Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Noel, Silent Morning.
Serge Gainsbourg, Mon Légionnaire.
Miaow, Did She.
Rosie Flores, Crying Over You.
Don Pullen-George Adams Quartet, Sun Watchers.
Great Plains, Martin Luther King and Martin Luther Drinking.
Witchdoctor and the Dominating Three MCs, Kickin' It Live.
Sonny Rollins, Just Once.
French Frith Kaiser Thompson, Bird in God's Garden/Lost and Found.
10,000 Maniacs, A Campfire Song.
Rush, Time Stand Still.
Hüsker Dü, You Can Live At Home.

We have a problem, a serious one, we can do little to cure without your understanding and your help. Very simply put, the growing practice of unauthorized home-taping of our albums is doing each one of us great damage. Yet most people don't give it a second thought...

Look at it from our point of view. Home-taping is now so common-place, so unrestrained, it has put a sizable dent in our incomes, is jeopardizing our recording and "live appearance" careers and is already causing record companies to limit the number of new artists and new albums they invest in and promote...

Jazz is not a mass-market phenomenon. We wish it were. Our art form is not for everyone. It's [sic] appeal is to a select, sophisticated audience--a one-on-one kind of music. We rarely reach "Gold" or "Platinum" certifications for sales. The truth is that even big-time bootleggers ignore our product because they've learned even our biggest "hits" add up to too-small numbers. They figure it hardly pays them to rip us off.

So you don't have to be a computer expert to realize that just one single, unauthorized home-taping copy may represent a significant percentage of our total volume...If the practice doesn't stop, we are all losers.

"Open letter" purportedly signed by Don Pullen, Stanley Turrentine, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon and 15 other jazz musicians, included in various Blue Note jazz LPs released in 1987.

(Top photo, "Clinton St., 1987" courtesy of Ted Barron.)

Noel Pagan's debut single from the spring of 1987 is an ode to lust, abandonment and heartbreak--the usual verities of pop music--but many at the time heard death and plague in it, especially when in the chorus, Noel wakes up alone. A dark memory from the year of Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On, of ACT UP, of the AIDS Quilt; it's an ecstatic wake song.

Pagan, a fine, if unremarkable singer boosted by Little Louie Vega's dense, propulsive remix, had another dance hit in 1990 with "The Question" but hasn't been heard from much since.

Released as 4th and Broadway 439; on Pure '80s Dance.

Fin de Gainsbourg: For three decades Serge Gainsbourg had kept a pace ahead of popular music, drawing strength from its permutations, mocking it and treasuring it; he was a presence in everything from jazz to ye-ye to funk to art rock to, at age 50, making a classic reggae LP. But (as with his fellow protean, Miles Davis) the '80s at last defeated him, reducing Gainsbourg to shock tactics like burning a 500 Franc note on television, making the bizarre, repellent "Lemon Incest" with his 13-year-old daughter and leching on Whitney Houston (you've seen the clip already, I'm sure).

His last record, You're Under Arrest, was reminiscent of a de Maupassant story adapted in Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir, in which an old man wearing a mask whirls around a nightclub, frantically chasing youth, until he falls, close to death, upon the dancefloor. Yet there was one last triumph on the album, when Gainsbourg resurrected Edith Piaf's "Mon Légionnaire".

"Mon Légionnaire" is about a one-night-stand the singer has with a brutish soldier, who is covered in tattoos (one, on his neck, says "not seen, not taken") and who doesn't even tell the singer his name. For Piaf, the song fit perfectly into her image of being a woman continually devastated by love. But Gainsbourg's version is sung by, perhaps, an old man in a Parisian gay bar, who murmurs his tale with relish: far from being a song of abandonment, it's become a memory that warms his waning life.

The last years of the Wall

Like Chrissy Hynde and Ira Kaplan, Cath Carroll is one of the few examples of that mythic beast--the rock critic turned musician. Carroll, born in Bristol, UK, formed the band Glass Animals while also editing a Manchester fanzine called City Fun, which allegedly was so snobbish that it ignored or belittled local bands like Joy Division and the Buzzcocks, lavishing praise only on a chosen few such as the Fall and the Smiths.

When Carroll moved to London in 1984, she began working for the NME while forming a new band, Miaow, with Chris Fenner and Steve McGuire--ironically, it was Tony Wilson's Factory Records, which Carroll's fanzine had routinely knocked, that signed Miaow in 1987 and released the single "When It All Comes Down." Here is the b-side, the pop gem "Did She." Carroll went on to become an indie legend (she is probably better known for being the subject of the Unrest's "Cath Carroll" than for her actual music).

