Thursday, June 28, 2007

Parsons and Hillman, Part Two

The interview with the Burritos continued with me asking for some history, and soon came the remarks that made Jim McGuinn very unhappy...

(But first a few many-years-later second thoughts: note how dismissive the guys are of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the album they recorded as Byrds before splitting off, now generally considered the defining moment for the transition from rock into country-rock. "Mighty Sam" (see below) was likely Mighty Sam McClain, not so old back then, still recording Blues and gospel just a few years ago. And Steve Cropper, of course, was/is one of Stax Records in-house geniuses, an influential white guitarist and an integral part of Booker T. and the M.G.'s.)

Could you tell me something about the old Byrds?

CH: I don't know... The Byrds to me were really together when the five original Byrds were there--and no other time since. The five started out from scratch, you know, like playing on nothing. That was The Byrds. Clarke ((meaning Mike)) was hittin' cardboard boxes, I was playing a $20 red Japanese bass, and McGuinn had an acoustic 12-string. That was the real Byrds. Gene ((the other Clark)) didn't really add that much. It just got stale. We ran through the mill; it had its good moments, but it's long gone.

At what point did Crosby leave, in terms of the records?

CH: He was up till half the album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, then he left. Then the next one came out. Then Gram left. Then I left. It just got to be ridiculous. It's very difficult to work with McGuinn, you know, on anything. He's the type of guy that... it's just a job. He goes up on stage and becomes a musician. Offstage, he's not--he doesn't buy records, he doesn't listen to the radio.

GP: He brings you down.

CH: And he doesn't really keep up with what's happening in music. The last album that they did, it was McGuinn, and the rest his hired group.

GP: He's always found a way to either buy the information or gather the information that he needs to keep up with what's goin' on. He himself doesn't live that life.

Has he got the same people with him now that he had for that album? Clarence White and whoever else?

Chris Ethridge: Wait'll you hear that little fucker play... whoo-ee!

GP: Clarence White has always been right. White's right--but he's an original friend of Chris Hillman. Chris and he played together years and years ago. McGuinn wouldn't know Clarence White from Mighty Sam if it wasn't for Chris. As a matter of fact, he probably never heard of Mighty Sam!

I got to admit I haven't...

GP: Well, Mighty Sam was an old, old Negro from Florida that put out a bunch of really great singles I'm sure you'd love. Model T. Slim's another.

CH: They should have just buried it, let it die; that was it, over. All it is now for McGuinn is ride it out till it ends... just for the money.

GP: A bad influence on children!

CH: It's not a creative, productive thing any more. He pays everybody's salaries every week, and he's the head Byrd.

GP: And everybody still writes all these comprehensive articles on it, like Crawdaddy and all that analytical bullshit.

CH: That's right. You read all this shit about superstar McGuinn.

GP: Singin' like Dylan, thinkin' like Dylan, sellin' like Dylan.

CH: It was the five Byrds together, Gene Clark and everybody. McGuinn just happened to be the last guy holding the bag. But that's what made it--the five together.

Seems to me at one time there was a rumor that White was gonna quit and come with you all.

GP: There's still a possibility of that.

CH: But, you know, Clarence has a family--a kid and one on the way. Clarence was originally asked to join this group, but he didn't want to take the gamble because of his wife and kids. He's been scuffling as long as I've known him. He quit school when he was thirteen and went on the road. He's been a musician since then, shuffling from honkytonk to honkytonk. And he finally gets in The Byrds and gets a salary, and you know he don't want to leave.

GP: But he gives up a lot of studio sessions by bein' on the road. It's a matter of keepin' yourself together and your phone hooked up. That's the way to be a studio musician and in a group at the same time.

Chris E: He loses a lot of money every time he goes out.

GP: Sure he does. Not go out, and then make more money in the studio than just recording with Linda Ronstadt and once in a while with the Everly Brothers. But the Burritos, man, everybody thinks we're just a country and western group. It's country music... but what people don't understand is that country music has as many fine points and as high a line drawn above it as Blues does. And everybody's longing to put it all together and just say it's this or that. They don't know 'cause they can't do it. Many a fine Blues musician has sat in with us and not been able to play what we play. You can't blame it on three-chord music, four-chord music, five-chord music, country music, or any other thing, man. It's just getting into what you do. And we're into it. And anybody who says that we're not is full of shit.

Has anybody said that you aren't?

GP: Sure they have--in Rolling Stone they have. An article written by our friend... by your friend and mine... ((the name forgotten perhaps))

CH: They look at us and they think we're puttin' them on, you know--up there yukkin' along and puttin' them on. That's not it. We're not. It's like he ((Gram)) says, man... everybody thinks, "That's three-chord music, that's easy. Country music is simple; I can cut it." But we've had people like Procul Harum sit in with us and blow it. They can't do it.

GP: You've got to feel it as much as anything else. It's like people have realized... they say, "Steve Cropper and others put all this fine stuff into Blues, even though they're white, because they have this knowledge of technology, and they've made something almost classical out of it." Well, that's what we're doing with country music. Other people are as well. There're just as many old funky artists ((in country)), there's just as much inside of it, there're just as few chords, there're just as many good musicians. And we would like to be able to make it immortal, in time, as Blues is being made immortal by young people. Only, it was created... no, not created, sustained and supported by white people; and it has an amazing amount of technology already in it. One steel player has to take care of as much as four horn players take care of, with nine pedals and a bar and a set of finger picks. That's a heavy job to do. There're very few cats who can cut it.

((Which cues the interviewer to ask more about Sneaky Pete... coming up in the next posting.))

