Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE OLD WEIRD AMERICA by Greil Marcus



An admirable facet of Greil Marcus's digressive form of criticism is that he's always attempting--essaying forth, essentially--to demonstrate the unities between the high, low and middle portions of culture, insisting, with an impressive range of references and reading that the separations between are more argumentative than  substantial.Linking mountain and southern music with Dadaism and neo-Marxist student rebellions with Religious bliss with rock and roll and performance art--an exciting project to stake one's career on, which is precisely what Marcus has done. Famously, though, Marcus, one of the first rock  critics for the Rolling Stone publication,the author is given to digression and historical anecdote, musing and abusing the privilege of making metaphor when proofs of his theory are required. Assuming that he had a theory to begin with. Marcus is clearly moving in the dialectical mode, maintaining that opposing forces arise in history that then clash  inevitably in violent synthesis and create a new period of existence with new rules and cultural  distinctions, all of that creating it's opposite and  which will again clash in  violent synthesis. But instead of a theory that one can read and argue with, that is, I suppose, a script one can comprehend and modify as new evidence comes to light, Marcus is more  impulsive notion than theoretical rigor.


 It is the joy of reading him, as he seems to relish the chance to  recreate some blessed moment in music history--the Sex Pistols rehearsing "Johnny B. Goode" (in his book Lipstick Traces)  or the tension on the stage at the Newport Fok Festival when Dylan, assuming the stage with an electric band, was booed and called names by a crowd of stalwart folkies. Just when you think he's ready to provide the skeleton key to his musings, the punchline, the point he's taking a good while to get to, Marcus recedes into the mystify murk of his own  grandiloquence. That is the joy and the aggravation of reading this writer.   I read Greil Marcus because I love the way he writes and admit that his prose has been an influence in the way I take finger tips to keyboard. This is a problematic love of the man's love that has existed for five decades.Lately, though, it's been more prolix than persuasion, as his ongoing effort to make Bob Dylan the central factor of the 20th century hasn't struck a believable insightful note in decades. 


The Old Weird America is an extended reflection on the songs that appeared on Dylan's famous 'Basement Tapes" , strives to provide the secret history behind the songs . In matters of the cross pollination of cultures, racial justice, the mashing together of folk authenticity, rock and roll and Symbolist poetry, Marcus essentially argues that all roads lead to Dylan and lead through him as well. As criticism , it is more an act of imagination than a weighing of elements; Well read and as well listened as he is across a great spectrum of literature and music types, what is lacking here are the dual duties of establishing how the songs and artists within the folk tradition influenced Dylan and how Dylan assimilated the music who's expressive brilliance he could never equal and yet was motivated by to create his own means, and create a new criteria by which to discuss the success or failure of the work. , there are dozens, hundreds perhaps, of critics who have standing to challenge him. The question, though, isn't the most obvious, "what are you talking about?". We know what he's talking about, and around. Rather, someone needs to ask "what are you getting at?" I've done my part in filling in the blanks in Marcus's ideas about how history and culture , high, low and middle, function, but in ad- libbing so much without a frame work that can be expanded, contracted and otherwise modified to fit the evidence under investigation, I think this may be just a case that Marcus has lost curiosity in new things. He treats Dylan the way Harold Bloom treats Shakespeare, a figure who's work created the contemporary ideas of contemporary man, although Bloom is better at his claims in that he takes pains to critically contrast the ideas in the Bard's poems against the theoretical proxies of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, et al.

 You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human" is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in laziness of a higher caliber.The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book "The Anxiety of Influence", a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premiere genius who casts a long and permanent shadow  over the rest of world literature that came   before him, and that his influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be infuenced by him. 

Those great geniuses who've emerged after the Bard's time have either engaged their  influence from him and written great works extending , modifying and altering the system of metaphor Shakespare changed our collective   consciousness with, or there are other geniues who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write    furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and de-familiarizing the artful language in  ways only a new kind of   genius would conceive and execute.
  
 But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully  contains the human impulse to  go beyond mere descriptios of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other. That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work, but the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "a ha!"  of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking,and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new  writers who writer literature in cultures other what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defends the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes dually that there are permanent geniues and masterpieces of Western Literature,   as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts thtthe Canon is a living thing, like the   American Constitution, a catagory   of books and authors that must   be   continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. As I've mentioned  already, Marcus hasn't put forth a thesis from which his notions can find a more compelling form of argument, a form that would aid others to avoid the frequent bush and thorny bramble that spreads in Marcus's many books and subject his scheme of rock music's claim to art to some respectful but rigorous interrogation.Marcus and impressionistic hot takes on matters of music , and culture in general have been brilliant at times, but the later work is actually regressive and without a central premise or premises. I frankly think he's lost in his thoughts, but without a map.


Dylan is less the artist to Marcus than a saint or something greater, and, even though there is pleasure to ride the waves, cadences and well crafted metaphors and similes of the writer's prose, The Old Weird America is a shaggy dog story at heart. Marcus began this habit of epic digression with Lipstick Traces, a tome not without its pleasures--his connection there of the efforts of Cabaret Voltaire, the Dadaists, Punk Rock and the Situationist provocations of Guy Debord was especially tightly argued-- but now it seems little else than a practiced spiel that's trotted out and exclaimed, regardless of the topic, not unlike an old timer's AA share that is memorized not just by him or her but by the entire meeting that has heard him or her deliver for decades. What I am saying is that Marcus is writing the same book with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those familiar with how the author thinks on the page will note, also, the lack of real verve in the writing, skilled and flowing as it maybe.

Poetic interpretation

A  young man I was chatting with the other day mistook me for someone who knew something about poetry and put the question to me about  how he can learn to  analyse a poem and receive an "A"for his effort. He actually used the word "effort" when he framed his question, and I began my routine spiel about investigating poems by mention that "effort" is synonym for "work", meaning that he would have to read the poem and pour over the words no less than any endeavor he'd undertake with the intention of getting a more than  satisfactory result.

The basis of what I said is this: What I do is read a poem several times through, completely each time, first for what the poem sounds like, how well it flows, how well the general language goes together, whether images, similes and metaphors both enliven the reading and fit the cadence. In other words, to get a solid sense of the poem’s music and rhythm; that can give you an inspiration, as it often has me, as to the mood and drift of them poem, if not the actual theme. You should also ascertain the context of the poem—funeral? romance? remembrance? 

