Five Things: Wednesday, November 27th

“The best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”
There are certain people so musical that everything they are is musical. Their movements, their voice, their atmosphere. James Booker was one of those people. Not that he wasn’t a truly colossal pain in the ass to those around him, but the fact that many stayed with him and attempted to help his journey through this world pays testament to their appreciation of his genius. In a film, Bayou Maharajah, comprised of great interviews, fascinating recordings, amazing clips (from local bars aplenty to German TV) and some wonderfully eerie black and white “ghostly” videos, this original native son of New Orleans vividly grabs your attention. His voice, talking or singing, is hypnotic. His piano playing… well, that defies description. Neither “standard” Professor Longhair derivation, nor straightforward funk ’n’ boogie, but a weird hybrid of these things with a dash of Liberace’s romanticism (don’t laugh), and Chopin and Rachmaninoff’s melodies. There’s a distorted improvisation  that slowly turns into “A Taste Of Honey” that somehow deepens a piece of pop fluff right in front of your ears. And always – always – something bitter and sweet mixed in. Often you watch him play an outrageous passage with a hard glint in his eye, a steely focus and drive, and as he ends it, a sly, shy smile to himself, as if to say, there, that’s what I can do… My favorite interviewee (and there are some great ones) is Harry Connick Jr., who knew Booker as a slightly wayward uncle figure (well, more than slightly) since Harry’s father, the district attorney of Orleans Parish, had befriended and helped Booker at various times. His recall of the night that Booker phoned him at two in the morning to ask Harry to come rescue him from some drug escapade gone wrong (“James, dude – I’m twelve years old!”) was extraordinary. He tells of recording Booker’s phonecalls, and you can see that he’s still unsure to this day why he did. He says something along the lines of I just loved hearing him talk, and I thought if I taped him, I’d always have his voice to listen to. Watch as Harry shows, beautifully, how Booker added layer upon layer of complexity to a tune. Mesmerizing.

I’ve found my harmonica, Albert…
Bathed in the warm glow of Bob’s band, a Dylan concert to really enjoy. Charlie Sexton still has the moves of a heart-throb (let’s not forget that he fronted the bar band in Thelma & Louise), Donny Herron’s like a young engineer at his desk, working tirelessly on all manner of instruments and sounds, and the New Orleans engine room of George and Tony just keeps rolling on, making even the most ordinary twelve-bar come to life. Yes, it had its up and downs. Michèle, up until then an enthusiastic applauder, said I’m not clapping that… after a particularly calamitous “Spirit On The Water.” I was with her – it was like a drunken showband at the end of the pier, with Les Dawson on piano. But the high points were high. A malevolent “Pay In Blood” that far surpassed the studio take. A great re-visit of “All Along The Watchtower” with a left turn, two-thirds through, into a spacey and atonal breakdown, before a thunderous climax. A lovely “Waitin’ For You”, a song written for the soundtrack of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, highlighted by a Sexton solo that sounded for all the world like the great Grady Martin. A gorgeous “Forgetful Heart”. Oh, and a beautiful and soulful “Blowin’ In The Wind” to end with.

Good Vibrations
It’s the story of Terri Hooley, godfather of Belfast punk (he started a record shop called Good Vibrations) and it’s nominally a feel-good music film, but is actually pretty hard-nosed about the difficulties of Belfast in the 70’s. The fast-cut collage that follows the opening scene takes our main character from Childhood to 1976. It’s brilliantly done, in a kind of kinetic pop art way, packed with news images of the Troubles, and edited to Hank Williams singing “I Saw The Light”. As it progresses it becomes more and more distorted, and finally the song disappears among swirls of echo, to be replaced by a hum of feedback and soundwash.

Mel Brimfield, 4’ 33” (Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister).
Strangest piece of art owned by We The People, seen on a short tour of the Government Art Collection. [4’ 33”, a 1952 composition by US experimental composer John Cage (1912-1992), is referenced in the title but not played. The actual score for the pianola takes as its starting point athlete Roger Bannister’s performance in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where he came fourth – the race that spurred him on to his sub 4 minute mile].


Bruce Springsteen, New York City Serenade, Rome
I remember a night in Sheffield, in 1974, when my friend Mike and I played this track (newly released) to Colin Graham, old family friend, editor of Angling Times, and big-time “Jazz Buff”. We were trying to prove that rock musicians could play their instruments and felt the combo of Bruce and David Sancious was a good bet… or something like that. In a game of what Charlie Gillett would turn into Radio Ping-Pong, we were searching through the records we’d brought with us (oh for an iPod) for something that we thought could pass muster. I wish I could recall what Colin, pipe in mouth, thought of it. Watching this recent performance of it, beautifully filmed and played, gives a Proustian rush back to the time I spent obsessively listening to The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Apparently I bought it at Dobells, and it was £2.99.