Monday, June 25, 2007

Parsons and Hillman, Part One

By the late Fifties and early Sixties I'd moved on from my rockabilly roots to become a confirmed folkie, just starting to head into an every-day-since love of the Blues. But The Beatles and Stones, and Dylan's adventurous changes leading into The Byrds, made me take another look at rock music. I began writing rock criticism for various magazines, including Rolling Stone back when it mattered. And it was as a member of the press that I came to discover young musicians Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman and their new band The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Not-too-long after their split-off from The Byrds, the Burritos played Seattle three times in a short period. I caught them live and persuaded Gram and Chris to agree to an interview; and as a result of that, Southern-genteel Gram and I hit it off (more than Chris, whom I admired much but who was more stand-offish). Parsons and I both had Georgia roots--he from birth and me from my mother's family who were South Georgia farmers; I'd spent many weeks there as a kid.

As well as hotel or backstage talking, the guys came to my house for dinner during one visit, and I edited together a long interview that appeared in Seattle's underground paper The Helix in late-Summer 1969. But in typical hippie-lackadaisical fashion, my byline was omitted from the layout, and even though the Los Angeles Free Press subsequently picked up the piece, I never was credited! I heard later that the quotes from Chris and Gram made Jim/Roger McGuinn curse and gnash his teeth and threaten reprisals, demanding that The Helix fly down to L.A. to hear his side of the story. But he calmed down and nothing further occurred.

Meanwhile the Burritos came back north to play the Seattle Pop Festival; and since I was covering that one for Rolling Stone, I hung out backstage, part of the time with Gram--which lead to the ride through the country with Jim Morrison I wrote about in an earlier blog posting. I still have a photo from that day, seen up above, with Gram looking great and me looking goofy (probably snapped after that wild ride); this was posted somewhere years ago and wound up used in a Parsons bio written by some Australian journalist.

The last time I got to visit with Gram was at the ugly and depressing Altamont Festival--which I will write about at some future date. But today I'm launching a multi-part project, to put down in electronic print for the first time the unedited Hillman-Parsons interview, whole chunks at a time, and maybe complete eventually if there's enough interest. First, the lead-in I wrote for The Helix:

The Flying Burrito Brothers, in their own bittersweet honkytonk way, have become the subject of much foolish controversy. Hailed by numorous critics, fans, and even straight c&w artists as a breath of fresh country air in the cloying citified, low-down-and-blue world of rock, the Burritos have also been scoffed at and berated by other purist listeners as being slick and phoney rock musicians jumping on the country bandwagon. These decriers all manage to make the somewhat irrelevant point that Buck Owens is just so much "truer-to-life." (It would be enlightening to hear from Owens himself on the subject of the Burritos.)

The fact is, the so-called "citybilly" Burritos have deep-down rural roots. Chris Ethridge (bassist with the group at the time of the interview, since departed) hails from Meridian, Mississippi, and has been scrabbling for several years in the South and in the recording studios of Los Angeles. Sneaky Pete Kleinow (yes, Virginia, he does have a surname), a true genius on pedal steel guitar, has been playing that demanding instrument for more than a decade. Chris Hillman was strictly country/bluegrass until he hooked up with The Byrds back in the mid-Sixties. Gram Parsons escaped from Waycross, Georgia, and is still shaking the dust from his heels; and he has many fervent admirers among the c&w folk. Mike Clarke, another ex-Byrd, hails from the Spokane area and Texas.

That the Burritos' country music has some of the frills and fills of rock most often seems to offend only the people who demand categories and pigeonholes. The Burritos' A&M album exhibits some mixing problems, it is true; but the infectious country spirit and hick hijinx of their music, on record and especially in live performance, more than compensate for any first-album flubs.

When the Burritos are on, they're right on--as anyone who saw them at the Seattle Pop Festival or the Trolley Tavern or Sky River Festival can attest. Everyone on stage and off has a high old time as the Burritos' special magic turns a big, crowded open field into (alternately) a backwoods hoedown and a honkytonk bar...

But that's enough ancient set-up. Today Chris Hillman is still touring and recording beautiful bluegrass-based CDs; and though Parsons died too young, the usual drugs/health stuff, he's now viewed as the "father" of country rock and a major influence on and Americana performers. What the two had to say nearly 40 years ago may still be of interest; Ethridge was present part of the time but mostly silent, and Kleinow wandered in and out.

Here now, without my previous editing and rearranging...

GP: Johnny Cash? Why don't they talk about us? Bob Dylan? Why don't they talk about us? Waylon Jennings? Why don't they talk about him? I'm just saying it's about time people wised up. We're together with Waylon in a big way. Take Dylan and Cash, McGuinn and electricity, the Burritos and Waylon--same combinations.

Well, is he your main man as far as country music is concerned?

GP: No, not at all, just a good friend. There are very few country artists alive today that are top shitkickers that are willing to come down to the Whiskey and make friends with people like us. Moody, Tompal Glazer, and Waylon were the only real country artists at our last gig at the Whiskey. Roger Miller has been at some things that we've done, some other people--but I'll take Waylon. The Burritos' favorite artists would include George Jones, the Louvin Brothers (one of whom is dead), the Everlys. Yeah, I've played on Everly records, but I don't know if they're aware of us.

Somebody got a quote from one of them on your International Submarine Band album.

GP: Oh yeah, I played that album for Don. But he's a little bit out of touch. They ain't the old Everly Brothers, if you know what I mean. Not like those old Boudleaux Bryant... that stuff, man... They could still get that heavy, you know, but I guess they've got a brother thing goin', one of those brother problems.

You're from Waycross, Georgia, right? I guess you read that thing in Rolling Stone talking about Waycross. It was in a review of y'all's record.

GP: Yeah, yeah, that was really nice. And whoever said that was right about Waycross, although I felt sort of bad that it was so much about me. Chris is one of those hicks too--he's from Rancho Santa Fe.

Wow, where's that?

CH: It's down about a hundred-twenty miles from Los Angeles. It's inland; it's just a real small town.

