long, empty hallway with white walls. A voice speaks; it is Roky, taped in a 1975 interview: “I felt like a male Jane Eyre in that place…all I had to look forward to was (being told) ‘You’re still insane.’” Back-story: June ’68, Roky abruptly returns home from San Francisco. He is filthy, scab-ridden and incoherent. Alarmed, his mother takes him to a doctor, who promptly, if blithely, declares him an incurable schizophrenic. He is subsequently “rescued” by one of his band mates and they hitchhike back to the Bay Area, where Roky eschews LSD for heroin. He begins hearing voices. Upon contracting serum hepatitis from a dirty needle, he returns to Austin, and that fateful marijuana bust. In a matter of months Roky has gone from the center of a psychedelic summertime to bunking up amongst the profoundly disturbed, and violent, residents of Rusk Hospital.

VI. Fire Engine
The similarities between Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett, while obvious, are nevertheless extraordinary. Barrett was more popular, his story more often told, and he was more missed once he was gone. But once Syd was gone, he stayed gone: after 1975, when he shocked his old mates by showing up at the studio as they were putting the finishing touches on the Barrett-inspired Wish You Were Here, he retreated to the care of his mother and abandoned all interest in music. Erickson, despite a similar appetite for acid (not to mention the heroin abuse) and regular shock treatments at Rusk, never stopped thinking about music. Unlike Syd, the fire of creating and making music never died inside Roky and was, ultimately, inextinguishable.

VII. Unforced Peace
Seminal scene number three: Bob Priest, Rusk’s resident psychologist, recalls how Roky played in a makeshift band that included a rapist, and two murderers. “Most of the time he’d have a yellow legal pad, sitting in the hallway writing music…he was a real nice little guy, he didn’t have a whole lot to say; he wanted to write his music, he wanted to play his music — and that’s all.”

VIII. I Walked With A Zombie
It’s 1972: finally released from Rusk, Rocky begins making music, but is plagued by paranoia and the aftereffects of what was, to say the least, his not exactly salubrious recent environment. Increasingly, he is convinced that he’s an alien and conniving humans are “zapping” his mind. His attorney takes him to the dime store several times to buy toy laser guns so he can zap them back. It does not work. Finally, she hits upon the idea of preparing a document declaring that Roky is, in fact, an alien, with the hope that whoever is sending telepathic shocks to his head will stop. It works.

IX. Starry Eyes
Seminal scene number four: A man out of time, he looks like it’s 1969, he sounds like it’s 1969, but it’s actually 1983. The same year synth-heavy pop was lip-synched around the clock on MTV, the man who may have invented psychedelic rock is in his mother’s house, being videotaped as he strums a song he wrote for her. He is disheveled and most of his teeth are now gone. It is poignant, but also more than a little painful to watch. And yet. That voice, those eyes, the honesty. As Melville wrote “You cannot hide the soul.”

X. She Lives in a Time of Her Own
At this point you are thinking: his mother is a saint. She took him in when no one else would, and every indication suggests that she accepts him and genuinely loves him, without reservation. If her rigid distrust of doctors and medication is unfortunate, it is also understandable, considering how she has seen her eldest son suffer. Certainly, she is eccentric; she could easily be the focus of a captivating documentary herself, recalling how Robert Crumb’s brothers occasionally, if chillingly, stole the spotlight in Terry Zwigoff’s justly celebrated film (speaking of controversial, odd artists). When Roky is interviewed at one point he confesses, sounding not only vulnerable and guileless, but childlike, “I wish I could be somewhere else.” The door of domestic unease creaks open and one wonders: how much of a good thing is this arrangement, after all?

XI. Don’t Slander Me
While the documentary keeps the focus firmly on Roky, the broiling undercurrent of familial tension (past and present) moves to the forefront when Erickson’s younger brother, Sumner (who plays tuba with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) asserts that years of therapy have helped him understand how domineering their mother has always been. While at first his sentiments seem more driven by an obsession to exorcise painful childhood demons, Sumner’s intentions to assist Roky are made touchingly clear when he offers to let his brother come live with him.
Eventually, it is up to a judge to determine who is best able to help Roky: his mother correctly claims to have helped him out when nobody else was able or interested; his brother insists that Roky now deserves the opportunity to help himself. The judge ultimately concurs with Sumner’s assessment that his mother, by refusing to let Roky take any medication, is effectively suppressing any possibility of improvement and, intentionally or not, keeping him in a state of dependence. The documentary, at this point, has portrayed enough candid incidents and interviews that the viewer will likely endorse the judge’s decision, but it is still an uneasy resolution.