This gets you to dig harder in your reading and sharpens your sense of why some words are being used and others are not.Successive readings of the poem have to do with language and, generally, the search for key words, antonyms and synonyms , words and images that would both contradict and compliment each other and offer up a solid clue of competing ideas the poet is weighing. Often times poets will address a concept that is antithetical to the theme they may be dealing with as their dominant theme. If you think you’ve grasped a principle idea, be on the look out for those images and tropes that would provide a counter argument. With me, this provides me with a framework as to how well the poet resolves the contradiction in the situation that inspires the poem ; this is where you break down what the poet has written and then argue how well or not the writers has accomplished his or her task.  It is also a a handy way of developing a few new ideas to occupy , resonate and other wise make wonderful intellectual music   in the space between my ears, an instance that often enough renews my curiosity with the world and keeps me from getting morose  and feeling older than the one  one lost shoe you always find behind the sofa when it comes time to move yet  again. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Zappa

I saw the documentary Eat That Question :Frank Zappa in his Own Words the day before yesterday and I thought it was a  generally good representation of Zappa the social critic and Zappa the serious musician. The interview segments, which are abundant, span his career , as does the generous inclusion of live performances with The Mothers of Invention. He was extremely intelligent, actually iconoclastic and gifted as a composer, but like many others with vast talents that prefer no constraint and mouths that prefer no editing, you get he feeling he indulged his worst habits as often as he did his best talents. There is a repetition of ideas in his asides, rants and excoriations, a set of notions that he honed and delivered continuously over the years, libertarian-genius bromides that wear you down toward the end of the film. Still, despite the repetition, you do marvel at the way in which he cuts away the fat and gets to the crude, stupid heart that is pulse of consumerist culture.

 But as a fan of Zappa's music, I was very happy, as the film includes generous portions from live performances that make us realize that above all else, Zappa was an artist, a genius of some sort.  Even die hard fans and scholars of his work have complained that Zappa didn’t challenge himself nearly enough and often times released albums that  were sub-par, highlighting musical ideas from bygone decades that no longer seemed fresh, riveting, or daring. His satire, as well, ceased being funny or witty in large measure and was, for a good number of  records released through the Seventies and even through much of the Eighties, merely mean spirited. His cynicism had conquered his inspiration , likely because he realized that he   could make money being this cartoon character “Frank Zappa”, becoming the man his fans wanted him to  be. It was about making money in order to finance his larger orchestral projects, and the irony that he needed to     compromise his principles and act the way new  fans with disposable income expected  to behave was likely not lost on him.T

Orson Wells had a similar  situation, the story goes, as he took a good many demeanng roles in whatever variety   of Hollywood schlock came his way so he could finance his own projects. It's an odd curse, I suppose, a problem the working working world would have considering a bother at all.How would one have challenged Zappa, though? His comfort zone was a strange amalgamation of influences --Lenny Bruce, Stravinsky, Sun Ra, Edgar Varese, Lord Buckley, Musique Concrete-- that it's probable that few would know what to suggest as a way for him to diverge from his rut. He created his niche, proud that he wasn't dependent on grant money, gifts from government agencies and the like. He was something like a home- schooler, nearly irrational in his belief that government couldn't do anything good for the population. There are times when I just have to turn off the rants--truth telling is never the same as music--and crank up his tunes, which has floored me for decades.


Zappa's work as a serious composer already has a fairly full catalog; one could, I suspect, produce a week or two of special concerts featuring Zappa's "serious " work. But I agree that there was much in the seventies I disliked from the man in the 70s. "One Size Fits All" was actually a solid album, firing on all cylinders, but commencing with "Apostrophe", featuring the egregious "Yellow Snow" and onward, his satire degenerated into a a species of juvenile smut. What would have been interesting would have been if he had collaborated with artists of similar stature, on smaller projects, in different musical areas. Not the Elvis Costello grand standing collaborations, but rather real efforts to work toward the best virtues of another artist. That would have been something had he wanted to make the effort, but his personality was controlling, ironically, despite his diatribes about freedom. There was something of Howard Roark in him that his work would be presented to the world on his terms solely, uncontaminated by meddlers, sycophants and their like.

The downside of Zappa's libertarian attitude about his music--my art, my way, at the price I said, or nothing at all--is that much of his output is a remarkably eccentric selection of self-invented cliches. As much as he deserves to be praised for resourcefulness and achieving a crazy amalgam of jazz, classical, comedy and rock , there are go-to moves he never strayed from , bits of business that seemed more treading water than an expansion of established themes. I do wish he'd found time and interest in collaborating with other musicians on equal footing--singers, lyricists, musicians, other composers.. The results might have been interesting and gotten the late FZ out of his comfort zone and lightened the lid on that vacuum packed cynicism that ceased to be amusing long before he passed on.

Experimental or what?

Experimental poetry used to be the kind of stuff that broke with established forms of verse writing , both in form and aesthetic . A good survey course in Western Poetry will pretty much be the history of one school of poetry arising in response and/or rebellion against forms that had long been dominant , with the more daring and expansive poetry influencing younger poets to the degree that the experimenters over time become the old guard. This goes on and on, exceptions to rules becoming rules until another generation of impatient experimenters come along with their contrarian notions of what verse should be, usurping fusty older poets and becoming the dominant ones themselves, fat, complacent and ripe for over turning. I don’t know if that’s a working dialectic , but it is something that has continued since literate men and women sought to express grand and vague inspirations in language that did more than merely describe or paraphrase existence. It’s my feeling that experimentation has become the norm and that we have these days are recycling of previous avant gard ideas and gestures, names if theories and practices changed ever so much.. But not so much.It’s gotten to the point that the school of poets who are referred to as the New Formalist, poets who’ve tired of free verse and variable feet and the several generations of “open forms” in poetry and compose poems that rhyme and which employ traditional meter, have become a controversial matter in that they threaten to usurp the hegemony of the Avant Gard tradition. To each their own. Myself, I am attracted to any kind of poetic writing that has that rare quality of being dually fresh and unique; I am less intrigued by the theory behind a poem, experimental or traditional than I am on it reads, on whether it works. If it produces a reader’s satisfaction, then it becomes useful to investigate what a writer has done as an artist in this odd medium, bringing skill and on the fly inspiration to bear in the writing. This can be the case with Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, two poets who are arrest my attention with their creation of indirect address of the living expression, and it is the case for Thomas Lux and Dorianne Laux, two other poets who are not averse to letting in you follow their line of thinking and who still lead you results that are unexpected and extraordinary.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Archie Thompson writes his own ticket

Archie Thompson, San Diego jazz musician par excellence, leans back in the chair of his office in the First Presbyterian Church on downtown San Diego’s 4th Avenue, in a small office space secreted above the chapel in the balcony, next to the pipe organ. The space is small, filled with his computers, a small drum kit, chairs, microphones, cables and assorted recording devices and various instruments and books filling every inch .This is the creative clutter of a busy man. Fashioning a broad smile and looking casually resplendent in golf cap, black tee shirt and jeans, Thompson is a man thoroughly enjoying this time of his life.  It’s hard to think otherwise.
Article originally published in San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission.

He leans forward “I am a journeyman musician myself. I have to pitch myself. I am 54 years old and I have never done anything except play music. I live in San Diego, owned a home for twenty two years, and raised two kids, all through music. I love it.”

