Friday, April 29, 2005

NYC: Goodbye

east side, west side, all around the town

Uri Caine, The Sidewalks of New York.
Luna, Going Home.
Lou Reed, NYC Man.
Harry Nilsson, I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.

So, it's over--my time here. In an hour or two, the computer goes down and gets packed up, the server will close its doors (hence YouSendit's pinch hitting), and then I prepare for the utter misery of moving house.

I had thought to write something lengthy about leaving New York, the end of youth, etc. etc. etc., but I just don't have the time and I think I've said everything I wanted. So here are four last songs.

"Sidewalks of New York" is a 110 year-old song; this version, performed by the pianist Uri Caine and a large group of conspirators on their 1999 album of the same name, attempts to recreate what it must have been like to sit in a saloon on Delancey Street on a Saturday evening in 1904.

I come from a family of Irish immigrants, some of whom came to New York around this period, and if fancy takes me, I can imagine that some of them, after a day spent on the docks, sat in a bar and heard something similar to this.

"Going Home" is off Luna's 1994 album Bewitched. There is one particular set of lines that, after Sept. 2001, became heartbreaking.

The Chrysler Building was talking
to the Empire State
The Twin Towers were talking
to each other
Saying all is forgiven,
I love you still,
And we're home, home
going home...

I worked in 2 World Trade Center for two years, and in its shadow for three more. Strange that such a statement, which would have seemed innocuous not too long ago, now stamps me with history, as a citizen of the irrevocable past, in the way of someone who was born in East Berlin, or Austria-Hungary.

Finally, two blessings for the city. In Lou Reed's "NYC Man," from 1996's Set the Twilight Reeling, Lou acts like being an NYC man means never saying goodbye, and hitting the road whenever you get the hint you're not wanted, but he's really a bit of a softie. His line at the end-- "New York City, I love you"--is basically what I've been trying to say in two weeks of posts.

And Harry Nilsson is tired of praying and getting no answers, so he's moving to New York to see if the Lord is hanging out there. Best of luck to him. On Personal Best, one of the best anthologies ever released. (If the Lord is in New York City, he's living in Queens or Brooklyn--trust me. He needs the space.)

Hail & farewell, NYC. I'll be back from time to time, and will always be here in spirit. As old Walt says:

"Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and
the bright flow, I was refresh'd,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the
swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the
thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd."

Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

NYC: East Side/Downtown

the gruesome winter of 1996, First Ave and 83rd.

The Ramones, 53rd and 3rd.
East River Pipe, Down 42nd Street to the Light.
Rufus Wainwright, 14th Street.
Jake Holmes, Houston Street.
Duke Ellington, Wall Street Wail.

"But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above--
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we're
made of, is motion

Amy Clampitt, "Nothing Stays Put."

Snowed under by packing, so nothing but basics today.

"53rd and 3rd," the intersection where Dee Dee Ramone allegedly used to turn tricks to score heroin (it's the first stop in Manhattan for the E and F trains, ideal for the Queens-based junkie), is on the Ramones' first (and best, for me) record, released in 1976. It's saddening, and bewildering, that there is only one surviving original Ramone left.

East River Pipe is a one-man operation run by F.M. Cornog, formerly based in Astoria, Queens (where I also lived at the turn of the century). "Down 42nd Street" is off 1999's The Gasoline Age, which documented Cornog's move from Astoria to New Jersey--a song cycle about New York, New Jersey and driving. More Pipe CDs.

"14th Street," a grandiose pop fantasy that bears little resemblance to the grubby retail strip that is 14th Street today, is off Rufus Wainwright's 2003 record, Want One. Rufus' website--his upcoming tour dates.

Jake Holmes wrote two songs that most people have heard of--one is "Dazed and Confused," which Jimmy Page blatantly stole from him; the other is "Be All that You Can Be," the Army recruitment jingle. "Houston Street" is off Holmes' second record, 1968's A Letter to Catherine December, which appears to be available only via import or iTunes. (Note for non-New Yorkers: it's pronounced How-stun Street. Not, as the British guy I used to work with pronounced it, "hwoo-stone.")

"Wall Street Wail" was recorded on Dec. 10, 1929, six weeks after the great stock market crash, and was issued under "The Jungle Band", an Ellington band pseudonym. It's available on the Complete Brunswick Recordings.

