Friday, February 29, 2008


Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 In C Minor.

Over three days in July 1960, in a house in Dresden, in what was once known as East Germany, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his eighth string quartet.

The quartet, debuted later that year, was officially dedicated to "the memory of the victims of fascism and war"; Soviet and American critics of the period praised the piece for its atonement, alleging that portions of it, like the three-note thudding in the penultimate movement, were meant to suggest bombs and gunfire. Shostakovich's visit to Dresden, a city nearly pulverized in 1945 by Allied bombs, was said to have triggered a deep emotional response, one which led Shostakovich to a fevered 72-hour period of composition, waking up to find a masterpiece on his desk.

As the years went on, as the USSR went out of business and the truth began to appear, in crumbs and glimmers, the more it seemed that the Eighth Quartet was, rather than some grand universal response to fascism, Shostakovich simply mourning for himself, for his blighted prospects, for the grim compromises he had made and the humiliations he had undergone to keep as a working composer under Stalin, when so many of his friends and colleagues had been sent to the gulag.

"The title page could carry the dedication: 'To the memory of the composer of this quartet," Shostakovich wrote to a friend. He was scathing about its importance: "It is a pseudo-tragic quartet, so much so that while I was composing it I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after half-a-dozen beers." But then he wrote: "When I got home, I tried a couple of times to play it through, but always ended up in tears."

As the late Ian Macdonald noted, Shostakovich had already been to Dresden, in 1950, when the place was still in shambles, so it seems odd that a visit to a much rehabilitated, muted East German city a decade later would have triggered such a visceral response. But "what may actually have happened is that Dresden in 1960 reminded Shostakovich of Dresden in 1950 - and hence of himself in 1950, arguably the loneliest, most politically repressed period in his life."

So the Eighth Quartet was half-autobiography, half-suicide note, in which Shostakovitch churned up bits of old compositions--his opera Katerina Ismailova, his cello concerto, his Tenth Symphony--to be used as compost, while using as a main theme a regular Shostakovich in-joke: four notes, D, E flat, C and B, which, when translated into German, becomes D-S-C-H, or Dmitri Schostakovich.

The quartet consists of five movements, played without interruption. First comes a largo, with the "DSCH" theme prominent, then allegro molto--violent, whirling, torrential. A waltz, then two more largos. Alex Ross: "The Eighth trails off into a black, static chorale of lamentation...It is the ultimate moment of self-alienation."

Recorded in Moscow in 1966 by the Borodin Quartet: a performance no longer available on CD.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Another Day Older and Deeper In Debt

Woody Allen, Love and Death.
Ivor Cutler, I'm Happy.
Jack Teagarden and Fats Waller, You Rascal You.
Serge Gainsbourg, Vieille Canaille (You Rascal You).
Christer Bladin, Wildkatze.
DJ Riko, Whistler's Delight.
Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer, Mister Meadowlark.
Papa Charlie Jackson, Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart.
Ray Bolger and Judy Garland, If I Only Had a Brain.
Bob Dylan and the Band, Apple Suckling Tree.
Blind Alfred Reed, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Sons of the Pioneers, One More River to Cross.
Billy Childish and the Singing Loins, One More Bottle to Drink.
Todd Rundgren, One More Day (No Word).
Robert Graves, To Juan at the Winter Solstice.

Mr. Bassett is a religious enthusiast, lately turned Methodist, and serves his Country because it is the will of the people that he should do so. He is a man of plain sense, and has modesty enough to hold his Tongue. He is a Gentlemanly Man, and is in high estimation among the Methodists. Mr. Bassett is about 36 years old.

Mr. Ingersoll is well educated in the Classic's and is a Man of very extensive reading. Mr. Ingersoll speaks well, and comprehends his subject fully. There is a modesty in his character that keeps him back. He is about 36 years old.

Major William Pierce, Characters in the Conventions of the States Held at Philadelphia, 1787.

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall...

Yes, my birthday's here again! Happy weekend! Be hep in your heart.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Finger Poppin' Time.
The Stanley Brothers, Finger Poppin' Time.

Syd Nathan, owner of Cincinnati's King Records, was one of the United States' secret integrationists from the late '40s through the '60s, mixing white and black popular music together--mainly for the cash, certainly, but creating some essential records in the process.