“You’re the kind of person I’d ‘the world’s luckiest man’” I offer. Thompson leans back in his chair again while the smile grows wider and he folds his hands behind his head. The smile is ubiquitous, freely offered.

“Yes, that’s what it feels like” he replies. 

What strikes you about Archie Thompson almost at once is that his easy-going persona isn’t a veneer, a façade, but the genuine article. Gregarious, cordial, quick to extend the hand, he seems at once intense and sublimely relaxed, a quality he brings to his dates at various restaurants and clubs that feature live music. A recent appearance with his trio at   Eddie V’s  in Seaport  Village, an elegant eatery where her performs every Thursday ,Thompson and his trio  Jason Littlefield , a melodic and quick witted  bassist,  and   the percussive insightfulness of drummer Charlie  Weller  livened up the with an  set off jazz was the perfect balance of elegance and funk.  Firmly rooted in a blues groove, the trio swung mightily through a surprisingly diverse set list, commencing with a riveting adaptation of Cannonball Adderly’s “Work Song”,    the Willie Dixon penned Little Walter classic “My Babe” and a very fine reconsideration of Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign”.

 Thompson sweetens the signature   riffs with rich, ringing piano chords  and short phrases to underscore the humor and the dolefulness of his expressive vocals, often  looking up to both  Weller  and Littlefield as the tempo slows down for a time and then picks up the pace,  or breaks into a different time signature.  Bass and drums weave suitably tight and organic patterns under Thompson’s piano work, which responds with a continually inventive improvisation.  A  combination of styles intersect in his playing, with quotes from classical pieces, pop  tunes, bits and pieces of melody made part of the enjoyable, rumbling eloquence the trio puts forth. 

 Most notably, the music swings while not losing the grounded grit of the blues.  Even on an interpretation of the Turtles pop hit “Happy Together”, a song generally not found in most jazz trio’s book of tunes, these three retained the oldie’s classic arrangement and even excel at bringing forth the song’s signature chorus, the solo section is solid jazz, with a finely composed piano solo from the ever resourceful Thompson over a bass and drums interplay that pushes the tune with a verve only an intuitive grasp of the other’s playing provides.   Thompson, of    course, is an especially soulful saxophonist with a style that combines the honking grit of Illinois Jacquet and King Curtis (too formative influences he speaks highly of) and the hard bop panache of   Nat Adderly and Dexter Gordon.  Thompson though   is one of those players you make note of, where you can simultaneously hear who inspired him in his playing as well experiencing the personal voice built on the lessons he learned.  The combination of Thompson, Littlefield and Weller results in a night of fun, funky, continuously surprising music.

Born in San Carlos in San Diego’s east county and a resident most of his life, Thompson grew up in a musical family, with two brothers who were also musicians and parents who supported and encouraged them with their passions. Archie was the youngest of three boys and it was when he was very young their passion music became his.

“I started on piano at 6” he recalls,” I’m from a musical family. I am really fortunate, I have two older brothers. My oldest brother, eight years my senior, was a real music prodigy. He had perfect pitch and he was quite accomplished by the time I was born. We realized he had perfect pitch by the time he was in second grade or something like that. I was really fortunate to grow up in that environment, in San Carlos out in East County. We all started out on piano and then we all picked up the horn. I wanted to play the horn, but we had to learn piano first, and thank god for that because it’s t he foundation for theory, harmony. We all took lessons from the same elderly piano teacher who had a classical emphasis.

She had a great way of teaching harmony and theory and the basics. If we heard a song on the radio that we liked, she would write it out for us. So we were playing things that were fun to play, which makes a big difference to an eight year old kid. So then saxophone started when I was about ten years old. We all played in Ozzie’s Marching Chargers; Ozzie’s was a music store that put this band together. We did all the Charger half time shows back in the day. That was great experience as well. I wanted to be a drummer as well and my parents bought me a drum set when I was six. And there were guitars, lots of guitars around the house.  My middle brother was a bass player and there were always instruments around. We were always picking them up and playing. My parents were very supportive of us.”

Thompson recalls that the period he spent living in Los Angeles after graduating high school in San Diego was a cornerstone in his    decision to make a career as a musician.

“A huge influence on me was moving to Los Angeles after High School. I was fortunate to tag along on a bunch of my brothers' recording sessions As an 18 year old sax player I wasn't polished enough to compete with guys like Tom Scott, and Pete Christie, but it worked out to my advantage.  I would sit in the control room and watch the producers and engineers work.  Many of these sessions were Motown Records sessions; I learned so much as a "fly on the wall".  Not only technically how a studio operates, but how to work with musicians, and singers, how to get great emotional performances, to get the best out of your musicians and singers.   I worked the clubs on the "chitlin circuit", which was what the black club circuit was known as.  Backing up singers and playing with some of the great Motown musicians that were present at those recording sessions.   It was an education, one that you do not get in college, or by formal training, and it helped to shape me into the musician I am today. I played deep in ‘the hood’, and it was nothing but a positive thing.  My brother and I would be the only white people in the clubs; I played pool with hustlers, drank whiskey with old-timers, and blew my horn with the baldest dudes in town.   I am so grateful for those experiences.”  

Thompson often expresses s amazement and gratitude that he’s been able to earn his keep and, in the long run, flourish through creating and performing the music he loves. He is one of those musicians who make you think of the James Brown honorific, “the hardest working man in show biz”. In any event, a visit to his website (www.archiethompson.com) reveals a musician involved in many projects tailored to different audiences, his many permutations evidenced in his principle group The Arch tones, as well as a with vocalist David Stranger called the New Moon Flyer in the vein of Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole that gives tribute to the Great American Songbook. Ever versatile and expansive in his tastes, Thompson also headlines the surf combo Archie T and the Tidesmen, and a cocktail lounge solo piano/saxophone act. Thompson adds to his schedule with frequent    work as a producer and songwriter and a busy schedule of regular performances. In addition to the weekly Jazz Vespers services on Saturdays at 4:30PM, , he performs at  the elegant  U.S. Grant Hotel Saturdays  from 8pm to  12am,  holds forth with his trio at the posh  Eddie V’s in Seaport Village  on Thursday , at the U.S. Grant Hotel from 8pm to  12am, and appearing  as a solo act   four nights a week  at Truluck’s in La  Jolla . A considerable amount of activity for the working musician, but it’s a full schedule Thompson built from the ground up acting as his own booking agent. It’s a skill he acquired in the earliest days of his professional life.

“What was really cool was I was 14 or so I got into a band and not a garage band. I already had a reputation because of my brothers. And I was pretty good on the sax by then and I joined a band with guys who in their early 20s. They got me in the band, probably, because they knew my family got all the gigs. My mom and dad were managing and booked the gigs for a long time by the time I had started to play live. By the time I was 14 I was in a band and out making money. At 16 I was playing night clubs 5 nights a week starting in high school. That was probably not the best place to be for a 16 year old boy, but you get an education that you probably don’t get in a class room. From my older brothers band my dad would go out and be the band manager on site, or my mom would. By the time I came around they were over it. I was the fourteen year old in the band but I was the one was the band leader.  We played all the Navy Clubs all over, Camp Pendleton, all the military installations. They all had live music, even over here at Balboa Hospital. We played navy clubs, marine bases, sub bases, church dances, high school dances, after game dances every week, Sadie Hawkins dances.  You know live bands in the gymnasium!