On Friday: The End.

Monday, April 25, 2005

NYC: West Side/Uptown

that a mugger and a child should share the same paradise

Bruce Springsteen, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.
Nellie McKay, Manhattan Avenue.
Bobby Womack, Across 110th St.
John Coltrane, Central Park West.
The Clash, Broadway.
Charlie Parker Quintet, 52nd Street Theme.

"I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
Taxis, subways,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem's heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day--
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl."

Langston Hughes, "Juke Box Love Song"

When I was ten years old, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" was my favorite song off Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, and it still is. It's always sounded to me like Bruce is singing "talkin' bout the Talmud" towards the fade-out.

Manhattan Ave. in its youth

Nellie McKay's "Manhattan Avenue" was recorded at the Aldrich Museum in August 2004. The complete set is on McKay's website, and the original studio version is on Get Away from Me, my favorite record from last year. If you gave me a periscope to spy ten years into the future, I would try to scour a record store to see what Nellie had put out.

"Across 110th St." is the theme song to the searing 1972 film of the same name, starring Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto, and later was used to great effect in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. It was the finest thing Womack, an R&B journeyman, ever did. Get the soundtrack here.

The Dakota, 72nd and Central Park West, home to the Lennon/Onos and Satan.

Coltrane's "Central Park West" was recorded in 1960 and issued four years later on Coltrane's Sound, one of the loveliest, most underrated of Coltrane's Atlantic LPs. "Central Park West" was the first time Coltrane played the soprano saxophone on record--here he keeps to the horn's lower register for much of the performance.

Tom's Restaurant, 112th and Broadway, aka "The Seinfeld restaurant," and where Suzanne Vega read in the newspaper that William Holden had died--he was no one she had heard of.

"Broadway" is on the Clash's 3-LP epic Sandinista!, released in late 1980. It's a bloated, sprawling, indulgent mess of a record, but one in which I find buried riches every time I listen to it. Once we were driving late at night down an emptied avenue, most likely Second, and the lights went in our favor, and there seemed to be no other cars at all, not even taxis, and so we went something like forty blocks, at breakneck speed, without ever touching the brake, and it felt as though we could have sailed all the way down to Battery Park. "Broadway" came on, and it was perfect: "Forward!...Drive!...Green lights! Green lights!"

Parker's "52nd Street Theme" (written by Thelonious Monk) was recorded at the Royal Roost on September 4, 1948, with an intro by Symphony Sid that unfortunately cuts into Bird's opening solo. It's on the Genius of Charlie Parker.

(Due to server issues, these last two are available via "yousendit"--not ideal, but the alternative was to compress them to the point of being unlistenable.)

Friday, April 22, 2005

NYC: Solitude, Despair, Anomie

I can't give it away on Seventh Avenue

Bill Hicks, New York Apartment.
Bob Dylan, Hard Times in New York Town.
George Gaynes, et al, What a Waste.
The Trade Winds, New York's a Lonely Town.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, New York, New York.
Pamela Myers, Another Hundred People.
The Rolling Stones, Shattered.

"Now I do know that I am mad
For here are a million people surly with traffic..."

Ezra Pound, "N.Y."

It can beat you down, living here. It's expensive, it's soul-wearying. And good God, it gets crowded. There are times (most recently for me, when I made the mistake of wandering into the pedestrian- and car-choked hell that is Herald Square on a warm Sunday afternoon) when the sheer mass of people crammed into this city makes you want to dive off a pier and swim across the Hudson.

And "edginess," catnip for adolescents, eventually gets old. I'll miss a lot of things about this town, but someone standing on my corner yelling "I've got a knife!" is not one of them.

New York can be a wonderful place to be alone, but it can also be merciless and crushing when you are blue. That said, the city will always give you perspective if you wait long enough; it will provide vistas into far deeper trenches of misery. One day I was walking down Broadway feeling quite low, until I saw a man kneeling on the sidewalk, crying and slamming his fists on the pavement.

Best street shakedown: summer 1996. I was walking in Murray Hill when a nicely dressed guy with impeccably styled dreads came up to me and gave me this story. He had been working on the new Lou Reed video when he was told he had to go up to Stamford to get some equipment. And as it turned out, he'd left his wallet at his girlfriend's place in Brooklyn, and all he needed was a few bucks to get a Metro North ticket, so could you help me out man, you look like a cool guy, etc. etc. It's the classic hustle story that makes absolutely no sense if you think about it, so the con has to keep talking fast enough so that you don't have time to. I was so impressed by the details of the con (a Lou Reed video? Stamford?) that I wound up giving him $5.

