Friday, April 11, 2014

Hell's Broke Loose in Altamont

"...on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

When a gang of bad-juju biker thugs swinging pool cues and shoving shivs into drugged-up fools are ostensibly "security" at the Rock festival, it's time to holler, "Feet, beat the retreat!"--at least that's what I decided late in the afternoon of December 6, 1969, at Altamont Speedway in the Northern California foothills 30 or 40 miles east of the East Bay urbs. (Probably not much more than a hundred thirty miles north and east of the sleepy coastal town of Monterey, but worlds apart in time and species.)

In the wake of Monterey's blissed-out Pop Music festival, would-be copycat events--large or small, outdoors or in--were mounted at venues across America. The middle
portion of Western Washington was especially active, hosting two "Sky Rivers" and a "Seattle Pop" ahead of that culminating woolly mammoth, the merry music, muddy mayhem, massed-(counter)culture manifesto known as Woodstock. (Forgotten fact: there actually was an earlier fourth event, held in advance of Monterey Pop, a mini-fest hosted by Sonny and Cher and staged at Seattle's Green Lake Aquatheater.)

The Old World was stirring too, with the new Rock Music shaking Europe's cultural roots, students rioting in the streets of Prague and Paris, and the Rolling Stones doing their damnedest to prod London past No Satisfaction and Devil Sympathy on to Street Fighting meant to stretch from Carnaby to Fleet. By 1969, Brian Jones had
been ousted from the group he'd help create and had soon after that drowned. Suddenly the outdoor concert the other Stones had been planning became a Hyde Park-sized wake for Jones--which was followed over the fall by the band's first big-venues tour of the States, Madison Square Garden to Miami and the L.A. Coliseum to... um, somewhere in the San Francisco area, a free all-day concert-slash-festival added by the boys at the last minute as a big "Thank You" to America. Sharing the billing would be Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers (led by Gram Parsons, Keith Richard's latest amigo for drinkin'n'druggin'), and the Grateful Dead.

A mammoth free concert with such a potent line-up called for a sizable security force too, but the last-minute negotiations to settle on a site, and the massive overnight staging effort required after that, meant that some "creative" approach to security would be needed. Participants and critics and fans alike have argued ever since as to who should get the blame for what ensued...

Several months after Monterey Pop I had begun doing some minor writing for the Rock mag that had started a couple of weeks before that festival; Rolling Stone (as was, early on) seemed content to accept my sometimes esoteric record reviews, and I was soon writing too for Boston's equivalent mag titled Fusion and for Seattle's underground newspaper, The Helix. I was scheduled to do an interview piece on Creedence Clearwater Revival for Fusion on December 5th and was able to secure
Press credentials for the Stones' bash too. Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus and his lovely wife offered to put me up, and I flew down to the Bay Area on December 4th.

We were four jolly journalists in the car driving east on show day--Greil, his friend Langdon Winner, me, and Sandy Darlington (later the owner/producer of New England's excellent Folk Legacy Records). We joined the miles of cars ascending to the Speedway: the sun was out, and two or three hundred thousand Rock fans were gathering, like iron filings to a magnet or, more accurately, lemmings drawn to the cliff edge.

Once admitted backstage, we each set off independently, planning to compare impressions later. I wandered about taking mental snapshots and talking with, among others, Burrito Brother Gram, Johnny Winters' twin brother Edgar, and (I think) their manager, whose name I've forgotten but who was stylishly garbed in boxer shorts and a kimono. Even more dapper was the birthday suit worn by a stoned fat Latino guy, who was stumbling about confusedly like a curly-nobbed Humpty Dumpty on stilts. (This lad reappears later.) I didn't realize it then, but I was seeing a sad representation of the Altamont audience.

Around 2 p.m. I heard Santana warming up on stage and crawled under and through the metal platform and out to the area right front of the stage near one stack of amps. People had been sitting on the ground, but now no one could hold a space without standing up and then being pushed forward, packed tighter and tighter. There was no area reserved for the Press, just a crushing, unruly crowd, the milling front ranks of a sweeping downward hillside avalanche of tens of thousands. And these weren't the happy hippies of Monterey Pop and San Francisco Be-Ins; this was a hostile mob of restive zombies, cloudy- or empty-eyed, mean dispirited creatures zonked on acid, meth, bennies, poisonous grass... who knows? But shoving and dissatisfied and spoiling for a fight.

They soon found it.

