Saturday, November 12, 2016

God Loves Black Sound


A Great Day in Harlem indeed!
Now, I'm not trying to advance some racially-motivated proposition about what's real jazz or not jazz because I'm just not interested in that argument. The reality is – lots of great American Music has come from black, white, hispanic, asian and everybody in the mix of the great diverse democratic experiment we call the United States. Every ethnicity has contributed – even continental Europeans! I am thinking of the great jazz musician Josef Zawinul in this case. Sometimes the people outside the US have a more advanced appreciation of our art form than “we” do. But, of course, we're all “WE” in the larger sense of the word. I don't like categories much. Or labels. Except on food products maybe – in that case I want to know what's in that can!

Anyway, one of the great musicians of the 20th century who hated labels made the proposition I borrowed for the title of this post. That would be Rahsaan Roland Kirk. 
 I wish I could say I got to see and hear him live, but I was too young to have that chance before he left the planet at the (younger than me now) age of 42 in 1977. Having listened to and enjoyed his music since I was a teen-ager I am amazed by what he accomplished in his short life. His sheer intensity of being comes rocketing out from every recording he ever made. There is no wasted time on a Rahsaan album. For those who want to know more, there are currently two good sources (with a third on the way):
  1. John Kruth's biography “Bright Moments” and
  2. A new documentary film “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream” by Adam Kahan 
     
The third I alluded to is a new scholarly biography that has been an ongoing labor of love from writer May Cobb. Check her blog here:  http://rahsaan-rolandkirk.blogspot.com/

The other night I was listening to one of Rahsaan's less-heralded albums – his last for Atlantic Records: Other Folks' Music. I really wanted to hear the one original compositon of his on the album called “Water For Robeson and Williams” which is the leadoff track, but like most vinyl adventures I kept the platter spinning. There are beautiful versions of other writers' compositions here in a very straight-ahead bag that any lover of true music can dig. 
 I was thinking of how, if Rahsaan had lived, what would he be doing musically? His life's work of pushing boundaries in music, while cutting edge in the 60s and 70s, would fall out of fashion, at least in the commercial sense by the 80s into the present. Would Rahsaan have decided to make some coin playing to squares with some smooth jazz? I kinda doubt that. Yet, I think he would have been the perfect person to bridge those worlds between “smooth” and “cooking” jazz. I like to think he also would have been honored at the White House much in the way Sonny Rollins was not too long ago. It would have been an appropriate gesture.

Before Rahsaan I was listening to Lee Morgan's first four albums as a leader – at the tender age of 17 and 18! Lee Morgan would be one of the most prolific musicians in his also short life (murdered in 1972 at the age of 33!). Morgan was also a co-conspirator of Rahsaan's in the legendary “Jazz and People's Movement”. 
  Unfortunately, Morgan's musical brilliance was tempered by his notoriety as a tough person to get along with. He certainly isn't alone in that club – it's big one. And that got me to thinking too – what is it with musicians and artists who can produce such beautiful heartfelt work yet be hard on those around them in their personal lives? I don't see it as an excuse, but I think artists like Lee Morgan, if they work at it, can reach such fantastic heights of expression in their art that it is impossible for average, day to day relationships to run smoothly since it takes a different kind of energy to maintain them. Add to that any critical appreciation for the art in question and how could any human relationship hope to compete with something like that? In other words – artists can easily fall in love with their art since it delivers in ways most normal human relationships simply can't. Or, when artists spend all their energy on developing their art, that is energy and time taken away from the (always considerable) energy used to maintain a healthy relationship – even with non-significant others!
 Now, though I have an abiding love for jazz, the title of the post looks beyond even this (quite diverse) category. The contributions of African and African-descended peoples all over the world to all the genres of music is a well-documented fact. It pains me when some uninformed folks neglect to seek beyond the kinds of musical figures that get more media attention, even today! I think it is still true that saxophonist Kenny G. holds the “official” Guinness Book record for holding a note on his instrument (via the technique of “circular breathing”). Yet, Rahsaan Roland Kirk performed a much longer held note back in the 1970s – I spoke directly with one eyewitness to this event who confirmed its happening. And the Guinness Book people snubbed Rahsaan back in those days. Indeed, the goal of the “Jazz and People's Movement” mentioned above was to get not just more jazz on television, but more African-American performers of all genres of music on television in general. Now, of course, this was in the times of the three major networks and a handful of local channels in any given market across the country. This was well before cable TV and BET and what we have access to today. (Is this why we have such obvious political division in the US for the last 25 or so years? More choices – less “mass” culture? Just a thought.)