Here are seven slices of New York desperation:

Everyone who's ever lived in New York (except for those lucky few who nab those legendary rent-controlled two-bedrooms) can empathize with Bill Hicks' apartment woes. Hicks, one of the finest, most caustic comedians in recent memory, died ridiculously young at 32 in 1994. From Love, Laughter and Truth, a collection of previously-unreleased Hicks material.

Bob Dylan recorded "Hard Times" in a friend's apartment in December 1961, on a return trip to Minneapolis after spending close to a year in New York. The melody and much of the lyric is taken from the folk standard "Down on Penny's Farm." Times really weren't that hard for Bob--by this point, he had already recorded his first record and had played Carnegie Chapter Hall. After being bootlegged for decades, "Hard Times" was officially released on The Bootleg Series: Vol 1-3.

"What a Waste," which ought to be required listening for all kids planning to come to New York to make it big, is from the 1953 musical Wonderful Town, written by Betty Comden, Alfred Green (lyrics) and Leonard Bernstein (music). Sung by George Gaynes, Warren Gajour and Albert Linville. Original cast recording here. The Cape Cod singer's story is the saddest, for me.

The Trade Winds actually were New Yorkers, but they weren't surfers. The duo was Peter Andreoli and Vincent Poncia, a pair of Brill Building songwriters officially known as "Anders and Poncia" (check the Mystical Beast's archives for much more information on the later work of A&P). "New York's a Lonely Town," a great Beach Boys pastiche released in 1964, was their biggest hit. You can find it on the sublime collection Surfin' Hits. (Poncia would later write a number of '70s pop hits, like Leo Sayer's "You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'".)

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "New York, New York", a harsh sequel to the already grim "The Message", was released on Sugar Hill Records in 1983. DJ Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Scorpio, Cowboy, Kid Creole and Raheim were the first great rap group, whose influence seems almost immeasurable today. Soon after "New York" was released, the group fell apart due to legal battles. You can find "New York" on Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, an incredibly essential 3-CD compilation. (I had to compress the hell out of this song to make it fit on the server, so the sound is pretty poor, unfortunately.)

"Another Hundred People" is from Stephen Sondheim's Company, a 1970 musical that, despite some datedness (call answering services, "swinging" stewardesses), is still a fairly accurate and biting look at loneliness and marriage in upper-class NYC. Original cast recording here.

"Shattered" is on 1978's Some Girls, the last great Rolling Stones album.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

NYC: Circulation

the people ride in a hole in the ground

Duke Ellington, Take the "A" Train.
Le Tigre, My My Metrocard.
The Last Poets, On the Subway.
New York Dolls, Subway Train.
Tom Waits, Downtown Train.

"We were very tired, we were very merry---
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares

Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Recuerdo."

Three subway moments:

9 train at South Ferry, evening. A mother and her toddler-age son walk through the doors and, without missing a beat, the mother says, "corner pocket." The kid runs to the small bench across from the conductor's booth and sits down.

N train, near Times Square. It's a quiet midday train, and the conductor starts giving advice over the intercom. " know, you don't need a suit and be a gentleman. If you see a lady standing, why don't you give her your seat? And if you're single, and she is too, well...I can't think of a better way to start a conversation."

4 or 5 train, Brooklyn Bridge. Late at night. A mild-looking middle-aged woman walks into the empty car ahead of me. There's a burning stench in the air. She takes a sharp sniff and turns to me. "It's crack!!" she says.

Five songs about the IRT/IND/BMT:

"Take the A Train," written by Billy Strayhorn (the title came from the directions Ellington gave the young, Pittsburgh-born Strayhorn as to how to get up to Harlem) is Duke Ellington's signature song. Recorded in 1941 by Ellington's all-time greatest group, the "Blanton-Webster" band (Jimmy Blanton played bass, Ben Webster played tenor sax). Available on all sorts of Ellington compilations--none finer than this.

