Monday, December 15, 2008
"Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all. Music expresses itself." - Igor Stravinsky
"Never look at the trombones, it only encourages them." - Richard Strauss
"God tells me how the music should sound, but you stand in the way." - Arturo Toscanini to a trumpet player
"One of the perks of being an unemployed musician is that you get to play much less bad music." - Jack Daney
"In opera, there is always too much singing." - Claude Debussy
"Oh how wonderful, really wonderful opera would be if there were no singers!" - Gioacchino Rossini
"Hell is full of musical amateurs." - George Bernard Shaw
"The drummer drives. Everybody else rides!" - Panama Francis
"Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die and the horn wins." - Dizzy Gillespie on playing the trumpet
"Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one." - Duke Ellington
"Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time." - Ornette Coleman
"We never play anything the same way once." - Shelly Manne's definition of jazz musicians
"Someone who knows how to play the accordion, and doesn't." - Al Cohn's definition of a gentleman
"Music is a very hard instrument." - Vido Musso
"The only tune they play in 4/4 is 'Take Five!'" - unknown, talking about the Don Ellis band
"If I could play like Wynton (Marsalis), I wouldn't play like Wynton." - Chet Baker
"I'm too old to pimp and too young to die so I'm just gon' keep playin'." - Clark Terry
"Don't bother to look, I've composed all this already." - Gustav Mahler, to Bruno Walter who had stopped to admire mountain scenery in rural Austria.
"I would rather play Chiquita Banana and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve." - Xavier Cugat
"Musicians talk of nothing but money and jobs. Give me businessmen every time. They really are interested in music and art." - Jean Sibelius, explaining why he rarely invited musicians to his home
"Only become a musician if there is absolutely no other way you can make a living." - Kirke Mecham, on his life as a composer
"I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet." - Nicolo Paganini
"What is the voice of song, when the world lacks the ear of taste?" - Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Flint must be an extremely wealthy town: I see that each of you bought two or three seats." - Victor Borge, playing to a half-filled house in Flint, Michigan
"If one hears bad music it is one's duty to drown it by one's conversation." - Oscar Wilde [FINALLY! SOMEONE EXPLAINS ALL THE TALKING AT NET SHOWS!]
"Critics can't even make music by rubbing their back legs together." - Mel Brooks
"Life can't be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years." - William F. Buckley, Jr.
"You can't possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven's Seventh and go slow." - Oscar Levant, explaining his way out of a speeding ticket
"Wagner's music is better than it sounds." - Mark Twain
"Berlioz says nothing in his music, but he says it magnificently." - James Gibbons Hunekar
"If a young man at the age of twenty-three can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder." - Walter Damrosch on Aaron Copland
"There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C major." - Sergei Prokofiev
"I never use a score when conducting my orchestra. Does a lion tamer enter a cage with a book on how to tame a lion?" - Dimitri Mitropolous
"Already too loud!" - Bruno Walter at his first rehearsal with an American orchestra, on seeing the players reaching for their instruments
"I really don't know whether any place contains more pianists than Paris, or whether you can find more asses and virtuosos anywhere." - Frederic Chopin
"When she started to play, Steinway himself came down personally and rubbed his name off the piano." - Bob Hope, on comedienne Phyllis Diller
"I think popular music in this country is one of the few things in the twentieth century that has made giant strides in reverse." - Bing Crosby
"A ponderous orchestral absurdity." - Frank Zappa on his rock symphony debuted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic
"The bottom line of any country is, what did we contribute to the world? We contributed Louis Armstrong." - Tony Bennet
Monday, December 1, 2008
My father celebrated his 90th birthday last week. Since it is so near the Thanksgiving holiday my wife and I drove to my brother's house in Cleveland and then the four of us drove the next day to Atlantic City. A year ago my father sold the house in Philadelphia he bought in the late 1950s and moved in with my sister Rose just outside of Ocean City, NJ.
It's been a few years since I was there and even longer since I walked on the beach and the boardwalk. The day before Thanksgiving was sunny and mild so we all drove into Ocean City and walked along the mostly deserted boardwalk.
We passed Kohr Brothers, a frozen custard stand that has been there as far back as I can remember. Some of this custard is kept in a lab at the University of Chicago where physicists have studied its properties, eventually agreeing with me that it just might be the densest matter in the known universe. Closed in the off season, all I could do was stand in front of the place, quietly moaning in a Pavlovian response.
I saw some stairs that went down from the boardwalk and onto the beach. I haven't walked through sand since I can't remember when. As I got closer to the ocean the sand got firmer and easier to walk on.
I love the ocean.
I am in awe of the ocean.
I don't know if it is some million year old primordial race memory of crawling up out of it or some dim echo of a past life as a sailor, but being by, or on, the sea always feels strangely familiar. Who knows.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I had a longer post almost finished and ready to put up here when I opened my email and found one from my friend, the sociologist Carol Brooks Gardner. It was simply the text of the 1938 poem by Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again."
I have a short temper when it comes to poetry; I can tell in a line or two if I'm going to finish reading it. When I find a poem I like, I will almost always read it out loud so I can feel what the words are like when they hang in the air for a moment.
I know almost no one with a heart as cold and dead as my own, but try as I could, I could not get more than a couple verses into this poem without weeping. I almost never cry. By the end of this, the emotion of last evening still fresh, I wasn't sure if I would ever stop.
Originally published in Esquire, and in the International Worker Order pamphlet, A New Song (1938).
Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I have been fascinated by time for as long as I can remember. As with a variety of subjects, I collect quotations about time. These are three favorites:
"The flower that you hold in your hands was born today and already it is as old as you are." ~ Antonio Porchia
"Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side." ~ The Talmud
"Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations." ~ Faith Baldwin
I started to notice a problem with time when I noticed odd things happening to the children of our friends. Someone we knew would have a daughter, a month later she'd start school; we'd be told how well she did on her SATs, she was majoring in history with a minor in Chinese. By the time we spoke again we found that she made partner in a good law firm and just had her second child.
Meanwhile, in our reality, it was still October.
This hyper accelerated time we find ourselves in has fascinated me since I realized that it was summer when I woke up, drank some coffee, fooled around on the computer, then had to put on pants because suddenly the leaves had turned and it was fall. I went through various stages; anger, confusion, denial, more confusion, a bit more anger, confused denial, etc.
"Why won't they let a year die without bringing in a new one on the instant, can't they use birth control on time? I want an interregnum. The stupid years patter on with unrelenting feet, never stopping - rising to little monotonous peaks in our imaginations at festivals like New Year's and Easter and Christmas - But, goodness, why need they do it?" ~ John Dos Passos, 1917
"How long a minute is, depends on which side of the bathroom door you're on." ~ Zall's Second Law
"The time you think you're missing, misses you too." ~ Ymber Delecto
No one understands where the sudden flash of insight or inspiration comes from. A famous composer teaching a master class at a music school in Austria was asked by a student, "Maestro, in your third symphony, in the second movement, there is a theme that suddenly appears that may be the single most beautiful thing I've ever heard. How did you come to write that?"
The old man replied, "I remember, I was working in my office. It was a lovely spring day and, at noon I decided to take my lunch by the river. I found a spot along the bank, sat down, and unwrapped my sandwich. It was liverwurst on dark bread; I noticed that there was a stain on the wax paper in the shape of a dog. Some birds flew by overhead in the blue sky. I heard some children playing behind me. And then suddenly, the damn thing just popped into my head!"
"Let not the sands of time get in your lunch." ~ Author Unknown
This morning I was pouring my coffee. I was thinking I would make a cheese omelet. I heard my wife in the other room laughing at the dogs. I put the cup down on the counter and suddenly a theory popped into my head.
My wife came into the kitchen.
"I think I may have just figured out the reason time has been moving SOOOO fast," I said.
"Why?" she asked.
"I believe that the universe itself just can't wait for Bush to be gone."
She paused for a moment. "Makes sense to me," she said. "Good job."
"Thanks," I said, and drank my coffee.
I think it will be wonderful when things begin to move at normal speed again. A child's 6th birthday will come a year after her 5th, instead of a half hour after her 3rd. John Cage's "4'33" will last for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. But it will still feel longer.
There's nothing we can do about that one.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Friday, October 17, 2008
Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs, who possessed one of the most dynamic and emotive voices of all the Motown singers, died in his sleep today at the Detroit house he shared with his wife. He was 72.
With Stubbs in the lead, the Four Tops sold millions of records, including such hits as "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.)"
The group performed for more than four decades without a single change in personnel. Stubbs' death leaves one surviving member of the original group: Abdul "Duke" Fakir.
Stubbs "fits right up there with all the icons of Motown," said Audley Smith, chief operating officer of the Motown Historical Museum. "His voice was as unique as Marvin's or as Smokey's or as Stevie's."
In the summer of 1967 I was 13, about to turn 14. I was growing up in Philadelphia, 3,000 miles from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. That summer for me was the Summer of Motown. And above all other voices, the voice of Levi Stubbs stands out in my memory as the lead singer in the soundtrack of our lives.
It's funny, but the one song I can't find a video of on Youtube is perhaps their best, "Bernadette."
One song I did find however is Billy Bragg's brilliant "Levi Stubbs' Tears."
With the money from her accident
She bought herself a mobile home
So at least she could get some enjoyment
Out of being alone
No one could say that she was left up on the shelf
"It's you and me against the world kid" she mumbled to herself
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face
She ran away from home on her mother's best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort a war takes away
And when there wasn't a war he left anyway
Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that's wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you
One dark night he came home from the sea
And put a hole in her body where no hole should be
It hurt her more to see him walking out the door
And though they stitched her back together they left her heart in pieces on the floor
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears...
At the 60's soul music blog, The In Crowd, there is a download link for the compilation album The Four Tops: The Ultimate Collection, and this description:
"The Ultimate Collection series was a rare success from Motown, one of the first of the label's many compilation series to do justice to some of the finest performers, arrangers, and musicians of the soul era. Nearly every artist with an entry was given the luxury treatment, with a disc-filling running time, excellent compilation decisions, and a pleasing design scheme that reflected the artists in their prime. The Four Tops' entry is arguably the best in the series, since the 25 tracks prove the perfect length to summarize the group's decade at Motown. From 1963 to 1972, the group reached the R&B charts 28 times."
Here's the download link. Enjoy, and rest in peace Levi.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
In light of the death of Hannity's career, John Cleese has written a poem:
Ode to Sean Hannity
by John Cleese
Oozing with vanity
Plump as a manatee
Fox Noise insanity
You’re a profanity
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
"In its simplest definition, inlay is the decorative process of gluing shell, metal, stone, tusk, and other materials into a cavity hollowed from a surface. It is an ancient practice; the earliest known inlaid object is from Mesopotamia, around 3000 B.C. In recent centuries, artists have applied inlay to musical instruments, adding visual aesthetics that match or augment their musical capacities. The result is the creation of extremely rare and original instruments that transcend their function and become art themselves."