GP: And knowin' him, it's just got to be weird. And Chris Ethridge is from Meridian, Mississippi, which is most certainly weird.

Yeah, I was telling him that I lived in Montgomery for a year back in the Fifties, and my mother's from Georgia... ((nervous interviewer forgets name of town of 300, which actually was Mystic!)) What the hell's the name of the place...

GP: If you say Macon, I'll die.

Well, I've got relatives in Macon.

GP: That makes eight people this week who've told me they have relatives in Macon, Georgia. There are more hippies from Macon... Waycross, Georgia is in the wiregrass country and the Okefenokee swamp--and that, I will admit, is one of the strangest areas of the world. Strange for many reasons, a lot of them he ((RS writer)) didn't cover because he'd never lived there. It was a very comprehensive article except for the damn quotes from the songs, which were just all wrong: "Ventura may be just my kind of town." Really. "I'm your top, I'm your old boy." Jesus Christ, you cats. (We said "Jesus Christ" before John Lennon!) The right words are "Vancouver may be just my kind of town"; "I'm your toy, I'm your old boy."

How about "This whole town's filled with sin..."?

GP: "It'll swallow you in."

CH: That's L.A., boy.

Did y'all write that in honor of the coming earthquake?

CH: We wrote it when we were very dragged one morning. It was just before Christmas and it was about to rain; and we were living in the San Fernando Valley in a tract type home.

GP: We were looking forward to the earthquake!

CH: A bunch of redneck creeps all over the place. Fuck. Town's full of sin, you know.

GP: It really is, and it'll swallow you in--the sooner the better. ((laughs)) We drive down Lancashire Boulevard all the time just to take a look at it. The people who don't look at what's goin' on are in trouble, the ones who think the Sunset Strip is what makes you hip. The Sunset Strip is about ready to...

CH: Blow up.

GP: That's the "earthquake" ((song)) line.

CH: It's lousy. We all hate it. But there's one side of L.A. that's rather funky--North Hollywood and the valley. There's all kinds of clubs in the Valley that have all these good bands--clubs that we haven't even been to. And we check them all out.

Is this the area where Delaney and Bonnie got together?

CH: Yeah, and there's the kid ((pointing at Gram)) who found them. He was the first guy to find them.

GP: Me! Chris E. worked with them three years ago; I was working with them--we were together, and they were workin' at the Prelude and Snoopy's. And now we're out at the Palomino, a place where no one can play. I just dare 'em to try playin' at the Palomino. ((laughs)) The Palomino is the toughest...

Chris Ethridge: Delaney worked there.

GP: But he worked there five years ago, before he had long hair.

CH: It's a country-western club, the top club in L.A.

GP: Tough mothers. Truckers galore. It's like a truckdrivers' Whiskey; it's got red velvet and everything. It's the biggest, money-makin'est club in the Valley. But we fill it up every Monday night, or whenever we play there now, with a bunch of long-haired, long and lanky people. And girls... at first they wouldn't let the GTO's dance with each other there. Now they will. Leon Russell comes in, Leon and Rita--Rita sat in with us there, Rita Coolidge, Leon's wife. She sang back-up on Delaney and Bonnie, as they call themselves; I've always called them Bonnie and Delaney. I have a big plaque they gave me that says "in appreciation" to me and to the Burritos for all the nice things we've done for them. And it's signed "Bonnie and Delaney."

They're playing up here in about a week with Blind Faith.

GP: That cat who plays bass with Blind Faith, Rick ((Gretch, originally in the group Family)), I lived for a while with him in England. He's really a nice cat. Rick and I honkytonked it throughout London; he was the only cat I could find who liked honkytonkin'. I first met Rick in Rome, met him on a bus--he had a bottle of Scotch in one hand and a bunch of pills in the other. ((to Hillman)) You remember that, when we met Family on that bus?

((Arrival of Kleinow prompts a question.)) "Sneaky Pete..." Do you spell that with an "a" or an "e"? I've seen it both ways.

SP: Everybody spells it different. I don't care.

GP: I can't even figure out if in Kleinow the "e" comes before the "i"...

SP: Sometimes. Well, excuse me, please. ((He leaves again.))

That was quick.

CH: Yeah, he snuck off.

GP: I told you we were the most misunderstood band in show business. ((And then he cryptically writes "MOURNING BECOMES ELEKTRA" on the tapedeck mic.))

((more to come on other posts soon.))

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Joes and Pinkos

I watched the movie Breach the other night and fell right in with its suspenseful storyline--FBI scrubbed-face innocent (Ryan Philippe) going up against Chris Cooper in his riveting, award-winning portrayal of snide and vindictive master spy Robert Hanssen. Great scene-chewing by Cooper and sneaky half-truths from Philippe. Seems the kid was the superior spy after all--unless you want to argue that Hanssen was riding for a fall and maybe tired of the cat-and-mouse game of decades, just too worn down to go on.

A fine film regardless, and it brought to mind the famous Army-McCarthy Hearings of late-Spring 1954, when our nation's putative, self-appointed watchdog against Communism, Joe McCarthy, attempted to expose the Secretary of the Army (a rather wan Robert Stevens) as "soft on Communism," guilty of harboring Reds in his Department.

My family was living in Arlington, Virginia, at the time--Dad was stationed at the Pentagon--and I was home sick for a couple of weeks, with serious measles or such. Eleven years old, I was reading a lot and watching some daytime television, and somehow I became hooked on the televised Senate hearings, which some may remember were broadcast "gavel to gavel," starting in late April and extending to mid-June.

Even with my father at the Pentagon, I don't think I was particularly interested in the military's point of view, and I certainly wasn't political. But the lines drawn, shown by the TV cameras day after day, were clear even to me: McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohn on one side, and Stevens and his counsel Joseph Welch in opposition. The other participants--Senators and witnesses, and lawyers lurking in the background (Robert Kennedy was there, for example, though I sure didn't notice him)--seemed non-entities really.

