Sunday, March 31, 2013

writer / rock critic Paul Williams RIP

"The Father of Rock Criticism" Paul Williams.
Paul Williams had the distinction of being the first man in nearly anyone's recollection to discuss rock music as a substantive art form. He was,I suspect, similar to what Manny Farber was to film criticism,  a writer who insisted that rock music was a fully developed form, with its own aesthetic, qualities and stylistic tangents that expressed ideas, musical and emotional, in a manner wholly unique and deserving of its own critical language.

Rock and roll was no poor stepchild of the other arts. Developing their ideas decades apart, what Williams and Farber shared was a dissatisfaction with the way their respective areas on critical concern, rock and roll, and film, were being treated, as subdivisions of other, more established art forms. Both decided to something about their respective gripes. Both men changed the way millions have come to see the world, at least in some small way. 

Paul Williams brought to the world was a set of propositions that started an international conversation on the nature of popular culture and the defense of art that didn't originate in the university, the cathedral or a think tank. Paul's inspired enthusiasm for musicians and their message, his flashing insights, his visionary notion that art is the means with which we can transcend the brutally inane and experience genuine joy, was a subject too enticing to pass up. He was an influence on my writing and the writing of many longtime friends, and I find it astounding that the discourse he started in the 60s continues today, a  contentious, cranky, frequently brilliant, opinionated conversation on the issue of what we find beautiful and why.  On the subject of rock and roll and popular music, Paul Williams created a critical method where none had previously existed. That is a profound achievement, and it is one that influenced my life. Thank you, Paul Williams.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tom Waits

Barry Alfonso and I interviewed Tom Waits in the lobby of the Little American Westgate back in the 70s; he was wearing a ratty bathrobe, slippers that curled up, Aladdin-like, where the toes would usually be, his hair was a mangy hedge, and he smoked an entire pack of Winston's while we chatted in the hotel's opulent lobby. He tore the filter off each cigarette and smoked them, one after the other. He was a nice man. I suspect he still is. Some years before then, 1970 I believe, my high school girlfriend Laura and I went along with our friend Molly who wanted to sing that night at the open mic night The Heritage folk club offered during its tenure in Mission Beach.

 It was a two dollar admission for the no age limit club, and I as scraped together the greasy dollar bills that constituted the saved up tip money from my dishwashing job at the La Jolla Shores Colony Kitchen, I looked up at the employee taking the money and issuing the hand stamps for re-admission; he wore a suit with skinny lapels that was too small for him--his pant legs stopped at the ankles and he wore black socks . He had short hair, wore a small hat with a brim that curled up like a cheap rain gutter. He had one of those soul-kiss beards right smack in the center above his chin. Molly signed the performers sign up list and in time we were sitting there drinking coffee that was barely a passable version of chalk shavings in a glass of old milk, sitting through one banjo and harmonica toting, goatee wearing straw-man and Madonna after another, all of whom seemed to nasally intone paeans to cultures they knew only from Classics Illustrated and the backs of bubble gum cards in various degrees of flesh-eating drone . "Mother of God, " said the Doorman.  Molly eventually got up and sang her song, a nice, pleasant cover of Melanie's song "Psychotherapy". All I wanted to do was to go over to Laura's house and ask her what she wanted to do, ball or send me on my way. 
Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, table and indoor
Left to right, Tom Waits, myself,  Barry Alfonso.

Years later, but not before our arrival at the Little American Westgate, I walked into Golden Hall in downtown San Diego expecting to see The Mothers of Invention perform their usual brilliant said of complex, tick tock comedy, the kind busy, bullshit art-rock and turgid comedy I found appealing at the time. What I heard instead was Frank Zappa introducing Tom Waits; what the goddamned fucking whorehouse nut grabbing was this nonsense was this? I hated him at once, intensely, with an irrational intensity suitable for a shooting range or the pronouncement of a death sentence. This is not what I paid to see, I thought, although I was well aware that the tickets were free because I was there in the capacity of a reviewer who was assigned to write a critique of the show.