Nathan's King Records, founded in 1943 when Nathan set up shop in an old Cincinnati icehouse, began segregated--King was the label for country artists, while Queen was for "race" records. But by the early '50s, Nathan had hired R&B producer Ralph Bass as his A&R man, had moved R&B and jazz records to the main King label, and was putting out LPs and singles back-to-back from Grandpa Jones, James Brown, Bill Doggett, Earl Bostic and Ivory Joe Hunter.

And after a time, King's country and R&B artists began to record the same songs, and sometimes play on the same recordings: it made economic sense, as King (a notoriously low-budget label) could flog the same composition to two different markets.

So that's how the Stanley Brothers, who were originally known for pious bluegrass records like "We'll Be Sweethearts in Heaven," and "A Vision of Mother," wound up recording a dance song made famous by Hank Ballard, best known for his ribald R&B hits like "Work With Me Annie." Ballard was rumored to have sung backup on the Stanleys' record (though I don't hear him), while King employees provided the finger snaps.

Ballard's version was released as King 5341 c/w "I Love You, I Love You So-O-O"; the Stanleys', recorded 7 November 1960, was released as King 5384 c/w "Daybreak In Dixie". Ballard's is on Very Best; the Stanleys' is on Ridin' That Midnight Train.

An epilogue: towards the end of 1960, Nathan realized that "folk" music was starting to sell with white college kids, and so he threw the Stanleys' "Finger Poppin' Time" onto a 1961 LP called The Stanleys In Person, which was a bunch of Stanley Brothers studio tracks dressed up to seem as though they had been recorded live at a folk hootenanny. Who knows what the folkies made of "Finger Poppin' Time," but it must have seemed authentic, at least.

Top: Andy Warhol, Dick Tracy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Muddy Waters, I Feel So Good (live).
Howlin' Wolf, Spoonful.
Elmore James, Rollin' and Tumblin'.
Lightnin' Hopkins, Glory Be.

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
to be your Valentine.

Ophelia, Hamlet, iv:v.

Men lies about a little
Some of 'em cries about a little
Some of 'em dies about a little
Everything fight about a spoonful.

Howlin' Wolf.

Happy Valentine's Day! Valentine's Day is a strange inheritance from medieval Europe; it was possibly invented by Chaucer in his Parliament of Foules, from 1382.

As this year Valentine's Day gives me the blues, and since there is something of the blues in medieval astrology, a field dominated by melancholics, here are four blues, one for each of the four quaternaries.

The first quaternary, call it the "spring quaternary," consists of vita, lucrum and fratres--the houses of, respectively, life (the self), wealth (or property), and friendship/fraternity. (These have devolved, in recent centuries, into Aries, Taurus and Gemini.)

Muddy Waters' version of Big Bill Broonzy's "I Feel So Good" was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival on 3 July 1960, and released on the Chess LP Muddy Waters at Newport; on Anthology.

The second, the summer quaternary, is made up of genitor, nati and valetudo--the houses of parentage, children and the jack-of-all-trades valetudo, which encompasses health, servants, and small animals. (Again, now known as Cancer, Leo and Virgo.)

Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" was recorded in Chicago in June 1960 with Otis Spann (p), Willie Dixon (who wrote the song, as he did so many others) on bass and Fred Below (d). Other guitarists included Freddie King and Hubert Sumlin. Released as Chess 1762 c/w "Howlin' For My Baby"; on Definitive Collection.

On to the third, the autumn quaternary--uxor, mors and pietas--the houses of marriage (and divorce), death, and pietas, (sometimes known as iter), which is the house of religious faith and journeys. (Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius.)

Elmore James' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" was recorded in New York in early 1960, with Jimmy Spruill (g), Homesick James (b) and Belton Evans (d). Released in July as Fire 1024 c/w "I'm Worried"; on The Sky Is Crying.

Fourth and last, winter and celestial year's end, is regnum, benefacta and carcer--the houses of rank and honor, of good fortune and, lastly, of sorrows, fear, enmity and prisons. (Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces.)

Lightnin' Hopkins' "Glory Be," was recorded in New York in November 1960 and released as the b-side of "Mojo Hand," Fire 1034; on Mojo Hand.

Monday, February 11, 2008


The Beatles, I'll Follow the Sun.
The Beatles, I'll Always Be In Love With You.
The Beatles, Hello Little Girl.
The Beatles, Movin' and Groovin'/Ramrod.
The Beatles, One After 909.