Like many millions of other Americans, I was mesmerized by the hearings, watching every telecast. The cameras revealed everything (long before the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates changed political campaigns forever). McCarthy always looked like he needed a shave, pontificating windily and obliquely like maybe he'd been drinking. Cohn was sort of scrawny and nasty-looking, and his nasal voice was no improvement. Stevens seemed like a puffed-up, nervously perspiring banker. And Welch, wow, he appeared to be the epitome of wit and wisdom, everybody's favorite uncle or not-too-elderly grandfather. He even dressed snazzily as I recall, making bowties look hip again.

Of course, my memories of the verbal exchanges, the charges and countercharges of 53 years ago, aren't all that detailed. But I do remember McCarthy using his famous phrase to interrupt some speaker, "Point of order!" (later the title for a brilliant documentary, a video-to-film assemblage on those hearings that I caught at the Seattle Film Festival many years ago).

And I do most emphatically recall the climactic day, single moment even, when Welch rose to defend a young lawyer in his own firm besmirched by the Wisconsin Senator, saying to the odious other Joe, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" Then he actually cut off McCarthy's spluttering attempt to answer, and the viewing gallery erupted in applause. Man, now that was theater!

The rest of the hearings passed uneventfully, but McCarthy had signed his own death warrant, so to speak. His political career was pretty much over. The other players receded into the Washington woodwork.

Ah, but lawyer Welch, jovial Joseph, actually became a movie star, for a brief period anyway, appearing a couple of years later in Otto Preminger's courtroom movie, Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, sexy young Lee Remick, and the kinda-lazy soundtrack music of Duke Ellington. Welch played the presiding judge, and all his patrician charm was right there on the screen, though his acting was rather wooden. (Fred Thompson must have taken notes; on Law and Order he does seem, grumpily, to care.)

The nation recovered from those Red-Scare Witchhunts, and I got up and went back to school.

But I have never recovered from a lifelong aversion to politics and politicians stemming from that viewing experience. I simply don't trust any person, organization, or nation that seeks power over others. Commies, Al-Quada, Christian rightwingers and neo-cons, Capitalist mega-corporations, can't-quite-accomplish-anything Democrats--they're basically all the same, in it for the money and the right to force everybody else into some we-know-what's-best-for-you line.

A pox on all their Houses. I believe in the little guy, the common man and woman, the workers against the bosses, and the Liberal humanitarian position in general. But 40-plus years of voting every election, every issue, has not persuaded me of the power of the polling booth, only of the power of pols and polls.

As the comic strips used to put it, "Phooey."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Spies and Ghosts

Two novels read lately (coupled with a viewing the other night of the movie Breach) have revived my always-lurking fascination for the Spy Novel, whether set in the Nazi era, the Cold War, or post-collapse Russia, where the spies have become entrepreneurs, even heads of state!

Ladies and Le Carre fans, I give you Christopher's Ghosts by America's master of espionage fiction, Charles McCarry--plus Martin Cruz Smith's latest brilliant novel, called Stalin's Ghost (what's with all this ectoplasm?), which has no spies but rather post-Soviet death squads and soldiers turned politicians; the madness of Chechnya and the near-madness of chess.

McCarry wrote two of the greatest spy novels ever, The Tears of Autumn (regarding Vietnamese involvement in Kennedy's assassination) and The Last Supper, both featuring (as do most of his books) an agent named Paul Christopher, sometimes present and sometimes absent, but even then still haunting the actions of others. Two other early books, The Miernek Dossier and The Secret Lovers (the title a brilliant pun), center on Christopher too; and these original four together form a kind of Alexandria Quartet, with The Last Supper serving to tell you what was really going on in those earlier books you thought you had figured out!

Christopher's Ghosts, going back in time to the late Thirties and then ahead to the Fifties to tell more of the convoluted history of Paul, is sad and beautifully written, but somehow--I think--not as complex or involving as the others, even though it forces the confirmed fan (and I qualify!) to reexamine yet again some of what he thought he knew. That's McCarry... always another layer of onion to strip away.

And speaking of onion-dome Orthodoxy, Smith's list of great Renko novels, starting with Gorky Park and reaching a moody and frightening climax (or so we mesmerized readers thought) in last year's amazing post-Chernobyl story called Wolves Eat Dogs, now must make room for Stalin's Ghost. Stubborn-as-ever Renko, who seems more droll with each passing year, gets cuckolded, choked, and shot in the head, and that's just in the first half! But this aging investigator is no master spy, no supercop immune to pain; he suffers and bleeds and needs time to recuperate, yet still drags himself back into the fray, confronting various "ghosts"--of Stalin, his father, and the Chechen dead.

I think I won't reveal any more, but rather just say: Buy it, read it, check out Smith's other novels as well as those of McCarry. (And I include the third Renko novel, Red Square, omitted from his current list of published works for some unknown reason.) If you can read The Tears of Autumn or Wolves Eat Dogs without feeling haunted or short of breath, without aching deeply for the central figures, you're a better man than I, Gunga Deighton.

Given that one of the recurring themes in Smith's and McCarry's novels is the pain of love, the tragic consequences of caring for others, I think I will end this with a somewhat relevant poem, written back in the time of Gorbachev, when my first marriage was coming to an end...

Glasnost, Lesser Spirits

The thaw has breached us.
And now in our icebound Baltics
a certain freedom of movement strikes

the alders, as flights of rhetorical starlings
pursue their social revolutions.
Snow that lay like linen

now flows in rivulets
down the steps and sidewalks,
and dissident speech of crows marks

preparations for the May Day coming.
In all the withered-away reaches of the state,
suddenly green

young workers arise,
throwing off the chains of mothering earth.
It is Progress of Spring all over

again, the break-up of a long, hard
chill, after the Fall
and rime of years. In this

spirit of no love and understanding,
we brush aside the dust of bitterness,
shed our heavy coats, and walk

carefully, negotiating each
step, taking the sun…

Friday, June 15, 2007

Got the Blues, Still Not Satisfied

Continuing the story begun last post...