Until recently everyone agreed that the pinnacle for acoustic instruments and decorative inlay, carving and engraving had been the period of 1920-1940. This was the time of the most elaborate guitar and banjo craftsmanship. But recently there has been a renaissance in acoustic instrument making and in the decorative arts that has surpassed that earlier period. We are living at a time when the work that is being done is better than ever. It makes me sad that I won't be around to play some of these instruments in fifty years and hear how they've matured with age.
I've always loved pearl inlay on guitars. The first time I toured the Martin Guitar factory in the mid 1970s and learned that the difference between a model D-28 and D-45 - both rosewood dreadnaught guitars - was in the number of "man hours" involved in adding the pearl around the edges of the body and on the fingerboard and head stock. I also learned that the inlay artists at Martin at that time responsible for those man hours were two women.
Today there is some basic agreement that the best decorative and inlay work is bring done by a small number of artists whose instruments are as prized as any but the rarest vintage guitars and banjos.
When she was inducted into the Four String Banjo Hall Of Fame in 2005, her official bio read:
"By virtually every benchmark, banjos manufactured during the 1920s by major manufacturers such as Vega, Bacon & Day, Paramount, Gibson and Epiphone are believed to have reached a level of design and craftsmanship which is seldom equaled and rarely exceeded in today's musical marketplace. However, on occasion, a contemporary banjo maker emerges who embodies both the vision and skills necessary to rival the priceless instruments of the past in both form and function. Renée Karnes is such an artist.
In 1997 she built a banjo named "the Maritime" that was the most inlayed banjo Renée had done to date, spending approximately 525 hours on the inlay work. A photo of it can be seen here.
A short video of Renée's work (and it is jaw-dropping) can be seen here. Below are a few images of her work:
Larry Robinson began using his father's hand tools at the age of six and was making furniture with power tools by the age of eleven. Even this doesn't explain the incredible artistry he's produced in his career as an inlay artist. The image at the top of this post is Robinson working on the back inlays of the Martin #1,000,000 guitar. Details are here.
Intricate guitar fingerboards have always appealed to me. Looking at the set below, representative of Robinson's work, almost makes me weep. Click on the photo to enlarge it:
The Nouveau theme in thin ivory, kingwood hair, gold dust and silver framing in detail:
Inlaid on maple, this Chinese warrior is incredibly complex. It was used on the headstock by a Chinese guitar company:
Of all his projects, the Nouveau guitar (not related to the fingerboard above) created for no particular person in mind, may represent the absolute peak of Robinson's abilities. Click here for a set of photos and information; make sure you're sitting down.
Why I describe my inlay work as art: A traditional approach to instrument inlay, even when it is complex, typically serves only a decorative function...it can be beautiful and appealing, but it doesn’t fully “engage” a viewer. To me, when a creative act becomes art, when one is fully engaged by it, that is when it communicates successfully. In order to communicate it must have something to say. I endeavor to use the medium as a vehicle to communicate something...to convey at minimum a mood or feeling, at best an actual story, which gives me the ultimate satisfaction. - William "Grit" Laskin
Laskin's abilities are unique. He is able to produce almost photorealistic inlays, and he is best known for what guitar makers call "breaking the nut" meaning that an inlay design that begins on the instrument's headstock continues past the headstock and down onto the fingerboard. If you click on this, you'll thank me.
"I think in the guitar world there is a new market that is developing where some of the work of the great modern day inlayers will be looked at as collectable art that just happens to have a guitar for canvas. I see where some of the crazy prices that paintings and sculptures command will be paid for guitars. I think people will see Inlaid musical instruments in the same light and use them as accent pieces in decorating. Musical instrument Inlay is still pure right now; there is good money in it but not crazy money. The people who are really setting the standard are doing it because they love it. If we ever get crazy money I'm not sure that will always be true." - Harvey Leach
This warrior inlay took 25 hours of work and is made up of a large number of individually cut pieces of mother of pearl and different colored hard woods. It is a good example of the detail Leach achieves in his inlays.
On Leach's "Jurassic Guitar" the theme was "age." The tuner buttons are 65,000,000 year old Baltic Amber, the inlays are 15,000,000 year old gold (deposits), The nut, saddle and scrimshaw background are 15,000 year old Mammoth Ivory, the truss rod cover is a 150 year old Chinese game piece and the back and sides are 50 year old Brazilian Rosewood.
Harvey Leach's most elaborate design work can be seen in detail at his web site.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
The first "good" guitar I owned was a Guild D-25 that I bought from a shop in Northeast Philadelphia, somewhere around Cottman and Bustleton avenues. Guilds are wonderful guitars and, if I had the money, I'd be looking for a 60s or 70s rosewood jumbo; a guitar every bit as nice as a comparable Martin or Gibson and still findable at a fraction of the price.
But I digress, already.
The D-25 is a mahogany guitar with a mahogany top and arched back. It has a deep mellow tone - the result of the top. It has very simple appointments and is, I suppose, the equivalent of the model 17 Martin.
I bought the guitar in around 1972-73. I took it with me to Clarion, PA, and later replaced the original tuners with these really lovely gold Grovers and got a good case for it. Having done that of course I then sold it to my friend, Kim Conner (an amazing individual, read about her here).
Sometime later I bought a Fender Telecaster, either a late 60s or early 70s model; classic blonde body, blonde neck, white pickguard. I bought it at the local music store in Clarion paying around $200 for it. I sold it a year or two later to the father of a friend of mine who bought it to give to his youngest son. A few years ago that son, now married and living somewhere in Ohio, called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted it back. For $7,000.
I always liked his brother best.