 The review I wrote was kind to no one who performed, although I cannot remember if it was published or not. Likely that the editor had wearied of my airs and my aromas. In the meantime, I reviewed records for a partial living and managed to listen very, very close to several Waits releases and came to the reasonably argued conclusion that Waits was one of the three or four best pop-rock lyricists of all time. Waits was my second choice at the time, my first pick being Elvis Costello, whose impenetrable surrealism I equated with genius. I still regard EC has a high talent, but there is the advantage in having three decades between you and your first encounter; too many of the songs just made no sense whatsoever, and they lacked even the surface quality one wants if coherence is not to be had; to this day I really have no idea what John Ashbery is talking about, but there are several things he brings to the blend, such as wit, erudition, a tangible philosophical struggle with the notion of life as he lives it and the language he is forced to contain his experience of it. 

This process is fascinating even when clarity takes a holiday while you read him. The third lyricist was always changing--sometimes it was John Lennon, sometimes Bob Seger, other times Robert Palmer James (from King Crimson). The last time I compiled a list of three best lyricists, I settled for Keith Reid of Procul Harum for third place. I suspect he's gone too. Of them all, Waits is the only one I still care about.  I no longer have copies of those reviews , which pisses me off  if only because the pieces, exercises in my efforts to teach myself to write with style (and style being the means to insight and wit), contained ideas worth salvaging and expanding upon now that my age has caught  up, just a bit, with my youthful ambitions. In any event, this change of heart brought me and, at that time, my new friend Barry Alfonso to the lobby of the Little American Westgate to interview an artist who was doing what no one else could get away with. Barry Alfonso was a nice man at that time, I know he is still is. And his wife  Janet is very nice as well. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

SALT OF THE EARTH by The Rolling Stones

Ambivalence is a quality that is regarded in general as a gutless affectation of those with money who cannot muster a concerned moan or a sigh about the plight and fate of those less well endowed. Sometimes, though, it is a tale that must be told at times by poets, novelists, playwrights. The undecided experience is an experience none the less.  There are those, of course, in this class who at least have what they consider the decency to feign a concern, the very subject of  "Salt of the Earth" by the Rolling Stones from their 1968  Beggars Banquet album. An amazing song; Jagger's lyrics does not the very neat and difficult trick of commenting on its own expression with a verse, late in the song, we have the admission 
 "...when I look in the faceless crowd /A swirling mass of grays and Black and white /They don't look real to me/Or don't they look so strange..." 
It's worth noting that if this song didn't have this qualifying, confessional side note where the well financed liberal admits his inability to empathize with the plight of the poor and oppressed, it would have been a first-rate Lefty/Wobbly/Pro-Labor protest song geared to rally the base and convince the still apathetic. This is statement is remarkable not so much because it displays the easy, that is to say lazy irony of an erstwhile progressive being self-aware enough to realize his own absurdity, the rich man continuing to make use of limitless resources while the poor remain poor and subsisting on a pittance; Jagger is honest enough to tell us, as though confessing to a confidante late night, over drinks in the back of a limo that he does not relate at all to the plight of the poor, nor could care at all for their dignity as human beings . This phrase, in the middle of a song that begins as a Socialist Anthem, gives the lie to the whole enterprise. This a moment that reveals a crack in the narrator's otherwise politically -tuned persona; this is about appearances, not progress. Those rankled by the middle verse are, I think, being prodded to think and meditate deeper on their claims of commitment to social justice. Some prefer to act like Jagger's admission were never written, never sung, never recorded. Joan Baez must have noted this as well and changed the lyrics when she covered the song to words sympathetic to the proletariat. It is one of the best inside jokes of the Sixties.
 From the Rolling Stones original, however, we have a profound and  rare admission from 60s pop-star that the causes and the suffering outside their privileged bubble were alien, "other", and that dealing with them was another pose to strike for the cameras. The Stones were always ambivalent when it came to the politics of the period, but I do admire the way they never shied away from their inability to pick a side. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Late At Night / Gail Mazur

Reading awful poems late at night,
each word scratchy as a hog’s bristles,
my eyes ache and blur in the dimming light.
I don’t find one good line, one image,
one single flower piercing the mud—
only ponderous “ideas,” heavy
as boulders clogging a clear stream.
Or worse, it’s like eating bony little fish—
or boiled crabs, and breaking out in hives!
Nothing I hear or see tonight
is comfort or anodyne, nothing
to lose myself in for part of an hour …
Our lives passed like a morning mist,
or a flame whose candle’s burned away.
Why strain listening for beautiful music
in the witless peeps of an insect,
when I can just put the book aside
and study your last woodcut—blue night,
rain pelting the riddling moonlight
on a blue-black bay—more wondrous
than words on a page. Better for me.

