Wednesday, April 27, 2011

May One Speak Out?

The first day of May takes on added significance this year, the year of Republican governors and their state-house stooges, not to mention the damfool Repugnants of the House of Reprehensibles, all of them intent on rescinding worker rights, New Deal programs, long-established benefits and pension plans, and anything else the bastards can dream up, even Social Security--which the liars claim draws on government coffers when in fact we citizens pay into it directly, shares of our hard-earned wages, and it's funded till 2040 or some such, and could be secure for good--the public good--just by raising the cut-off level for paying in.

Or, jeez, here's a radical thought... WE COULD TAX THE RICH! We could end the three wars we're (quag)mired in. Instead of giving rebates and tax breaks, we could actually collect corporate... call them dues because they're way overdue... from the fracking transnational global round-the-world pay-no-taxes close-the-factories move-the-jobs-overseas MEGA CORRUPTIONS!

But no. Instead the Repugnants rob the poor and middle classes to pay the rich--blatant payback for campaign contributions, and "pay ahead" for the future lobbyist jobs awaiting ex-Congress folk. (Folkers, I'd call them.) So teachers, firemen, the police, farmers, workers in general get screwed again. And so this May Day means more.

I'll end the rant on a calmer note, with this careful rewrite of a favored "tea party" slogan, my revision closer to the reality we live now:
"Representation without Taxation is Tyranny by the Rich." (Think about it.)

And herewith my attempt to create a less-overwrought, less overtly political piece; think of it as "Politics makes strange bedfellows" meets "All's fair in love and war." In other words, it's a love poem...


This is the cry for help.
This is the weapons parade.
This is the mad dance--
poles and checks in balance,
bodies swirling, engulfed,
this chilly come-what-May
Day, in ribbons and rue.
Abandon inhibitions. Dance.
Abandon hope, all ye, and dance.
Abandon ship, come all ye true...
Mayday, mayday. See the flares
fire, guns fire, fires flare up,
the dancers leap and turn,
fire in their limbs. Skirts
flare, nostrils flare, a melee
yet may be. Oh baby, burn!
Hearts on fire, cities afire,
the flames roaring higher,
isolate unions, dancers
come sole to the dance.
This May Day of no knowing,
fires rain down and weapons reign,
while marching armies arrayed
for the military's sights
show us their might and main.
Still bound by night, by fires
on the darkened plain, desolate
dancers bound, their hearts re-
bound, to sway and be swayed
again. Return us union now,
that all may know us free,
till the bounding main engulfs
the flames, the ship of state
founders, the dancers bank
each other's fires, the last
lover goes down with her heart.

B&w photos: workers, spouses, children observing May Day circa 1920--One Big Union in solidarity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Blackened Fish... and Beaches, and Birds

Louisiana, you're on my mind... Jesse Winchester might well have sung that when instead he sang "Mississippi."

Consider this confluence of circumstance and events:

(1) The first anniversary of the B.P. oil spill disaster, started April 20 a year ago: nearly 5 million barrels released, and clean-up of the damaged Gulf Coast environment still a long way from finished.

(2) Good friends Susan and Kim just back from a long weekend in New Orleans, enjoying the popular, but less madhouse, French Quarter Festival. (She gets to the Crescent City occasionally on foundation business, while he's spent some time there helping with the Habitat for Humanity rebuilding effort, not to mention staunchly attending NOLA's post-Katrina music fests.)
3) Our son Mike getting married early in May, the ceremony to occur up in the northwestern corner of Louisiana, in Shreveport. We're flying-in a few days early and so will have time to drive south to the prairies and bayous, the small towns and lively music spots, of Cajun country--my first time back since the early Fifties.

(4) That trip plan prodded me into a spending spree buying every used or new CD of Cajun and Zydeco music I could track down, to learn as much as I could in a short period of time. (And thus the extra credit-card debt that persuaded me to sell the Elvis Sun 78 mentioned in two recent posts; I got a few hundred for Elvis but thousands of dollars worth of enjoyment--with more ahead--from the CDs, whether white French Acadien or Zydeco by Creole gens de couleur.)

(5) And if I hadn't done all the listening and learning, by means of discs from the Twenties right on into the twenty-first century, I wouldn't have heard the surprising and distinct albums (dating from 2008, 2010, and 2009, respectively) by Michael Doucet, Steve Riley, and Zachary Richard--veteran Cajun Music superstars all three. Nor would I have been thinking again of a certain later-Fifties, not-really-Easy Listening album--more a light Jazz suite, in fact--that haunts me now and then...