The reality is – blues, soul, jazz – these are the bedrock ingredients to American Music. Without these contributions there is an absence of authenticity – at least in terms of identifying what American Music is. The beautiful flowering of sophisticated artistry from these streams of creativity has been preserved from the most primitive-sounding 78 rpm discs to the so-called “disposable” 45 rpm “singles” - mainly on compact disc and digital downloads. Yet, finding original LPs in good condition from the 1950s through the 1970s can be a challenge since folks PLAYED the records because they had GOOD MUSIC in those grooves. In what I can only figure to have been a purge of some sort I hit THE MOTHERLODE at a local thrift store a few months ago. There were piles of great blues, jazz, soul and folk music – I broke into a sweat because I knew I would have to walk out with an armload and I DID! Finding this stuff in any condition is tough, but these must have come from someone who loved the music and took care of their records too. Here's a sampling of what came in the door:






















 Too many great albums to critique here. Honestly, I could only advise anyone who chances upon such an opportunity to acquire records of this stature for not a lot of money to do so without hesitation. Of course, there are some favorites I've played so far. Even though I'd only heard the popular hits from Etta James before, hearing entire albums convinced me of her greatness even further. Why she isn't thought of in the same league as Ray Charles (maybe if she'd done some Pepsi commercials?) I can't fathom.

But hey – don't take it from me. I'm nobody, really. Instead, get a cup of coffee and sit down to listen to Phil Alvin from The Blasters. They once did a great song called “American Music” - and he tells the story in this clip and lots of others too about how much the blues and R&B still means to him. His enthusiasm is catchy! The love he feels for this music seems to be the animating force of his life's work. Listen to Uncle Phil!
 And here's a fine performance of The Blasters doing “American Music”. 
 There's more to come from the soul and R&B bag down the line. Until then........keep listening and seeking! Bright Moments!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sounds of the Summer - A Report from Eulipion #70888675309


 Music has been my refuge for as long as I can remember. As an only child I figured out how to get comfortable spending time alone though the radio and my growing record collection provided windows into other realities and dimensions. Likewise, my continuing involvement with music is not objective, but immersive. I "live there". Rahsaan Roland Kirk identified this part of the population as the "Eulipions" - the poets, artists and musicians. No need to have a card or badge, nor attend monthly meetings. It's a big club.

Yet, to those who "get it" there is no need to explain. For those who don't get it - there's always stuff to do like walking around looking at trees or something. For the music obsessives there is never a dull moment. Always something new to hear - to learn. As my interests and tastes have expanded over the years I have come to the conclusion that one lifetime just isn't enough. Here's hoping for reincarnation, as Roger Miller once put into song.
Well, unless human beings ever get the chance to be downloaded from one lifetime to the next - with no memory lapses or meltdowns - I reckon any time spent above ground is the bees knees.

Kinda like last time, I wrote and re-wrote several attempts at a "new entry" only to find myself disappointed and confused about what to write. So, instead I'll do a "What I listened to Last Summer" kind of a report. And, as it happens - there's a few good vibrations to pass along...................

First of all, the new Ron Howard Beatles' Movie - Eight Days a Week - was really fun to see. I actually went to a movie theater showing with a few members of a great band I play with and we just had fun geeking out on Beatlemania in general. To get psyched up I played a few live Beatles albums:

The Hollywood Bowl album was the very first Beatles record I ever owned. It was the "new release" when I officially became a Beatles fan - I remember the in-store displays at the shop where I got it with my pops in New York City. So even though the songs were live with lots of girls screaming, I never had time to form an opinion on the merits of the performances, etc......It was a BEATLES album, it was NEW and therefore - beyond criticism in my young mind.

Ditto for the Hamburg 1962 album. The sound quality was obviously funky as could be, but I really loved all the wacky antics, between-song banter and general sense of wild abandon captured before the Beatles hit it big across the world. As a kid, I also grew up hearing about my father's time in the army and how he was stationed in Germany in the same years as The Beatles' famous tenure there: 1961 - 1963 (or thereabouts). Of course, Dad was nowhere near Hamburg, but that didn't stop me from wondering what if he had taken a trip up there and stumbled into a club with those lads onstage who once would become famous. Instead, he went to Italy on his leave time and I never did get any good stories out of him about his time there. Oh well.

Anyway, all this Beatles hubbub got me thinking about Ringo again - what a great drummer. Obvious, of course. It is fascinating to consider how much Ringo contributed to the way drums (and music in general) sounded on record. Take a look at these photos of Ringo in the recording studio:

The top photo shows Ringo in 1963. The bottom is Ringo six years later in 1969. Not only is his drum set different, but notice the amount of microphones in both pictures. In 1963, I can only see one overhead mic and one mic set a bit in front of the bass drum. In 1969, there's now TWO mics on the bass drum (with padding inside) and goodness knows how many other spot mics (looks like the tom toms are mic'd underneath the drums - how weird!).