When I lived in West Virginia in 1977-1980 I bought a few guitars. I bought the 1949 Gibson J-45 pictured at the front of this post for around $400. I bought a 1967 D-12-35-S Martin - a 12 string D-35 with a 12 fret neck and a slotted headstock (the one I'm playing in the blue-tinted photo on the right). The top was spruce and it was the nicest top I've ever seen on an acoustic guitar. People gauge quality by counting the number of lines of grain in an inch, the higher the number the better. A good top would have maybe 20-30 lines in an inch; this guitar had 100.
The back and sides were Brazilian rosewood. Martin tended to use very straight grained Brazilian rosewood, but the three pieces that made the back of this guitar were as highly figured, deep and "smoky" as the woods on boutique guitars I see today for $10,000. I've never seen another Martin, ever, with wood anywhere near as lovely. The guitar had playability issues; it needed a neck reset and new frets, repairs I couldn't afford. I paid $450 for the guitar and it's value today, with those woods, would be $6,000 or so.
A friend of mine in Pittsburgh called me and told me about a 1969 Martin 000-18 he saw at a local shop for $175 and I rushed to buy it. It was a beat up but lovely guitar. Light as a feather and perfect for the sort of finger-style approach I use. I kept both Martins until the mid-1980s when I was in graduate school and pressed for cash. I sold them both to a physicist at Ohio University. I hope he still has them; he got a hell of a deal.
I still have the Garcia student-grade classical guitar I bought when I was in West Virginia. It was built in 1972 and has really developed a gorgeous tone over the years. Around that time I let two guitars get away that I regret not buying (though, I have no reason to think I'd still own them now).
One was a 1930s National steel-body round neck guitar priced at $175. The other was the best acoustic guitar I have ever played. Both guitars were at The Fret & The Fiddle in Huntington WV, a shop owned by a fellow named Joe Dobbs. Joe was musical partners with Mary Faith Rhodes and together they had a State Department gig that sent them on tour around the world as sort of musical ambassadors. I stopped in the shop one day when they were both there. I had the chance to play their guitars; Joe had a Mossman Golden Era that had been made for him by Stu Mossman. It was Mossman's version of the Martin D-45. Mary had a Martin D-45.
On the wall was a B.C. Rich B-38 6-string. Rich is best known for making odd-shaped solid body guitars favored by heavy metal musicians, but early in the company's development Rich himself built some acoustics. The B-38 was based on the Martin D-28. A dreadnaught, 14 fret neck, sold headstock. The top was orange with age and had mother of pearl around the sound hole. The fingerboard had small snowflake inlays. The back and sides were Brazilian rosewood, the back was very figured and particularly gorgeous. The guitar had an old set of strings on it.
Both Joe's Mossman and Mary's Martin had new strings. I sat there and played all 3 guitars for a half hour or so and the Rich just blew away the other two. It played like a dream and had a sound like guitars sometime sound in dreams. It was $600 which, to me at that time, was the same as $60,000. I walked away, but I still have occasional dreams about that guitar.
After moving to Indianapolis in 1987 I picked up the occasional guitar. I owned a Travis Bean for a while. The Travis Bean has a solid aluminum neck that runs all the way from the headstock to the bridge, giving it amazing sustain. It also makes it very heavy and, unlike a Les Paul for example, where the weight is in the body, the weight here is all in the neck, making it a bit uncomfortable to play. Aluminum also holds the cold very well so that, when the neck gets cold in the Winter, it will stay cold until early Spring.
I bought a jumbo sunburst Yamaha acoustic that played and sounded really good for a while, but has taken a turn for the worse in the past couple years or so. It was at the shop I bought the Yamaha that I let another dream guitar get away; a Gibson B-25 cherry sunburst acoustic 12-string with a small body and an ENORMOUS neck. I remember taking it off the wall and sitting and playing it for a few minutes during which all the sales people and customers came in to watch as the guitar just lent itself to really fast finger picking. I can't remember why I left it there; probably some well-intentioned moment of self-denial.
I bought an 80s American Fender Stratocaster, white with a rosewood fingerboard, that I still have and like a lot. At a local bar one night I bought a 1966 Guild Starfire with a cracked headstock for $50. It's the same model guitar that Jerry Garcia played at the start of the Grateful Dead and used on their first album. It's the guitar I used when I played my first guitar solo on the 3rd Many Bright Things album.
I traded the Travis Bean in on a Jerry Jones reproduction of a Coral Electric Sitar which is great fun (and has a warm neck).
The first time I swallowed hard and got rid of a crate from my record collection was to use the LPs to trade from a 70s Guild F-212 acoustic 12-string which I still have and like a great deal.
A lot of time has passed since then and I have come to understand that the guitarist is more important than the guitar. When I was playing a lot of pool I went out and bought an expensive and really beautiful cue stick. I can still remember the sense of shock and disappointment I felt when I used it the first time and missed every single shot that I'd been missing with the bar room cues.
Thinking about guitars always reminds me of the old joke:
"Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
This is the way the internet works. This is the way information flows here in the 21st Century.
A Bob Dylan fan, I was looking around on the web site, Expecting Rain (if you like Dylan you should click on that and bookmark it) and was looking at the responses to a thread I'd started earlier.
That thread, "She's got everything she needs...." looked at Dylan's influence on the culture by watching it filter down to people like us. I listed 15 or so Youtube videos in which people with guitars recorded themselves performing Dylan's "She Belongs To Me." The versions ranged from very good to very not.
I do a version myself; I came up with this odd way of playing it, fretting it from the top, like a dulcimer. My friend Jeff, who is learning to play guitar, asked me if he could videotape me playing a few songs he wanted to learn. A few days later he told me he'd put a couple of them up on Youtube.