I did manage to get in to see a couple of agents (hoping for representation) and one producer too, leaving them copies of the Hellhound script. But I also came down sick, retching and sweating, holed up alone in that airless and un-airconditioned bungalow for several days. By the time I recovered I was also feeling overwhelmed by the movie scene, ready to head back to Seattle; and when one agent said he'd represent me for sure if I would move to Los Angeles, I just said I'd have to consider it...

Nothing to consider. I was sure my writing was so obviously brilliant that the script would sell without me down south to work it, make connections, schmooze with the big guys, whatever. Totally wrong, of course.

When nothing happened in Hollywood, I tried to push it myself via other connections, working to get a copy to Eric Clapton (never happened), and sending copies also to John Simon (producer who had moved on from The Band to film work) and white bluesman John Hammond; the last two gave friendly-but-not-interested responses.

I did succeed in getting scripts to black actor Ossie Davis (suggesting him as director) and the management for Taj Mahal, thinking that after his experience with the film Sounder maybe he'd like to provide the other-than-Johnson music for my film too. And I got back letters from Davis, saying he'd be pleased to direct if I could get a production going, and Taj's manager or some other person saying pretty much the same thing--show us a production and we'll be interested. (Taj told me later he'd never known about the script.)

By about 1975, I was ready to write off Hellhound as having no chance. But the script had an odd (devilish?) circulating life all its own, and something new would happen every five or ten years. A Seattle area black man, involved with the state's Film Production Support office (or whatever that title was), decided he'd move to Hollywood and sell my script; he had no luck. A well-connected cameraman known for perfecting the Steadi-Cam (can't remember his name) wanted to start directing, and he wrote me to say he'd be taking my script around to various studios. Again nothing happened.

As the years passed, one or two other eager producers called me up all excited, having found Hellhound in some stack of good unproduced scripts, ready to launch yet another effort to sell the film. I actually signed papers a couple of times authorizing so-and-so to exclusive rights for six months or a year. But I never did demand any option money, believing that unencumbered access would improve the production's chances, and that I'd get paid further on.

No luck. No film. Decades have passed, and many other movies involving the Blues have appeared--from elegant documentaries to sad blaxploitation films--some worth viewing and remembering, others just reminding the world how basically useless most movies are.

When the late-Nineties Robert Johnson CD box set finally appeared, selling millions of copies and reviving interest in the Blues once more, I hoped maybe the magic would finally work. (Nope.) But I have had 40-some years of reading about and listening to Blues of all kinds, from Chicago to the Carolinas, from London to Lisbon, from Memphis to Malawi. And I have enjoyed two other benefits from the years with Johnson...

First, back in the early Seventies I managed to place several Hellhound excerpts in a Boston-based rock magazine called Fusion. When the issue appeared, I was definitely jazzed (blues'd?) to see my prose and dialogue in print, but the rest of the world evidently just yawned.

And around 2000 when the excellent Blues Museum down in Mississippi opened and was accepting materials to build up its holdings and library, I presumptuously sent off a copy of Hellhound on My Trail, which was in fact welcomed, and which now appears (the script title, anyway) in some Museum computer files or lists.

So my own Story of the Blues rolls on, just like that mighty Mississippi!

(one of these days, I'll post some excerpts from Hellhound... maybe.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Preachin' the Blues

By the early Sixties, thanks to the widespread late-Fifties popularity of the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and, a few years later, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Folk Music scene was thriving--and the real folk musicmakers like Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley were getting discovered or rediscovered, and even listened to. Cambridge and Greenwich Village were in a happy ferment that mixed new songsters like Dylan (see the previous posting), old hands like Pete Seeger, and old new-handers or new old-timers or some such like half-brother Mike Seeger's New Lost City Ramblers.

And an amazing sidelight of this search for the real roots of American Music was the explosion of interest in the Blues. Seemed as though the entire East Coast was in a mad dash to track down old Country Blues performers like Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt. Some of this was helped along by the Newport Folk Festival, which soon began showcasing rediscovered Bluesmen, and anyone else who played like them!

One album I bought around 1964 included a rousing performance by John Hammond (Jr., that is, son of the famous talent searcher and record producer), with John singing in a strangled voice and rippling his guitar masterfully and the elder true Bluesmen cheering him on from the wings. I thought, Yeah! White guys can play the Blues.

Which freed (presumptuous word) me too; I felt I'd been given the go-ahead for my own mad dash. But I was living in Seattle, so rather than searching for mysterious missing performers, I was searching for new albums in record stores (those astonishing RBF and OJL reissues), and old 45s and 78s in thrift stores and junk shops. (As you might imagine, the number of Country Blues 78s in the Pacific Northwest was limited. But I did assemble a small collection, spiced by Chicago Blues 45s, that I later sold to Bob "The Bear" Hite, lead singer of Canned Heat.)

Meanwhile I was reading every book, magazine article, and passing word that I could find about the Blues. There weren't many sources available then, back in the mid-Sixties--no comprehensive histories yet, no bios of big names published; just the groundbreaking books by Sam Charters and Paul Oliver, and one or two specialty mags from England, led by the great Blues Unlimited. (Even Rolling Stone was still a few years away.)

Somehow I got it in my head that I should write a film about Robert Johnson, whose reissue album on Columbia had stunned people everywhere, from Dylan and the young Allmans to Clapton and the Rolling Stones. I knew the few meagre bits of info available about his life, and I thought that he might be the perfect tragic embodiment of the rural Bluesman's life in the Twenties and Thirties.