This much is known: the Grateful Dead had friends among the Frisco contingent and likely recommended them. The Stones had used a mild-mannered motorcycle club as security at a London event... Hyde Park, was it? The Bay Area headman--headsman? skullman?--and the Stones' advance man-cum-road manager reached an agreement: in exchange for $500 in beer, a phalanx of Hell's Angels, some thirty or so, would protect the stage and the Stones from any overeager encroachers. Armed with fists, knives, biker-chains, and sawed-off pool cues (whipping overhead they looked plenty damn full-length to me), and fortified by beer and bottles the Angels were ready to rumble.

From my vantage point and notes jotted down: (1) Santana's set, oye como va, amigos, brings minor scuffles only, weapons not yet required. The mob's leading
edge subsides, grumbling quietly.

(2) Minimal turbulence for the Flying Burrito Brothers' brand of catchy Country Rock. A few of the walking dead actually attempt to dance.

(3) The afternoon drags on. More thirst. (Water bottles were not yet appendages in 1969.) More warm beers. More mystery drugs. More zombie jamboree.

Now (4) Jefferson Airplane takes off, propelled by Grace Slick's edgy whine. The phony revolutionaries re-engage the zonked. Two Angels insist on riding their bikes through the crowd left of stage. The fights are real, pool cues whirling through the late afternoon light. The naked fat guy gets clobbered in the face and is led away, his nose streaming blood. I'm feeling the crowd's sullen paranoia myself...

Too much happening. Grace harangues the fighters, then Marty Balin leaps off the
stage trying to stop one brawl and gets coldcocked for interfering, knocked unconscious for a minute or two. I'm crouched down near the amps thinking seriously about scooting under the stage when suddenly one long-haired Angel is knocked straight diagonally down into my lap. I start to help him up, then jerk my hands back, afraid his snarling attention will shift to me, but he scrambles up back into the brawl, and I scurry on my knees straight through the metal works, very glad to be clutching a Press pass.

Backstage the chaos is better controlled--roadies and technical worker-bees bustling about, medical volunteers tending to the casualties from drugs and the fighting out front, still small clusters of curious musicians and their groupies, photographers and journalists and other hangers-on standing about, blocking the paths between tents and trailers, trading rumors, a few of which will prove to be true: some woman has given birth... the Grateful Dead arrived but, told about the continuing violence, decided that distance was a wiser course than performance...
the Stones have been delayed and may not be coming at all...

No sign of my car mates, so I drift about alone, eavesdropping on the hushed conversations and scribbling impressions of this weird and heavy day, as late afternoon yields to twilight and then to night. It will be a tense and seething two-hour wait before "live" music resumes.

So far, so bad.
* * * *
In still-to-come final Part 3: casualty numbers rise, the film Gimme Shelter demands attention, and the naked fat man almost sings.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

From Monterey to Altamont as the Crow Flies

But that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the Age of Aquarius, it was the decade of assassinations; it was the era of peaceful resistance, it was the epoch of patriotic fervor; it was the season of possibilities, it was the years of Vietnam; it was the Summer of Love, it was the Winter of Our Discontent: we had the Great Society and Democratic Revolution before us, we had the Entrenched Establishment and Republican Power against us, we had only a stoner's hope of succeeding...

There was a time when I would glibly say, "I went to Monterey Pop by accident, and
to Altamont by mistake." But of course I purchased the tickets and willingly attended both--Monterey as a happy music lover, and Altamont as a member of the working press.

First wife and I had driven down to the Bay Area; the 1967 Summer of Love seemed the right time to celebrate our years-delayed honeymoon by spending a long weekend in San Francisco--no flowers in our hair then, but discovering that something called "The Monterey Pop Festival" was that same weekend convinced me that we should try to attend. Only the last-day matinee concert by sitar master Ravi Shankar had tickets left, but that suited me fine: it got
us in the gate and, besides, I loved his Classical Indian ragas I'd first heard via the soundtrack to Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali trio of films. So Sunday morning we drove on down the Coast.

The picturesque town was chockablock with cops and flower children, townsfolk and festive fans, oldtimers and curiosity seekers, costumers and craftsmen, amateur musicians and business professionals--tens of thousands of hippies and straights alike, and all coexisting in peaceful harmony. That Monterey looked like a mix of early Newport Jazz and later Renaissance Fair, and probably was. Rock Music was still coming into its own, not yet dominating all, and exhibiting no sign
of the fracturing that lay ahead. Pop success still meant the Top 40, and that included the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Stones; and Stereo recording was only slowly replacing sturdy Monaural.