I was the point of contact for the account. I was the one who got paid; I was the one they came to if we were too loud. I handled a multitude of problems. I don’t think my brothers got the business smarts as I did because they didn’t have to do it. Basically I tell people that I have been doing the same thing since then, but doing it bigger and better. The booking aspect of what I do led me to working 6 nights a week and twice on Saturday, and I used to give gigs away. I’d get a call for a gig and I would say ‘call so-and-so’. But then I thought after a while why am I giving gigs away?  There is a value in that they’re calling me. I’ve spent 30 years building my brand here so I thought why don’t I just start booking stuff? I book The Grand and other venues and we’re looking to grow that more downtown.”

Thompson is also a prolific songwriter whose songs and instrumental compositions have found a productive and profitable niche in work he’s been commissioned to write for publishers who work in the film industry; particularly in items they call “sound alikes.” It’s clearly something else Thompson gets great pleasure in doing.

“What I’m concentrating on is writing songs for publishers who can then plug them into their productions.  You don’t make music   selling CDs unless you’re Kanye or Beyonce. CDs are    really just business cards. Music licensing is where you can make a living, TV, film, commercials.  I got a contract with a publisher out o Hyde Park in Chicago named Ed Caldwell to produce. He catalogues about 25000 songs in a lot of places. He’s an African American guy, and he loves retro-soul.  He asked me once “Hey Archie, can you do something like Blaxploitation?’ like the theme from Shaft and Superfly?” And    I said “Oh Yeah, I can do that”. I cranked out a bunch a bunch of those, so now whenever he needs authentic black music he calls the white guy in San Diego”. It’s interesting because a lot of the young black musicians are coming from Hip Hop culture, which is not the same thing…”
A lot of times a publisher will request a sound alike, and you have to be very careful. They want a particular sound to   go into a movie, but they don’t want to pay Isaac Hayes for his song, but they want something similar, but not too close. I have gotten pretty good at sound alikes; I go for tempo and overall feel. You have to be   careful.   If you say this a particular artist’s song influenced you, you can be sued. And I mean, come on, every song out there is   influenced by another song by another artists.”
Thompson has had a checkered music career with regards to the kinds of music he played as he learned his craft both as musician and performer.  His words make you think of someone who is glad he played each and every lick of each and every kind of music on his journey to being a full time, flourishing musician.
“The first band I got into was around 75-76, right in the heart of the disco era, and I was the sax player and we played a lot of 7os stuff. Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire, Average White Band. I loved all that stuff. I always loved Black music. We played rock like Peter Frampton and Doobie Brothers and all   that stuff. But we’d throw in some jazz stuff, like Les McCann and Eddie Harris and their song “Compared to What.” But while I was playing that pop stuff I knew I really loved black music and really just got into it, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Coltrane. I remember the first time I saw Ray Charles on the Cher Show and he did “Georgia on my Mind” and that was it! So then I really got into Ray, and I was a huge James Brown fan. While other kids were listening to Boston, I was in my room wearing out my James Brown records, as well as Parliament Funkadellic and Coltrane and Pharo  Sanders. I was a bit of a freak compared to most high school kids.
“I wanted to be a jazz musician. I remember in  7th grade they had a vocational fair where they tried to find your aptitude and what you wanted to be. You would choose your occupation and research it. I wanted to be a jazz musician. Other classmates wanted to be doctors and I remember being told I would make really lousy money and be out at really smoky clubs. I wanted to be a sax player . I loved playing piano and had to keep it  up in order to work, especially with the advent of new wave music. there is no saxophone in most of that stuff. I’m a bar musician.

“I was playing more rock up and I was drinking a lot. I quit drinking at 27  in 1989. I’d been fired from one of the popular working rock bands not because of my musical skills but because of my shenanigans. It’s an occupational hazard. Then I decided that I had had it, I wasn’t working as a sideman anymore. I started doing a solo act. I was going to leave the past behind and concentrate on the music I loved. I started the solo act in 88 and booked a gig at Humphries in  89 playing solo piano at happy hour five nights a week.  I played some sax a little bit, cheating by using some tracks I created.  You can’t just played unaccompanied sax.  That’s where I put my sound together. I was there from 89-2001, for twelve years. 90-91. the name of the first band was Archie Thompson and Team Moro.  I got a gig at Croce’s Top Hat. And playing the Jazz Room, around 2002, the trio concept came into play. Playing Piano, drums and bass, acoustic. We play everything. A million standards, Ray Charles, a great song is a great song, we play “Happy Together “ by the Turtles, Johnny Cash, but we swing it up. “

With their two children now grown and moved out of their home in San Carlos, Thompson and his   wife Trish moved to downtown San Diego a few years ago and enjoy the growing hustle and   bustle of an area where the urban experience is constantly improving and becoming more exciting for both San Diegans and visitors.  As with any person who has had the good fortune of making a decent livelihood doing what they love, Thompson’s ability to thrive as a working musician, producer, and songwriter has much to do with taking a realistic assessment of the city he wanted to work and live in.
“San Diego is a good gigging town,” he says, “There are a lot of gigs here. But is it a great jazz gigging town? Here’s where the line gets drawn, though. True jazz musicians look down upon the working musicians. When I play most of the time, it’s to enhance the atmosphere. My niche is upscale lounge and fine dining venues. People are not there for the music, they are there for a thing the establishment offers and my job is to enhance the environment. Basically, I’m a liquor salesman.
 “Not all, but for a good many jazz musicians it’s about the art who want audiences to pay attention to their solos. I don’t care about that. I want to go play my music and get paid for it, play what I like. There are perimeters I have to stay inside, not too loud, of course. It’s a great gigging town. Now, is it a great jazz gigging town? I’m not so sure.  If you’re able to put your ego in your back pocket and play the rooms that do feature some jazz, then yes, it’s a good gigging town. You can make a living supporting yourself. But if it’s all about your artistry and you want people transfixed upon you, then no, I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

In the 70s and into the 80s San Diego had a number of clubs with solid jazz policies, such as Elario’s and Chuck’s Steak House in La Jolla, the Catamaran Hotel in Mission Beach and the Crossroads Bar in downtown’s Gaslamp District, all of which are closed.

“It’s sad that those types of rooms don’t really exist now”, says Thompson, “The kinds of room that do exist…take Eddie V’s for instance, they have eleven or some odd number of restaurants around the country and they have a live jazz trio every night at every restaurant. The owners are from New Orleans and they love jazz music and their concept is that they don’t want karaoke or a pop singer; they want a bass, a piano and a drum, with some vocals. Those are the types of rooms you can do well in. They are steady and they make good money. They are able to pay pretty well.”