I immersed myself in articles that mentioned Johnson (Pete Welding interviews with Howlin' Wolf and Honeyboy Edwards, for example), album liner notes for Johnny Shines, Johnson's own LP, and more, plus Oliver's astonishing book and accompanying record called Conversation with the Blues--even Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man helped me imagine Robert's world. I also studied Les Blank's Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb documentaries (got to know Les a little) and went to see every Country Blues performer that passed through the region; Son House and Bukka White were standouts.

And it was a help, I thought, that my mother's family had been farmers in Georgia and that I'd lived in Virginia and Alabama; I felt I had a broader perspective as a child of both North and South, son of a USAF officer, which meant I had been raised in the un-segregated world of the military. (The base teen functions back in the late Fifties were always racially mixed. Heck, I had a major crush on one beautiful black girl, me still too young and dumb to know it was a dangerous, racially fraught role for a white boy.)

Anyway, by 1969 I was ready to write, and over the next year and more I did just that: wrote, threw out, started over, revised, put away, kept thinking, rewrote again, until by 1971 I had a screenplay, Hellhound on My Trail, good enough, I was sure, to sweep Hollywood off its feet. I copyrighted it with the U.S. Government, then packed up and headed off to L.A. to sell it (and me as writer-producer). And thanks to filmmaker Blank, who owed me one and who was off filming somewhere, I had his bungalow to crash in...

(the rest of the story next time)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dylan for Dollars

In 1961-62 I was a sophomore at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. Sometime that year I discovered a terrific folk music radio program, on WLS I think, that was regularly playing this amazing song by an unknown new folksinger... yes, Bob Dylan and his "Song to Woody."

A few hearings convinced me I had to find this guy's album and add it to my meager array. I bought it, a bit puzzled by the young-punk picture on the jacket, but reassured by the rave review of a Dylan club appearance reprinted on the back. I spun the platter (people still talked like that) and discovered... whoa, a reedy, nasally voice packed with attitude, backed by some excellent guitar--blues and folky stuff but no other piece as compelling as Dylan's original, his tribute "Song to Woody."

But the album grew on me almost immediately, and I went home at spring break, back to Tacoma, eager to play it for friends and girl friend. Well, everybody hated it--ex-high school pals, my girl, my parents and sisters. They all dismissed him as some wiseass who couldn't sing. I refused to back down, arguing his case to anyone who would listen (but secretly doubting my own taste too).

Bob in hand, I returned to Northwestern for a few more months, until summer break and my official transfer to the University of Washington in Seattle. I kept playing his album, people kept shutting their doors... but I'd fallen for his trickster air, his seemingly amateurish performing style. So I kept watching for a new album to show up. And when Columbia announced the date of release, posted I guess at the record store I was frequenting, I was determined to be one of the first to buy Dylan Redux.

On release day, I scooped up a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and took it straight to the turntable. Sitting there, trying to absorb, trying to dig his new songs, and also reading the liner notes, I gradually realized that the list of titles on the jacket and labels and the music in the grooves just didn't match up...

Maybe you can see where this is leading. Yes, I had in my possession one of the early, mistakenly released, tried-to-be-corrected copies of his second album, resulting when constraints applied by the Ed Sullivan Show, or complaints by Columbia's sales force, or Dylan's own last-minute second thoughts caused a new version of the album to be rushed into production; various reasons were given later.

Although the jacket list of titles and even the labels (in some cases) got changed, a few copies of the original disc still got shipped to the West Coast in the rush to meet the release date, creating copies like the one I bought that had four songs not matching. I had "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," "John Birch Society Blues" (the one rejected by Sullivan), "Rocks and Gravel," and "Gamblin' Willie" in the grooves instead of the four last-minute and available-ever-since substitutions.

So what did I do? Of course. I returned it to the store as defective and got a copy that did have the correct titles and tracks. If we jump ahead 40 years, collectors everywhere would definitely die in their footsteps to find a copy like the one I gave back, fool that I was, back in the days when rock 'n roll or folk records were just stuff to play rather than cultural artifacts to preserve and collect. A copy as pristine as mine was would fetch around $15,000 now, it seems...

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

Back in the Sixties, I kept listening to Bob, even when he stopped writing protest songs and started with the personal and increasingly obscure stuff, and then--horrors--went electric. There was just something about the guy's whole gestalt that was amazing and magical. I was lucky enough to see him live for the first time when Joan Baez brought him out from the wings to sing a couple of songs with her--black leather gear, goofy cap, Charlie Chaplin insouciance, cocky grin and all. And over the years since, a few more times with The Band and other backing musicians... and rarely (did it happen or is it just wishful thinking on my part?) just Bob and his guitar.

I'd pay a lot to see/hear Dylan lay down his weary tune once more, even if, as he sang in that perfect take he recorded but refused to issue for years, "no one can play the blues like Blind Willie McTell." Hit or miss, many misses in fact, once in a while Bob can still knock the fractured and fractious competition right into his old cocked cap.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Colonel

My father died a few years back, but he lived long enough to celebrate over 60 years married to the same woman. If Marge and Ed Sr. were still around, today would be their 66th anniversary. First, D-Day the 6th of June, then A-Day the 7th--made it easy to remember the date every year!

Since next weekend is Father's Day as well, I decided to consider Dad in this slice o' blog.

Born in 1917, he was third in the string of four boys of a well-to-do family residing in Joliet, Illinois. But the Stock Market Crash and Depression wiped out the family money, so my father and his brothers (one of them nicknamed "Cheese," mostly because Leimbacher sounds something like Limburger!) went to college and/or work early; no playboy life for those guys.