These are thoughts late at night, the connecting articles and conjunctions between ideas missing, in large part, two or three ideas merging into the same drowsy stream; things seen in a haze, coming into view, then gone, suggesting nothing so much as a pondering of an object of desire gone missing amid the late hours , after a meal and perhaps two glasses of wine. The mind cannot hold a thought for very long and is unable to isolate a notion on which to construct a reasoned opinion; it's not so much that what first entered the mind had been dissolved and was no more,but rather that it had either morphed into something else all together . The words on a page, the lines of awful poetry one is trying to parse, the memory that one is attempting to  reconcile several contradictory opinions of.  The words on a page, the lines of awful poetry one is trying to parse, the memory that one is attempting to reconcile several contradictory opinions of. Language in the late hours that turn into the early morning has taken leave --only real images resonate. Actual things are the literal that one can "wrap " your mind around, a shape to emulate, study, improvise associations with. Language is merely the notes of muffled songs until rest turns up the volume and one utters sentences that are the equal of John Coltrane solos. But until then, just a book and poems that offer little but vapor in the hours reserved for slumber and dream indexes of the day's events.

This has the makings of a John Ashbery epic, the central genius of American who likewise cannot hold a single thought in his poems but who enthralls us as the physical and the nearly metaphysical interact in ways that make meaning irrelevant; his is a poetry of associative length, the manufacturing of associations as a consciousness epically steps down from the realm of Perfect Forms , Wallace Steven's Supreme Fiction, and investigates a world populated by imperfect representations. His mind, though, is alert, curious, melancholic to a degree, yet amused by the endless variety of forms he can speak into being. Mazur is less alert with "Late at Night" and has, I think, given us a poem about falling asleep. There is a feeling in this poem that makes me think of a person's grip on an object--a book, a glass, a ball--loosening and falling away. This is the equivalent of a sleeper mumbling into a pillow, talk to who knows what in the cloud of faint dreams.

The poem is elliptical in the sense that Mazur's narrator is arguing with what she finds on the page--this seems a search through books for a phrase or full declaration of the vague emotions that are stirring about her conscious--and what she considers briefly, intently is dismissed as inadequate  and inspires only more speculation. Late night and the fighting against the on set of sleep--and I think fatigue is conspicuous in this poems diffuse approach to a loosely gathered subject--makes the object of desire, whether a lover, a youthful past, a love of art and nature, dissolves and there are only fading sensations of sound, color, shapes as the task of night takes over. Mazur is wise enough to resolve the problem of not finding an appropriate analog of the somnambulist musings and decides, before closing her eyes finally, that a fading recollection of a pleasant experience and state of being is better than trying to force a set of words or some other thing embody the spiritual essence of that notion. Better for her. Better for the reader.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Alvin Lee

Alvin Lee, pioneer rock guitar hero and leader of the British blues band Ten Years After, died the other day at age 68 from a complication following what's been described as a routine surgery. Lee was not one of my favorites at the time, the late Sixties through the Seventies, mainly because despite his obvious skills--he played the blues clean and speedy and was the first man in rock and roll who's instrumental reputation was based largely on how fast he could negotiate relatively simple blues changes--I thought his guitar work and songwriting were strictly ordinary. Any number of bands were writing better blues-rock songs and riffs--Hendrix, Cream, Fleetwood Mac--and any number of other upcoming white blues guitarists,  British or American, were more interesting as stylists. Clapton had the phrasing , Peter Green had the tone and soul, Johnny Winter had the speed, fluidity and variety of approaches to make the basic structures of blues new and invigorating.

