Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Fistful of 45's

This tale could be subtitled something like… “How Japanese samurai helped shape Reggae music.” While that might sound ludicrous at first, in fact the Pop Culture connections are easily uncovered. Along the lines of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” from the glory days of baseball infielders, so here one might (sound)track the frozen rope (and sprocket holes) from Toshiro to Ennio to Scratch… Or if those names are too obscure, from Kurosawa/Mifune to Leone/Morricone/Eastwood to John Sturges (and other American directors, including George Lucas), as well as to Jamaica’s madcap record producer, Lee Perry, who then influenced most other creators of Dub music—and Dub eventually led to Hip-Hop and Rap, Electronica,
Trance Music, so-called Drum and Bass, and other spacy, reductionist/Modernist recorded music.

Little did Kurosawa suspect that his ironic and Western-nized versions of samurai warrior adventures (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, and others, but Seven Samurai in particular) would open the door for other Japanese directors, and then martial arts films in general (the Bruce Lee movies, for example), and then sky’s-the-limit, all-effects Oriental action flicks, including Hong Kong’s urban shoot-‘em-ups by John Woo and others.

Meanwhile, back at il rancho, Italians of the Sixties evinced a craving for spaghetti… spaghetti Westerns, that is... especially those cooked up by tongue-in-cheek director Sergio Leone, who made his own triple play: he “borrowed” cheerfully and openly
from the plots and staging of Kurosawa (and lesser lights of Rising Sun movie-making); for purposes practical and otherwise he introduced Italy’s filmscore one-man army, genius composer Ennio Morricone, to the wider world; and he discerned in a callow, lanky young television actor a certain cool panache… and so unleashed the Clint Eastwood Acting/Directing/Western Recreating Machine, still showing up 50 years later on silver screens near you and me. (As “The Man with No Name,” a Euro version of Toshiro Mifune, Clint starred in three Leone gundowns, then brought that no-holds-barred, hard attitude back to the States for Hang ‘Em High, Two Mules
for Sister Sarah, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales
, and more. I’d include too the often brutal “Dirty Harry” series of mid-California quasi-Westerns.)

For my tale, however, the crucial element was composer Morricone, who may have scored a thousand films by now, but who will forever be known as the man who invented the sound of spaghetti Westerns, then rented out his skills to a hundred directors post-Leone—and whose musical stylings have been parodied or ripped off ever since.

The Leone/Morricone influence is immediately discernible in the titles of many Reggae tunes (mostly instrumentals): “Clint Eastwood,” “Lee Van Cleef,” “Return of Django,” “The Man with No Name,” “The Big Gundown,” “High Plains Drifter,” “For a Few Dollars More,” “Django Shoots First,” and a dozen or two more, most all of
them the work of quirky composer, pop culture magpie, and kingpin producer Lee Perry, nicknamed both “Scratch” and “The Upsetter.” Perry also released albums called Eastwood Rides Again and The Good, the Bad and the Upsetters (his band), and then took up the emerging kung fu/martial arts craze instead.

But these superficial title links just hint at the significant connections made during the fervor and turmoil of that time (1968-70) via Perry’s oddball and ubiquitous tunes, to the studio engineers and producers soon to create the wonders of Dub music: King Tubby, Clancy Eccles, Errol (“E.T.”) Thompson, Clive Chin, Bunny (“Striker”) Lee, and a burgeoning posse of
Rocksteady-into-Reggae soon-comers.

Where Morricone’s amazing soundtracks employed expert whistling, Jew’s harp, guitar effects, disembodied female voices, rhythms that might speed up or slow down, harmonica accents, twang bars, gunshots, and other controlled surprises, the creators of Dub started slowly (i.e., backing tracks played without the recorded vocals, a simplification invented to fill the B-sides of 45 r.p.m. singles), but relentlessly and inexorably came to use all of Morricone’s arsenal and then some--singly or at least selectively--repeating cowbells, crying babies, traffic noise, cattle lowing, jet engines, random squeaks and squawks, slapsticks, lugubrious
organ, echo effects ranging from subtle tags to whole roomfuls of booming sound, stuttering guitars, windstorms, sweeping washes of synthesized counter-melody, nonsense syllables, vocals shifting/phasing in and out, Striker’s hugely influential “flying cymbals” sound, white noise, machinegun fire, superimposed solos by young Augustus Pablo on his curious melodica, instant bursts of unidentifiable sounds, momentary dead silence, and always, always, multi-track melodies stripped down suddenly to drum and bass only, with the bass cranked to an earthquake rumble… plus echo, echo, and more echo. (How these Protean phantasms of sounds and fury stayed musical too--usually--is an astonishment, and a lasting tribute to the improvisational, on-the-fly mixing skills of Dub’s masters.)