John gets after me whenever I drift off and pulls me back, and then there I am again, sitting about and playing with him and Paul and Paul's little brother and that sour wet George. Sitting in the living room, sometimes packed into Paul's bathroom, sitting on the lino, making the tapes.

I can do all right what John first taught me--put the thumb on the fat string nearest me, then hit the furthest fret up, then the third fret up. Again and back again, count to four. After a while, I just try to make a rumble, make a shadow sound. Paul's after me to learn more and always makes a pinched little face when I botch whatever he wants. You can tell he just wants to rip the Hofner out of my hands and just do it himself, but instead it's meant to be instructive.

Here Stu, he says. Here watch me do it. When I go "doooon't leave me alone," you go up, like this. Dooon't leave me alone. Like Elvis, he tries. Take my advice, treat me niiice. The face he makes, the prat. And then you just go back to where you started, he says. It's easy.

He's so proud of that one. He wrote the words out on a sheet, in a very neat hand--I'm sure he got marks for that in school. I've written a song, he tells anyone who wants to hear, and those who don't as well. I've written a song. It's called I'll Follow the Sun and here it goes: One day--you'll know--I was the one...

It's fucked my hands up good, all the playing. Skin's come off most of the fingers, and I've got a big red welt on one thumb. Sometimes I don't even notice how much blood there is after we've been at it for an hour. How do you know Stu's been here, cos there's bloody fingerprints on the wall. Looks like Lady Macbeth's been to the loo, John says.

Sometimes it's just work, I find, just a grind. Painting is you, the canvas and what waits on the other side; music is everyone waiting on you to do your bit.

It comes easy for John and Paul. Once they went in the other room, I thought just to get a cup, and they came back and they had a new song, like they just rapped their heads together and out it came, fresh as an egg. "Hello Little Girl"--the Everlys/Holly one--that's how they wrote that one. And George is like a little monk, eyes always on the strings, having practiced, it seems, from the second that we last broke off to the second just before he came in the door. Hunches in the corner, always has the sniffles. But he's got the solos down and you never can call him out on anything.

Come round on Saturday for a rehearsal session, Paul says, I've borrowed the machines. Sometimes I can't be half arsed to go, and I don't think they miss me, but then John turns up and says he needs me around. Come on Stu, have a go, we've got a good one--we've got a train song we've just written. Like Johnny Burnette.

The other night John was crashing here, lying on the floor and just talking, the way he does, as though John could, if he kept at it, talk the world into the shape he wants it to be.

Stu, I was thinking, he said. In heaven you're supposed to reunite with everyone, right? Mum, dad, gran, great-aunt, Queen Victoria, beyond, right.

I suppose, I said.

What if you don't want that? My mum, fine, but I couldn't give a toss about the rest. Seems a bit petty that if we die, all we get is to be like kids again, and have a lot of dreadful old people fussing about you.

So I guess heaven's right off then, I said. He laughed and rolled over to sleep.

The days pass now and I feel like I'm stepping through windows, a series of them. I told John and he didn't laugh, but just nodded, as though he'd done it already. But at some point I know, I know, I need to do some proper work again.

Stuart Sutcliffe
joined what was then known as The Beatals (and a bit later as the Silver Beetles) in late 1959, and left them when he chose to stay in Hamburg and attend the state art school in 1961. He died suddenly in April 1962, at age 21, possibly due to a head injury that he got in a bar fight. Some of Sutcliffe's paintings can be seen here.

The demos featured here were recorded in April and/or May 1960, in Paul McCartney's home at 20 Forthlin Rd, Liverpool. The theory is that the band had access to two portable Grundig tape recorders--they would record on one, and then transfer the best takes to make a "master" tape on the other.

Three tracks from these sessions have been officially released on Beatles Anthology 1, while the rest (some two dozen tracks) remain available only on bootlegs. Of the covers, "Movin' and Groovin'" was Duane Eddy's 1958 debut single, co-written with Lee Hazelwood, and Eddy released "Ramrod," written by Al Casey, a few months later. Sam Stept and Bud Green's "I'll Always Be in Love With You" is from 1929--it's unclear which version the Beatles were familiar with, maybe Charles Brown's from 1956.

For the originals, "Hello Little Girl," recorded as part of the Beatles' failed Decca audition in January '62, eventually was fobbed off on The Fourmost and Gerry and the Pacemakers; "I'll Follow the Sun" wound up on Beatles For Sale; "One After 909," after a failed studio attempt in March 1963 left in the vaults, was resurrected in 1969 for the Beatles' last live performance, on the Apple rooftop. When they sang it, for the last time in their lives, the Beatles were young men.