Monterey Pop, thanks to the energy and persuasive blandishments of (record producer) Lou Adler and (Mamas and Papas leader) John Phillips, became a charities money-raising event, with the performers collecting no fees. It functioned instead as a display venue for groups from the East Coast, West Coast, and England to present themselves to their fans, to the press, and to one another. Just consider the acts then unknown or little-known that appeared: Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Who, Canned Heat, the Butterfield Blues Band, Otis Redding with Booker T. and the MGs, Jefferson
Airplane, the Blues Project, Hugh Masakela, Laura Nyro, the Electric Flag, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish. (Also the Grateful Dead, who played but apparently weren't filmed or recorded.)

The "headlining" acts--though not singled out as such--were those with actual hits: Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and Papas, Lou Rawls, the Byrds, the Association, Buffalo Springfield, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Dionne Warwick (who canceled). There was a separate musicians' area, but no one was hassled when celebrities mingled with us common folk; I saw Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Art Garfunkel, Mike Bloomfield, and probably failed to
recognize other wanderers. (George Harrison and/or other Beatles were rumored to be coming but never showed.)

Anyway, the afternoon Shankar concert was an amazing set of three ragas, each one alternating between peacefully spiritual passages and manically high-energy sitar-and-tabla astonishments that left the crowd roaring with delight. (No wonder director D.A. Pennebaker made that out-of-chronology performance the visual and musical climax of his Monterey Pop documentary film.) We walked out feeling elated and exhausted--truly high on life.

And almost immediately met a young man trying to sell his evening concert tickets--not at some scalper price but for maybe $5 apiece. Wife and I looked at each other and said, "Hell yes!" ...which is how we were present for the three defining, star-making sets of Sunday night: (1) Big Brother and
the Holding Company's raucous Rock, driven to distraction (and, soon, dissolution) by spun-gold, tits-at-attention, little-sister Blues-belter Janis Joplin; (2) the Rock-crunching, stage-destroying, balls-to-the-wall gigAntics of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle (er, who? yes, that's right, the Who); and (3) the unforgettable Experience (per lefty-Jimi anything-goes-Hendrix) of watching a man as colorful as a peacock hump and smash an electric guitar after picking it behind his back and with his teeth, and follow that apparent climax with yet another by masturbating lighter fluid onto the pieces and setting them on fire--pretty much an apt definition of "a hard act to follow."

The Mamas and Papas tried, but the temporary weekend world of Monterey Pop was all a-buzz, satiated and dispersing by then. Pennebaker's eventual edit rearranged the three days for maximum effect, omitting some bands and shuffling the ones shown. (Two sequel
follow-ups scoured the remaining footage to document the artists and lesser performances left out of that first official film.) Otis, Janis, Jimi, the Who, and Ravi... by the reviews, popular acclamation, and histories of Rock written since, those five were the highlights of Monterey, and by luck and pluck we'd been there to witness four of them.

I recently watched all three parts of Pennebaker's blanket coverage, and was pleased to be reminded of on-stage moments not seen at the time and off-stage good vibrations enjoyed and remembered. The weekend seemed as placid and lazily happy as it's been painted--the festive, grass-shared, "stoned soul picnic" atmosphere that the subsequent Woodstock and
Altamont gatherings were too mammoth and muddy or drugged and deadly to achieve, really did obtain at Monterey. The brave new world of peace and love, of music and youth, seemed within our reach...

But soon Woodstock ballooned and loomed over us, and ended beached in flotsam and jetsam, like some gigantic White Whale with no Ahab--or too many petty ones--to re-launch and steer the o'erladen ship on its intended (r)evolutionary course. (Instead the nation's youth soon settled for Starbucks and the pursuit of personal wealth--Ronald Reaganomics in place of Gregory Peck.) Meanwhile, near the end of 1969, the terrible events at Altamont
Speedway pretty much nailed the lid on hippiedom's fragile handmade coffin, just barely still afloat.

But there's one thing left to point out regarding Monterey Pop... the dark shadow lurking at the edges of all that "good day sunshine" euphoria. Careers were kicked into gear, yes, but within months Otis Redding and Brian Jones (the one Stone who came) were both dead, and then over the next several years, so too were Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Papa John Phillips and Mama Cass Elliot, Keith Moon of the Who, "Pigpen" from the Grateful Dead, Al Wilson and Bob Hite (both from Canned Heat), Mike Bloomfield (Electric Flag) Mike Clarke (the Byrds), and probably others who attended, plus Jim Morrison (the Doors), Gram Parsons (the Flying Burrito Brothers), John Lennon, and even Elvis... who didn't.

