Wednesday, February 29, 2012
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
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
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
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…
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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.)
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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.