All photos (and much information) are from the excellent Beatlesource.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Maxine Brown, All In My Mind.
Aretha Franklin, Today I Sing the Blues.

Two debut singles, two blueprints of soul.

Maxine Brown, born in South Carolina in 1939, grew up in the Pentecostal Church and moved to New York as a teenager. Then, as she recalled in an interview with William Gooch, she got a job singing with the Charles Taylor Singers, a hot gospel group of the late '50s. Some of the Singers decided to form an R&B group, and asked Brown to come along--she agreed as long as they would let her record some of her own material. "Anyway, we got some studio time to record and the group took up so much time attempting to record their music that there was very little time left over for me to record my own songs. That was supposed to be a part of the bargain we had made with the recording studio. Anyway, I only got to record one demo and that song turned out to be “All In My Mind."

"All in My Mind" is standard slow-tempo R&B, performed competently if not excitingly (it was supposed to just be a demo, mind), but Brown's vocal is a true performance, where she confronts a possibly wayward lover, but only in her imagination. She goes from suspicion to desperation to disbelief in a single phrase, with a vocal of such subtlety that you can never quite tell what the singer is thinking--sometimes she sounds as though she knows her relationship is dead and is just denying it out loud, other times she seems to just want reassurance, even the comfort of lies.

"All in My Mind" hit #2 R&B and even cracked the pop Top 20 (despite the fact that, as Brown says, a rival record company had rushed out a copycat single sung by "a little white girl in Chicago"). Brown was poised to make it--she moved to ABC Paramount, then Wand, but despite having a few more charting singles, she never found the audience her talent merited. Some blamed Wand for putting all their efforts behind Dionne Warwick, though much of it was simply hard luck and bad timing.

Released as Nomar 103 c/w "Harry Let's Marry" (it inspired an answer record the next year, the Harptones' "All in Your Mind"); on Something You Got.

And "Today I Sing the Blues" is the 18-year-old Aretha Franklin's first Columbia single. The piece was best known as a Helen Humes song, first recorded in 1948, but Aretha in two minutes erases any other performance from memory (not the last time she would do that). Unfortunately, Aretha soon would become a project of Columbia head Mitch Miller, who thought she was meant for grander things than R&B--some years in the wilderness followed.

Released as Columbia 41793 c/w "Love Is the Only Thing"; on Queen in Waiting.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Gil Evans Orchestra, La Nevada.
Gil Evans Orchestra, Where Flamingos Fly.

Something is always happening on this record, and some passages have a hallucinatory vividness that nonetheless conceals vital evidence...

Gary Giddins, on Gil Evans' Out of the Cool.

Gil Evans is remembered primarily as a collaborator, an amplifier of others' voices, such as his work with Miles Davis, from LPs like Sketches of Spain to Evans' (uncredited) arranging work on Filles de Kilimanjaro. One imagines Evans would have preferred it that way--even his "solo" albums are pure collaborative works, in which Evans provides a sketch and his players fill in the picture.

Out of the Cool, the debut showcase for an orchestra Evans assembled in 1960, begins with the fifteen-minute "La Nevada," a snowdrift that starts from a four-bar theme that Evans had been toying with for years. It's a simple phrase--wavering back and forth between G minor 7th and G major. The track begins with a vamp that serves as a royal procession--the musicians entering single-file (Elvin Jones on shakers), and trumpets, flutes and piano offer shards of the the theme. Then, at last, the orchestra sings the theme at once. Solos follow, by John Coles (t), Tony Studd (bass tb), the old master Budd Johnson (tenor sax), Ron Carter (string bass) and Ray Crawford (g). As the recording was underway, Evans walked over to the trombone stand and wrote on a matchbook a riff for them to use.

"Where Flamingos Fly," written by John Benson Brooks, is concise where "Nevada" rambles--its stark beauty is marked by an ominous coolness, with a four-note pattern on piano, flute and guitar serving as a backdrop to the gorgeous trombone playing of Jimmy Knepper.

"Flamingos" was recorded on November 18 & 30, and "Nevada" was recorded December 10 & 15, 1960; on Out of the Cool.

Top: M.C. Escher, Ascending and Descending.