I have arrived.
And I digress.
I snuck my own performance in toward the bottom of the list on that thread and wondered if anyone would find it.
No one did. But one post claimed, "If you want to see something really brilliant..." and posted a link to Peter Bradshaw's film blog at the UK paper, The Guardian who wrote that he was alerted to the video by Philip French of The Observer.
And so it goes.
The quest for the greatest ever clip on YouTube is over! With tears of emotion, I have watched "100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers." It is an inspired collage, lasting nine minutes and 28 seconds, composed of tiny movie-clips, with fragments of dialogue, simply quoting every number in countdown from 100 to 1: a mind-blowing effort of archive research, somehow trivial and monumental at the same time. The effect is brilliant, hilarious, even weirdly moving. The final ten clips have a tension and a crescendo of their own, as you try to guess what they're going to be. I should have sussed the final one, but I didn't. It functions as a mini-masterpiece on its own terms and also as the basis of a fantastic pub quiz round, in which contestants have to identify each clip.
Its creator is a Mr Alonzo Mosley who describes himself as a 34-year-old librarian from Jacksonville, Florida. I have already sent him an awestruck fanmail through the YouTube site. Let's hope the meanies who work in copyright law do not put the mockers on this because it is so fantastic. I have been watching it on a continuous loop all day. Stop what you're doing and watch it right now! This is why the internet was invented!
Saturday, September 13, 2008
"When you say fiscal responsibility, it seems to me that you really mean rich people keeping their money." — Alice Adams
"Those who want change must be against sacred cows and not only innately irreverent but outwardly, purposefully irreverent in their actions. They must be iconoclastic bulldozers willing to be regarded as profane spoilers of the sacred myths." — Saul Alinsky
"Silence never won rights. They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below." — Roger Baldwin
"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." — Steven Biko
All these, and more here.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Pekar's book is, in essence, a Classics Comics telling of the history of the student free speech movement and anti-war movement of the late 1960s. It's beauty is in its remarkable succinctness, the direct result of its being a comic (or "graphic novel" if you prefer).
As succinct as Pekar's book is, it is in Van Ronk's memoir that I found the most cogent critique of the anti-war New Left I've ever found. Van Ronk writes:
“[M]ost of these people were not really radicals, just a bunch of very pissed-off liberals. They had no grounding, and indeed no interest, in theory, and their disdain for studying history and learning economics infuriated me. The core problem with the New Left was that it wasn’t an ideology, it was a mood – and if you are susceptible to one mood, you are susceptible to another. They wanted the world to change, but essentially it was a petty bourgeois movement that had no connection with what was really going on. The working class at least has some power – if the working class folds its arms, the machinery stops – and as for the ruling class, its power is obvious. But what power does the middle class have? They have the power to talk: yak, yak, yak. To interpret, reinterpret, and re-reinterpret. And that is the history of the New Left in a nutshell" (emphasis added, p. 200).
Now log onto Amazon and go get your self a copy; I can't recommend a book more.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I got this idea from my friend Nora's blog. Today is my birthday, and these are the first 55 things that showed up on the screen when I sat down and started typing.
1. I used to love live music, now I dread it.
2. I love the novels of Richard Brautigan and Douglas Coupland.
3. New friendships are harder to start, and old friendships harder to maintain as I get older.
4. I regret getting rid of every guitar I’ve ever owned and gotten rid of.
5. I own far too many books that I’ve never read.
6. I love language; I wish I spoke five or six.
7. I love to cook.
8. I like washing dishes and other small tasks because they have a clear beginning and an end.
9. I love dogs and cats, both. I like animals, but I'm not so crazy about nature.
10. I enjoy starting conversations with strangers.
11. I just wish I were nicer.
12. After a couple false starts, I find I like blogging more than I thought I would.
13. When I play guitar and I play a song with a bar chord I feel like stopping and explaining that there will be a slight delay. I’ve been trying to play an effortless Bm for over 30 years without even the smallest sign of improvement.
14. I’m fascinated by the song “Mack the Knife,” especially Dave Van Ronk’s version.
15. I love music with melody. If there’s no melody it’s going to be a hard sell.
16. That we can’t just chose today to have the world we’re going to have eventually anyway, infuriates me.
17. Whenever I overhear some bozo refer to the idea of national health care as “socialized medicine” it is all I can do to not kick him in the jewels.
18. In my head I can dance like Gene Kelly.
19. If I had a lot of money, I’d be broke.
20. Peter Green is fine, but my favorite Fleetwood Mac is the Buckingham Nicks era, hands down. Great songwriting trumps great guitar playing.
21. Lenny Breau, Larry Coryell and Michael Bloomfield are my favorite guitarists.
22. If I could have one super power it would want an ability to heal people. And x-ray vision.
23. Rufus Wainwright is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard, but only because he has a sister.
24. I believe only someone with a heart of stone can listen to Jeff Buckley without laughing.
25. I wish I wasn’t as good at sarcasm.
26. I would love to wear a hat, but I’ve never found the right one.
27. I believe that when all non digital TVs stop working in 2009 there will be a very brief window during which political organizing might actually be possible.
28. I don’t believe there is a nuclear holocaust waiting just around the corner.
29. While it is silly to claim there is no intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, I don’t believe any of it has contacted us.
30. I believe in very few absolutes; I may only believe in one: literacy makes life better. It is always better to know how to read and write than not.
31. I believe that if you have a child, and you love your child, you should never allow your child to major in "Communication."