But let's save that till later, while we galop across the Mamou prairie, our horses headed for Eunice, or drift down some Atchafalaya tributary in a 'gator-proof pirogue. (Sometimes even in the Louisiana backcountry life is good.) But the terrible experience of Katrina and the big oil spill, and the horrific aftermath of both, seem to have set the tone and subject matter of two and maybe all three of the recent CDs, all of them beautifully introspective and less upbeat than usual. So: music less for lively dancing than for pondering and dreaming and looking back, finding a hard-earned equilibrium rather than the fais do-do and joie de vie (approximate Cajun French spelling).

Doucet and Richard are cousins and got their start in music back in the late Sixties, Michael taking his fiddle straight into Rock (a short-lived but seminal band called Coteau), influenced by It's a Beautiful Day and the Grateful Dead, while Zachary gravitated to the traditional, learning accordeon Acadien. But in the early Seventies things changed radically. Doucet went to France for six months, was swamped (so to speak) by fans of Cajun music, and returned ready to devote his playing, indeed his life, to the sounds of early fiddle-driven Cajun; he apprenticed with famous players like Dewey Balfa, Lionel LeLieux, and Dennis McGee, plus the Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. By the Mid-Eighties he was leading the hugely influential modern Cajun group called BeauSoleil, with hints of Jazz, Classical, Blues, Zydeco, and much more tossed into that "sunny" gumbo.

Meanwhile, Richard moved to Quebec and built a very successful international career--in France and French Canada as well as Cajun Louisiana, with several albums released on A&M in the States--Richard offering Cajun-spiced, French-speaking rock 'n' roll, the lyric content sometimes quite political, but playing less and less of his Acadian squeezebox. In fact his 2009 album, Last Kiss, is a moody ballads set with nary an accordion within hearing! The opening track is a lovely mid-tempo number called "Danse," with sweet nostalgia and moonlight on the bayou, but it sounds like something arranged for the Dixie Chicks--and that's not meant as a slur, just a musical definition. Lots of guitars and mandolins and some strings strings too, if you catch my drift, but no sawblade fiddle. Still, this is a gorgeous set with Zachary delivering his dozen originals like a Jackson Browne with a gruffer, more soulful voice, even convincing gospel power on Richard's own "The Levee Broke," worthy of standing beside Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927."

But enough with the comparative name-dropping; Richard is a major force because he writes, sings, plays, and commands respect. Among other gems here are "Give My Heart," which also evokes watery doom, but is an interracial love song; the sad hopelessness of "Sweet Daniel," which seems to be about a gay draftee escaping in his mind by sniffing cocaine (wow!); the chiming power ballad "Come to Me"; and the final number... I ignored the change earlier; the twelfth song is actually Robbie Robertson's grand histoire titled "Acadian Driftwood," nicely reworked here, Richard joined by--are you ready for it?--Celine Dion for a fine "gypsy tail wind" of character instead of a titanic duet. The song--the album--ends with Richard and Dion shouting across each other, echoing and calling out, again and again, "J'arrive, Acadie./ J'ai le mal du pays."

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys aren't experiencing mal du pays (sort of "homesickness"); they're another kind of sick--sad and p.o.'ed--and the Grand Isle cover image gets right to it. Whatever that blackened bird, outsiders have befouled--coated in oil and destroyed--whole portions of the Pelican State. The opener ("Dancing without Understanding") begins as a dirge then turns to snarly rock 'n' roll, heading straight into the punk anger of "Chatterbox" (both Eunice club and shallow girl). Things settle down for the chant chorus number "This Is the Time for Change," Riley's anger now understated and direct, followed by a ballad ("It's Lonely") and then... wait for it... Edith Piaf's signature number "Non, je ne regrette rien" in a strings-and-squeezebox arrangement. Next comes "Pierre," a rhythmic Creole number more Mamou-metal-band than Mamou Playboys.

And then a return to the real Cajun music sound for the lovely "Valse de chagrin" and the country-rockin' title track--but with lyrics alluding to the terrible destruction of that once-idyllic island--plus actual Cajun triangle and serious squeezebox driving Riley's happier-times original "Lyon's Point" (a classic in the making, I'd say). Steve and the 'Boys finally unleash the full arsenal (hmm, strange expression) for "C'est trop/Too Much," Cajun players rocking harder and harder, Cajun spice burning blacker and blacker...

And that's the climax of Grand Isle. The last two leftover numbers actually leave the album sounding worn down and unsettled. One's final impression is this: Louisiana may be hardhit, knocked to the canvas, but is getting up again, back on its feet and looking for another fight... or a fais do-do.

