Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Les Was MOR

My first wife was not a forgiving woman. (She still hasn’t forgiven me for being whatever lesser man I was in my callow 20’s.) When the slightly older, laid-back-hippieish filmmaker Les Blank--actually working on his fifth or sixth documentary, and by 1968 already on the verge of greatness--would cadge a meal and a couch to sleep on, then drink too much and inevitably hug and paw the hostess... well, that was about her limit.

So when heavy smoker Les also carelessly charred a gouge in her favorite coffee table, it was “Blank you, Les, and Sayonara... no more freebies at the Leimbachers.” But he and I kept in touch--for who wouldn’t and didn’t marvel at his bracing, embracing portraits of crazed, crooked-teeth Cajuns and little-known Bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb, Les's quirky camera eye meandering on and on from there for almost 50 years, finding some bizarre character or strange old music and culture to film (Asian green tea, women with gaps in their teeth, the Savoy family of Eunice, LA, even director Werner Herzog going crazy in South America).

I couldn’t keep up with his casual gypsy lifestyle, but I did borrow his shed-turned-house, hideaway-in-Hollywood when I went to the other L.A. trying to sell my Robert Johnson screenplay in 1970 or ’71. But I immediately caught some virulent flu bug that kept me feverish and flat on my back in 90-degree heat without air conditioning, trapped in that one-room garden shack, it seemed forever, crawling out to find water and a dollop of sherbet once a day for nearly a week.

We went our separate ways. He continued the ascent to an eccentric fame, while I couldn’t give my Hellhound script away. (Blaxploitation movies had not yet made their mark. No way was “a downer Bluesman who dies at the end” the prescription for a hit movie!)
Les Blank died a couple of weeks ago. Age 77, he had lived long enough to win acclaim and honors; but even though he’d quit the habit years before, the cancer-sticks got to him after all. He was working on a couple of new films (according to the obit I read) but to finish them someone will have to step into his oversize Madison shoes!

Way back when, Blank was for several years loosely linked to the Arhoolie record label (see previous post below), creating brief and brilliant portrait-films--20 or 30 minutes in length--of musicians Arhoolie was promoting: The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, A Well-Spent Life (his film on Lipscomb), and a longer piece on Zydeco accordion great Clifton Chenier. These persuaded owner Chris Strachwitz actually to partner with Les for three other films, most notably J’ai Ete au Bal, a terrific study of the differences and similarities between the “twins separated at birth,” South Louisiana musics casually identified as Country-ish white Cajun and Rhythm’n’Bluesy black Creole Zydeco.

But sharing the lead didn’t last long; the principals’ work habits and social skills were just too divergent, with take-charge, get-it-done, Roots-music-loving entrepreneur Chris bumping up against--and sometimes stumbling over--mellow Les, full-size Ferdinand the Bull, sniffing the flowers and smoking their green leaves, too hippie to be hip, yet so lazily laid-back that he could settle into almost any scene, absorb it, and then slyly film it.

Blank’s production company occupied space in the Arhoolie headquarters building for many years after the partnership was dissolved, and he managed to take part, quietly, in the label’s big 50th anniversary celebration. His final year saw brief upticks around the honors accorded him, but a quiet letting-go was evident as well...

Regardless, his mortal coil now shuffled off, the wonder-filled lives and works will amble on, all those firmly fixed documents of oddities and crudities, madcap musicians and molarless meals, mescal and Mason jars, shrimp gumbo and “snap beans ain’t salty,” holidays on horseback, booze and the Blues, and earthy dancers, always.

* * * * *
Was it ironic or perfectly right that I learned of Blank’s death thus: an email from Arhoolie arrived to announce the release of an album that sounded promising, so I clicked on the link, and the first thing I saw, heading the home page, was Arhoolie’s lament for his passing. Then, below that, the announcement for Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles, major label debut (on both CD and LP) of juke joint-styled Blues trio HowellDevine, consisting of Joshua Howell on harmonica, Hill Country slide guitar, and vocals; mighty rhythm man Pete Devine (machined to sit tight and fit right); plus, takin’ up any slap bass slack... whoever’s made the gig.

I listened to a couple of sample tracks, then rode the link to their home page. And when I found THIS engine of regress, I knew I had to buy the album. (Hitch a ride on the Yella Dog and hear for yourself!)

Meanwhile, I also realized that this confluence represents the passing of the baton, from venerable bearded oldtimer to up-and-coming young whippersnappers. Les began with the Blues and certainly structured some of his best films around those vital elder “musicianers.” I believe he would have taken to HowellDevine immediately. (In fact, might have done so already.)

Chris Strachwitz launched Arhoolie the same way: Mance, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, the Black Ace, John Jackson, Lightnin’ the wry and worldly wise. After 25 years or more of them “away,” working well and apart, and in other genres, for the two men to come back to their Blues/Roots Music base--even if only figuratively--and then face a definite permanent parting, well... I guess, as a scuffling musician might say (irony included): “It’s all good.”

R.I.P., Les... Keep on it, Chris... P.I.R., HowellDevine. (Yeah, play it right.)


Steve Provizer said...

Nice tribute...I loved the Train harp.

Ed Leimbacher said...

Hi, Steve. Good to hear/see we're both still up, at 'em, and out there trying... even if in my case it's readers' patience. So I offer you what Jazz deejay Ken Wiley says to his listeners at sign-off time: "...and thanks for being out there."