Five Things: Wednesday 15th May

Bowie Walk

Having helped the V&A with a photo of Dobell’s, they’re kind enough to send me this Jonathan Barnbrook-designed pamphlet, David Bowie Is Walking In Soho. The tour starts here.

Riders Of The Stars
FRANK SINATRA: One bottle each: Absolute, Jack Daniel’s, Chivas Regal, Courvoisier, Beefeater Gin, white wine, red wine. Twenty-four chilled jumbo shrimp, Life Savers, cough drops. No mixers?
BRITNEY SPEARS: Fish and chips, McDonald’s cheeseburgers without the buns, 100 prunes and figs, a framed photo of Princess Diana. Britney, as always, touched by genius!
AL GREEN: Twenty-four long-stem (dethorned) red roses. Having seen Rev. Green present these in the flesh to his adoring audience, I’m touched by the thoughtfulness.

Cat Power, Bathrooms & Bullies
On Woman’s Hour I catch Chan Marshall talking about the best places she found to sing as a teenager and she talks of school bathrooms when no-one was in them, singing to the walls and the echo – and when she’s on Later that night you can see how her voice now has those reflections and deflections built into it. With a haircut borrowed from Nick Lowe and her hands jerking in and out of her jean shirt, her performance of “Bully” was twitchy and vulnerable, but beautifully her – she doesn’t sound much like anybody else (the same is true of Laura Mvula, also on the show, who – making a nod to Nina Simone – is refreshingly different from her peer group).

Found on the website while googling “who wrote Walkin’ to New Orleans.”
Well Composed: Bobby Charles tells how he wrote three of his classic songs.

Walking to New Orleans
“I had sent Fats a copy of ‘Before I Grow Too Old,’ and he had recorded it, but I didn’t know. The next night he was playing in Lafayette, and I went to see him play. He told me, ‘I cut your song last night – I wish I’d brought a copy of it for you to listen to.’ And he said, ‘You gotta come to New Orleans to see me and hang out with me.’ I said, ‘I’d love to, but right now I’m really on my butt and got no money and no way to get over there.’ He said, ‘Take a bus or something.’ I told him, ‘The only way I’d be able to get there would be to walk to New Orleans.’ As soon as I said that, I said, ‘I gotta go.’ I jumped in the car and wrote the song on the way back home from Lafayette to Abbeville.”
See You Later Alligator
“I used to say to the band or friends, ‘See you later, alligator.’ One night after a dance, I was walking out the door, and my piano player was sitting down in a back booth, and there were two drunk couples in the booths in front of him. I said, ‘See you later alligator’ to him as I was walking out, and it was one of those doors that closed real slow. I heard a girl say something about ‘crocodile.’ I walked back in and said, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but I just told him, “See you later, alligator.” What did you say?’ She said, ‘After a while, crocodile.’ I said, ‘Thank you,’ and went home and wrote the song in 20 minutes. My daddy was screaming at me to turn out the lights, because he had to get up and go to work at 5 o’clock in the morning. I said, ‘Give me five more minutes.’ I had to sing it to myself over and over so I wouldn’t forget it.”
The Jealous Kind
“I was married at the time, and I was in the bathtub. My wife was fussing and hollering at me while I was taking a bath. I said, ‘Why don’t you bring me paper and a pencil and just leave me alone for 30 minutes.’ She said, ‘You and your damn paper and pencil.’ I wrote it right there in the bathtub. Same thing with ‘Before I Grow Too Old.’ She said, ‘You gonna be like this for the rest of your life?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna try and hurry up and do as much as I can before I get too old.’ Bam! Bring me a paper and pencil!”

I’m appalled that I’d never known that Bobby Charles wrote one of my all-time favourite songs.

And more from The Big Easy…
…in the shape of another Hugh Laurie documentary. He’s dry and funny, and has great taste in producers and musicians, and plays pretty good piano. I just never want to hear him sing again, if that can be arranged. Best bit: the amazing Jon Cleary, an Englishman in New Orleans, doing a staggering take on James Booker and Professor Longhair. He rips through a sonic wonderworld of rhumba rhythms and tumbling blues, then turns to Laurie and says, “New Orleans comes into fashion, goes out of fashion. They don’t stop playing here just because no-one’s looking.”

Professor Longhair’s House, 2010

Professor Longhair’s House, 2010

Longhair had my favourite band name ever: Professor Longhair and The Shuffling Hungarians [called that, as Wikepedia says, for reasons lost to time. As far as I can ascertain, there were no Hungarians in the band]. I do remember going with Mark to see James Booker at the 100 Club. As we came down the stairs to the basement room we heard the sound of a New Orleans band pounding out “Junco Partner”, the bass shaking the walls, what sounded like a horn section high-stepping the accents. We stepped through the door to find Booker alone at the piano, committing his mischief, conjuring up an orchestra’s worth of accompaniment with just two hands…

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