Saturday, October 21, 2023



There was a time when, halfway through my teen years with two years worth of blues harmonica wood- shedding behind me, I felt inferior for reasons maybe obvious, that I didn’t feel my chosen instrument was legitimate against whole orchestras of devices that could be performed without instrumentalist shame. But I got older, and I kept playing, obsessed with learning despite my minor case of self-loathing, and find myself in a position of being too old and actually too good a harmonica player to care what the rest of the universe thinks of the sounds I make. Worrying about the “relevance” of the harmonica in today's world is to miss the point entirely. The assumption behind the question--is it still relevant--implies that playing the harmonica is regarded more as a status symbol than as a tool for the legitimate and humanly necessary pursuit of making music that expresses, in music, the emotional life of the musicians playing. The question degrades the state of the instrument from being a tool to create some space for joy and wonder in the world, a thing that should be incorruptible, to that foul thing that only furthers neurotic obsessions with social standing. If one has survived the fads, concerns and the warring of stale ideologies over a long period of time, decades, say, if you've come to the point where what people think of your harmonica playing is meaningless and merely a reflection of their sense of irrelevance, then yes, harmonicas are relevant in today's world, your world, the only world that matters, finally, when you put the harmonica on the microphone and let loose with a timeless 1 1V V. Beyond that, worries about whether the instrument still matters seem a species of introspect that arises when there is nothing good on cable TV.

Some time ago, in the early internet days, I remarked on a music forum over in Salon’s old Table Talk readers comment section that I thought Mick Jagger was a horrible singer, but he was a vocalist of great genius. Stalwart Jaggernauts attacked me outright while I tried to make myself understood, but this was no use and really an event I should have seen coming. In fact, I wanted to stir up the conversation that was underway, which was a droning exchange of the usual accolades heaped on the Rolling Stones. The topic was sealed finally by forum moderators who tired of trying to control an angry mob of netizen Jagger fans poised to supply more poison posts. I should have clarified because my point is that there are white singers who have technically awful voices who brandish blues influences all the same and who have managed to fashion vocal styles that are instantly distinct, unique, recognizable. Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead in trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises, all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing and finally recording the song of the title, is especially good because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocals, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and for all time with the marginal instrument he was born with, and is part of what, I think, is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who nonetheless molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the under appreciated J.Geils Band.We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always.


 It's an inescapable fact that blues is an African American art form , as is jazz and, for that matter, rock and roll at its most vital, and that there are talented, brilliant and exciting black musicians who continue to play the music, innovate within its historical definitions and extend those definitions to keep the music contemporary, alive, and most important, relevant to the way people, players and listeners, live today. It's my belief, inscribed deeply in the most fundamental set of moral convictions I have, that to ignore the plenitude of black talent, whether they are young, middle-aged, or elderly, if you're a music editor, a record company executive, a promoter specializing in blues festivals, a club owner highlight blues and roots acts, is racism, clear and simple. Likewise, it's racism on a subtle level, but damaging all the same; a decision was made to exclude black musicians from this list. Compiling a list of the worthy is always problematic,fraught with all sorts of dangers because any number of readers can be offended for insular reasons no writer can predict. But what's offensive about this list is the laziness of the selection. I happen to like a number of the artists here and believe musicians like Black Keys, Joe Bonamassa, Susan Tedeschi and others are legitimate blues musicians.Skin color isn't their fault, and , to me,the quality of their chops and the authenticity of their feeling are "real". I will also give the writers credit for including a good number of women on the list.

Still, the lack of black musicians is inexcusable and reveals a conspicuous , egregious choice by the editors to remain loyal to their skin hue. Where was Sugar Blue? Lucky Peterson? The Eric Gale Band?Shemekia Copeland? Alvin Hart? Sapphire?Gary Clark Jr? Keb Mo? These players deserve wider recognition no less than the ones who made the list; I have a strong, strong suspicions that an inexcusable laziness directed the selection process, formed, no doubt, by a profound lack of curiosity for the "critics" who, by the definition of their job, are supposed to knowledgeable and curious about things that fall outside their comfort zone. I also suspect that those making the selection were entirely white; as such,they stuck with the skin color they are most comfortable with.

 Jefferson Airplane was a side of psychedelic rock I found most appealing, being in their short-lived prime a volatile and imaginative forced marriage of folk tradition, jazzy "mystery chords", Joyce/Eliot/Wallace Stevens influenced versifying, and piercing harmonies provided by the bulldozing Grace Slick and Balin's soaring, bittersweet tenor. Their albums were a fascinating, eclectic mess, indulgent and snotty and harsh; I would put them, along with the Stooges, MC5 and the Velvets, as stylistic forerunners of the punk rock anti-aesthetic. Balin was the ballast for the band, a balladeer, a genuine folk singer, a romantic who never abandoned his tendency for the oddly effective lyric that emphasized an actual relationship rather than a worldview. I liked this band up to Volunteers album.Afterward, the devolution set in, when Paul Kanter's sci-fi libertarian fantasizes turned JA into a plodding monstrosity of ego and half-measured music.

Those among the readership who followed the career arc of this band through the 60s and the 70s will recall, perhaps stifling a gag reflex, the slew of Jefferson Starship albums that evolved from the original band. It will suffice to say for this short note that the best thing the Starship ever did was recording and releasing Marty Balin's fabulous song "Miracles", a sensuous, radiant paen to making love with a partner. Alluring melody, a vocal aching with a combination of passion and a more primal lust, all of it buffeted by swirling guitar lyricism from the able-fingered Craig Chaquico. It was the best thing Jefferson Starship ever did, a masterpiece of pop-rock sexuality that rose to canonical heights over the increasing vapidity and knuckleheaded irrelevance. The band, or at least the management and record company, hung their heads in shame all the way to the bank, and it remains, I suppose, the supreme irony of things that a band beginning as Jefferson Airplane, counterculture revolutionaries singing of a society without pretense, class structure, false morality and , by implication, cash, evolved into the Jefferson Starship, a cash cow for corporate interests. So yes, money changes everything. That said, it should be mentioned that the guitar work of Jorma and Jack Cassidy's bass lines were among the best teams of the era. And Balin was a fine musician, singer, and songwriter who might have done better if he had a less dicey means to bring his music to the public.

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