 As you talk to him, it becomes clear that playing music is not just a means to make a living, but also a spiritual foundation. Among the many hats he wears, he is music director for the First Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue in Downtown San Diego, where he’s presented the Weekly Jazz Vespers for the last six years. An evening prayer service highlighting Thompson and his band The Archtones and various guest musicians, the music is jazz, blues and gospel. The services take place in the church’s chapel with its near perfect acoustics and, as Archie advises, everyone is invited. “You can come just for the music, that’s just fine, or you can participate in the   service and take communion and fellowship, that’s perfect as well.”

 Founded in 1860, the Church has been a constant in downtown life, witnessing both growth and decline in its congregation as downtowners moved to the suburbs and subsequent growth again. Pastor Andrews , witnessing the rapid growth  in the downtown area over recent years  and aware that  there was a diverse population of citizens  ranging from the  upscale , middle income, seniors on fixed incomes and the too- many who make their  homes  on San Diego streets, became interested in establishing a jazz service, a Jazz Vespers. Such services have been long established in Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago and Los Angeles, usually scheduled on a monthly basis. The San Diego Vespers became that rarity, a religious jazz service presented weekly, every Saturday at 4:30pm in the Churches 4th Avenue Chapel. Around 2011, Pastor Andrews began asking musical friends and congregation members if anyone knew of local musicians who would be the best fit to organize and conduct the music for ongoing jazz service. Thompson’s name was mentioned, and Pastor Andrews went to see he and his band at the belated Croce’s restaurant and jazz club on 5th Avenue in downtown’s Gaslamp District. After the set, Andrews approached Thompson. They spoke and Andrews made his proposal.

“I have been affiliated about six years now; I grew up in a Methodist church. Jerry Andrews, the pastor for First Presbyterian, had the idea for Jazz Vespers and asked Kevin Womac “Hey do you know anybody who can lead a jazz service?” Jerry tells the story that Kevin began to answer the “A yeah    I do…ah, no…

Then Jerry said ‘It’s on a Saturday night, and Kevin said ‘Oh yeah I do’. Jerry came down to Croce’s where I was playing and asked me there. We did a few pilot programs in the spring  2011 to get some feedback  from some folks to  see if it was going to work , and after that  we started to do Jazz Vespers in  September of 2011 year. We received a grant from the Presbytery for Jazz Vespers a couple of years after that which was a nice grant, we received $45,000. With that we recorded and released the three Jazz Vespers records. We might do another record.

If you told me 20-25 years     ago that I would be leading a church service; I would have told you were   crazy. I love it, it’s great, and the chapel where the services are performed as great acoustics and the people are paying attention… We had Matt Hall in here, this guy  on trombone, last week  at last   week’s service, and he did ‘Memories of You’ , his    featured tune written by Eubie Blake .I just love it. 86 years old and he put tears in my eyes   on the trombone, it’s more than just the musician, it’s the context, and it’s the reverb. It’s a solemn atmosphere, you know, and I have had some of most beautiful moments here. For me, anyhow, this is what worship should be like.”

To those words, I might add that the quality brings to his live gigs, a combination of imagination, technique and contagious joy that impresses and moves the listener and which elicits the best work from the superb roster of musicians he works with over his broad swath of projects and collaborations, is what music should always be: expressing the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable.

















Monday, July 11, 2016

album review
THE FRESHMAN-Revolushn
Revolushn is a San Francisco -based psychedelic band that offers an enticingly eclectic kind of rock and roll, and their first full length release, coyly titled The Freshman, gives listeners a variety of moods, tempos and attitudes that are the stuff that inspires you to push the ear phones closer to the ear canal so as to groove deeper and harder to this band’s flexing turns.Band members David Kendrick (drums and lyrics), Schubert (keyboards and vocals), EMC (drums and percussion) and Wayne Coyne (guitar and vocals) are what original music bands should be, resourceful in their influences, varying the levels of aggression and sarcasm with softer, more reflective songs, a tight unit that fades in and out of rich funk and punk inspired bits of awkward grace, yet never going soft in either attitude or musical panache. 

Revolushn is adept at adding craziness that inspires ideas that this is a band that has conquered the distance between immediate sensation and expression of that multiple perspective rush in songs that are sure footed, fractious, and anxious to rock and cause a ruckus.They are blues based, aware of their roots, an element that keeps this music grounded and connected in The Freshman’s easy flow; however much the shredding psychedelia guitarist Wayne Coyne pushes his solos to the margin and no matter how caustic, sardonic and at times ethereal David Kendrick’s lyrics tend to be, Revolushn wastes no moments on The Freshman

Coyne is a new guitar star here, fluid and free, with a bluesy fusion of jazz and grunge , creates the best kind of tension and release.This is a solid, galvanizing debut album from a band that collaborates in ways that ought to a model for other new bands; bring your influences to the table, weave them together, mix up the approaches, tune for tune, don’t forget the blues, and don’t forget to rock over all. This smart, vibrant effort, and highly recommended for those desiring nothing less than a knock out release to add to their library.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

You Come and Stand in Every Door

for Jill Moon, 1951-2015


You come and stand
in every door
saying that
it is time to get going.
This is before the dew
evaporates from the slats of lawn chairs
baking in the sun all day.

Traffic, always cars,
gets thick as my tongue
at noon, u-hauls
and trailer homes
leaving for cooler towns up North.
Announcers in
 steam bath booths
loosen their ties, the grass of the
playing field is brown, balls are
felled in zones of death,
 announcers
are drunk and lose their tongues
as a lather of news, weather and sports
leaves a trail up I-5, alias North.

You stand in every door,
monotonous as
suburbs choking
the shrubs from
the canyons.
I lose my tongue
thinking how far
I would travel
over how many
state lines
in the grace and chase
after Manifest Destiny
to see you, just a glimpse
from the corner of the eye
that worries
the crow’s feet,
to see how
you come from a neighbor's house
clutching Tupperware
and a deck of cards
both to your breasts.

TV aerials
from the
eaves of patio living
claw the sky,
the feet
of a million dead crows,
winter settles
over the land
like a serving
of cold shoulder
on disrupted kitchen tables,
billboards
along the road
poking out from pine tree groves
promise hot meals
at family restaurants
bearing a sidekick’s first name.
Side kicks
always have
only one name,
one syllable whispers
on a road
that stretches
into architectures of high risk investment
where there are no products
any one mentions,
only the promise
of return, life in heaven.