I had not thought Rock had undone so many.

* * * *
In Part 2, coming in a week or three, we journey cross-state from this Alpha fest of music to Altamont's Omega of murder. So much peace and love might have been an illusion, but Hell's Angels as security? Are you kidding me? Whose bright idea was that?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, Have You Heard?

A few days ago, I left a comment on a cool music blog ("Living in Stereo") that might be worth retelling here.

First, some background: I lived in Izmir, Turkey, from 1956 to 1958. We few American teenagers pooled our small stack of 45s for group listening, and one hepcat brought r&b magic unknown to the rest of us, copies of both "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea" and the staccato, driving "Mona." The latter immediately became one of my forever favorites... which may explain why, when I went off to college in 1960, my first musical move was to swap my Wailers Tall Cool One LP for some other dormie's copy of Bo Diddley's debut album...

In the 1970s I was writing and agency-producing radio, TV, and print ads for Rainier Beer; I was proudest of my specialty, our long series of music parodies, from Tom Waits to the Johnny Burnette Trio, Elvis to DEVO, Los Lobos to the Supremes. When I learned that Chess Records legend Bo Diddley was coming to
Seattle--think "I'm a Man," "Hey, Bo Diddley," "Mona," "Who Do You Love," "Bring It to Jerome," "Say Man," "Pretty Thing," "Hush Your Mouth," "Can't Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover," and other early r&b/rock'n'roll classics--we persuaded the brewery to hire him to cut a radio spot for Rainier Ale, nicknamed "Green Death" for bottle color and alcohol content. (Back then, African-American models were routinely used to advertise extra-strength beer products.)

I wrote some sketchy lyrics, booked studio time, and eagerly awaited The Man.

At the appointed time, Bo breezed in wearing black sunglasses, black shirt and slacks, and a rakish black mini-Stetson, carrying a black electric guitar--no amp, no case--a Telecaster (I think), and not one of his familiar shaped or hand-built versions. He heard the idea, sneered at my lame lyrics, plugged directly into the board, and quickly laid down two minute-long takes of his own instant-substitute
jingle, sung over that trademark shave-and-a-haircut Diddley-beat rhythm. He listened back just long enough to rasp, "Use the second," grabbed up his pre-printed check, and sauntered out of the control room--no chit-chat, no creative critique, just wham-bam-no-thank-you-ma'am!

Bo was usually droll and raucous and deadpan-funny: "You look like you been whupped wid a n'ugly stick"..."Uh, I ain't got nuthin' t' do wid it, but I b'lieve that fella's right!" Maybe he'd been channeling Chuck Berry (cash up front, no discussion).

The ad ran for a few weeks but, sadly, caused no stir. I guess that Boat had sailed.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

2013 Picks Too

Here are the mini-reviews of 2013 faves that were unfinished when I posted the first part (see it two steps down) of this year-end list:

Country, with Americana The recent Grammy Awards agreed with my pick for Country album (we don't often match), choosing the saucy, sexy debut disc from "pert 'n' purty" Kacey Musgraves, her album boldly titled Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury B0018029-02, I think) and exhibiting sufficient white trash talk and post-Miranda attitude to launch another ready-for-primetime Nashvillainous career. Some titles here--"Blowin' Smoke," "Step Off," "Keep It to Yourself," "Stupid"--tell that part of her tale: smart lyrics, fine tunes, a solid opening salvo. As Miz Kacey concludes, "It Is What It Is."

Plenty more salvos in my choice for across-the-boards album of the year: Divided & United (ATO Records 2CD set #0882188429) which commemorates/celebrates 34 pieces of "popular" music from the 150-year-old American Civil War/War of
Secession/War Between the States--step-out dance tunes, sentimental ballads, raucous marches, tragic tales of brother against brother, recruitment rally cries, sly minstrel show numbers, anti-war shouts, forgotten folk songs, ex-slave exultations, escapist melodies and more, some of them familiar, but most either unknown or made new by a richer context and inventive arrangements, and all of them Sumterally hand-picked, highjacked and gobsmacked, and whole-heartedly sung by a brigade of Old Guard Country artists and Alt.Country avant-gardizens, ranging from Ralph Stanley to Chris Thile, Lee Ann Womack to Cowboy Jack Clement, T Bone Burnett to Taj Mahal, Carolina Chocolate Drops to the Old Crow Medicine Show, not to mention those perennial favorites, Shovels & Rope. (Say whut?)