In those six years, the way popular music was recorded would cause ripples right down to the development of better home listening systems and hi-fi gear. A tell-tale sign is that microphone pointed directly at Ringo's hi-hat cymbals in the 1969 picture. As popular music gradually shuffled toward a modern, DISCO drum beat - the sound of loud hi-hat accents would play a prominent role in defining what that genre sounded like (apart from everything else). And, whether we like it or not - that dry, disco drum sound would dominate recorded music for years - maybe it still does.

Those loud, chirping hi-hats would, when cut to vinyl, give trouble for folks who hadn't invested in more sophisticated cartridges for their turntables. So, gradually people started to get the sense that their record players were bad and not compatible with modern music. If more people would have upgraded the stylus a few notches above what they had used for years, there might not have been so many who jumped at the Compact Disc as an immediate improvement in sound. Such was the case in my family. As much as my Dad loved music, he never upgraded that needle on his turntable. So, by the time I heard my first CD - it knocked me for a loop because the sound was so clean! I'm sure I was not alone, of course..........

When the Beatles albums started coming out on CD in the late 80s I was all psyched until I discovered the first four albums would be MONO only! To think of such a thing happening now is absurd. I grew up on the stereo albums and no matter how much I tried to convince myself to love those mono CDs I just didn't. It is astounding to realize this situation would not be rectified until 2009! In the meantime, it would also be The Beatles to lead me back to vinyl. In the mid-90s I ordered a stereo UK copy of A Hard Day's Night from a Goldmine magazine ad.

 The sound blew me away so much I was literally jumping up and down in front of the stereo laughing like a fool! Now THAT'S what I'd been missing all those years! Yet, as I'd come to realize - the compact disc also brought in a flood of music that had no chance of being reissued on vinyl anytime soon - and with some fantastic surprises!

See, in the current climate of "everything is on youtube now" - the way CDs brought rare music back into the shops is something current listeners might not understand. Case in point:  The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
 Amazingly, I found a UK MONO pressing of this wild album at a flea market when I was about 12 years old. It totally blew my mind! Yet, my record was kinda chewed up. Didn't stop me from playing it often enough, though I sure would liked to have bought a new copy. That was certainly not an option in the 1980s. When I saw it had been reissued on CD in 1991 I nearly fainted! What was better - the first part of the CD release was made up of an alternate, mono mix of the ENTIRE FIRST SIDE of the LP. WOW! I certainly never heard that before. It was like getting a pristine sounding bootleg included along with the legitimate album on one disc.

So, CDs were a very welcome format despite some of the sonic limitations folks have been complaining about lately. Like any format, so many variables can determine how the music sounds. I have plenty of CDs that sound great and I wouldn't part with them for any vinyl counterpart. It just takes time and little research to find the best versions of music you might like. For instance, I've been making some headway with my 78 collecting lately:
When browsing around ebay for 78s I noticed this Little Walter disc had great songs on both sides - two I especially like. And the price tag wasn't so bad for a VG disc. It plays decently enough and I can add it to my esoteric collection. I managed to "mod" a Pro-Ject turntable with a motor pulley unit to make the thing spin at the proper speed (along with the right type of stylus for the Ortofon cart that was installed) so I am 100% ready for the big shellac throwdown! Heh. I'll leave the heavy collecting to others more obsessed than me. I sure like having a few nifty specimens to mess around with now and again!


I also got into a new (to me) German band from the 70s / 80s era called Novalis. The record pictured at the top was rescued from a Goodwill and is my favorite so far - titled "Visionen". It's an all-instrumental album whereas the others feature vocals in the German language. Very progressive stuff and how can you say no to a great looking record label like "Brain"? I could get addicted to this stuff, easily!

A couple of new colored-vinyl reissues walked in the door this summer as well. The Silver Apples record sounds great though I don't have an original to compare. The reissue was beautifully put together by Jackpot Records who seem to be making a play for the reissue market (though somehow there is a Universal Music logo on the thing as well). Jackpot also put out the early Wipers LPs with nice tip-on sleeves and well-pressed vinyl.