You stand in all doors
and talk to me about the scratches
on record collections
as if the wear of years
had something to
do with the lyric sheets
whose italics express
something to do with feeding
the poor, ending war,
love lasting
until even corner stones
on ugly buildings
are worn away
by weather and wind.
Strangely, I am
in gymnasiums again,
dances, registered
desire, long hair,
wire glasses,
jeans tight as snake's skin,
hips and knees
triangulating new laws of form
and sex to drums and
guitar solos lost
in the rafters and rapture
of feeling, then,
that noise is power
 and we would be marching
to live a life
based on album lyric sheets
and scarred records
we play back wards
with a back hand,
the rooms you were already in
reeked of sweet smoke, and hope
for the world
were selling
subscriptions
of underground newspapers
that would sell
us what we believed.

You stand in
doors you choose
because the light of living
room windows
is your idea
of peace in a world
where anyone else
builds walls around the walls
it already has and
thus misses the impossible
things going on
while the audience awaits
more supermarket sales,


I am still thinking
of drinking up what's
left in hours when hands of
the clocks slow down
and kill the last hour
with kindness stolen
strangers who carry
songs and grave stones
to the same wicked altar.

I might ask you
to please move aside,
I think it is my turn
to play with the knob

Until you come and stand
in every door again
on the chance to get my attention,
there is smoke coming from
buildings on the TV set,
Manhattan is clouds and debris
as hand held cameras
show us the steel and
glass that flies endlessly into
the acres of empty air
and then down the street,

Every door is ours only by virtue
of our wanting to be here
when the days of obligation are over
and we live on hours
paid for in full,

I see the images of the sky falling
apart over New York,
you stand in the doorway
leaning against the frame,
only half way in the room
as if in a pose to leave, grab your shoes,
grab your bag,
get a cab at the curb, go home
and moan by yourself
for all the screams which are not heard
on a day when it seems every
lie I ever created and told,
every fiction I have ever constructed
and test drove in crowds
into microphones,
in front of rows of empty chairs
catch up with me,
knocks on the door,

Makes me forget you are there
even as you now stand in
front of the set,

I crane my neck to see
what is happening
but you move as well
and block the view,

I grab you around the waist
where you stand
and ask if you will love
me until the sky falls
and I can hear you breath deep,
my ear against your stomach,
your hand on my head,

forever, you say,
however long it takes.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WORDS ARE DEEPER THAN METAPHYSICS

 A question  was raised today as to whether the word  "verse" is a relevant antonym for the word "poetry". A reasonable question , as the person who raised the  issue provided  context for it by saying that his poetic practice had little relation to what the word has meant in decades and centuries past. 

My two bits about this (meaning,of course, a rapid  response without additional Google searching for sourche materials) happened to be that I enjoy the continuity between original intentions of the term and the broader tableau  of poetics and formulations it's meant to encompass in our time.Language is not a dead thing, and the meanings of words shift with the change of historical context. "Verse" as we commonly use it today hardly means the same verses we find in the Bible, but there is an etymology of the term , a history of how it was originally used and how that has morphed as technology, wars and immigration patterns have changed the way language is used; words are living things that evolve with human experience.

 I rather like the connection one can make between the Bible, the Torah and the Koran verses and the kind of work Whitman, cummings and ,say, Jackson McLow engaged in. It's a reminder that poetry is the ongoing attempt to use language in ways that deal with experiences and ideas that would other wise be in expressible. Besides that, i appreciate having the convenient antonym for poetry, mainly "verse", since it's useful and accurate hedge against monotony.Lacking   a useful substitute,one risks sounding like the voice that emerges a Google search on your cell phone, flat, without accent   or rhythm. It would be voice that creates high beam stares as listeners nod and commence to mentally balance their checkbooks.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A guitar case full of unfinished ideas

album review

Come to the Edge — Tumbler

Come to the Edge”, the sophomore release by the family acoustic folk/rock group Tumbler , is a highly likable effort of strong vocals, endearing melodies and versatile tunefulness. The songs are a general delight in their stylistic diversity; from the excited declarations “Falling” through the Music Hall whimsy of “Nothing to Hold You” and the concluding , marching anthem of “Freedom Cry” , the songwriting , mostly done by Harry Grace and Richard Grace, the album flows remarkably well through it’s eclectic offerings.

Sturdy acoustic guitar, poignant fills and solos of electric guitar and a back beat that is consistently propulsive and never overwhelming the musical sentiment, Tumbler are a sharp troupe with the sense and sensibility of good craftsman. They switch it up, the perform with passion, the vocals soar over the rustling din of guitars and percussion; this is the music of a band that has an awful lot to say.
It’s ironic that this troupe’s demonstrable knack for hooks, beautifully soaring vocals and getting a listener up from their chair meets up with lyrics that a conceptual muddle through out. It is clear from reading the lyrics along with repeated listens that the both Harry and Richard Grace want to embrace contradictions, small details, philosophical generalizations, heartache , joy and other such things in the course of their lyrics.

While the expansiveness of their words indicate an understandable desire to speak about more than the inane concerns of usual pop song lyrics, the themes of the songs have no unifying center. There too often lacks an establishing terrain or situation that provides a framework for the smaller turns and twists Tumbler wishes to present. "Falling”, a great, up tempo assertion of wonderment that effectively hooks you into irresistable grooves, guided by a lead vocal that cuts through the barrage and declares the words with tuneful passion, is undercut in mood when the lyrics get expected:
Oh my God say it again
I don’t know what you just said
Not sure what it meant but
Oh my God say it again
In this moment
All else falls away
And as the planet turns
Does the planet change?
Forever was only yesterday
And we can still return
To when the world’s first pterodactyl
Was terrified
Of falling from the sky
Long before the clouds were stained
By transatlantic aeroplanes
I guess the ground
Was the last thing on his mind
The  exclamation of "Oh My  God" sets you for epiphanies galore, the moment when all that was meant to be known for all the seeking men and women do for a philosophy of life that keeps the likes of us all truding onward lies in the things  of the daily life around us; one expects for insights and revelations to flash like a string of Christmas lights, moments of clarity lifting heart, soul and voice to wonders once hidden now made clear. But wile the music and the earnest vocals ascend, soar and succeed in establishing mood, the lyrics are word salad. Nothing really connects , items and images are  undifferentiated.

 We are meant to experience and appreciate the experience of falling , free of constraints, no  safety nets, to take chances in a moment of life when one finally moves      out of their parent's shadow (and house) and seek their own autonomy. No pun intended,  but the images rob this subject of what gravity it might have had due to silly imagery. More than likely the author can explain this puzzling assemblage and make the associative leaps clear, but that would provide intellectual comprehension, not reinforcement of the mood the music has created . Instead we feel that we’ve walked into a room where someone is talking to themselves, staring out the window, speaking to the remaining leaves on the limbs of trees giving themselves over to an oncoming winter. One gets what the song is getting at in theme without feeling convinced. At this point one puts down the lyric sheed and sways to Tumbler's truly wondrous music.The disconnect is jarring, shoe gazing introversion layered over a music that sounds intended to connect and inspire. Some consideration for the lyrics could have made this music sharper , wittier, more connected. I have to admit that I didn’t understand what these fine musicians were talking about, a condition created by the songwriter’s not being sure how to best express themselves. What needs to be done is better editing of the lyrics; talk about something rather than try to talk about everything.