And after that exhausting sentence, let's just point to several of the most striking discoveries and performances awaiting your attention... Loretta Lynn launches and amazes with "Take Your Gun and Go, John." Del McCoury immortalizes "Lorena,"
and Joe Henry does right by "Aura Lee." Ex-X man John Doe summons campfire camaraderie with his muscular take on "Tenting Tonight," while Chris Hillman and (especially) Vince Gill evoke the bleak lives and battlefield casualties signaled, respectively, by Stephen Foster's disheartening "Hard Times" and heart-rending "Dear Old Flag." You'll hear Yankee taunts and Rebel yells, from the "dear old Southland" to the original minstrel show "Dixie." You'll join in the Battle of Antietam, see the Fall of Charleston, march through Georgia with Sherman, and pray for all the Johnnys gone soldiering, returning home again finally in some horrific state. For two hours plus, those battle cries echoing, you'll picture sons set in butternut grey and inkbottle blue--tragic historic scenes scored by music alternately rousing and crepuscular, and grass picked much more blue than green. Maybe it truly is The War That Never Ended.

Reggae got Soul Despite fine younger artists like Etana, Tarrus Riley, Morgan Heritage and such, 2012's releases in honor of Jamaica's half-century of independence continued to adumbrate and dominate most of my listening. To hear some of the island's all-time best, lend your ears to (1) VP Records' 3CD set VPCD1962, Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music, sending 51 hot & solid cinders--from Lord Creator to Lady Saw, the Skatalites to Cocoa Tea, Alton Ellis to Mr. Vegas, Junior Byles to Gyptian, and Eek-a-Mouse to Elephant Man... BlueBeat, RockSteady, Dance Hall, Roots & Culture...
dis yuh Reggae Music. Together with (2) the complementary 2CD set SO 2012 from the island's single most important label, titled "The Sound of Young Jamaica": 50 Top Studio One Hits and replete with major mega-tracks recalling the breakthrough heydays of the Heptones, the Maytals, the Wailers, the Abyssinians, the Wailing Souls, Slim Smith, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Johnny Osbourne, and pre-Culture Joseph Hill. That there's pretty much the roll call of Jah-Makin' music... seen?

No other record company, not even Germany's venerated (but oh so expensive) Bear Family, does as good a job keeping the spirit--and reality--of '60s Soul Music
alive and available, as does England's great reissue concern known as Ace/Kent. Among varied on-going series, the dual label's Kent half has been scouring both release lists and unissued material created at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama--a seemingly bottomless vault of gold. Albums compiled from sessions by Candi Staton, James Govan, George Jackson, as well as some obscure/unknown performers, proved excellent additions to the Fame story, but my Soul picks this time are a pair from the Ace "Songwriter Series," 24-track collections devoted to hits, misses, and forgotten album gems composed here by Dan Penn or Allen Toussaint and sung by the princes and pretenders, kings and queens of Soul and Pop.

(1) A Road Leading Home: Songs by Dan Penn (Ace CDCHD 1370), whether written solo or in collaboration, offers a splendiferous harvest of hits Penned by the top white-boy Soulster, including "Dark End of the Street," "Almost Persuaded," "Rainbow Road," "You Left the Water Running," "Do Right Woman," and "Like a Road Leading Home," as interpreted by Irma Thomas, Percy Sledge, James and Bobby Purify, the Drifters, Ted Taylor, Esther Phillips, and so many more. Likewise, (2) Rolling with the Punches: The Allen Toussaint Songbook (Ace CDCHD 1354) features Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Millie Jackson, the Judds, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke, Bonnie Raitt,
Don Covay, Z.Z. Hill... well, I could drop all the names, but enough already... shining a light on "Shoo-Rah," "Ride Your Pony," "Fortune Teller," "Yes We Can Can," "Working in the Coal Mine," "Southern Nights," "Hercules," "Freedom for the Stallion," "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky," and umpteen more samples from 50 years of Toussaint-ctified New Orleans hits.