Released with "When It All Comes Down" as Factory 179; collected on When It All Comes Down.

The pope pays his respects to Pinochet

For an hour or two in the early 1980s, it looked as though a fusion of punk, neo-rockabilly and honky-tonk revivalism was in the making in Los Angeles--it was the era of the Blasters and Jason and the Scorchers, when Dwight Yoakam was playing onstage with X and Los Lobos.

Rosie Flores
, born in San Antonio in 1950, had moved to San Diego as a teenager. She had grown up listening to Elvis, Patsy Cline and the Everly Brothers, and in the early '80s she joined the Screamin' Sirens, a punk rockabilly act in which Flores sang and played lead guitar. ("Notorious for their wild, panty-flashing live shows, they had a fairly predictable fan base, composed of 'mainly older men or really young men'." (Audra Schroeder)) When Yoakam hit big in 1986, Reprise signed Flores in the hopes she would be Yoakam's female equivalent, even asking Yoakam's producer/guitarist Pete Anderson to produce the record. The result was an excellent country LP graced with tracks like "Crying Over You," yet Reprise wasn't happy with the sales ("I didn't sound enough like Reba McEntire," Flores said in a later interview) and dumped her. (At the same time, Sire had signed k.d. lang, stuck with her for a record or two, and eventually had a major country artist in their roster.)

Flores is still playing today (she's in Austin, TX, on Dec. 21); most of her CDs are here.

Released as Reprise 28250-7 c/w "Midnight to Moonlight" and on the Reprise LP Rosie Flores; later collected on the Rounder CD Honky Tonk Reprise (and also on iTunes).

Great Plains' "Martin Luther King and Martin Luther Drinking" was the sort of happy oddity found on college radio stations in the '80s, and treasured by people bored by contemporary pop radio or, far worse, the Boomer Reconquista on "classic rock" stations well underway by 1987.

Great Plains were from Columbus, Ohio and were led by singer/guitarist Ron House--it was the kind of band that wrote songs about Rutherford B. Hayes, Dick Clark and underground fanzines. In "Martin Luther King and Martin Luther Drinking," House spies his heroes, having gotten out of the grave for a night, meeting up and having some beers, toasting each other and the revolution for good measure.

Originally on the Homestead LP Sum Things Up; collected on Length of Growth.

Amy Arbus, Phoebe Legere Accordion (10th Street and Avenue B)

The pianist Don Pullen, who "had scars on the backs of his hands from raking them across keys to effect aggressive glisses and clusters on the piano" (Gary Giddins), worked in Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop, served as musical director for Nina Simone and in 1979 formed an enduring quartet with saxophonist George Adams, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Dannie Richmond. In the '80s, when much of mainstream jazz embraced traditionalism and "class" as a way to lure back dwindling audiences (coupled with such brilliant record company ploys as the begging letter referenced at the top of the post), the Pullen-Adams Quartet was a counter-reformation--a group heartened by the revolutions of the past twenty years, yet committed to tight, swinging performances.

Adams' "Sun Watchers," which led off the 1987 LP Song Everlasting, features a Pullen solo that begins with light, dancing single notes and evolves into dense, bewildering chords (Giddins described a typical Pullen performance of the period: "in one passage, his third and fourth fingers were bent down so that the fingers connected with the keyboard at the joints"), while Adams on tenor saxophone offers a concise song of himself.

The quartet wouldn't last much beyond this record, sadly--drummer Richmond died in 1988, Adams died in 1992 and Pullen died of lymphoma at age 55 in 1995. "Sun Watchers" was recorded in New York on 21 April 1987; on Song Everlasting, which is long out of print.

Boston harbor, 1987

A metallic wonder from hip hop's pioneer era, "Kickin' It Live" is by the DJ Witchdoctor and the MCs Count Coolout, Rock Master J and Mellow Nate Dee. Minimalist, unnerving, funny, rocking, it appears to be made out of scraps of sound from an alternate future. With lines like Rock Master's "When I'm on the microphone I do whatever I please/I make the ladies jump up, the guys stand at ease."

Released as Timberwolfe 2001, a 12" single c/w "Program for Love" and "Rock The House." Never released on CD, for whatever fool reason.