Mike Bloomfield in San Diego

 (Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour, used with kind permission).

It’s been mentioned by offhand wits that one’s younger days get hipper the more one speaks of them, an understandable response to a friend or stranger’s grand recollections about the times they’ve been near the famous, the legendary, the brilliant, the ignoble, the stylishly crude. But there’s no intention to brag that I had seen the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band somewhere between 1967–1969 at the Chessmate, a no-age-limit, alcohol-free coffeehouse in Detroit where local and touring folk, blues and jazz acts played.

This is more in wondering what ever happened to the memory of the band’s first guitarist, the late Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a white boy, born in Chicago, from the suburbs, who was in love with black Chicago blues and traveled to Southside Chicago to witness the music he loved in the black clubs where they played: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubert Sumlin. I knew next to nil about the blues then nor did I know who Bloomfield’s influences and mentors were. What I did know was that he played guitar like nothing I had encountered until then.

Biting, fluid, aching, and bittersweet, Bloomfield was masterful that night, a scrawny, jerky Jewish kid playing a black man’s blues with an intensity that was absent of cliché or recycled rockabilly riffs; what he was doing was something else. I was converted to the blues and the cause of lauding Bloomfield each chance I had with fellow music geeks. He recorded two widely praised albums with the Butterfield Band, Introducing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East West. Just as things began to break for the band, Bloomfield did what became a predictable habit throughout his career, he abruptly left the band. He started one of the first rock-oriented horn bands — the Electric Flag — leading a racially diverse group of musicians through a variety of American music that include blues, jazz, rockabilly, and soul. A Long Time Coming, their first album, was well reviewed and again, just as things began to percolate, Bloomfield bailed on the project and wound up recording with Blood, Sweat and Tears founder Al Kooper for the Super Session album. Mike Bloomfield, though, couldn’t finish the album and left the project after recording half an album’s worth of splendid guitar work, with Kooper enlisting the aid of guitarist Steve Stills to finish the disc.
And so it was, a genius guitarist who was easily a decade ahead of his time with regard to the art of rock guitar, leaving one promising band and collaboration after another, impatient, a walking case of the jitters. He couldn’t stay in one place too long.

My family moved to San Diego in the summer of 1969, during the Woodstock Festival, and, as it turned out over the years, Mike Bloomfield was a frequent visitor to the area during the 1970s, playing with an assortment of friends at colleges and clubs to promote whatever album he’d just released, or merely picking up a date because he still had name recognition even in music that was becoming increasingly corporate and predictable in a broad range of commercial releases. Bloomfield’s gigs promised the loose-fitting grit of the Bay Area style as well as a funky blend of folk, blues, jazz, and Eastern influences that ran contrary to the tight shoes record companies and radio stations were increasingly insisting musical artists wear in order to gain exposure. Bloomfield had done his best to sabotage his commercial potential by his erratic behavior and inconsistent performances, but there was something intriguing about Bloomfield’s live performances; you didn’t know how well Bloomfield would play, inspired and ruling the frets like the master he could be or so distracted and disassembled that his musicianship would make those unaware of what he could do wonder loudly and angrily what the big deal was with his reputedly great musician.

Apprehension over pending Bloomfield gigs was understandable, considering that his swings in mood and delivery made the interested fan wonder out loud which Mike Bloomfield would show up, the wonderfully expressive blues player who was one of the ground-zero white players to introduce blues, jazz, and raga and improvisational charms into rock ’n’ roll’s evolving instrumental style, or the mercurial bright boy who couldn’t stay in one place, stay in his seat, finish what he’d started? I’ve seen both in San Diego venues, hither and yon, the results different as old steak and the freshest, sweetest fruit.
It sorts of works out as a story of two university engagements, the night and day, the sweet and stinky, the great and the gross.

In the early 1970s, Bloomfield and Friends played a concert at the University of San Diego gym ,the first time I’d have a chance to see him live since Detroit; he was magnificent and everything critics and admirers claimed him to be. Energetic, even smiling, a change from his usually scrunched up scowl as he punished the guitar strings. The music consisted of up-tempo shuffles and rhythm and blues chestnuts, slow, heartbreaking blues and some instances of the fleeting jazz/raga improvisations Bloomfield introduced to the larger world, which was still living within the confines of Top 40 radio. There was always something simultaneously graceful and unwieldy about Bloomfield’s manner of playing; blessed with a fluidity that was uncommon in the day for rock-oriented guitarists, Bloomfield’s habit was to use everything he had when he sallied forth on a long solo. His slow blues would begin with the bittersweet and golden-hued tone of B.B. King — a sublime replication of the human voice. He would seem to lose control of his stream and have his phrases go over the 1–1V-V progression and wander into dissonance and near atonality as though channeling Coltrane’s high-register skirmishes.

After that, he would bring it back to the V chord, his playing deeper, with a long, searing blues bend sustained for several measures as the pitch increased higher in tone and intensity until he released the note and altered the mood again with softer, whispering phrases that brought the blues to a finely buffered resolution. It wasn’t all slow blues and bathos, though, and I remember how amazingly Bloomfield made the up-tempo blues stomp and rock under the snapping lash of his hot-tempered lead work, or how he displayed a knack for rapid, single-note runs during jazzier instrumentals, highlighted by the full, ringing octaves pioneered by Wes Montgomery. It was a good night for Bloomfield, a good night for the blues. Bloomfield, though, needed to keep moving after the show. He was quickly gone, seen rushing out of the gym’s side door holding his guitar case, brusquely brushing past fans trying to shake his hand or give him high fives or something stronger. He was in a hurry to get somewhere.

The memory gets blurry again recollecting another Bloomfield concert, a reunion concert not so long after the show in the USD Gym. I can’t recall the date, but I do remember what happened.
The Electric Flag, the band that Bloomfield formed after his departure from the Butterfield group, leaving promptly after their widely praised first album. Moby Grape also played, a fantastically talented group of musicians that arose toward the end of the San Francisco rock era and produced two worthy albums. Moby Grape and Wow, before their rapid decline due to drug problems and member struggles with mental illness, were scheduled for a double-whammy reunion concert on a date in the mid-’70s at the UCSD Gym. There was a good amount of commotion among my fellow music obsessives, mad chatter over beers and bongs about how this would shake out. Two bands of short life spans but worthy discographies on tour together, attempting again to be relevant in a terrain that was rapidly forgetting the magic and value of the hippie vibe.
Moby Grape’s performance was, to be kind, something resembling an arrangement of mannequins dressed as old bohemians that held guitars while music was piped in through a scratchy PA system.