Woody'n you, Bob? Last year was the hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, and the Guthrie Foundation celebrated by moving West to those Oklahoma hills folks used to sing about--and by issuing a few special repackagings honoring the works of Woody, most importantly the 6CD+DVD set on Rounder Records called Woody
Guthrie: Radical American Patriot
. This is Woody the wandering Okie, natural lefty, Fascist-killing guitar-machine, and Columbia River troubadour--a true patriot no matter how radical. Dust Bowl ditties, sex-ed jingles, radio skits, egalitarian e-lec-tri-SIGH-TEE entreaties and entertainments, and the famous Library of Congress recordings complete for the first time ever. Plus book, photos, drawings, excellent DVD doc of Woody workin' for the BPA, even a 78 rpm record of rare tracks by Guthrie and his staunch follower, young Bobby Dylan, all pieces housed in a lookalike 78s album circa 1944.

As for Bob the temporary acolyte, he's well-served by Columbia/Legacy 2CD set 8883 73487 2, Volume 10 in the legal bootleg series, titled Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). When the original Self appeared way back, there was great consternation; critic Greil Marcus infamously thundered, "What is this shit!?!" Calmer fans speculated that Bob had lost his edge in the motorcycle accident, or was passing off studio rejects to satisfy his contract for so much "product," or was thumbing his nose at the Columbia Records bosses, or...

Looking back now, listening to this ear-opening array of alternates and rarities, it seems more likely that Bob was trying to get back to his Greenwich Village roots, pay belated homage to early folk mentors, take a gentler, post electric-rock
approach (soon to surface in Nashville Skyline, say)--above all else, do things his own way, whether rushed, or ragged, or brilliant, or forgotten on some goof-off rehearsal tape. Marcus might have asked instead, "What does this signify?" I think the answer was something like Paul Anka's song for Sinatra and then Elvis: Bob was saying, as he has all along, "My Way, or the highway... and on this day anyway, that's Highway 61 Receding in the rear-view mirror. Need a lift?"

Friday, February 21, 2014

Seattle Seahawks 2014... and 1966

Picks Part 2 practically presentable; prepping to produce same soon. But first...

The Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII on my birthday, February 2, 2014--a terrific gift, thanks, and the first complete football game I've watched in over 20 years.

A week or so later, some lines kept popping up in my head, and then suddenly I remembered that, 48 years ago in 1966, ten years before Seattle's football team came into existence, I predicted the 'Hawks victory...

Well, sort of.

I was a fledgling poet at the time, and one day I got the idea to write a poem honoring the fierce sea hawk found in Western Washington... meaning the osprey: a good-sized fish-eating bird considered both rapacious attacker and staunch defender; a sharp-taloned, swoop-and-grab, fish-catcher hawk depicted in Northwest Coast Native American woodcarving--a swift and determined totemic creature deemed worthy to stand beside Eagle and Orca and Bear.

While there's not much official NFL language involved here, it doesn't require much imagination to recognize a Seahawk, a lop-sided victory (complete with Lombardi trophy), even an admiring but envious "12th Man":

The Catch

Anchored on sea-winds,
easily riding the air,
the fierce osprey balances,
mortally sharp and sure.
Talons arced, he stands--
a baleful barb, off-white--
poised there to cry praises
of his haggard sun's stare
or shriek the lure of night.
He scans long miles of air,
tangent to sky and sea,
then leaps to hurtle freely
down turbulent piles of light.

A greying blur, the osprey
plummets! Slashes a way,
fighting each buffet of air,
piercing through to his fish
that turns in water-light.
No liquid-dream barrier,
no bubbling gift of tongues,
can check his streaming glare.
The fish hawk dips and catches.

Now screaming arrogant songs
he strides back up the wind,
feeling the elements flow--
his air that burns all finned
and seaward things to ashes.
High where the dive began,
the writhing catch flashes.

On the nacreous beach below
I chafe my cold bones
and wish for sea hawk wings--
to soar; to fall... A man
past reach, I grope for dying
fish among the stones.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Clicked Picks of 2013

Many reading this will know that various demons of Parkinson’s and useless aging have stolen my strength and attention this past year. (Bah humbug, in a big way.) Kept me from following the Music Scene assiduously--or even casually, truth be told. Instead of keeping up with the Slows and Beeblers, the Cants and Carwashians, I tried to keep my eyes on the more prized or more surprising; my picks are recent acquisitions dated 2013 and otherwise, the ones that kept me going in these hard-enough times.