"My My Metrocard" is off Le Tigre's first album, released in 1999. Le Tigre (as of this album) is Kathleen Hanna, Sadie Benning and Johanna Fateman. Visit their website, buy their stuff. For non-New Yorkers: the Metrocard is the plastic yellow card that gets you past the turnstiles--it quickly and quietly killed off the storied subway token in the late 1990s.

The subway has always been the tense racial intersection of New York. "On the Subway" is off the incendiary, amazing first album by the Last Poets, released in 1970. The Poets were David Nelson, Gylan Kain, and Abiodun Oyewole.

Having a set of New York songs without including the Dolls is inconceivable. "Subway Train" is off their first album, produced by Todd Rundgren, released in 1973. I saw David Johansen once, sitting outside a restaurant on Columbus Ave. at midday, looking stunned to be awake so early. Get it here.

And Waits' "Downtown Train" is an obvious but neccessary choice. If for some reason you haven't heard this song before, or are only familiar with the Rod Stewart version, sit down and listen to it a few times. Then get Rain Dogs. Please.

Monday, April 18, 2005

NYC: Attitude

Ace Frehley, New York Groove.
Leadbelly, New York City.
Betty Comden & Adolph Green, New York New York/Lonely Town.
John Lennon, New York City (demo).
Bobby Short, Manhattan.

Buenas noches
Don't mind the roaches

--"Lullaby for New York," Joseph Brodsky.

So, I'm moving.

I've lived in New York City for a dozen years and now I'm saying goodbye to it, heading far up country, to a place where it's going to be so quiet at night I won't able to bloody sleep for months.

For the next two weeks, I'll be offering a bunch of songs that sum up New York for me--the look and feel of the city, its many joys and miseries.

My first proper job in NYC entailed a lot of flying around the country to attend mind-numbing business conferences.

One night in Houston, I was in the airport preparing to board a plane home, after a really awful day. The man checking my ticket barely glanced at it and asked me what my final destination was.

"New York," I said. "I live there."

He looked at me somberly, with a sort of pitying expression that one would give a child who said he had lost a parent, and said, "I am very sorry to hear that."

Just one example of many similar instances. When I say I am from NYC, there's always a chance someone will slag off the place. Is there something inherently wrong with the city? Too noisy? Too full of itself? Too many freaks?

Maybe so. But as I wished I had said to the ticket collector at the time, "But sir, don't you live in Houston?"

So as a corrective for the haters, here are five songs that convey the excitement of coming to New York, whether for the first time or the hundredth.

The sailors in Comden and Green's "New York New York" are ready to tear through the city until their lungs burst. Leadbelly is so excited about New York that he's going back to Georgia and Louisiana and tell everybody about it. John and Yoko love the place even though they're getting harassed on the street. Even Ace Frehley, pulling into town with his groupies, is so impressed that he gets out of his limousine at 3rd and 43rd and staggers off into the night.

And then there's Bobby Short, the king of the Carlyle Hotel, who embodies old Manhattan sophistication. Short seems to have been born here, but he actually came from Danville, Illinois--an immigrant like the rest of us.

"New York Groove" is on Frehley's first solo album, from 1978. At the height of their success, the members of Kiss made the commercially suicidal decision to each release a solo record on the same day. Frehley's is by far the best of the lot. Buy here.

Leadbelly's "New York City", recorded in 1940, can be found on the collection Take This Hammer.

Comden and Green's rendition of their compositions "New York New York" and "Lonely Town" (both from the 1944 musical On the Town) is on the 1955 LP Comden and Green Perform Their Own Songs, available on CD here.

John Lennon's "New York City" demo, recorded in 1971, is on the 4-CD Lennon Anthology; the studio version is on Sometime in New York City, a fascinating mess of an album.

Bobby Short just died this March. His ebullient version of Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan" is found on this great (and sadly out of print) collection. A live version can be found here.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Johnny Come Lately.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Tonk.

If you had been lucky to attend a party to which Duke Ellington and his songwriting partner, Billy Strayhorn, had been invited, you might have heard something like these tracks. After a few cocktails, when the party had slowed down, Ellington and Strayhorn would sit together at the piano (if you invited Duke to a party, you'd better have a piano) and play some four-handed duets.