32. I believe all academics suffer from some degree of autism; mostly serious to profound.
33. I don’t care that much about baseball, but I love baseball history.
34. I love Paris. I loved it two minutes after I got off the train the first time. I love going back to it again and again.
35. I will drive a car until it says “no mas,” and refuses to come back into the ring at the start of the next round. Next year my current car will be allowed to buy liquor anywhere in the US.
36. I hate uncomfortable clothes, but I love to dress up for about 10-15 minutes.
37. I believe there is a veritably unlimited supply of excellent table wine available for under $10 a bottle.
38. If I did not have to, I don’t think I would ever leave my house. I suffer from angoraphobia; I am afraid that, if I leave my home, I will be attacked and mauled by long-haired rabbits.
40. 98% of all art – music, film, novels, poetry, painting, etc. – is mediocre to unspeakably horrible. The search for that 2% is one of the best things about being alive.
41. My favorite car is a 1963 Dodge Dart with a 225 slant-six engine and push-button transmission on the dash.
42. I cook eggs really, really well.
43. I enjoy sitting around a table, talking and laughing with six or seven friends more than anything else I can think of.
44. Spending a lot of money on really good shoes is never a bad idea.
45. For years I’ve thought that I could do so much more if I could only tolerate public restrooms.
46. My favorite time of day is around 2:30-3:00 in the morning.
47. The list of things I don’t understand grows at an alarming rate the older I get. If I make it to 80 I'll be an imbecile.
48. Every time I take flour, water and some yeast and make a loaf of bread I feel as if I have been witness to a miracle.
49. I believe that most of the greatest films ever made are comedies.
50. I am not ready to come out and admit that I have lost patience with LOST, but I’m getting there.
51. After years of wanting to I finally got invited to contribute to the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll, but it turned out to be just at the very moment that I stopped caring about new music.
52. I believe that if Lincoln or Jefferson were to try to run for office today, the Rush Limbaugh’s and Karl Rove’s of the world would make sure they didn’t get very far.
53. My sense of time has become so distorted that it has led me to question my sanity. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that. Forget I said anything.
54. I have almost no ability to remember people’s names. Oddly, however, I always remember dogs’ names. I am always fond of people who name their dogs after themselves.
55. It annoys me that the Democratic Party hasn’t figured out if it takes the White House and has a large majority in the Congress that, if it designs and enacts a system of national health care, the only way Republicans could ever oppose it in the future would be to run on the campaign promise that, “If elected, I will get rid of your health care!” It would change the dynamics in politics forever.
Monday, August 18, 2008
My wife hates it when I do it when she's with us but, for quite some time now, I lie, quite pathologically, when strangers ask the names of our dogs.
I've been through most of the famous TV and movie pairs: Butch and Sundance, Starsky and Hutch, Tango and Cash, Laverne and Shirley, James West and Artimus Gordon (one of my favorites); for a while I'd use the name of US Presidents and Vice Presidents, especially the obscure ones. Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks once lasted almost two weeks..
Musical duos was a popular phase; Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy, Ashford and Simpson, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra (one of my favorites).
I try to change the names every day or two. Sometimes we go out already prepared, increasingly however, I find I enjoy the excitement of improvisation.
Earlier today I took them to the park and a woman with a small dog asked "What are their names?"
"Fuckwaffle and Carlotta," I replied.
Then I quickly explained, "They were rescue dogs and had those names when they came to us. We tried to get them to accept new ones but they just don't seem to get it." I smiled helplessly.
She offered a number of tips on how to introduce new names. I thanked her and we moved on.
I feel a philosophical phase coming on.
I think I'll go see if Adorno and Horkheimer want a cookie.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
I don't know what it is precisely about these images that caught my attention. Certainly some of the pairings are incongruous - Gleason and Behan, Burns and Bradbury and so forth - but the apparant incongruity is a superficial one. It is more a kind of unmasking of the celebrity persona and suggests a closer peek at the person inside. Others, the one of Phil Silvers and Zero Mostel, suggest the furnace of energy that fuled the comedy of both men.
It is simply pleasing to see Sartre and de Beauvoir smiling together. It reminds me of their graves, side by side in the cemetery at Montparnasse, a weathered pack of Kool cigarettes and lighter left by some flowers.
Some of the images present all sorts of questions. I know, for example, exactly what I will ask Martin Sheen if I ever meet him.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Second only to Hendrix in the pantheon of 60s blues-based electric rock guitarists, Bloomfield was "scary good." George Gruhn, the biggest authority on collectable vintage stringed instruments, credits Bloomfield with single-handedly starting the electric guitar collector market. Old Telecasters were $50 until Mike used one with Dylan and on the 1st Butterfield LP. Then Les Paul gold tops which could not be given away for $100 became hot when Mike switched to one for East/West. After the covers of Supersession and the 1st Electric Flag LPs, Les Paul Sunbursts, a singularly unpopular guitar, began their rise in price from $200 to the $400,000 they fetch today.
Mike was also a helluva piano player. The holy grail for Bloomfield collectors is a video copy of the mid 70s late-nite TV show "Chip Monk's Speakeasy" on which Bloomfield and Al Kooper do a long interview and then walk over to where a baby grand piano and Les Paul & Fender Twin have been set up and jam with Mike on piano and Al on guitar. I remember watching that on TV when it aired. After many years I managed to find the guy who owns the rights to that series but can't find a way to get a copy.
Here's Mike's biography from his official website.
Michael Bernard Bloomfield was born July 28, 1943, in Chicago, Illinois. An indifferent student and self-described social outcast, Bloomfield immersed himself in the multi- cultural music world that existed in Chicago in the 1950s.