A desultory display all around, the band sometimes came to life with a snappy guitar riff or unexpected burst of energy from the rhythm section, but there was the element of songs sagging in the middle, the musicians fall out of time with each other, of lyrics being forgotten, missed cues. The harmonies were ragged, a moth eaten weave of voices. That night Moby Grape’s fine legacy was a burden, a standard they couldn’t come to terms with.

Some of the crowd liked it though, but the applause and war-howls was as lackluster as the music. It was an open seating affair, which meant audience members found their patch of hard wood floor and made themselves comfortable amid the other attendees who had the same idea, to get as near the stage as possible and commune with the drum beats, guitar solos, and the passing of ignitable drugs. The lights remained low during the break between bands; I could see the cherry tips of joints floating in air, passed finger tips to fingertips, and the room was filled with the noxious aromas of marijuana reeking sweet. But the rule was this: stay for Bloomfield, the First Guitar Hero, the erratic genius of electric blues and roots music.
It was a pensive wait for the Electric Flag’s arrival on stage, as the squatting student audience, cooling their heels between bio chem exams and writing padded term papers notable for turgid prose and jargonalia, started a murmur of sorts, people yelling out “Bloomfield” or the staid and sturdy “rock ’n’ roll,” voices hoarse with the burn of pot. A Frisbee was being tossed about. There was the tangible feeling that one was a sardine in a can.

The Electric Flag soon took the stage, first the horn section, all proper looking gents dressed for the gig, alert and seemingly sober, and then the others, the bassist and keyboardist. Drummer Buddy Miles came on and took his place behind a large drum set, ready to let the world know again how it was he’d been picked by Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and Bloomfield to handle the sticks on various projects. Miles was a good, not great drummer, able to adjust his rhythm and blues approach to a variety of rhythmic requirements, minimal but firm, steady, on the mark. He was not a Tony Williams, not a Mitch Mitchell, but he got the job done. His second biggest talent seemed to be skill at landing high-profile gigs with famous rock guitarists. Then vocalist Nick Gravenites took his position, an underrated vocalist and the composer of the blues standard “Born in Chicago,” made famous by the Butterfield Blues Band.

Finally, Bloomfield himself emerged, thin, lanky, jeans drooping and back curved, looking not a little like a guitar bearing pugilist approaching his opponent, sensing where the next punch was coming from. There was a good amount of applause and this time the gymnasium echoed with the fanfare, as much from the relief of the waiting as it was anticipation for Bloomfield’s artistry. The performance itself was wanting, though, not bad nor slovenly, but strangely professional. In the metaphysics of judging such things, or at least reconsidering the events years removed, that secret something was missing: the elan, the verve, the energy that comes from playing the notes in such a way that the nervous system lights up like Christmas lights and infuses the sounds with a feeling that resonates in a listener in areas of the soul that have nothing to do with the quality of technique. The band, musically on point, could have been employees gathered to collect their paychecks after a Friday shift. Bloomfield wasn’t having a good time of it and seemed hesitant to play anything.

Where the band would play a solid, Albert King-style blues requiring suitably mournful and sting guitar fills between phrases, Bloomfield was often silent or late to the cue, and his solos were tentative half the time, as if he were trying to remember why he was in the center of the stage in the spotlight. He did play a great solo on the band’s signature song “Texas,” a moment when talent and sensibility jibed and made something moving, a slow blues solo as very few people could play it. This was half way through the show and it made me optimistic that the rest of the night would ascend to the proper heights of excellence. One could here, though, electrical crackling and short bursts of electronic blurting from Bloomfield’s amp.
He was agitated; his face was a road map of exasperated furrows. Two songs later the band went into a slow soul ballad featuring Buddy Miles on drums. Bloomfield strummed away in accompaniment while Miles softly drummed and crooned the lyrics. Miles, who had a voice that was, say, adequate to sing in harmony but far too thin and screechy to take on the Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett gospel-influenced style, had walked up from behind his drum kit and took the microphone from the stand, confessing to the crowd on why he needed his baby. It became an endurance contest but Bloomfield couldn’t take it. His amp continued producing extracurricular belches and his facial features vanished behind a mask of irritation. He abruptly yanked the cord from his amp and walked off the stage, not to return. The rest of the Electric Flag managed as best they could but by that point one could seem a growing stream of students, hippies, faculty and assorted bohemians headed for the exits, heading to the parked cars or buses that awaited them, wondering what happened to Bloomfield and if they could get a refund.

This was the deal one made with their admiration of Bloomfield’s guitar work — that one would either be in the presence of a master, an innovator, a man who changed the way succeeding guitarists approached the way they played guitar, or be witness to a burned-out case. Michael Bloomfield was found dead of an apparent drug overdose February 15, 1981, in the front seat of his Mercedes. He was a heroin user and suffered, it’s been said, from chronic insomnia, two things that might provide clues to the musician’s famed inconsistency. For all his breakthroughs in revolutionizing rock-oriented guitar playing with a heady fusion of blues, jazz, swing, raga and traditional folk-blues techniques, Mike Bloomfield was a man who didn’t stay with a project for very long, as his brief but galvanizing stints with Paul Butterfield and the Electric Flag and Al Kooper attest. Other projects, such his collaboration with Dr. John and John Hammond Jr. in the trio Triumvirate, didn’t go beyond one album and one tour. Another band called KGB with Ric Grech (from Family and Blind Faith), Barry Goldberg (Butterfield) , Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart) and Ray Kennedy (James Gang) was an attempt to put a “super group” together, but , again, didn’t last beyond one album. Bloomfield did, though, keep busy with his music, appearing on a good number of albums by other musicians, and releasing a steady stream of studio albums of his own where his best skills were displayed.

It’d be a little grandiose to maintain that Bloomfield is the Forgotten Guitar Hero, but it irksome to those of us in the early circles of fans to hear younger blues fans discuss the genius of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Robin Trower and the like without a mention of MBs monumental importance to establishing blues as the Rosetta stone through which all contemporary rock guitar playing comes from. Under discussed, obscured, perhaps, but not forgotten, not wholly.

One day few years ago I was at La Jolla’s Pannikin Café on Girard Ave., next to DG Wills bookstore, and there were the familiar plaintive, slicing, fluid riffs of Mike Bloomfield coming out from behind the counter. It was turned up loud, like it should be; I could hear the notes emoting from across the street as I waited for the traffic light to change. John, a fine young man with an angelic crest of long brown hair, was the manager on duty and the Bloomfield disc, 1969‘s Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, was his choice of play. I ordered my coffee, black, no sugar, no room for cream, and asked him if he liked Bloomfield.

“Oh yeah” he replied. He took my money, gave me change. I threw the coins into the tip can.

“You know how old this recording is?” I asked, hoping to brag with one of those back-in-the-day boasts that maintained that the past was better than what’s being sold in the current time. John just smiled and ended the conversation with the best response regarding the matter.

“Really doesn’t matter” he said, “it sounds great right now.”