Strayhorn, composer of "Take the A Train", "Chelsea Bridge", and hundreds of other Ellington songs, was for Ellington "the other half of my heartbeat," as Duke put it. The two men had become a joint compositional mind, able to answer each other's improvisational questions the second they were asked. You can hear it in the duets, in which it's almost impossible to determine who is playing what, other than that Ellington often starts the melody and Strayhorn usually plays the sprightlier phrases.

In late 1950, Ellington and Strayhorn recorded eight piano duets--these were completely casual, improvised recordings, produced by Ellington's son Mercer and critic Leonard Feather. Nowhere else was the relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn so wonderfully exemplified.

"Tonk", according to Feather, was a popular party favorite and the only one of the duets that had even the slightest bit of arranging to it. Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately", like most of the duets, was recorded spontaneously one day--Ellington and Strayhorn just sat down and played, the tapes rolled.

The Strayhorn/Ellington duets have had a cursed release history. The duets were put out as Mercer Ellington's label's first-ever release, a 10-inch LP, which was soon deleted when the Mercer label went kaput. In the mid '50s, most of the Mercer label's master tapes were consumed in a fire, including those of the duets. In 1964 Riverside, using copies of the original Mercer 10" LP, released all the duets on an LP that would prove to be the label's very last release, and one not widely distributed.

Both "Tonk" and "Johnny Come Lately" were recorded in November 1950, with either Wendell Marshall or Joe Shulman on bass. You can find all the piano duets on Great Times. To be honest, the sound of this CD (remastered in 1989) is tinny and weak. The LP that I took the tracks from, The Golden Duke, (Prestige P-24029), sounds 100 times better--those happy few with turntables can find it secondhand pretty easily.

A lengthy historical intrusion:

At 4 AM on a rainy Sunday morning, 25 June 1950, South Korean troops along the border between North and South Korea were dozing in happy disarray, as many of their officers had taken weekend passes and lay asleep far from the front. And then, at once, in one consecutive sweeping motion, the North Korean army smashed through the 38th Parallel across the waist of the Korean peninsula, demolishing the South Korean army, and within a month controlled all of Korea but for a half-circle around Pusan, in the southeast corner.

The Korean War is one of the 20th Century's most critical and most forgotten wars, now mainly remembered in the U.S., if at all, as the backdrop to the TV series "M.A.S.H." (and in which Korea substituted for Vietnam).

Korea was one of the unfortunate hinges of the postwar world, a place where the tectonic plates of the USSR and the West ground together. Korea had been controlled by Japan from 1905 to 1945, and after the war, was divided between a Soviet-approved dictator in the North and a U.S.-approved dictator in the South. The 38th Parallel, chosen for its latitudinal simplicity as a dividing line between the two new countries, was nowhere as clean on the ground, severing cities, lakes, properties, families.

A historical irony is that at the time of the dismembering of Korea, the North was the country's industrialized section, which had regarded the agricultural South as a grubby backwater. 55 years on, the roles have reversed, to put it mildly.

The first year of the war was complete bedlam. Two days after the invasion, the U.S. (gaining UN approval) pledged to come to the South's defense. In September, Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed troops in Inchon,a port city behind enemy lines, and soon pushed the Northern forces back up to the Chinese border (going far beyond the UN mandate, which simply called for a restoration of the 38th Parallel border).

This overreach was in part due to MacArthur's delusion (shared, or at least condoned, by Truman) that he could remake the entire Korean peninsula into a Western-friendly client state, as he had just done with Japan, and that the Chinese would allow this to happen on their doorstep. So China's decision to send in an army of "volunteers" (also, during the chaos, China decided to invade and annex Tibet) seems all too predictable in hindsight. The Chinese-backed North Koreans (literally--the Chinese would make the Koreans form the front lines and take more casualties) again almost overran the South until Gen. Matthew Ridgway, the finest American commander of the war, managed to push the North Koreans back to roughly the old North/South border. (Civilization owes Ridgway a small debt of thanks--his ability to stabilize South Korea deflated the argument that the U.S. should drop nuclear bombs on Korea and China.)

So by year's end, things stood almost as they had that rainy morning in June, but for the hundreds of thousands of dead and the country now in tatters. This Quicktime map sums up the back-and-forth. (Found on this site.) It would take another three years to end the war.