The Judy Henske / Jerry Yester "Farewell Aldebaran" reissue is also not to be missed! Excellent sound and a nice package (complete with booklet with new interviews and pictures). For this title I do have an original copy and I can report this new reissue gives the original a run for the money. I think the CD version also has some bonus tracks so I reckon that will end up in the mail somewhere along the way too. Well worth the listening time to hear this excellent, groundbreaking quirky classic!
 Some new sounds have hit the turntable as well - such as the new Ryley Walker LP - "Golden Sings That Have Been Sung". A good friend hooked me up with this along with the record pictured below:
 This project was titled "Electric Ladyland Redux" - a re-recording of the entire Jimi Hendrix classic by various new bands. Now, I will admit to being one of the more skeptical listeners when it comes to projects like this, but one earful blew any skepticism right out of my skull! A major highlight was the excellent cover of "Voodoo Chile" by the band All Them Witches. These folks NAILED this track - just perfect. The overall sound of the record and pressing quality is top-notch as well. Available from Magnetic Eye Records.
I found this Rainbow Jackson album - Perpetual Summer - in a thrift store. It happens to be #171 of a limited edition run of 500 pressed. Had no idea what the music was like, but I took a chance since it looked interesting. Very good melodic / indie / hard rock. Good playing, solid songs and a pretty radio-friendly sound. This band is from LA and I'd check them out live if I ever see 'em in this neck of the woods.


The other night I had fun doing some extreme genre-hopping between Black Sabbath, Skeeter Davis and John Hiatt. Three of my favorite records by anybody. I may be in the minority, but I tend to like Sabbath with Dio singing more than Ozzy (though Ozzy's voice is so iconic on those classic albums - can't deny that). For me, though, Dio remains in the top 3 of my favorite metal / hard rock singers of all time. Sometimes he's #1.

Skeeter Davis, likewise, is one of my favorite country singers. Of course I am biased a bit since she was a part of the NRBQ extended family (being married to Joey Spampinato for a good number of years). I really enjoyed reading her autobiography "Bus Fare To Kentucky" years ago and have a number of her albums in the stacks. RIP Skeeter!

And the last album pictured is the great John Hiatt comeback album of the late 80s. The story behind "Bring The Family" is so unlikely - he'd burned every bridge in the years leading up to this record and, newly clean and sober, was given one last chance at a record deal. Not only does he deliver, but he starts a run of albums with songs so brilliant it's mind-boggling. Like this one - if this song doesn't getcha you must have a HOLE in yo' SOUL!
John Hiatt will serve as the link to Part Two of What I Listened to This Summer following shortly. There's more to tell especially with reasons to keep Compact Discs on your radar - fantastic sounds to be had for cheap out there, people! Until next time - keep listening!!!













Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Back to the Beginning Again........

Who are we kidding? 2016 has been, so far, the year to wave goodbye to the 20th century. Sports, music, you name it - all kinds of prominent figures of the past 50 years have been cutting out. One loss after another – a lot like real life, isn't it? Disappointments abound. And let's not even think about what a sham-show the political landscape (national / world / u-name-it) has been this year as well. I really do my best to keep this blog upbeat and positive since music should wash away the dust bunnies of life, right? Well, as usual there is great music to pull us through, even in the saddest of times. Or in times of upheaval and uncertainty.

So far I've re-written this entry three times and I'm hoping the third time is the charm, as they say! I've tried to be philosophical, whimsical, a-political and even non-committal. Seems like no matter what I start writing it ends up going where I didn't intend it to go, but not in a good way. I haven't had a whole lot of time to think about writing, let alone actually doing it. The plate's been FULL – for months and months. I'm hoping for a little time to re-connect with my brain though I can't promise anything constructive will come of that! Reunions don't always work. Sometimes people, or life in general, can change so much that old chemistry is impossible to replicate. Ever hear that ill-fated Byrds reunion album from 1973?
 To be fair, there is some good music on this record. What is immediately apparent to even casual Byrds fans is how little the same five guys sound like what their classic period sounds like. The old Byrds sound – low-fi as it was – is nowhere within earshot on this platter. Heck, it would have been great if they decided to title the record “You Can't Go Home Again” because that is the lesson imparted here. The Byrds reunion LP also happens to contain what I consider to be David Crosby's least compelling song “Long Live the King” - a not-so-thinly-veiled screed to Nixon. Some of the lyrics are so silly they're “bad / good” - know what I mean? Aw, heck if you haven't heard it here it is:

Maybe it's just me, but I do get a few chuckles out of that one. I think it's the whole “Humpty Dumpty” business that sends the song over the edge. And, don't get me wrong – I really am a David Crosby fan. Loved his last album. I just think he wasn't bringing his “A-list” material to this project. Where the band really shines is on other people's songs – the Joni Mitchell and Neil Young tracks are the strongest. And, to be a bit more complimentary to Crosby – his lead vocal abilities on this Byrds album are far stronger (thanks to his CSN experiences) than on any classic Byrds albums. Maybe that was part of his own personal motivation. For that alone I'll give him the credit – a willingness to step out with his newfound vocal confidence. Can't argue with that. The overall effect, however, is a much less cohesive band sound which is too bad. Of course, this could easily veer off into a “people versus producers” argument. Not going there today, though..........