Perry clearly had paid attention--aural as well as visual--and where Scratch ventured, others soon followed. Ever-taciturn King Tubby and his aides Prince Jammy and Scientist probably made the most creative and intelligible music, remixing hundreds of Dub B-sides year after year after year, while elusive E.T. carved out simpler pieces, stripping away superfluous layers, which often allowed the Dub effects he chose to be all the more startling. Though ever-restless Scratch moved on to new “Black Arks” (opening his own studio, that is) and more mad acts (a wacky procession of 45 singles even as he was nursemaiding the Wailers and then the Congos into greatness), omnipresent
producer Bunny Lee probably had a hand in the shaping of a thousand Dubs as he worked closely with Tubby’s crew and several other studio sources for two decades and more. (Scratch and Striker are still alive today, and both seem intent on reissuing every last scrap of sound they ever recorded.)

It’s beyond the scope of this brief look at some oceans-apart, shrinking-world cultures intersecting, but I believe a case can also be made that samurai and martial arts films--with their preening peacock warriors, petty fiefdom quarrels, and deadly blood-feuds--ubiquitous in video rental stores everywhere for several decades now, are likely to
have influenced and encouraged the strutting-and-shooting, “Johnny Too Bad” Jamaican “rude boys” (memorialized vividly in The Harder They Come), and even contributed to the rivalries and territorial gang violence so prevalent in the slum districts of the island. And I consider the whole lewd, crude, and deadly Dancehall era of Reggae to be a related development.

But staying with the music, here are a few recommendations for serious Dub albums that may well link back to Morricone (and make for killer listening regardless):

For Scratch, 2CD set The Upsetter Selection: A Lee Perry Jukebox (Trojan 06076-80566-2) and Sound System Scratch: Lee Perry’s Dub Plate Mixes 1973 to 1979 (Pressure Sounds PSCD68). Trying to
encapsulate Perry in a couple of CDs is the mission of a fool; he could be impish or demonic, charismatic or nasty, brutal, and short, with the records ranging from stunning to stunted. But these provide a taste of his eclectic productions—and the madness of the great.

For King Tubby there have been scores of releases attempting to collect his Dub extravaganzas; the man pretty much commanded the B-side scene for two decades, until he was stupidly murdered. Bunny Lee provided maybe two-thirds of all the basic mixed recordings Tubby remixed into bite-size musical miracles, and Striker issued two of the all-time crucial Tubby sets (all Dubbious, nothin’ dubious!), currently offered as King Tubby Presents the Roots of Dub and King Tubby: Dub from the Roots (Jamaican Recordings JRCD
035 and JRCD 036, respectively). Watch your pockets; this stuff can be seriously addictive.

More obscure, but loads of fun anyway, is Forward the Bass: Dub from Randy’s 1972-1975 (Blood and Fire BAFCD 022), which provides splendid samples of the Dubs deconstructed by Errol Thompson at Clive Chin’s recording studio (confusingly known as Randy’s). Among the 15 gems here are several featuring harmonica riffs and solos (played by the mysterious “Chicago Steve”), some of which might remind you of Charles Bronson’s harp work in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Which brings us to this: Once Upon a Time at King Tubby’s (Pressure Sounds PSCD62), a recent compilation of insult singles, hurled at one another circa 1971 (“Straight to Jazzbo’s Head,” for example, or “Gal Boy I Roy”) by several “toaster”
deejays rapping rhythmically over familiar Dub cuts. Prince Jazzbo and I Roy were the chief instigators (along with producer Bunny Lee, eager to keep the money-making mock battles going), but Derrick Morgan, rival producer Dirty Harry, the great Prince Far I, studio bands the Aggrovators and the Revolutionaries, even King Tubby, all got caught up in the year-and-some of silly insults. The recent CD presents all the pieces in one place for the first time, and the spaghetti Western packaging serves as a goofy reminder of what was once an interesting time in the Far East and the Old West.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Green in Blues

In July 1989 I attended the Squaw Valley Poetry Writing Workshop, held high in the Sierra Nevadas, with an all-star cast of working poets as instructors: Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, and fourth and least-known the sweet and lovely Brenda… well, leave her at that. The others were brilliant but slightly too aware of it; Brenda was friendly, kind in her criticism, gentle when pointing out the obvious flaws in the demi-poems we amateurs abandoned sleep to sweat over and submit.