Total killed: 415,000 South Koreans, 520,000 North Koreans, possibly 900,000 Chinese, roughly 54,250 U.N forces. And an unspecified, horrific number of civilians, possibly as many as four million. Needless to say, the country was nearly annihilated--at least half of Korea's industry was destroyed and one in three homes were leveled. Curtis LeMay: "We eventually burned down every town in North Korea... and some in South Korea too. We even burned down Pusan -- an accident, but we burned it down anyway."

Korea was the first US conflict to feature interracial units. It wasn't an easy transition.

"There was one in particular, Beard. He was just a simple, die hard, worthless redneck peckerwood. I'm telling it like it is. He was just a die hard that would not bend. He was in the Military Highway Patrol and he flipped his car in snow on the highway and he died. All the black soldiers were applauding like crazy. They was walking around chuckalucking beer, and those that didn't drink was chackalucking soda. And I was one of them, cause I was glad to see him gone. But looking back it was a horrible thing to do, because I was only 22 years old then, and as I matured, I realized through reading and going to school that any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in man-kind. I think it was Sir Francis Bacon who wrote that. And I'm sorry, but he was such a pain in the butt."

from "When Black is Burned", an amazing history of black soldiers in Korea.

An oral history of U.S. veterans of the Korean War.

Films of ’50.

In a Lonely Place. Probably Nicholas Ray's best film, which is to say, about as good as it gets. "It was his story against mine, but of course, I told my story better."
Rashômon. By this point, Kurosawa could have filmed the Old Testament and improved upon the original.
Wagon Master. John Ford’s favorite of his films.
The Asphalt Jungle. “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” Marilyn Monroe becomes immortal in ten minutes.
Sunset Blvd. A funeral for the golden age of movies, with Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim as pallbearers and Gloria Swanson as the deranged widow; a poisoned dagger aimed straight at Hollywood’s spine.
All About Eve. "Tell me this, do they have auditions for television?" "That's all television is, my dear, nothing but auditions."
Panic in the Streets. A thriller whose biological terrorism fears are all too contemporary; the young Jack Palance, a study in cinematic virility, dominates the film without even intending to.
Winchester ’73.
Les Enfants Terribles.
La Ronde.

And that's it for 1950. Look for 1951 to begin sometime in mid-May, whenever I've unpacked enough records.

The next two weeks will feature a bunch of songs united by a theme, and some will be shockingly modern for this site. Hope you enjoy. Starts Monday.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Yma Sumac, Xtabay (Lure of the Unknown Love).

Neither the Incan princess she was marketed as, nor the Brooklyn housewife Amy Camus she was rumored to be, Yma Sumac was, for a brief moment in the early 1950s, the strangest popular singer in the U.S.

She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo in Ichocan, Peru in 1927. In the early 1940s she joined the Compania Peruana de Arte and eventually married the Compania's leader, composer Moises Vivanco. Vivanco and Sumac, along with her cousin, Cholita Rivero, came to New York and performed as the Inca Taqui Trio. Sumac gained attention after a tour of the Borscht belt clubs in the Catskills and some television appearances, and Capitol Records signed her in 1950.

Her first album, a 10-inch LP Voice Of Xtabay (pronounced "shta-bye"), was released in October 1950 and quickly sold half a million copies. One can imagine the PR crew at Capitol sitting around a cigarette- and Scotch-cluttered table one night in Hollywood, conjuring up the ridiculous back story they gave Sumac--that Sumac was a Royal Sun Virgin, a direct descendant of the last Incan emperor Atahualpa, lured away from her ancestral home by anthropologists.

Sumac's voice was extraordinary--she had a four octave (some say five) range, enabling her to imitate Louis Armstrong and shatter a glass in the same breath. The music supporting her, composed by Vivanco and exotica king Les Baxter, was a fusion of Latin rhythms, Peruvian folk music and overripe Hollywood film scores. It was an early indication of a growing public taste in the '50s for bizarre "world" music; and so the reverent borrowings from Eastern music by composers like Messaien would be matched, in popular music, by grand DeLuxe cartoon "exotic" LPs--the sort of things that would gather dust in family rooms over the decades, mocked as ridiculously dated kitsch, until some hipster grandchild rediscovers them.

You can find Xtabay here, and everything from CDs to lobby cards from Sumac's official site.

More on the goddess Xtabay. "Mayan legend states that Xtabay, hidden in the form of a sharp and rigid cactus flower, comes to life when she sees a man pass by. She awaits him under the jungle trees, brushing her long, flowing hair with cactus spines until he is unable to resist her attraction.