Michael Doucet is one of the supreme Cajun musicians far and away (and also close to home, lazing in Lafayette). His mastery of the fiddle, likely the violin too, is definite and irrefutable, playing like that Johnny (and the Devil himself maybe) from Charlie Daniel's famous song. Doucet seems not just to master whatever sort of music he chooses, whether from the U.S. or around the world, but to imbue all with excitement and his adventurous spirit, often creating structural innovations on the fly. To hear accordionist Marc Savoy calling out, urging "Mike" on and on when the Savoy-Doucet Band gets to steamrolling, is to experience tenfold the heated, high-stepping, happy soul of Cajun country and culture. However... Michael might should leave the vocalizing to others. He has the high-pitched Cajun yelp down pretty good, but otherwise... let him focus on that fiddle.

As some Soul singer put it, "First cut is the deepest"--and the opener on Doucet's album makes a philosophical statement, I guess ("Ev'ry thang gone be fonk-y, from now on"), maybe subtly acknowedging some of his state's problems, but Michael attempting to channel Allen Toussaint is excruciating. Is he paying hommage to Toussaint, or mocking him? Is he stating a strange blueprint for the future (album title: From Now On), or dredging up the minstrel show past?

Doucet is too proud a player and too decent and learned a man to be truly stuck in the muck, but a listener is much relieved when the rest of the album gets musically serious and splendidly varied, reeling and unreeling like a career resume--recalling the past, releasing the present, revealing the likely future of Cajun stylings in music. Traditional numbers ("Le Two-Step de Basile," "Contredanse de Mamou"), Jazz standards ("Saint Louis Blues," "New Orleans"), Gospel/Blues cuts ("A Closer Walk with Thee," "You Gotta Move"), Doucet originals ("L'Amour ou la Folie," "Brasse la Gombo Vite," and, yes, "Fonky Bayou"), they're all saw-fiddlated and finely Douceted. (And to discover Mike really getting funky, just track down the sessions where he provides smokin' fiddle for Zydeco great Nathan Williams.)

So... now for the lagniappe. Among the so-called Mood albums recorded by composer/conductor Paul Weston and his Hollywood orchestra, one misfit standout from 1957 or so was Columbia CL 977, titled Crescent City: The Moods of New Orleans, but really a 35-minute suite for Jazz players, percussion, and strings-boosted full orchestra. Weston (husband to singer Jo Stafford) wrote three-quarters of the suite's individual pieces and arranged traditional numbers to complete his portrait of the old New Orleans... which just barely exists now, a half century later. "Vieux Carre," "Riverside Blues," "Storyville,"
"Bayou St. Jean," and "Esplanade at Sunset" are some of his individual impressions, and he adapted "High Society," "Creole Songs and Dances," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." (And drifting through many of the pieces, his yearning "Crescent City" theme.)

French-sounding tunes, Blues and Gospel, Louis Armstrong-styled traditional Jazz, Creole dances, Mardi Gras marching, haunting melodies that play more like embedded memories, history and the social mores of NOLA, they're all a part of Weston's lively and lovely, spirited and spiritual Crescent City, and the suite as a whole is certainly worthy of a documentary or feature film utilizing it. In fact, Weston and his orchestra gave a live concert or two around New Orleans performing the whole composition; and I imagine some of his regular Jazz guys (including Eddie Miller, Ted Nash, Matty Matlock, Dick Cathcart, Barney Kessel, and Paul Smith) were involved.

About the only local music neglected (so near yet so far) was of course the odd sounds of the Acadiens--loud and exciting, mixing Western Swing, country, and a hint of Blues, French folk fiddle and German-polka accordion. In the mid-Fifties that region was both isolated and ignored, the French language banned, Cajun "culture" a source of jokes, the people treated like second-class citizens (sound familiar?).

It took another decade and more for other parts of the nation to learn about and come to appreciate Cajun music and spices and spirit. But that change made it possible for young men like Doucet and Richard and Riley to hold their heads high, to wonder about their heritage and then become musicians preserving and advancing it.

Meanwhile Weston's career continued. The New Orleans album eventually went out of print and did not make it to CD until Paul or Jo or the estate reclaimed the copyright and issued it with a slightly changed name and a boring cover shot of a cathedral. That was a mistake. The original cover shot seemed as mysterious and perhaps dangerous as the city. It displayed a distant aerial view of inner New Orleans ostensibly at sunset, showing the sweeping curves of the river and a major bridge in the early stages of construction.

The only problem was, the picture was so dark, with an eerie orange glow layered between the roiling gray-black clouds above and the unlit wards and districts below, that you might also see a deadly storm building, a hurricane or tornedo about to strike, the Wrath of God about to descend on the Crescent City.

Weston's album--tribute, memorial, cautionary tale--was just 50 years too soon.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rock It, Willy!