XII. I Have Always Been Here Before
Seminal scene number five: After the court rules that Sumner can take his brother back with him to Pittsburgh, their mother silently leaves the courthouse. She stops by Roky’s apartment and, one by one, turns off the machines he’d left on when he left home, leaving her behind.

XIII. Splash I (Now I’m Home)
One year later, Roky is preparing to return home to visit his mother for the first time. Sumner, who seems wary whenever her name is mentioned, acknowledges that she probably did the best that she could to provide for her son. Nevertheless, Sumner’s influence has been profound, and positive: Roky’s teeth are fixed, he has been prescribed (and is taking) modern meds, and he is seeing a therapist, who encourages him to play songs. He seems happy and healthy, sitting outside on a balcony, playing his guitar again. The voice is still not of this earth, but there can no longer be any doubt, if there ever was any, that Roky Erickson is indeed an earthling. The greatest ending of all is that the story has not ended.

(Postscript)
Special mention must be made of the extra features, which are generous bordering on mind-boggling. In an era where, unfortunately, one almost expects to get less for more (if there is material for two albums, try and stretch it into three; if there are any leftovers, package them up and push it for the “deluxe” edition), the bonus footage could comprise another full documentary—one of equal value and interest.
Huge kudos to McAlester and company for doing the right thing for the fans, and for Erickson: newcomers who see this footage will almost certainly be inclined to check out some vintage 13th Floor Elevators, as well as the unconscionably overlooked post-Elevators music Erickson made. In addition to an incredible collection of vintage performances from over the years (mostly solo acoustic), there are deleted scenes and readings of original material by Roky and his mother.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, at least one more amazing chapter is presented here: the documentary wrapped in 2002, but Roky’s astonishing recovery saw him performing live for the first time in almost 20 years at the 2005 Austin City Limits Festival. To watch the reception he gets, to hear how great he sounds, and to behold how fulfilled he appears, it is not possible to be unmoved. “It’s a cold night for alligators,” he sings. Damn right it is.

— 9 August 2007

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

hendrix_axis_bold_as_love

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!

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

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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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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.

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Your Holiday Shopping List or, My Island of Misfit Toys

If you’re wise (and/or foolish) enough to take my advice seriously, here are some of my favorite things from 2013.

If you are looking for gift ideas, for yourself or your loved ones, any of these items come highly recommended.

1. Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information/Wings of Love

First, back to the future with Shuggie Otis. His masterpiece, Inspiration Information, was initially released in 1974. It should have been a chart-topping event. It was re-released (thanks to David Byrne) in 2001; it should have been a paradigm shattering event. It was re-re-released in 2013, along with a bonus disc of post-70s work, a gift and a revelation. It should have set millions of ears on fire. Unfortunately, for him, for too many uninitiated listeners, it seems destined to be the ultimate underground joint. And that’s fine. Here is your opportunity to get right with history: trust me, you owe it to yourself.

Here’s a taste from my PopMatters review:

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.

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.

Full review HERE.

2. Will Calhoun: Life in This World

It is easy to admire Will Calhoun. He has, of course, distinguished himself for the last quarter-century with Living Colour. Anyone who has followed this band beyond what gets played on the radio knows he is one of the premier rock drummers. What many people might not know is that Calhoun is restless as he is talented. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Calhoun was comfortable playing with jazz musicians years before he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. During Living Colour’s first hiatus, in the mid-‘90s, Calhoun took several extended trips to Africa, studying his instrument and absorbing the culture.

We live in a peculiar time, where industries are imploding and traditional opportunities are shrinking. Whether it’s movies, books or music, the increasingly antiquated view is that an artist should find one thing, do it well, and repeat as often as possible. That limited—and limiting—approach could never apply to a creative force as itinerant and gifted as Will Calhoun. Living life and making music on his own terms has made him the antithesis of our attention deficit generation, and an artist worthy of our consideration and gratitude. It seems certain he will continue doing inspired work that will remain engaging many years from today.

Full review HERE. (Nice feedback from one of my favorite living drummers: I want to personally thank you for writing a brilliant review on my recent release LIFE IN THIS WORLD. More importantly, your insight into the music, choice of tunes, personnel, my career, and the reality of the music business reveals the true identity to the reader. Thank you! Will Calhoun.)

3. New Zion Trio: Chaliwa

Every day, Jamie Saft becomes more like his mentor, the indefatigable—and incomparable—John Zorn. Like Zorn, he is ludicrously productive, aesthetically audacious and churns out albums that are as amazing as much for their consistency as their diversity.