Xtabay seduces him and destroys him in a frenzy of infernal love

Monument to Xtabay, Mexico.

"Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp."

In May 1950, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles was published, one of the most poetic SF novels ever written, in which Mars is an ever-changing series of mirrors for Earth, ranging from lost faery kingdom to a newly despoiled wilderness to a stage on which the slaughter of the American Indian is reenacted. Some chapters are badly dated, but the book as a whole still has a majesty to it.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


mix your own sugar

Ruth Brown, Teardrops From My Eyes.
Roy Milton, Information Blues.
Smiley Lewis, Dirty People.

A trio of R&B songs, as we start winding down the year.

Ruth Brown, the woman who built Atlantic Records, and one of the godmothers of rock and roll, was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1928 and started out singing in USO clubs during the war. Her stint at the Crystal Caverns club in Washington DC attracted Duke Ellington and DJ Willis Conover, the latter of whom called Atlantic co-owner Ahmet Ertegun to rave about her. Ertegun signed Brown in 1949, and after a few middling successes with slower-paced songs like "So Long" and "I'll Get Along Somehow," Brown had her first smash with "Teardrops," which was recorded in September 1950.

It was a monster--holding the #1 slot for almost three months in 1950 and 1951, and it would be the start of a string of hits Brown made for Atlantic during the decade.

"Teardrops" stands on the cusp of rock and roll--Brown's vocal is already there, and Budd Johnson's tenor sax solo is nice and meaty, but there's still a bit of big band stodginess in the arrangement. Still, who's complaining, really?

Roy Milton is, for one. "You can never tell what's on your woman's mind," he notes, while the Solid Senders swing behind him in sympathy. He doesn't know for sure, but his left eye's been twitching and is flesh is crawling--there's another man somewhere; he can almost smell him.

"Information Blues," released as Specialty 349, is state-of-the-art R&B as of mid- century. The basic lineup of the Solid Senders was Milton on drums and vocal, Benny Walters (tenor sax), Jackie Kelso (alto sax), Arthur Walker (trumpet), Johnny Rogers (g), Camille Howard (piano and vocals) and Dallas Bartley (b).

Compared to these two fairly polished performances, Smiley Lewis' fantastic "Dirty People" sounds like it was recorded on the bottom of a swamp.

Lewis was born Overton Amos Lemons in 1913 in De Quincy, Louisiana. By the 1930s he had changed his name and was playing guitar in trumpeter Thomas Jefferson's band; a decade later, he played in blues trios around New Orleans. When Dave Bartholomew was charged with finding more New Orleans talent for Imperial Records to record, he remembered Lewis--the two had grown up in the same neighborhood, and Bartholomew recalled Lewis playing guitar on his porch. (Much of this information is second hand, as Lewis was never interviewed in his life--he died of stomach cancer in 1966).

"Dirty People" features the usual cast of New Orleans characters--Dave Bartholomew on trumpet, Joe Harris (alto sax), Ernest McClean (g), Tuts Washington (p), Frank Fields (b), Herman Seale (d). Recorded in April 1950 and released as Imperial 5102.

It wasn't much of a hit, but Lewis would go on to greater prominence, at least in terms of influence-- "Blue Monday", "I Hear You Knockin'" and "One Night" were all originally his.

You can find "Teardrops" on this Brown collection, "Dirty People" on this New Orleans compilation I've touted about a dozen times before, and "Information" on this Milton compilation.

Saul Bellow, 1915-2005.

I took a class with Bellow in the spring of 1994, and have a number of fine memories from it--he introduced me to the writings of Denis Johnson and Danilo Kis, for one thing. The class was ostensibly about "the modern novel" but the best days were when Bellow would just start talking about the past, going off on tears about the year he and Ralph Ellison lived together, near Bard College, or the time Dorothy Parker was viciously rude to him.

He was a greatly civilized man, in his demeanor and speech, but funny too--caustically funny, if he wanted to be.

If you haven't read any Bellow, my recommendations: Augie March, Seize the Day, Herzog, Henderson the Rain King, Mr. Sammler's Planet. And the story "The Gonzaga Manuscripts," which captured American/European mis-relations perfectly in 1954, and sadly still does.