I reckon I could just as easily go on about other reunion album disasters though I think the point is illustrated sufficiently. And that isn't the intended focus here – not that I know just what that focus really is yet. I just know what it isn't. For the past year or so I've made it a conscious consideration to check out new music and support local music releases here. It's been fun and rewarding to engage with new vibrations. Of course I'll never be a John Peel, so from here on out I'm just following my own path with no preconceived idea of what this blog is supposed to be or not. If it's good (or bad) I'm passing on the word as I see fit. And, there is a lot of great music going on – old and new. The search is always on for that next source of inspiration and transcendence.

Well, before I get any further away from my own flimsy logic I want to pass along word about a new release from a new (to me) artist – and a regionally-oriented one at that. From north of the border – Canada to be exact – Dany Laj and the Looks. 
 Yes, that first name is spelled DANY, who happens to be the guitarist and lead vocalist here. The most recent release (on vinyl) is titled “Word on the Street”. I picked this up on a recommendation and was pleasantly rewarded with a fun listen! The real strength here is the sum of the parts: good, engaging songwriting, excellent harmonies and very energetic drumming! Now, I may not know jack diddly about whatever music scene(s) exists in the Great White North, but there seems to be a fair amount of no-BS, straight ahead good rock music coming out of Canada these days. And Dany Laj and the Looks are a winning example of this. I can put their LP on the turntable anytime and I'm having a good time. I managed to get my copy from amazon – better jump if you want one 'cause they seem to be going fast. Really would love to see these folks live. I have NO IDEA if they tour beyond their own turf. If they happen to be anywhere near you – just go, jump around and have a great time! That's what its all about at the end of the day............

Now I did promise to pass along word about the bad and the ugly too, so here goes.........and this one kinda hurts to have to report on, but what can I do besides offer my (shrinking) reader base THE HONEST TRUTH? 
  Buyer Beware: Michael Bloomfield – Crusin' for a Brusin'........is not a good record at all. Alright, there are some moments here and there, but Bloomfield was near the end of his life by the time this was being recorded and it shows, mainly in his already shaky vocal delivery. Some flashes of guitar brilliance sprinkled throughout the proceedings, but the overall effect is not terribly compelling. And such a shame too, since it was issued on John Fahey's TAKOMA label. I ended up poking around the internet looking for any info about this record and came across a posthumous review / obituary of sorts published in Mother Jones (an old hippie mag I think). Wow. Talk about bitter, scathing and just plain mean. I won't post a link here – I'm sure you can find it if you really want to. Maybe Michael Bloomfield was past his prime and not destined for a rebound, but give the man a little better consideration. He was a pretty fantastic talent in his heyday. Instead of the above record, I would sooner suggest checking out this 2LP set released by Columbia titled simply “Bloomfield”.
It's a good overview and cross-section of his more inspired moments with some genuine, down-to-earth banter from the man himself thrown in for humanization purposes. Perhaps his habits got the better of him, but Bloomfield was a true soldier in service to the music in my book.


Now, I ought to 'fess up since I'm being all brave-n-honest here: I had only a sketchy idea of who the heck Dan Hicks was when he split the planet back in March or whatever. In fact, I've since learned that he was more of a cult figure than anything else and his most high-profile album was released back in 1969. As luck would have it, I recently found a copy of that first Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks album in a thrift store so of course I brought it home. Now, I have also learned that Dan Hicks was first recorded as a drummer for the proto-psychedelic band The Charlatans in the mid 1960s. But, like Skip Spence he was more of a guitar player. So he got a deal with Epic Records and put out this thing:
 First of all – what a great, quirky record this is! Yet, if this was his most popular platter that really speaks volumes. I'd have to say not only would this record have been out of step with the times it was released in – it would have to be out of step with darn near any era, maybe post 1920. At least musically. Lyrically, these songs are imbued with weird, sardonic wit and humor. Maybe not exactly of the snarky Steely Dan mold, but not too far off the path there! Dan Hicks seemed to be the kind of character who kept his own counsel and didn't give much of a hoot about what was popular or not. Just did his own thing and kept true to himself.

Now, I've started to notice that some of the thrift stores I've been hitting up in recent years are getting hip to the hipsters out there and are now hiking up the prices of those LPs in the stacks. Ah, well. It was bound to happen. However, some shops are starting to mark down their used CDs! And there are plenty of great discs out there waiting for new homes to go to. I recently took home three of the early Ramones albums on CD – with bonus tracks – in nice shape for $1 apiece. I also filled a few gaps in my Elvis Costello CD collection for the same price. And that's not even counting the Grateful Dead blunder I pulled..........