I would swear that nothing Lee ever put on record equaled the elegance of Mike Bloomfield's blues playing at his best; Lee, as Lester Bangs suggested, was more an IBM punch card: insert and listen to the machine crank it out , dependably fast and nerve wracking, as all efficient machines do.I would wager that Lee is the guy where the whole who--is-faster guitar theatrics came from.It began with Lee, back in the days when young males were starved for heros who weren't comic book characters or lead singers and older jazz critics  who should have known better than praise what they cannot hear correctly, when too many people were surprised that rock musicians could have technique and chops , and continued to absurd extremes through the glorious music of Johnny Winter through the galvanic jazz-fusion convulsions presented by John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell and onward, through the Sixties, Seventies , Nineties to this current time, when there is technique and speed to spare, but little that is soulful, moving.
Save for the off-center improvisations of Allan Holdsworth, a guitarist who combines speed with a sound that seems to replicate the subtle cues of a voice wordlessly indicating a mood with a sigh, a scream, a nuanced moan, there is not a  John Coltrane in the batch of fretsters. Instead of passion, there is only rage born of  computer game shoot-em-ups and a history of film violence; the guitars are less expressions of human emotion than they are musical wrecking balls, heavy , stupid things connected to severe chains of severely retarded belligerence. Coltrane's serpentine , register leaping solos were a high velocity response to  equivalent streams of emotion. Raging, arguing, laughing, crying, singing to praise to God and damning the Devil in his hole, JC's improvisations limned an inner terrain of spiritual conflict with an epoch changing technique; the rapidity of bebop modernism, with its breakneck time signatures and scalar improvisations, had found an emotional basis .

 This was not a replication of the human voice when the persona that owned it felt merely joyous or had the blues, this was the river of emotion where the emotions were multiform and simultaneous. That was the miracle of Coltrane's extemporaneous poetry. What Coltrane had introduce, rapid improvisation as a virtue in service to confirming a personal humanity, is lost in large measure among the guitarists who've followed Alivin Lee. By design or  by accident, their thinking is in line with Italian Futurism , a school of artists obsessed with machinery and the speed of production they made possible. Destroy the present and the past at  once, crash headlong into the future with the biggest steam shovel and wrecking ball you have and rid Humanity of it's faux notions of beauty and truth that only constrict us . There is not much room here to be happy or sensible, only busy and constantly, warily angry.The emphasis on fire power has infected the core fan base for this sort of stuff; it is not friendly from the reconnaissance I've been willing to do.   Go to YouTube for performances by Joe Satriani, Buckethead, Malmsteen and other rock technicians and then scroll down to the viewer commentaries. Sooner or later the discussions devolve to hateful flame wars regarding who is the most fleet fret monger is. I thought it had been settled in the Seventies when Johnny Winter came on the scene and showed how you could play accelerated blues and still be inventive and soulful. The topic, though, merely mutated and remains, to this day, one of the most absurd of obsessive niches in music fandom. 

Likewise, this emphasis on firepower has infected the core fan base for this sort of stuff; it is not friendly from the reconnaissance I've been willing to do.   Go to YouTube for performances by Joe Satriani, Buckethead, Malmsteen and other rock technicians and then scroll down to the viewer commentaries. Sooner or later the discussions devolve to hateful flame wars regarding who is the most fleet fret monger is. I thought it had been settled in the Seventies when Johnny Winter came on the scene and showed how you could play accelerated blues and still be inventive and soulful. The topic, though, merely mutated and remains, to this day, one of the most absurd of obsessive niches in music fandom. 

Here is as perfect demonstration of Lee's technique and style as you're likely to find. He was a solid musician and had good command . He was limited , though, and recorded several albums in a role where he offered substantially the same solo over and over. I stopped paying attention years ago. Still, the good stuff I still listen to; there is a first rate up tempo blues called "Me and My Baby" that I can't find at the moment where Lee and Co. just get into a swinging groove and play the blues naturally. His guitar work on that is bitter sweet, melodic , spare and right, in the best tradition of BB King. Would that he had done more of that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, here's his version of "Help Me". It's  as perfect demonstration of Lee's technique and style as you'll find. Even though I lost interest in his music overall decades ago, Mr. Lee deserves respect for helping to change the perception as to what a rock guitarist should be. The on going results of his innovation has given us results are both glorious and grating, but , I would argue, that is the aim of every artist who wants to be an influence, to change the way their craft is conducted. In that respect, Alvin Lee hit it out of the park.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pat O'Brien, harmonica and guitar double threat.