But first... I had planned to write during 2013 a longish piece celebrating sideman-regular, sometime-leader, guitar-slinger extraordinaire Sonny Landreth, master of his own unique brand of amped-up electric slide and scorpion-sting steel—devilish-difficult, prowl-and-howling silver-sliver slices of slide, with tailing grace notes
somehow slipped in and attached. (Just how do he do that voodoo that he do so well?) Adopted-Cajun Louisianan Landreth has sidemanned or session-soloed for artists as diverse as Clifton Chenier and Eric Clapton, John Hiatt and BeauSoleil, and between 1998 and 2008 he released an elemental quartet of discs--earthy, water mock-shivery, slyly aerated/air-aided, swamp-fire gems South of I-10, Levee Town, The Road We’re On, From the Reach--that I hear and now commend to one and all, South Louisiana to the wider world. Keep on the Sonny slide!

And now, on with the show (categories are capricious, quality reissue sets welcome, and write-ups per whim and vim):

Blues & Gospel Going out on a limb here, and sawing it off right at the trunk, the most exciting 2013 Blues album is a 45-years-after-the-fact, newly released,
ordered-but-not-yet-heard Blues club set by Magic Sam Maghett, the great guitar/vocalist of (post-Muddy) Chicago Blues and West Side Soul fame. No live album heretofore ever did justice to his killer fret-and-slide work; this one from a Milwaukee folk/blues club (on Delmark) supposedly makes up for the previous meager lot--in spades.

Gospel pick is a surer thing, Brit 2CD set, Fuel label 302 061 961 2, The Jewel Records Gospel Story. On a Louisiana state map Shreveport (in the northwest Ark-La-Tex corner) is diagonally opposite and worlds away from near-Gulf, music-rich, Creole-politan New Orleans. But bomber-based, redneck-rich Shreveport did in fact have Leadbelly on Caddo Lake and Fannin Street; Blues-blooded Buddy Whosit, singing sub-sheriff and Jimmy Rogers acolyte; the Louisiana Hayride, great radio rival to the Grand Ol’ Op and the early stage for Elvis, Hank, various Johnnys, and a slew of lesser Looz-yanna lights; cool rocker Dale Hawkins (“Susie Q” and “Crossties”) and hot picker James Burton (guitarman for Rick on TV and Elvis on tour); crisscrossing railroads ("Flyin' Crow leavin' Port
Arthur, But she go to Shreveport to change her clothes...") creating one of the South’s major distribution network centers... and attracting crafty entrepreneur Stan Lewis who handled such matters for many record labels large and small (including his own Jewel, Paula, and others) out of the backrooms of his landmark Stan’s Record Shop—where he (figuratively) also recorded every Southern Black Music artist of note in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

This Gospel ship casts a wide net and hauls in two-to-four tracks each by an amazing array: the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Soul Stirrers and the Brooklyn Allstars, Clarence Fountain and Willie Morganfield, Ted Taylor and the Violinaires, Dorothy Norwood, a very young Aretha Franklin, and a heavenly host of other house-wrecking harmonizers. The home they save could be your own.

Jazz to the World Three new-but-old Jazz albums proved especially worthy of
our pledged allegiance: (1) Dual-CD Pablo PAB 34605-02, Afro Blue Impressions, providing twice as much music as the classic two-LP set offered, with the great John Coltrane Quartet (Trane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones) possibly at its peak, tearing it up at live concerts in Stockholm and Berlin in the fall of 1963, just before Kennedy was killed and the world lurched several degrees off axis. (2) Six years later, Jazz lurched again, with Miles Davis diving headlong into electric Fusion and dragging most of the younger players in deep too. Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (3CD/DVD box set Columbia/Legacy 88725418532) spectacularly documents
the tour by Miles' forgotten or never-known temporary quintet (Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette), first struggling to integrate their disparate styles and ways of thinking, and then melting/melding/welding into a force majeur machine of Fusion-to-come, arriving with brusque precision as they played.

Just for fun and Just in Time, from an earlier, happier Time signature altogether, (3) Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962 (Columbia/Legacy 8883718042) sidled into stores with little fanfare, though fans of
Tony and Dave did fare quite well--discovering Kennedy staffers in Timed-right celebration, enjoying a Time-out and more with the Brubeck Quartet, then a half century plus of Tony and trio seeming exempt from Time, and finally Bennett/Brubeck together for four tunes unrehearsed and Timeless, yet Timed to bring down the House. Yes, a good Time was had by all... but There Will Never Be Another Time.