Last week's post on aging (yes, that's what it was, sort of) ended with a photo of the Sun 78 r.p.m. record that announced Elvis Presley and the birth of rock 'n' roll--especially the Southern subgenre called Rockabilly. That 78 disc is now up for auction on eBay. It's not that I've abandoned my part-Southern roots and heritage, just that I've some bills to pay. But back in 1955-56, I was 12 and then 13, living in Virginia and Alabama, and totally swept up in the new rocking music on local radio stations, from the r&b connections of Little Richard and Fats Domino to the wildass white boys with redneck names like Elvis or Charlie Feathers or Jerry Lee (pronounced Jer uh Lee) Lewis.

Rockabilly ruled! And sometimes it still does...

In the last few weeks I found some cat-clothes-cool CDs and a terrific book too--Chrome Dreams CDCD5047, bravely titled The Rarest Rockabilly Album in the World Ever! and offering "50 of the most obscure songs from the Golden Age" which would be approximately 1954-1958; plus the 325-page, nicely illustrated trade paperback tome titled A Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster's Guide to Rockabilly Music, by writer-collector Max Decharne, and the similarly named Ace CDCHD 1268, billed as "the soundtrack” to the book, packed with 28 "slices of the wildest 1950s rockabilly mayhem. A rocket-fueled mixture of hepcat classics and rockin' rarities." With just three numbers duplicated, that means a total of 75 timeless, slapbassed, jukin’ joints of hillbilly r&b.

Those primitive, do-it-yourself, pickin'-and-scufflin' screams and chants marked the Fifties explosion of teen rebellion, however shortlived. Thousands of poor-white Southern boys and a dozen or so rowdy young women found a studio or a side parlor or a gritty bathroom (good for that Rockabilly echo!) and cut disc after disc after disc, 120-second come-and-gone paeans to hot wheels, cool threads, and unbridled lust--vocalist grunts and shouts, guitarists holding their axes at an out-front angle, slapbass guys actually climbing up their instruments, Elvis's swivelling hips and Jerry Lee's pumping piano. Eager kids and aging no-hit cynics alike mimicked the lead cats' songs and style, searching for some unfilled tiny niche, shrieking and flailing at their guitars and thumping their chests, not ape-like, really, but as insignicant humans shouting, "Sir! I exist!" (Garage bands, then Punk, then Grunge in some measure, were all later Rock music expressions of that disgust and rebellion, braggadocio and self-sufficiency, anarchy and creativity in equal measure.)

Then everything went to hell. Elvis answered Uncle Sam's call, Carl Perkins nearly died in a car crash, Lewis married too young a cousin, Buddy Holly and others did die, Chuck Berry went to jail, and so on. The boppers, big and small, bailed. And sidling in came small-talent white guys from Philadelphia, and Motown's unexpected clean-streets danceability, and disaffected suburban kids strumming folk guitars. By the time Private Presley (he'd made Corporal by then) came home, he had a smoother baritone and bigger dreams--and Rockabilly was history. Gone.

... Except in England there were these stubborn "Teddy Boys," and in France various wise guys typically named Johnny, and in Germany fraulein-less herren fixated on motorsickles or something; and they all loved the hiccups and howls, the standup bass and the falldown folderol of Rockabilly. So the movement, the craze, the record-collector madness, crossed the wide ocean and settled in the U.K. and Europe. The history of Sun Records became as carefully studied as the Hundred Years' War. The whereabouts Stateside of one-hit and never-hit wonders became as important as finding more Dead Sea Scrolls.

By the early Seventies, specific-subject anthologies (Rockabilly obscurities released on Decca, say) and broader collections of rare singles (for example, tracks produced in some Memphis studio other than Sun) were being compiled and annotated and issued, and were selling more copies than the singles ever did! And so it has continued for four decades now, right up to the present, cheerfully fueled by record companies wholly dedicated to keeping America's past musics alive. For Rockabilly that's mostly meant "the ABC's"--Ace in England, Bear Family in Germany (compilers of big, definitive box sets), and Charly in England and France, for Sun Records in particular.

Decharne touches on all the odd history in his excellent book, rich in anecdote and esoteric information, but he wisely focuses most on introducing to the reader--and describing wittily and pithily--as many old Rockabilly 45s (and the performers) as can be named and organized and squeezed intelligibly into his three-hundred-page text. I recommend it heartily whether you dig Rockabilly the most or couldn't care less; you'll be amused and amazed regardless.