Where NZT’s debut Fight Against Babylon boasted discernible roots elements, the follow-up is a more focused, entrenched approach to instrumental reggae. At times it recalls a more pure mash-up of what Lee Perry got up to in his laboratory in the late ‘70s; at others it is reminiscent of the epic space jams from Prince Far I’s Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3. It works as agreeable background music (again, in a good way), but is meant to be absorbed and internalized. Like the best music, it gets better the more you hear it. If you’ve not given New Zion Trio a try, now is the time to hear what everyone else is missing.

Full review HERE.

4. John Goodman: Mingus Speaks

Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved. That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.

John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.

Full review HERE. (Happily, Goodman endorsed the review; here is his comment via the PopMatters site: Sean, this is a great review. You not only have a remarkable understanding of Mingus, but you got the gist of what I was trying to do in the book. Thanks so much. –John Goodman)

5. Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell, Angels

Do we, at this point, require further evidence that Jimi Hendrix was the most prodigiously gifted guitarist to ever play the instrument? We do not. Then again, we don’t need additional proof that stars glow at night, but it’s still nice to see them light up the sky.

Not quite filler, much of this material is anything but indispensable. On the other hand, considering how fleeting Hendrix’s recording career turned out to be, it’s remarkable that so much material was recorded. In this regard, Hendrix was way ahead of his time, ceaselessly working in his own studio and putting jams and improvisations on tape. What remains are fragments that got worked into more refined compositions, and enticing snapshots of ideas and visions that never had a chance to reach fruition.

For Hendrix enthusiasts, and the historical record, this latest (and hopefully not last) installment is priceless in its way. Any time we have an opportunity to hear Hendrix, particularly the incomplete works that clarify how his restless creativity operated, we are amassing additional (if unnecessary) validation that Jimi Hendrix, as an artist and explorer, has few peers in modern music.

Full review HERE.

(Bonus Book)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Apparently another movie was made about this, the best American novel of the 20th Century. Whatever. If you have not yet read the original masterpiece, your life is less because of it. I wrote at length, in May, in response to a provocative piece that picked apart the book. Check it out HERE. The premise of my essay, in addition to celebrating “The Greatness of the Gatsby” is to remind naysayers or the uninitiated that while it remains the ultimate period piece –of the Roaring ’20s and the emptiness that followed fast on its heels– it is timeless in the way that we are timeless in all our rage, aspiration and the myriad follies we inflict on one another. Also, it happens to nail, for all time, the devastating myth that sells itself, endlessly, as the American Dream.

What Fitzgerald does, with these ostensibly soulless and unpleasant people, is interrogate cause and effect, motive and aftermath, and all aspects of that myth sold to us as the American Dream. He takes this construction and places it on the operating table, dissecting what causes it to breathe, thrive and rot from the inside out. In this single regard, Fitzgerald was more prophetic than his critics can comprehend: he predicted how the roaring ‘20s would end and be remembered before they expired. If the people (like Nick) who wind up on the outside looking in see nothing but emptiness, it’s because all vanity, in the end, returns to the ashes whence it sprang. Fitzgerald is not describing anything Ecclesiastes did not say first, if less poetically.

In addition, he depicted the way Americans would react to every calamity of the 20th Century: after each debacle, the architects of said crisis waltz away, licking their wounds and counting their cash. No amount of dour intuition could have prepared Fitzgerald to imagine that, in the 21st century, they also get paid to scold the complicit masses (receiving book deals, going into politics or appearing on TV—the lucky ones doing all three). Think about the cowards in Congress today, who lustily passed legislation (and deregulation) that hastened the latest crash, now pushing austerity (but not higher taxes!). It isn’t that their methods or strategies are predictable (they are), it’s the narrative they employ that is so quintessentially American: cynicism covered in money, preaching solidarity.

In one of the most quoted passages of the book, Tom and Daisy are described as “careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” One need look no further than Wall Street, or Iraq, or the budgetary realities of a small town under sequestration to see, even with eyes wide shut, the ways everything Fitzgerald held his mirror up to are reflecting back at us, bigger, uglier and more shameless than they ever were a century ago. In America it is not only romance and nostalgia that ensure we are borne, ceaselessly to the past.

(See what I did there?)

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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!

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

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.

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo

Over at Esquire the always reliable Charlie Pierce (some previous blog love for him HERE) opened up a discussion on the best guitar solos.

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

I jumped into the fray, genuinely dashing ten suggestions of the top of me head. Wherever necessary I 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.)

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.)

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”. (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.

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

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