In fact, I think my father quit college slightly early to work as a shoes/clothing salesman. He joined the Army Air Corps in '40 when war started looking more likely, and then completed his degree after WWII courtesy of the GI Bill. (If these factoids are wrong, no doubt one of my sisters will set me straight.) He was a flight instructor throughout the war years, and even served as a "poster boy" of sorts for the work of the Air Corps (see photo).

Anyway, he started a water-softening business in the later Forties in upstate New York, then got called back to service when the Korean War began. His hapless partner drove the business into the ground (so to speak), so Dad decided to make the Air Force his career thereafter. But he was no driven Cold Warrior. Serious, hard-working, yes, pilot enough to keep his flight pay, yet more an administrator and manager, Dad still rose steadily and became a Lieutenant Colonel.

We dependent brats took to calling him "The Colonel," but really that was because Mom and he taught us three to think and be in-dependent; and by the time of high school and college, social issues like Civil Rights and Vietnam and the Feminist Movement all created a widening rift between elders and upstarts that made the "parii" (another nickname) wonder if they had created three young Frankenstein's monsters.

But we all survived those angry years, and Mom and Dad were able to call on us as their years advanced and health declined--my sisters especially rallied 'round. I carried some residual resentment from the stuff said back and forth in the Sixties and Seventies, but I guess things were okay by the time they died.

Some years ago, I tried to address the differences in a poem meant also to be a tribute to Dad...

Your Shirt

I wear it sometimes.
Recruited by seams
and sharp creases,
military press,
rapt in epaulettes
and flap pockets,
I briefly become
another: someone
larger, uniform;
I’m armored warm.
Midnight-blue wool
might not be cool,
but the USAF cut
doesn’t chafe… much.

Touched, I salute
the brass we accrued
as service brats:
h.q. where your hat
and hash-marks hung;
no one place for long.
Which meant I grew up
all over the map...
You expected me
to act sans orders.

In off-base quarters
the soldiers’ old saw
("No Asian land-war")
brazenly became
"Reclaim Vietnam
for US." I balked.
Then father-son talk
burned down a decade
of sniping and Red-
baiting... Long ago,

that war. I’m blue
at 55 now,
while you’ve turned slow,
receding, 80.
Peace, separately
made, suffices—
the past, I guess, as
shucked off as your gear
I sometimes wear:
the survival boots
that counsel how to;
the warm-up jacket,
requisitioned, that
helps me play ball.

I’m your son… still
cadging cast-offs,
unwarranted gifts,
the blessings of your
heart’s blue yonder.
Shrunken over all,
you might not fill
the shirt these days.
I try to, always.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Irish Times

I'm midway in an excellent debut novel, a more-than-mystery titled In the Woods by Tana French, set in the environs of Dublin and concerning a detective who was himself the victim of, maybe, kidnapping or, maybe, abuse as a child (he has amnesia about the events and only his partner knows of his troubled history), forced by the murder of a young girl to revisit the scene of... whatever happened back then. Very atmospheric and elegantly written.

And it has caused me to think of the Green Isle, the Four Green Fields, Galway Bay, peat fires, bog people... But who am I kidding? I've never been to Ireland, or Eire-plus-the-North. I've lived overseas, traveled around the world, been to Europe several times, but no Ireland. Ridiculous.

As a perennial reader and sometime writer, I cherish the Irish: Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, and many others (maybe even Tana French henceforward). And I've loved Irish music since i was a wee lad, from the Clancy Brothers to Moving Hearts, from Van Morrison to U2. Heck, if I drank beer, I'm sure I'd be a Guinness regular...

Should have gotten there while the island was still an economic backwater, the still-lamented homeland for so many emigrated Americans. Now it's become The Celtic Tiger, most jobs-prosperous nation in Europe. And now even the Northern combatants, Orange and Green alike, are swearing to work together for peace. (Makes you wonder if there's maybe still some tiny hope for the Middle East.)

Ah well. Cultural references aside, what I have done in my stumbling fashion is write a few poems with a struggling Irish lilt to them. Here are the best two (and reading them on the "page" means you don't have to hear me mangle the accent); the first came from discovering the quotation from Flaubert--I have no idea why my imagination then went straight to the land of
Joyce--and the second was my attempt to pull a fast one:

Bear Language

"Language is like a cracked kettle on which we
beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all
the time we long to move the stars to pity."
--Gustave Flaubert

I beat the cracked kettle
with a single stick of hazel
and listen as the thick syllables
run together. The chain pulls
this way and that, rattles
its own countermeasure, and hauls
me up tall, tipsy-toed to reel
Old Blarney in, drool and all.
Oh, he’s a handful,
he is: brown fur matted wet, male
razzle slapping his time, the usual
twinkle of trouble
in his one good eye. Bears

‘ll dance for you, and stand still,
shuffle and stall and sometimes scuffle
a bit; but Old Blarney’s a regular dazzle.
He rears back, high as Maeve Hill,
and sets his bear backyonders to heel-
an’-tow, and wriggle sure and all.
With his great paws flapping uncle,
his gap-tooth smile,
and his raggle-taggle tinker’s airs,
why, honey wouldn’t melt in his muzzle.
And thereby hangs a tale…

Or did. Just the last April
it was, at Derry Fair, and him on a publican’s table,
stepping out something fierce and typical.
Till he backstepped his backside full
in the barman’s electric fan, and fell
all over himself and nine pints with the froth of the pull
still on them—pell-mell and holywell
water, prancing and roaring and clanking, hide-hairs
a whirlwind behind him, parts of Old Blarney mill-
ing amongst us like the pieces of a puzzle
we couldn’t reassemble,
though we patched up his pride by wetting his whistle
with enough of the stout to befuddle
Cuchulain. He passed out in a puddle
of Guinness, still licking his chops, wishful
like… And now he just grins and bares it all.

Me? Oh, I’m just the bit of a shill.
Whilst Old Blarney struts his wonderful,
I blather and beat on this kettle
and watch his tin cup fill,
till the stars come out all unawares.