The CDs are well worth the investment too. Rocket is absolutely brilliant, the best single-CD, across-the-labels anthology of Rockabilly I've ever seen or listened to--literally the only one you'd ever need to stand in for that small slice of Rock history, but alternatively, and more likely, also the sampler that whets your appetite for more! The Rarest, on the other hand, has a different principle operating; you'll find many excellent examples but a whole lotta shaky cuts goin' on too. (Hey, nobody claimed these as the best, only the rarest.)

For every three you might shrug at, there's one jaw-dropper that sets your toes to tappin' and your juices flappin'. I'm particularly partial to "Rock All Night" by Glen Honeycutt, Jimmy Patton's piano-driven "Yah I'm Movin'" and later "Oakies in the Pokie," Don Woody frantic from "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" (great guitar too), "So Tired" by the unknown Chavis Brothers, and tracks by Jimmy Lloyd, Kenny Owens, and Joey Castle--that last, "That Ain't Nothin' But Right," offering cool echo-effect guitar and a catchy chorus. Should have been a hit, as others here; for instance, Don Willis's "Boppin' High School Baby" and Glenn Bond's "When My Baby Passes By," the last two tracks on CD 1 channeling Elvis very obviously but also quite effectively.

CD 2 has similar non-hits and deserving misses, but I like it for two other reasons--novelty numbers with names like "Old Moss Back," "Rock n Roll Saddles," "Pink Elephants," and "Jello Sal"; proof positive that in Rockabilly anything goes, or went anyway, back in the heyday. And this CD is quite blatant with another message too; seven of the titles tell the tale: "Hot Rod Baby... You're the One... Please Give Me Something... I Need It... Convertible Car... Swing It Little Katy... Teenage Ball." I can't decide whether Nat Couty's "Woodpecker Rock" belongs with the first group or the second!

Loads of fun among the frantic 50--and classic cuts galore in the great 28, from the chooglin' slash-guitar opener (a la the Johnny Burnette Trio), "How Can You Be Mean to Me" by Dale Vaughan; through the real JB 3, with early guitar hero Paul Burlison taking charge and tearing through "The Train Kept a-Rollin'"; to the final cut, the title track, with barrelhouse piano and more real Rock-it-Willy guitar, not to mention Jimmy Lloyd wailin' on lyrics that are lubricious at least. And speaking of guitar greats, you have Scotty Moore with Elvis, riding that "Mystery Train," Carl Perkins singlehandedly ripping up "Put Your Cat Clothes On," and little-known Hal Harris adding urgency to Bob Doss's warning, "Don't Be Gone Long." And a few cuts further on, Harris encores considerably and convincingly with his own never-released string-reinforcer called "Jitterbop Baby."

On rolls the Rocket CD: novelties like "Rockin' in the Graveyard" by Jackie Morningstar, Gene Maltais's weird, what-next number "The Raging Sea," and the equally goofy "Wash Machine Boogie" by the Echo Valley Boys. Great stuff by Charlie Feathers ("Get with It"), Ray Harris ("Come On Little Mama"), and Don Cole ("Snake Eyed Mama"), and no cut less than excellent. Even the three duplicate tracks--raucous "Jello Sal," "Boppin' High School Baby," and Ric Cartey's reverb-riot called "Scratchin' on My Screen"--sound better in this all-star crowd, as though cut hotter or mastered from cleaner original sources.

So don't be like Jimmy & Johnny (slapbass and slapstick working overtime) missing out on a swinging party inside because, as they sadly sing together, "I can't find the door knob, I can't get in." In other words, cats and kittens, get with it. Every guy and gal needs a hot rocket to ride.

The fuse is lit.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On the Record

Last time out the message was driven by anger and sadness and doubt. This time around I promise to stay lighter of heart. And next post I'll get back to the reviews and mini-essays, batteries all recharged. Oh, there'll still be some progressive commentary occasionally, given the world we live in and the sad record of human cupidity, but I'll cool it some too.

Meanwhile, for all us staunch fans of vinyl--those long-play "records," as I quaintly call them--some thoughts on production and distribution...

(Yes, it's another poem-like object, but this one just might leave you smiling.)


Someone changed speeds.
16 going
at 33
through the hits years,
then 45
spinning faster...
and suddenly
circles close, my

near run-off. What
was mastered on
virgin vinyl
got too much play--
gone scratched and worn
now, all highs and
lows diminished.
A melody

lingers faintly,
yet the lyric
no longer cuts
through. But listen:
I had impressed
upon me long
ago, "Playback
is all. Either
it's in the grooves,

or nothing. Take
your given turn
on the table
and then get off;
don't wait to be
rejected." Sound
advice. And so
as I spiral
faster and fast-

er to the spin-
dle hole silence,
I track one small
while all these discs
grow more compact,
I have become
a collector's
item at last.