But that’s really peripheral to the story I want to tell. The instructors themselves sometimes wrote new poems according to the requirements they gave us each day—whether for a particular subject, specific form, so-called free verse, or even per the welcome “Just write something!” (I remember that Kinnell one evening offered up a multi-page blockbuster, one of his best poems ever, I think, titled “When One Has Lived a Long
Time Alone.”)

Some years earlier I had started a lengthy, multi-part poem about my maternal grandparents and their farm in rural Georgia. (The village of 300 lent its name: “Mystic.”) Told through the eyes of a Northern visitor, a young boy slowly growing older and more aware, it was heavy on local color and Deep South details, not flinching from any half-perceived racism, but presenting the Spiveys’ many kindnesses too. I’d never managed to finish it—still haven’t, all these years later, even though some passages in it are as good as I can write.

One night at the workshop, I got the idea to write a set of Blues lyrics—that is, the words to a non-existent tune I’d just include as one section in the long poem. I went right to work and in a couple of hours (yeah, sometimes the magic works) had a decent set of verses. When I showed and read them aloud the next day, I got lots of puzzled looks along with some decent praise. So I polished those Blues lines some and added them
to “Mystic.”

The last piece I posted (see it just below this one) concerned Martin Luther King, Jr. and Blues pianist Otis Spann; and writing it brought back my brief attempt to compose a creditable set of lyrics. Not that I’d intended to pass them off as some rare discovery I’d made, but… well… at one point I did. I’d been reading the series of books by Dutch scholar Guido van Rijn in which he quotes the words to scores of politically conscious Blues numbers (see below), and I decided to send my lyrics to him for a reaction—preferably arousing his academic curiosity, maybe even having earned his admiration.

Here are the lyrics I wrote:

Tobacco grow low an’ green, sweet corn yella an’ tall
Tobacco done growed so green, corn stand yella an’ tall
Blackstrap molasses, that’s the sweetes’ sugar of all

See brown bug in the cotton, there’s trouble in the fields
Boll weevil in the cotton mean trouble in the fields
Folks cain’t chop no squares when they force’ to kneel

Work song for daytime, people, blues come on at night
Work song ‘fore sundown, the blues on til' late at night
I jes’ cain’t figure out why you never treat me right

All you be doin’ wrong bound to come back on you
Say all you be doin’ wrong bound to come back on you
You find out further on what it mean to be black an’ blue

You scorn me an’ mistreat me, but I am with you still
Scorn me an’ mistreat me, know I be with you still
Ain’t but the one road goin’ on up this hill…

Van Rijn emailed me back, confident in his opinion, that all this was obviously a put-up job, modern lyrics probably written by some white liberal. Man, I was mortified. But I owned up to him, explained why I’d had a go at a politicized Blues; and that was that.

Except... I've got this fractured poem... Georgia heat, a dark smokehouse, black folks and white suspicious as ever, and some damn liberal's Blues clutterin' up the place. “Mystic” may never be finished.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

King Otis

On Martin Luther King Day, tributes and remembrances appeared on Internet websites all over the world. I was especially fascinated by the list of Jazz tunes composed in Reverend King’s honor that Marc Myers posted at his JazzWax blog. I only knew a few pieces, but his list and the additional titles that his readers offered made me think of the similar outpouring that came from Blues musicians in ’68 and thereafter.

Over time, and ignoring all the broader Civil Rights recordings, there have been King tributes from “Blues Diva” sisters Nina Simone and Ethel Davenport, and "Mean Mamas" Koko Taylor and Big Maybelle; bluesy Gospel numbers from Brother Will Hairston, Rev. Julius Cheeks, Rev. Charlie Jackson, and a whole host of vocal groups; guitar evangelist-style recordings by Johnie Lewis on mournful, keening slide, Big Joe Williams on his beat-up adapted nine-string, and Tom Shaw playing Hill Country basic; even well-meaning songs by Blues-influenced,
social-conscience White guys like the U.K.’s alpha-numeric bands, U2 and UB40. Some King-related albums were rushed out during the post assassination rioting, too, mostly by Chicago Blues-oriented companies like VeeJay, the great and (in)famous Chess, and collector-critic Pete Welding’s Testament label.