One local shop must have taken in a whole collection of Dead CDs since a pile were out in the stacks. So I bagged a bunch I didn't have – mostly late era studio albums. But there were a LOT of those Dicks Picks double and triple disc sets for very reasonable prices. I shoulda bought them ALL. Dumb move. THOSE are the rare discs. Yet, I know some of those Dead shows are not always so hot – and how many versions of “Scarlet Fire” are you going to want to bring home all at once? Knowing me – I would never sell them anyway – I'd be stuck with them on my shelf waiting to be played for years. Maybe I missed investment material, but hopefully a true fan got them.

Even in the regular shops, CDs are the best deal going in the used market. I paid $5 for my copy of Eno's “Music for Airports” and that gets played pretty frequently these days. Compact Discs might not be as sexy as vinyl records yet there are certain situations where I prefer having the CDs. Case in point – as an erstwhile admirer of 78s, I have concluded that I will never quite become the discerning collector some determined folks have become. I would rather benefit from their research and hear that material collected on CD. One of the great, direct links to this avenue of knowledge is the label Joe Bussard is running out of his basement – selling excellent compilation CDs of his choice 78s for very reasonable prices.
 Of course, Bussard has been doing this kind of thing for years, but I'm a new convert. So I dipped my toe in and ordered a few CDs from him directly. A compilation titled "When Jazz Was Jazz 1920s" and another titled "Jubilo" which he also kindly autographed for me!


What a ball that music is! If I know what's good for me I will get my shit together and order all the other discs he's offering before it's too late. And I sure hate to talk like that, but we all know what this miserable year has been like. People, people, people of planet earth: DON'T SLEEP ON THIS OPPORTUNITY!! Get the goods from THE SOURCE while you still can! Go here, grasshoppers:

And that's my very best advice to you for now. Thanks again for stopping by my little island of near-sanity here. And I know I owe another King Crimson entry so expect that in the future. Other than that – keep those vibrations flowing, y'all! Bright Moments!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

2015 / 2016 : Endings / Beginnings

As I sit in front of my computer screen working on the latest entry, I am confronted with yet another day of musician passings. Most recently we are bidding farewell to Dan Hicks. This spate of deaths in the music world lately has been such a massive series of losses – fairly traumatic stuff for fans to witness. Especially in the weeks that have followed the passing of Lemmy Kilmister, you'd think he was the Grim Reaper incarnate – taking a host of souls with him to the great beyond: Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Glen Frey, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of the Jefferson Airplane (on the same day!), Maurice White and now Dan Hicks. And that's not counting lesser-known figures like Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky and giants of the classical world such as Pierre Boulez.

Most of our departed musical heroes managed to live long and productive lives before leaving us. I honestly find it a bit puzzling when I hear folks speak of those who pass on in their 70s as “so young”. I dunno – some can carry their age better than others, but making it to the 70s sounds pretty good to me. Things rarely remain smooth and groovy beyond that point so I think it's not a bad departure age, in general. Still, having so many pack up and split in such a short space is alarming stuff.
Doubly so for me, unfortunately. I lost my own father back at the top of September after a brief, yet intense hospital stay. Actually, the reasons for his death were exactly the same as those given for Paul Kantner – multiple organ failure. And, aside from a few lifestyle choices, my Pops was just as stubborn a German as Kantner was reported to have been. Uncompromising; went out doing his best to keep living how he wanted to live. There's an oddly romanticized celebration of such stubborn behavior that trickles into the public discourse – I suppose flowing from the maverick-minded, do-it-yourself, uniquely American attitude. Or what could be called a “rock and roll” attitude. Dad was certainly a true rock and roll fan – in the style of the 1950s. He was a motorcycle-riding greaser at heart to the end. Though that was only one aspect of his complex personality, as every human being contains a jumble of complexities, ultimately. Three-dimensional in a two-dimensional world. I suppose the biggest inconvenience to put on those close to us is to have the temerity to up and die – as if “what nerve”! However, I still maintain my final assessment on the topic after spending my father's last day on earth with him to the end - “Not recommended”. If only it were that simple. It's too early to calculate the loss for me. Modern adult life doesn't help much either. That's where music can intervene.
 