After 1965 or so, jazz musicians faced a dearth of new pop songs suitable for transformation. Where once you had Gershwin and Berlin writing dozens of songs a year and a thriving culture of b-list talents, each of whom could turn out something like "Body and Soul" on a good day, the most talented young songwriters of the '60s and '70s were producing material that either offered limited melodic inspiration to work with (Dylan, Jagger/Richards, Cohen, etc.), while the likes of Bacharach and Lennon/McCartney sewed their compositions up in definitive studio productions, making jazz covers an often fruitless task (viz. the Crusaders' "Eleanor Rigby" and many other examples.)

So jazz players worked with what was left, and sometimes lived on lean beef. Sonny Criss did "Up Up and Away," Miles Davis chose "Time After Time," Ramsey Lewis did "So Far Away." And here Sonny Rollins takes on Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "Just Once," an enormous R&B hit for James Ingram. Rollins doesn't condescend to the material, nor is he constrained by its limitations--he takes simple joy in the melody and the changes, and soars away at the end, supported by Jerome Harris' supple electric bass playing.

Recorded in Berkeley, Calif., in September 1987, with Clifton Anderson (tb), Mark Soskin (p) and Marvin "Smitty" Smith (d); on Silver City.

French Frith Kaiser Thompson were avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser, guitarist/bassist Fred Frith (from Henry Cow), former Captain Beefheart drummer John French (aka Drumbo) and Richard Thompson. I would love to read a transcript of the conversations that led to the four getting into a recording studio together in 1987. (I mean, look at the LP cover.)

"Bird in God's Garden," sung by Thompson, was written by Hakim Archuletta, a friend of Thompson's from the Sufi band The Habibiyya, and features a gorgeous, aching melody; the lyric's Sufi beliefs are close to early Christian Gnosticism, offering the idea that human existence is life in prison, a tale of a divine soul trapped in an earthly cage, or in this case, of a bird from paradise now soaring alone in a cold sky, but taking solace in the knowledge it one day will return to its proper sphere. In this recording, "Bird" is mixed with a few passages from a Frith composition "Lost and Found," which Frith performs on solo violin.

Recorded in San Francisco; On Live, Love, Larf & Loaf.

Blatant nostalgia dept.:

The 10,000 Maniacs' "A Campfire Song" comes from an LP so earnest that each track has a specific socio-political message: child abuse, illiteracy, depression, environmental destruction, patriarchal weddings, militarism, and then there's "Peace Train" for dessert (though it was later yanked after Cat Stevens allegedly supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie). Yet to dislike this music, for me, would be to scorn the joys and idealism of youth, which is the cheapest, most foolish form of cynicism. "A Campfire Song" is the prettiest track on the record, with Natalie Merchant all power and generosity, a sweet little guitar solo by the late Robert Buck, and a celebrity guest appearance by Michael Stipe.

On In My Tribe.

My favorite anecdote about Rush (who I saw at the Hartford Civic Center in '89--a fine show although Mr. Big, the worst band in history, opened for them) is that the band would occasionally take French lessons on tour, as they wanted to do something productive with their downtime.

"Time Stand Still" is the band at their most poignant--it's an appreciation of the pleasures and values of the moment, treasured only when they disappear. The lyric, by Neal Peart (who would lose his daughter and his wife in the following decade), finds grace in simple phrases, with Geddy Lee delivering a restrained, touching vocal, helped by Aimee Mann singing the title phrase.

On Hold Your Fire.

Sequentially, at least, "You Can Live At Home" is the last-ever Hüsker Dü track--the end of what used to be known as Side 4 on the massive Warehouse: Songs and Stories.

The band was about to have a bitter divorce, with the group's songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart cursing each other in the press, and Warehouse is filled with songs that seem to harbinger the break-up--Mould's "Standing in the Rain" or "Friend You've Got to Fall", Hart's "Back from Somewhere." The band's manager killed himself just before Hüsker Dü went on tour to support the record, Hart and Mould were both fighting various addictions, and the end, when it came, was long and brutal.

Yet Warehouse is a document of a band still at the peak of their strength. "You Can Live At Home," in particular, shows the Huskers finally able to achieve in the studio a worthy approximation of their live sound--earlier records "produced" by the hapless Spot were alternately watery- or muddy-sounding, with Hart's drums paper-thin and Mould's vocals and guitar one thick blur. Here, there seem to be two dozen vocal tracks, so Hart can whirl and soar around himself, making a dervish of sound. Mould screams and squalls on guitar, Hart chants over and over "you can live at home now--you can live at home now" (a rebuke or a reassurance?), Greg Norton stamps it all with a tensed muscle of a bassline. It's the last will and testament of the greatest band of the decade.

That's it for me until after Christmas, so please have a merry one.

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