But the one item that continues to intrigue me most is a rare 45 single on Cry Records (miniscule label owned by producer Norman Dayron): “A Tribute to Martin Luther King,” written and performed by great Blues pianist Otis Spann, 16-year rockin’-and-rippling, keynote accompanist—the solid center of Muddy Waters’ Band—filling the spaces, driving the guys up from under,
comping softly, laying out when not needed, fiercely attuned to Waters always, but not quite “indomitable” due to the liver cancer that would kill him in 1970 at age 40.

Much like the songs written in reaction to 9/11--led by Country’s Alan Jackson (his quietly eloquent “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?”) and Bruce Springsteen (his anthemic call to “Rise Up”)--so too the simple and powerful response of Spann… but Otis wrote and recorded his two sides within a day or two of the assassination. (The second number, “Hotel Lorraine,” was held back, and the 45's B-side given over to Big Joe Williams; more on that below.)

Muddy called Otis his “half-brother,” but I believe he meant, not an actual blood connection, but that they shared a Mississippi Delta upbringing, a polished-yet-powerful Urban Blues approach, and a fondness for a stiff drink or three. Waters maintained a tall quiff, a bold front, and a hellfire vocal style able to check and
override the amped-up electricity of Chicago Blues; he thought of Otis as his good right hand, but it was the pianist’s strong left that powered the band. Spann could match Muddy, note for chord, chord for note--driving the rhythm or rocking gently or slo-o-owing a ballad piece down to a near-funereal pace. He was a superb vocalist too, so mushmouthed he sounded half in the bag, but wrenching and wringing the words for whatever they were worth.

Spann was content to labor in the Waters vineyard for well over a decade, but he was in demand too for sessions called by other Bluesmen (Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Young, etc.), and was occasionally persuaded to record an album of his own. (The absolute best of these came from early Sixties sessions he cut for the short-lived Candid label and--my own favorite--English Decca.) Spann could outboogie Big Maceo, coax new life into a Chicago old
standby, and when inspired enough, create his own topical Blues, as he did on April 4, 1968.

His dual King numbers hurriedly taped first in a storefront church using just piano, drums, and his voice--while fires and riots raged, on the South Side and across the country--Spann later worked up a slightly revised version that included Muddy on acoustic guitar, for what was likely a King tribute concert. But before I discuss the single and concert, it should be noted that Otis’ performances are available in these forms:

Original 45? Good luck finding one. LP record of the concert? No such beast. (Though Welding and Dayron had issued an album of songs memorializing Kennedy’s death, the newer concert tapes languished in limbo.) Both of Spann’s King
originals lately are available on a Bullseye Blues CD titled Rare Chicago Blues 1962-1968; also one piece each can be found on the two separate CDs compiled and issued by Guido van Rijn on his Agram label in support of his book President Johnson’s Blues (one of a series tracing Blues musicians’ reactions to major 20th century Presidents and their policies, starting with Franklin Roosevelt).

Finally, the tribute concert plus some other live odds ‘n’ ends is currently available on a terrific Testament CD titled Live the Life; though credited to Otis with Muddy and his band, Spann’s the Man throughout. (That his brilliant Piano Blues performances were just basically shelved and forgotten for 30 years seems ridiculous now.)

Otis had shown his quickness and improvisational skills on at least two other high-profile occasions. At the infamous 1960 Newport Jazz Festival that ended in rioting, poet Langston Hughes tossed off some pertinent words, handed the paper to the pianist, and Spann quickly found a tune, tightened the fit, and then performed the closing “Goodbye Newport Blues.” And when Jack Kennedy was shot, Otis immediately wrote, simple and heartfelt, of a “Sad Day in Texas”:

You know, it was a sad day in Texas when my President passed away,
He didn’t get a chance to talk, he didn’t know he was on his way.

(Killed by a “disinteresting person,” Spann commented.)