For years I've pondered the significance of the fact that my biggest musical heroes were the same age as my parents. Funny how, as young folks, we tend to dismiss the “wisdom” of our parents, yet we feel we're getting the “truth” from their peers in the music world. Of course, Brain Wilson, Paul McCartney and Lou Reed didn't have to raise me. Plus, their line of work was to challenge the status quo – my parents were too busy trying to navigate the status quo to keep adversity at bay and the wolf from the door. Hard to appreciate the sacrifices many of our parents make when we're young. Our loudmouthed uncles and aunts of rock and roll are much more exciting prophets, by far. Yet, as it was for me, my parents' rebellious peers did provide that alternate advice and perspective – illustrating the diverse possibilities of “how to live”. So as the inevitible continues to visit us in the coming years – the question remains, “What, if anything, of value is there to preserve? What do we cast to the wind?” Keep the good stuff, pitch the bad stuff. So here's some of the good stuff...............
Dad liked to listen to a cassette of The Eagles' Greatest Hits when riding his motorcycle. I'm pretty certain I bought this LP copy for him to play on the stereo at home. Plus, if his tape ever got ruined I could make him a new one from the record. Not sure I ever had to do that though – he really took care of his stuff. Glen Frey was, by far, my favorite vocalist in The Eagles, though I never really thought much about the different personalities in that band. At some point I also had a used LP copy of the Hotel California album. It's a telling thing for me if I say “I once had.......” when referring to old records – guess I decided all I needed was the Greatest Hits album. Good enough for me then and it still is!
Funny enough – as much as I appreciate Lemmy as a rock and roll original, I still don't have a single Motorhead album. Yet, I do have his work with Hawkwind. Perhaps the peak of which is the Space Ritual double album. 
 Since I've had a renewed interest in heavy metal over the last few years, I'm sure the Motorhead catalog will slowly filter onto the stacks in time. I reckon most folks who are familiar with Lemmy have the reverse problem. If you've been holding off on Hawkwind – take the plunge! Lemmy called his experiences with Hawkwind “like Star Trek on acid”! Having grown up watching reruns of the original Star Trek series with Dad, I would wager a bet the creators of that show WERE on acid! And speaking of acid..........
  How strange that Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson – two of the original members of Jefferson Airplane – pass away at the same age on the SAME DAY. If you haven't heard that first album – Jefferson Airplane Takes Off – check out the mono reissue from Sundazed. Signe Anderson was a singular talent and unique vocalist. I wish I had the chance to hear her sing live, though I am glad I got to hear Paul Kantner with the latter-era Jefferson Starship a few times. I sure will miss that ringing, chiming electric 12-string Rickenbacker of his – nothing sounded remotely like that thing cranked up loud in a concert environment. He was a true American original..........
Of course, the big shocker was David Bowie. I never got to see him live, though I missed a golden opportunity years ago when he gave a surprise concert / warmup gig at a local club (one I played several times before and since he did) back in 2002. At that point, Bowie had fallen off my radar since Tin Machine sputtered out. I never quite latched onto any of his 90s albums. And it wasn't until the release of his second-to-last LP “The Next Day” that I really picked up my interest again. 
Around the same time I heard a few tracks off the “Heathen” album which blew me away – I now have that album on regular CD, vinyl AND the long out of print (and now expensive) 5.1 Super-Audio CD edition. 
The strength of that record and “The Next Day” had me all ready to pounce on the new LP and I was ready to snag one of the limited edition clear vinyl copies on the way home from work Monday morning – that Monday.......when I got the news that morning he had died. Since there was no way I could leave work to hit up the shops I knew I was out of luck for the clear vinyl and just barely bagged a regular black vinyl copy from an online source before those too sold out. And after all that – know what? Still sitting sealed on the shelf. I'm just not ready. 
  So far a lot has been written about the new album “Black Star” being a carefully crafted farewell on Bowie's part to his fans. I get the impression Bowie decided to take the opportunity to use his art as a way to hold the mirror up on the death process for everyone to see - to turn his own passing into good, useful art. I imagine this music will have a particular resonance for me when I decide to listen. But, for now I just can't. Not ready. It always bugs me when great musical personalities leave us. Despite his many talents I will always think of him as a music figure. Here's a fun article / list he offered a music publication of some of his favorite records. It's a good read and shows just how much enthusiasm he had for the art. He definitely comes off as the kind of person ready, willing and able to shoot the breeze about music anytime with. See here: http://scallemang.ca/bowie25albums/

In addition to Bowie's recommendations, I have a few of my own to pass along...................

 
Nils Frahm – Felt
I recently read about how this recording took shape – late at night at the composer's apartment with heavy sound dampening applied to his acoustic piano so as not to disturb his neighbors. Phrases are looped and maneurvered around the soundscape as modern music can be, but this technique is in the hands of a real composer here. The more I hear new cutting-edge music like this the less I feel compelled to keep looking for the next “band” to latch onto. I bought this LP based on the description of the music alone – yet it's become a recent favorite. This is not Frahm's most recent effort, but it may be his most popular. Now to seek out the rest of his stuff..........highly recommended!