World Music's too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our wallets. So mostly I seek out the stringed (or related) instruments--plucked, strummed, or slid? not to fret--zither to sitar, erhu to oud,
Hardangar folk-fiddle to Hawaiian slack-key guitar.

It was that last that I listened for in 2013... and I heard two fine new CDs keeping the strings loosened right: (1) Malama Ko Aloha (Keep Your Love) on the Ohe label (#8738) by veteran key-man Keola Beamer, largely involving his soundtrack for a PBS program with guests including Geoff Keezer and R. Carlos Nakai; and (2) Slack Key Travels by young slacker Jeff Peterson (#PP007 on his own label), quite prolific and inventive, with at least one
tune from his popular earlier albums featured prominently in the recent George Clooney film The Descendants.

Rockin', Rapt "Go with what you know," a wise person said. What I don't know about '13 Rock would fill Seattle's lost landmark, the old Spanish Ballroom, chockablock with CDs, 10,000 or more. But let's pretend I watched the four late-night talk shows for all twelve months, sampling the artistry of (4 x 5 x about 50) a thousand bands/singers touting their latest musical product... I'd still be casting my vote for Rock album of the year to Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt, on Monkeywrench/Universal with some unreadable number. (The Deco mini-book
holder would take home the Graphic Design award too.) The McGreedy Vedderans prove they can be grunge, metal, Zep, rap, folksy or blooze-y, from power ballads to rockabilly, the Stones, the Jam and Who-ever else--and still be the Pearl at the corps of Rock.

Meanwhile, "plentiful but pitiful" would be my admittedly biased three-word summation of the dictations and depletions of Rap... save for the unexpected fuzzy-friendly, globe-trodding, G-for-Gigantor pair known as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis--those local-boys-make-goodwill-Thrift-Stores-buyable and their Heisted double-disc set well-meriting the 2013 Raptor Prize and all the merry soupcons of success.

Soundtracked, Classically From the flickering projector-lit world of darkened home theaters, bleary-eyed cinemaniacal filmgazers, and sought-after soundtrack
sources reissued within an inch of their last sprocket hole comes a representative trio, three recently resurrected film scores worth serious listening: (1) Intrada MAF 7129, the first-ever official release of what was only previously available as a sort of music-re-recorded easy-listening album, now the full score-and-more at last: Breakfast at Tiffany's--Mancini and Mercer, Audrey (Holly Golightly) Hepburn and her hapless suitors, "Moon River" and a lost cat--highlighting elements thoroughly Capotesque but magically essential. (2) Intrada Special Collection Volume 257 (retail number B0019519-02), Basil Poledouris's rousing score in aid of The Hunt for Red October: symphonic undersea pulsing, slyly Un-Orthodox Russian chants, Sean Connery and Alec
Baldwin as un-acquainted allies (sub rosa, you might say) in a game of Nuclear Chicken, and sub-continent tabla drums (huh?) double-timing the action and underscoring the suspense--one of Basil's quirky best available finally in full.

And (3) La-La Land/20th Century Fox Limited Edition LLLCD 1251, the expanded original score (by James Newton Howard) from Lawrence Kasdan's haunting story of several questing, sinning "spirits," their lives crisscrossing one another in the City of Lost Angels. Some Hollywood movies are spectacularly grand; a great many others falter in bad judgment, too many falling into the faultline canyon of bad taste; but Kasdan's Grand Canyon highwire-walks across
that abyss from one rim to the other--anomie, isolation, and fear yielding to compassion, community, and love. (My capsule review may be overwritten, overselling a solid story not that uniquely miraculous, but be assured that composer Howard's gorgeous, shapeshifter music delivers the goods every step of the way.)

No dearth of (ho-hum) Classical releases rehashing the same core 300 compositions, but only one album--several years old that I found used--became the bridge over troubled water soothing my sorrow-filled mind and scarred, scared soul: Austrian/Catalan/French/whatever label AliaVox AV 9805, La Folia 1490-1701, with phenomenal viola da gamba Grandmaster Jordi Savall and his cohorts-in-support winningly cavorting 'round the courts and composers (Corelli, Marais,
Ortiz, et al) of three centuries--all of them fascinated by, and determined to mine, the variant depths of one simple Iberian folk tune, as common as human folly... as varied and jolly as humankind. Savall cuts through any Jordian nought with a single stroke of his Renaissance bow--and, thus freed, he dances... somehow become the post-Pablo precursor to Bach by Casals.

Part 2 adds Country with Americana; Reggae got Soul; Woody'n you, Bob?