I sought out Pat O'Brien on the net and after listening to some things he's done with Priests of Love and Scott Henderson, it seems that he is another case in point in how to use speedy playing techniques usefully, musically in a blues and blues/rock context. He is wickedly fast, among the fastest I've heard, and he is precise without seeming merely technically adept. He is very fine at playing a song's head arrangements in unison with his own guitar playing and whatever harmony instrument the particular ensemble happens to have, and he is simply awesome at building solos. He has control of his tone in that he warbles, vibratos, chokes, slurs and bends without nearly a vocal fluidity, and he shares with other masters like Sugar Blue and Jason Ricci the skill at building a solo.

 Below is a video of O'Brien and the POL performing Django Reinhardt's classic gypsy swing piece  "Honeysuckle Rose",  and take note of the remarkable ease with which O'Brien performs on both guitar and harmonica. The unison lines he manages on both instruments as they state the tricky, bouncy melody has grace and swing mightily. The harmonica solo is fluid, melodic and turns around sweetly; the notes sparkle and glide through the rapid chord changes with a true sense of a tuneful, inventive jazz improvisation. Not unexpectedly, the guitar that comes after the restatement of the melody is no less agile, bluesy and true to the delicate rapidity of the Reinhardt original. Harmonica musicianship this good is uncommon even in a world that at times seems crowded with one virtuoso after another.

Tension and release is the name of the game, something the truly great blues guitarists have done pat-- BB, Albert and Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Clapton. He eschews flashy lines for good parts of his improvisations and rather offers up superb note choices from lower, middle and upper registers (his glissando skills in the high notes is enough to make me put my harmonica down for a while and get schooled), long low moans, chilling chord tremolos, short, terse riffs, building to what seems to be an instinctive instance where a cathartic onslaught of fast, crazy, exhilarating lines finally achieving release.

 I have no doubt that O'Brien's demonstrated skill as a blues/rock guitarist informs his sense of how to build a blues harmonica solo. Many, many technically adept players rely on and pat phrases and convenient power moves, too often, when they take their solos (I include myself in this category); this man strikes a player who has mastered his technique to the extent that like Butterfield and Blue it becomes something akin to a speaking. The phrases are spontaneous and individual, appropriate to the material. This is not a man who has only one solo he plays over and over. Pat O'Brien was unknown to me until now, and a big thanks to Adam for posting this. O'Brien combines technique and feeling and shows here and elsewhere a flawless sense of swing. Wild and wonderful harmonica work by someone who should be much, much better known than he already is.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Woodward's Avenue of Broken Dreams

 It was suspicious enough when journalist-author Bob Woodward inferred that an email exchange he had with a highly placed White House representative was a veiled threat against him. Did anyone believe that a Presidential staff as media savvy as the one Obama has working for him would consider even on their worst day that threatening a celebrity political reporter was even remotely a good idea? It turns out , we learn , that Woodward, who of late has be absorbed into the alternate reality known as Fox News, mis-characterized the correspondence. If that wasn't pathetic enough, Woodward took the Fox  air again to defend is original remarks about the digital digression.      He has the look of someone caught  telling a lie, a self-inflicted wound to the reputation to someone who curried favor with presidents, Supreme Court justices, Generals and other power players.   

Beyond his ability to get interviews with the most powerful people in Washington and then write best selling books about them, Bob Woodward has struck me as a glorified ambulance chaser, an eavesdropper, a gossip hound only a screen door removed from the stench. In an another life he would be hosting a TMZ variant. In an digital era when information is available immediately to anyone who seeks it and when news breaks faster than we're able to blink, Woodward, a creature of newspaper culture and the author of  books that attempted to give broader context to complex personalities, must have felt his relevance fading rapidly,badly. I can only think that appearing on  Sean Hannity's show was a way for him to stay in the game and remain in the current discussion. 

The problem, though, is that his awkward attempts to give his email exchange with his White House contact a "Fox' spin only made him a story , separate from any real journalism and perspective he might have provided. The White House release of the emails after Woodward's characterization of them as somehow menacing --they sound anything but--just makes this once highly considered writer seem like another old , tired warhorse subjecting himself to the buffoonery that is the stock-in-trade of Fox News. It is a pathetic spectacle.