More interesting were his words for King, with the initial “Tribute” offering his mournful reaction, and the “Hotel Lorraine” sequel fleshing out the physical scene. Otis shout-sings, the piano drilling, trilling, sweeping and cascading:

Oh, did you hear the news, happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday?
Yes, fellas, I know you had t’ heard the news, it happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday;
There came a sniper, Lord, wiped Dr. King’s life away…

Oh, when his wife and kids came out, boy, all they could do was moan,
Oh, now when his wife and kids came on out, all they could do was moan;
Not a word was in her
[can’t make out the next; possibly "recall"?] ‘cause Dr. Luther King was gone…

For the mostly forgotten sequel, Otis played slower--mournful, even funereal:

While Dr. King was talkin’, you know he uz in terrible pain,
Yeah, while he was talkin’, you know the poor man feel the pain;
They tell me at 8:05 the world was all up in a flame…

Dr. King was a man that could really understand,
Yes, brother, Dr. King was a man, and everybody know he could understand;
You know the last words he said, “God knows, I’m goin’ to the Promised Land.”

A few months later Spann had the chance to open for Muddy at that unidentified concert (taped by Welding nonetheless), and in his set included a slightly altered version of the tribute’s first part, with its obscure final line changed to this emphatic mouthful:

Looked down upon her husband, Oh Lord have mercy, you know Martin Luther King is gone!

While it’s always a treat to hear Muddy Waters play guitar, whether his uncommon acoustic pick-and-strum or his rigorous but gone-spare, electric Delta-slide, only Spann on this occasion played as though his life—or the Rev. King’s death—actually depended on it. The band sounds polished rather
than raw and electric. (Don’t let that stop you from grabbing a copy of Live the Life anyway; it’s top-of-the-keyboard Spann throughout.)

Though the span of his years was way too brief, the Blue jeweled riches Otis left roiling in his wake are still admired and studied today. He may well have been the greatest of all the Blues pianists recorded during the proximate Century of the Blues.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Just Another Day in Paradise

(Version 2, Newer and Still Improving. Leading off now is the excellent Andrew Wyeth print, the title of his painting's bleak mid-winter scene duplicating this particular 24-hour period in the history of the world...)

Today is Thursday, the second day of February, in the leaping year of our acculturated lore 2012.

Happy Birthday, Stan Getz… 84 years on and sounding better than ever. Maybe we could hear a chorus or two of “Nature Boy”? Or “I Remember When” from Focus? Maybe “Blood Count” would be more in tune with this peculiar
era of vampires and zombies…

Happy Birthday, James Joyce. Your portrait of a young Dubliner in search of Ulysses… well, it still gets to me every time. Guess I’m just one of your gracehopers, still too jung and easily freudened. I’m thursday too, but there’ll be lots of Guiness stout fun at Finnegan’s wake.

Happy Birthday as well to that elusive Greek, old school epic poet Homer… if he ever existed, if “he” wasn’t actually “they,” a gaggle of Greeks reciting oral stories, linking on to one another’s twisted tales of the ornery war with Troy and the original
Odysseus, victim of petty gods and perilous wanderlust. I mention Homer because one older theory has the poet born on February 2, year wayback, in an across-the-harbor suburb of Smyrna (aka Izmir), Turkey, where I lived from 1956-58. (As another epic poet, Dylan by name, sang in de basement, “Open the door, Homer.”)

But none are so blind as those who will not close their eyes and wish. So birthday greetings also to Fritz Kreisler and James Blood Ulmer, James Dickey and--would I make this stuff up?--Ayn Rand. (Joyce and Rand locked in a room in Limbo… with
dialog by Samuel Beckett.)

A Merry Unbirthday and Happy Groundhog’s to Punxsutawney Phil, rousted and prodded on many a winter’s morn. And ditto to Bill Murray and the cast and crew of that best of all comedic worlds, the weather-or-not, trapped-in-a-timewarp, peace-love-and-good-manners miracle of wit and wisdom… yes, the droll flick craftily titled Groundhog Day, impaled in perpetual emotion.

And finally, a very Merry Groundhog’s and cheery day of birth to our host and yours, Mr. Blog-Poster-
Boy-Howdy, Eyes-Wide-Shut Ed--i.e., me--in the dawn of my 69th year to heaven, on earth, and at this particular time of continuing universal entropy and looming Mayan mayhem.

Those of us here mentioned have been to some degree accepted into cultural history--well, less than one minute of fame for yrs. truly--and for that we thank all who cared.

May you and I, we and they, all and each, survive to see more shadows on the walls of this illusive cave.

And have a Happy 'Hog.