He got his first guitar at age 13. Initially attracted to the roots-rock sound of Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore, Bloomfield soon discovered the electrified big-city blues music indigenous to Chicago. At the age of 14 the exuberant guitar wunderkind began to visit the blues clubs on Chicago’s South Side with friend Roy Ruby in search of his new heroes: players such as Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Howling Wolf, and Magic Sam. Not content with viewing the scene from the audience, Bloomfield was known to leap onto the stage, asking if he could sit in as he simultaneously plugged in his guitar and began playing riffs.
Bloomfield was quickly accepted on the South Side, as much for his ability as for the audiences' appreciation of the novelty of seeing a young white player in a part of town where few whites were seen. Bloomfield soon discovered a group of like-minded outcasts. Young white players such as Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Charlie Musselwhite, and Elvin Bishop were also establishing themselves as fans who could hold their own with established bluesmen, many of whom were old enough to be their fathers.
In addition to playing with the established stars of the day, Bloomfield began to search out older, forgotten bluesmen, playing and recording with Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, Little Brother Montgomery and Big Joe Williams, among others. By this time he was managing a Chicago folk music club, the Fickle Pickle, and often hired older acoustic blues players for the Tuesday night blues sessions. Big Joe Williams memorialized those times in the song "Pick A Pickle" with the line "You know Mike Bloomfield...will always treat you right...come to the Pickle, every Tuesday night." Bloomfield’s relationship with Big Joe Williams is documented in "Me And Big Joe," a moving short story detailing Bloomfield’s adventures on the road with Williams.
Bloomfield's guitar work as a session player caught the ear of legendary CBS producer and talent scout John Hammond, Sr., who flew to Chicago and immediately signed him to a recording contract. However CBS was unsure of exactly how to promote their new artist, declining to release any of the tracks recorded by Bloomfield's band, which included harp player Charlie Musselwhite.
With a contract but not much else, Bloomfield returned to playing clubs around Chicago until he was approached by Paul Rothchild, the producer of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band albums. Bloomfield was recruited to play slide guitar and piano on early recordings (later released as The Lost Elektra Sessions) which were rejected for not fully capturing the sound of the band. Although more competitors than friends ("I knew Paul [and I] was scared of him" remembered Mike), the addition of Bloomfield to the Butterfield Band provided Paul Butterfield with a musician of equal caliber -- Paul and Michael inspired and challenged each other as they traded riffs and musical ideas, one establishing a pattern and the other following it, extending it, and handing it back.
In between recording sessions with the Butterfield Band, Bloomfield backed up Bob Dylan on the classic Highway 61 Revisited album, and appeared with him at the Newport Folk Music Festival in 1965 when Dylan stunned the purist folk music crowd by playing electric rock-and-roll. Declining an offer from Dylan to join his touring band, Bloomfield and the Butter Band returned to the studio; with the addition of pianist Mark Naftalin they finally captured their live sound on vinyl.
The first two Butterfield Blues Band albums, the Dylan sessions, and the live appearances by the Butterfield Band firmly established Bloomfield as one of the most talented and influential guitar players in America. The second album featured the Bloomfield composition "East-West" which ushered in an era of long instrumental psychedelic improvisations.
Bloomfield left the Butterfield Blues Band in early 1967 ostensibly to give original guitarist Elvin Bishop, in Mike's words, "a little space." Undoubtedly he had also become uncomfortable with Paul Butterfield's position as bandleader and was anxious to lead his own band.
That band, The Electric Flag, included Bloomfield's old friends from Chicago, organist Barry Goldberg and singer/songwriter Nick Gravenites, as well as bass player Harvey Brooks and drummer Buddy Miles. The band was well received at its official debut at the Monterey Pop Festival but quickly fell apart due to drugs, egos, and poor management.
Bloomfield, weary of the road, suffering from insomnia, and uncomfortable in the role of guitar superstar, returned to San Francisco to score movies, produce other artists, and play studio sessions. One of those sessions was a day of jamming in the studio with keyboardist Al Kooper, who had previously worked with Bloomfield on the 1965 Dylan sessions.
Super Session, the resultant release, with Bloomfield on side one and guitarist Stephen Stills on side two, once again thrust Bloomfield into the spotlight. Kooper's production and the improvisational nature of the recording session captured the quintessential Bloomfield sound: the fast flurries of notes, the incredible string bending, the precise attack, and his masterful use of tension and release.
Although Super Session was the most successful recording of his career, Bloomfield considered it to be a scam, more of an excuse to sell records than a pursuit of musical goals. After a follow-up live album, he "retired" to San Francisco and lowered his visibility.
In the seventies Bloomfield played gigs in the San Francisco area and infrequently toured as Bloomfield And Friends, a group which usually included Mark Naftalin and Nick Gravenites. Bloomfield also occasionally helped out friends by lending his name to recording projects and business propositions, such as the ill-fated Electric Flag reunion in 1974 and the KGB album in 1976. In the mid-seventies Bloomfield recorded a number of albums with a more traditional blues focus for smaller record labels. He also recorded an instructional album of various blues styles for Guitar Player magazine.
By the late seventies Bloomfield's continuing drug and health problems caused erratic behavior and missed gigs, alienating a number of his old associates. Bloomfield continued playing with other musicians, including Dave Shorey and Jonathan Cramer. In the summer of 1980 he toured Italy with classical guitarist Woody Harris and cellist Maggie Edmondson. On November 15, 1980, Bloomfield joined Bob Dylan on stage at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco and jammed on "Like A Rolling Stone," the song they had recorded together 15 years earlier.