 
Calexico – Edge of the Sun 
  I found myself really enjoying the previous LP “Algiers” often enough so I took the plunge with the most recent effort – on LP of course. Y'know, there is still something I really like about this band / artist / project / whatever the hell this is. Singer's got a good voice, solid songs, good production – a little extra sonic diversity in the mix this time (some guest vocalist peppered throughout the proceedings). Still, I can't quite figure this band out. It's kind of like really good film music for movies I've never seen – moody, film-noir type affairs with a little Tex-Mex flavanoid thrown into the mix. I don't really bother to pay attention to the lyrics (typical for me). Yet, I get the impression of sincereity in the music. Not that it matters if its true or not – it's just my reaction. These guys could be a bunch of Hollywood hucksters for all I know. Yet, there is a palpable absence of self-consciousness (sonic “selfie-taking”) that I hear in a fair amount of modern music otherwise. I know there are some earlier releases from this group and I am a bit intrigued to know what that material sounds like. I also wonder where this band is heading. It would be pretty easy to keep churning out similar sounding records or just pack it in. Where do they go from here? Does it matter? Does anyone care? Not sure if I want to take any bets on whether or not these guys have more records in them. If so, I'd probably sign up for another go-round before I'm ready to start making predictions for the future. I might even be compelled to see them live if that's an option. Nothing revolutionary, once again. Yet, ultimately musical.


Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom / Ruth is Stranger than Richard

A few months ago I saw a cheap download option for Rock Bottom and decided to see how I liked the music via that format. The download left me unmoved and unimpressed. Since I have been making an effort to check out more from the so-called “Canterbury” scene I didn't want to give up on Robert Wyatt just yet. He seems like such an interesting character! So when I won a viny copy off ebay recently I was hoping it would be a different (and better) experience. Thank goodness my hunch paid off. Hearing the music off the US vinyl LP was a whole new thing – the right way to hear it. There was depth, weirdness and aplomb aplenty. Still, I think Wyatt's voice is an aquired taste I'm still getting used to. The overall experience was much more involving and pleasant than the $3 download. I ended up with a UK pressing of the follow-up record to Rock Bottom, “Ruth is Stranger than Richard” in short order as well. 
Another brilliant slab o wax there too! Though I have to say, Rock Bottom has a slight edge in the department of “weirdness leading to further weirdness” courtesy of how Side Two winds up. Specifically with a highly bizarre incantation-piece from British eccentric Ivor Cutler, whom I'd only ever known to this point as Mr. Bloodvessel on The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film. Little did I know what else lurked behind that plain and pruney facade...........
 
Ivor Cutler
There are a number of records Ivor Cutler put out along the path of his long career from the late 50s to the early 2000s. Quite a few have been reissued on CD which is good news since the original LPs are now quite difficult to find. It is hard to pin a genre on Cutler – by his own admission he spoke of being a surrealist folk singer. That's not a bad description, though there is a fair amount of poetry and prose found on his albums too and not all of it humorous! As it happens, Cutler was no mere extra pulled onto the Magical Mystery Tour bus in random fashion. It seems that The Beatles had been aware of him via BBC television for quite some time. Some have even theorized that his influence on The Beatles went a bit further than his participation in that ill-fated movie. Cutler's main accompaniment device was the keyboard instrument known as the harmonium. Here is a what it looks like:

 
A few years before Magical Mystery Tour, the harmonium played a prominent role in the song “We Can Work It Out” - issued as a single in 1965. I'm sure just as many people were exposed to the sitar via The Beatles music, it is possible this song did the same for the harmonium. It provides a nice, unique effect which helps to give the song its distinctive flavor. I have no evidence of the influence, but I'd like to think McCartney's decision to include this instrument was a tribute of sorts to one of his favorite surrealist folk singers. 

  There is a nice compilation of Ivor Cutler's earliest records – made for Decca – on a very cheap CD. Great sound, full-on weirdness and what more could you ask. Get one here:
 
Also – from the “get it while it's hot” bag – watch the brilliant documentary on Ivor Cutler by following this link: http://www.ubu.com/film/cutler_truth.html
  
Cutler was in his 80s when the film was made and he has since passed on. Yet, he also lived a long and productive life leaving behind a full body of work to be explored and enjoyed by succeeding generations.

As time inevitably marches forward, I can't help but feel the tug of my own mortality here and there. Since time is a scarce resource with our collective visits on this planet being as brief as they are, it is of the utmost importance to sing that song, paint that painting, write that poem and yodel as loudly as you can now. There's no yodeling allowed in the great beyond, so I've been told. I'll leave the final word to Phil Ochs who did write a beautiful song about this very subject called “When I'm Gone”. This one goes out to all those we've lost and those we'll lose along the way – gone, perhaps, but never forgotten. Amen!