Postcard from Northern Ireland

I wanted to write something
better than ranting
that follows the letter of meter,
and rhymes.
Reflecting the times,
I settled for this
bit of rhetoric.

Postscript added days later: finished In the Woods, and I do recommend it highly. Some plot stuff can be guessed as one gets closer to the end, but not what happens, or doesn't, to the conflicted hero. Bravo; excellent writing throughout. I hope Ms.French shows her stuff again soon, Irish or not.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Four Musketeers

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Not a very pleasant experience, those first few days and weeks, as I went from shock ("I'm too young!") to scrambling to learn about this unique-to-men form of cancer and decide how to deal with it.

Remarkably, maybe, two of my best friends stepped forward to offer advice and support; they too had had it. (I hadn't known.) And later on, another good friend received the same diagnosis, and I was able to offer some useful words to him.

But think of it: four men in their late 50's or early 60's (I was pretty much the link among the others, three of us being creative types and the fourth a lawyer--sort of the Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan--with each living in a different city) all getting the same diagnosis within a couple of years of each other. Does that reflect more cancer in the male population? Better diagnostic testing? An excess of zeal on the part of urologists?

Prostate cancer is pretty mysterious still--no one knows what causes it, or how to prevent it, or even what to do when it occurs. It can spread rapidly, ending a man's life in a few months, or it can take years, even decades, to grow and/or move out from the prostate into surrounding flesh or the bloodstream. Most, maybe all men actually contract it during their lives, but those with a slow-acting form can die at an advanced age from other causes before their prostate cancer ever reaches a dangerous state--and never know they had it.

So a diagnosed patient must decide, blindly really, whether to act quickly and decisively, or to take his time choosing a course of action, possibly even electing to "wait and see" for a few months or years. (That last is a plan followed often in Europe.)

No way I could wait, nor can I fathom how anyone might actually be casual, even blase, about a cancer in his (or her) body. Even though there are several newer treatments involving radiation these days that are, at least for the first few years, less intrusive and have fewer potential side effects, I chose the completely intrusive method of surgery to remove--meaning, cut out, albeit very carefully--my entire prostate.

Each of us, we Four Musketeers, made the same decision for radical surgery ("All for one, one for all!"), but acting independently. Now, months or years later, we can only shrug and state simply, "So far, so good"--and let me just touch wood saying that!

But the idea of surgery affected us in various ways. The lawyer already had had health problems for several years, and one more challenge, even prostate surgery, couldn't faze him. One guy never told anyone he had been diagnosed, just quietly went about his surgical experience, and only 'fessed up later; he seems ornery as ever. My operation was openly discussed and seems to have gone well, with no side effects of any significance. And the newest patient found afterward that his cancer was potentially virulent, but his surgery, we hope, came in the nick of time.

We four continue our complex and busy lives--yes, of course! that was the point of having surgery--perhaps now with a heightened sense of urgency. Yet only one of us knows that he really needed to act immediately; the rest only that ugly related surprises may still be waiting for one or all.

We are alive and, for now, well.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Frank Herbert Remembered

In the late Sixties, I was an educational film writer in Seattle, where science fiction author Frank Herbert was still making his steady living as a newspaperman. (Dune had been published, but had not yet become recognized as a modern sf classic and model of ecological awareness.) One short documentary--I hadn't written it but was producing--required an outside expert on environmental matters, and somehow King Screen Productions found Frank. Working together on the film led to us progressing from slight acquaintances to casual friends.

Frank and I were both living atop Queen Anne Hill in those days, and one winter’s night a year or so later, Seattle was experiencing such near-blizzard conditions that I was forced to park at the base of that steep, half-mile-climb hill and then proceed to hike up and over to my house a mile away, arms laden with bags of groceries. After several blocks of slipping and falling in the blowing, 10" inch-deep snow, I finally staggered onto Frank and Bev’s porch and into their living room, exhausted and half-frozen. They cheerfully warmed and fed me, and finally I was able to stagger on for the last several blocks home.

Later the Herberts came to my house for a sort-of payback dinner--enchiladas, frijoles, and guacamole that I prepared--and after the meal and some great sobremesa conversation (did we have margaritas too?), Frank studied the bookshelves, found my copy of Dune--only a paperback, but at least I had it there at the right moment!--took it down and inscribed it with a friendly message that also kidded me about "being so Mexican."

Frank and Bev soon moved over to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where they constructed an early attempt at a self-sustaining "green" home, using a tall windmill as well as solar batteries to generate their electricity, for example. Frank was also proud of his live chickens, free-ranging before that term was introduced (I think), there to eat the bugs and supply chickenshit for... fuel, was it? He had big ideas, as any fan of the Dune books knows!

We saw each other less frequently then, but I did conduct interviews with him for a couple of magazines as his reputation grew. And long before the movie of Dune ever appeared I also adapted with Frank's approval a portion of that novel--Paul’s exhilarating first worm ride--as a comic book story for a Marvel Comics b&w sf magazine, but poor art guaranteed its failure. Yet pause to consider that the heroic people of Arrakis, in a resistance movement often resorting to terrorist measures, seem to be descended from Arabs.

Increasing fame, movie deals and such, plus Bev’s cancer, diagnosed as terminal, finally led to their departure from the Northwest. I know they tried cancer cures in Mexico and then wound up in Hawaii, but we lost touch. Thinking critically now, I believe Frank should have stopped the Dune series after the third book, but it's hard to argue with such huge success; and I believe the Herberts likely needed all the money they could gather in the face of approaching death.

Anyway, Frank Herbert was a fine man, genial and thoughtful, and clearly ahead of his time. His like is not to be seen in these sad days of global warming, global economics, and yet another now-global war.

Makes you wonder if Arrakis might not be our future too...