Michael Bloomfield was found dead in his car of a drug overdose in San Francisco, California on February 15, 1981.
The Bloomfield/Kooper Supersession LP is, I think, fairly overrated overall. The Steve Stills side is uninteresting (the cover of "Season of the Witch" is particularly anemic) and a good part of the Bloomfield side seems les than inspired. However, if I want to introduce anyone to Bloomfield the first thing I will play for them is the LP's opener, "Albert's Shuffle" which is among the top three or four examples of Bloomfield's genius on record.
When Mike left The Butterfield Band he wanted to put together a real show band, capable of playing blues, soul and R'n'B. It was the moment in the late 60s when horn sections re-entered rock and roll and when three new bands appeared at about the same time. Al Kooper, having left The Blues Project, released the first Blood, Sweat and Tears LP, Child is Father to the Man, and the Chicago Transit Authority debut, a self-titled double LP, also came out. Suddenly the hills were alive with the sound of horn sections.
There is really only one Electric Flag LP, the debut, A Long Time Comin'. It is a shame that there aren't more recordings of them from their short existence. This video is taken from the film shot at the first Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. At the very end there are some clear images of Michael's beautiful 1959 Les Paul sunburst guitar.
Here is the opening track from the first Electric Flag LP released in January 1969.
Here is an excerpt from the groundbreaking "East/West" off the second Butterfield LP. It opens with Elvin Bishop's solo, followed by Butterfield on harp. Mike shows up about 2:50 in:
If you find yourself in Cleveland and visiting the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame you could do me a favor and take an indelible magic marker and write "Why aren't Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Al Kooper in the Hall?" on a rest room wall.
When I recorded the third Many Bright Things LP, Many Bright Friends, the concept was inspired by Supersession and I invited musicians from the US and Europe to participate. the centerpiece of the record is a 20 minute cover version of "East/West" which you can download below. The first guitar solo is by Larry DeMyer (Windopane, Twin Planet), followed by a harp solo by Mike "Byrd" Birocco, the second guitar solo is by Nick Saloman (Bevis Frond), the third is by Al Simones (Simones), I play the fourth solo (which follows an organ break) and the last guitar solo is by Dan Noland.
The track was arranged by the bassist, Vess Ruhtenberg (The Mysteries of Life, Sardina) and the drummer is Steve Obenreder (PA Rangers).
It seems like a nice way to say "Happy birthday, Michael."
Sunday, July 6, 2008
It was a good 4th of July. Our friend Laura drove over from Indiana, PA ("I'd come more often if we could move Ohio") with her miniature Daschund, Dash, and we went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the afternoon.
Laura is a fabric artist and interested in all related things; the museum had a display of a bunch of original Halston gowns, which were nice, but not my reason for wanting to go.
I wanted to see "the scroll."
Drawing on his notes and journals from his cross-country travels from 1947-50, Jack Kerouac wrote his first draft of On the Road over a three week period in April of 1951. Kerouac taped sheets of teletype paper together so they would run through his manual typewriter, enabling him to keep his flow of writing uninterrupted. The result was a 120-foot continuous “scroll” manuscript.
In May of 2001 Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL team, paid $2.4 million dollars at auction for the original scroll. The purchase sparked some controversy in the Art World at the time and generated a very, very strange feature article in an August 2002 issue of The Chicago Tribune.
After a rocky start, Irsay has become a very responsible owner, first allowing the rare documents experts at Indiana University to take the fragile roll of paper and stabilize its condition, then sending the scroll, in effect, "on the road" across the US. The scroll began its official tour in Orlando in January 2004 and is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2009.
At the IMA the scroll is in a long glass case stretched out to a bit over half its length (for the second half of its stay it will be switched to reveal the last section). Off to the side of the gallery is a small room with a small desk and an old Underwood typewriter, the same vintage that Kerouac used, in which a scroll of paper has been inserted and visitors are invited to sit down and type whatever stream of consciousness words might come to mind. The keys of the typewriter are in dire need of some oil and stick together pretty much every time you type a letter which, I suspect, is intended to encourage brevity.
In 1959 Kerouac went on the Steve Allen television program and read a passage from his novel while Allen played a piano accompaniment. It is one of the many examples of why the 1950s were way, way hipper than we were lead to believe. I can't imagine what a comparable thing on network TV in 2008 could be.
Later, Kerouac wrote:
remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank Studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce's stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, "I don't have to REHEARSE for God's sake Steve!" - "But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I'll let you off the dress rehearsal" and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say "No I can't do it" and I go across the street and get drunk, but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and won't talk love because in Hollywood man, love is for sale.
But the big surprise for me was the exhibit of eighty-two original Robert Frank photographs that are set up to surround the scroll. I think Franks images are to the American landscape what Henri Cartier-Bresson's are to the streets of Paris. The photos on display all come from his collection, The Americans, described very well at a Yale website:
"In 1955, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled throughout the United States by car and returned with a bleak portrait of what the American road had to offer. As Kerouac writes in his introduction, Frank's photographs had "sucked a sad, sweet, poem out of America," a sadness found in the forlorn looks of dime store waitresses, funeral attendees, and human faces rendered unrecognizable in the glare of jukeboxes. The slightly offset angles and the blurred focus of many of the photographs suggest the nervousness and dislocation of the people they capture. Frank dispels any romantic notions of the lingering pioneer spirit of America by presenting a landscape of people and places absent of hope and promise."
The third photograph above, the bell of the Sousaphone under the patriotic bunting, titled "Political Rally" violates most rules of photographic composition and presents a timeless image of the banality of the American political process. I don't like to play favorites, but it's the one to beat.