Five Things: Wednesday 4th September

Aerophones & Drones
Have you ever been in a small room with a bagpiper playing full blast? Actually, that may be the only way to play them – there’s nothing tentative or half-throttle about the mechanics of the bagpipe. The noise is utterly overwhelming, a melodious fire alarm, a wailing mourner. At the funeral of a great friend of my mother’s – a proud Scotswoman – the piper played the most melancholy air, and it was startlingly moving. He walked up to the coffin, executed an about turn, and headed out of the small chapel still playing, the pipes fading into the distance as he strode off…

Nutters & Jazzers
Asking for The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait at HMV, I’m informed that they sold out as soon as they arrived. “All those Dylan Nutters”, I’m informed by the friendly man at the desk, which I guess means that he [generously] doesn’t number me amongst them. Reminds me of standing in the queue at Ronnie’s for the Booker T Q&A when a guy comes up and asks what the line is waiting for. When told, he says, “Thought it looked like a Jazz Queue”.

And Talking of Portraits: Bob Dylan Pastels, National Portrait Gallery
Bob’s strange jagged faces, rooted in the FSA photographs of the depression, are mostly quite poor. A few have something more going on – but there’s nothing, really nothing to get excited by. For that you have to see the other musician exhibited at the NPG. A room down from Dylan is a portrait series by Humphrey Ocean, who some may remember as the bass player in Kilburn And The High Roads, Ian Dury’s first foray away from art and into rock. Ocean’s paintings of friends, sloppy gouaches that somehow capture expression, tilt and attitude, are wonderful. This is a properly arrived-at style, whereas Bob’s, one feels, is still on the road.

In A Silent Way
My friend, photographer Bob Gumpert, gets a gig shooting 2 Chainz, a rapper, and finds he enjoys it. He sends the last paragraph of this piece – about crowded, loud clubs – by British poet, writer and explorer Robert Twigger (who lives in Cairo), in Aeon Magazine. I look up the article and it’s great. Some excerpts:

“A film director once told me that shooting exteriors in Cairo is a nightmare. Often they fake it, using Tunisian locations instead. The reason is the sound: the hum, they call it. You get it even if you shoot at 3am on Zamalek island, the wealthy garden district in the middle of the Nile. It’s the aural equivalent of smog; hardly noticeable at first, not a problem for many, but insidious, worming its way inside you, rattling you, shaking you up like a cornflake packet. Your contents never settle. Someone told me a story about a man who bought adulterated cocaine. A flake of aluminium sulphate lodged in his sinus and burned a hole right through his skull and into his brain. I pictured Cairo’s hum as a slow acid eating its way through the fragile bones of the ear, into the cortex.

As you get older you value silence more. Your nerves get jangled more easily. Loud music becomes less and less attractive. Instead of wanting to rev up, you seek ways to calm down. But I suspect the search for real silence goes deeper than just a desire to relax. It’s no accident that many religious orders have vows of silence. Only in silence can the soul unburden itself and then listen out for subtler signs, information from the unknown inner regions.

How much silence does a person need? You can get greedy for it, addicted to it. I know people who spend half their time in the desert and the other half working out how to get back to it. They are running away from life, some say; they are certainly running away from noise. Recent research suggests that long-term exposure to noise doesn’t just damage hearing (and the average decibel level in Cairo is 85, often getting to 95 and higher, which is only slightly quieter than standing next to a jackhammer); it damages your heart. Continuous noise causes chronic stress. Stress hormones become your constant companion, circulating day and night, wearing out your heart. That must be why the first few days in the desert seem so wonderfully rejuvenating. I’ve seen an elderly man — a retired heart surgeon, coincidentally — go from doddering around the camp to springing along the edge of dunes and rocky cliffs. That’s the power of silence.

You know you’re cured when you relish the sound of loud pop music again. Crowded clubs hold no fear; the pumping bass seems like a familiar friend, not a message from the Antichrist. You can ‘take it’. Modern life is ‘OK’. You’ve detoxed and the result is that you seem more youthful. Young people haven’t filled themselves up with noise (yet), so they actively seek it out. For those who have had too much, then emptied it out, the glad return to a noisy world is invigorating. How long does the immunity last? About two weeks, if you’re lucky”.

All Aboard! If you remember The Vengaboys, that is…
The brilliant Tom Scott, web thinker with a comedic bent, defaces a london bus timetable in some style. I really want to visit the Curaçao Spaceport…

Vengabus

See also Two Drums and a Cymbal Fall off a Cliff (b’doom, tssh).

Five Things: Wednesday 1st May

A Rainy Night In Bourges: Le Printemps De Bourges, Loire, France
The annual festival brings a platter of bands to almost every bar in town. Trying to decide where to go and who to see brings the following descriptions from the programme: Superhero Big Beat Surf/Pop Art Punk/Reggae Occitan/Black Death/House Celt Rock Experimental, and my favourite: Rock Noise Folk Blues. This poster in a nearby town would have had me putting money down for tickets, but it was in the past…

B1

Best music we saw was a cracking band called Minou, consisting of Pierre Simon & Sabine Quinet, plus a bald percussionist on electric pads. They play guitars and keyboards, both well, and their oeuvre is some unholy mixture of Kraftwerk, Nirvana and Talking Heads, put over with personality and pizazz and great timing. They were playing in a plastic garden tent, set up in the street, with a pop-up bar serving beer and lethal rum punch, and gave it their all – a welcome relief from the sub-Punk Rock being played in most bars, that the French seem, unaccountably, to be in love with.

Minou

Bob Gumpert Appalled By Ricin Suspect
Josh Marshall, TPM: “We had the first court appearance this morning for James Everett Dutschke. Unlike his predecessor, a flat claim of true innocence does not seem to be in the cards. More shocking, it’s now alleged Dutschke is a Wayne Newton impersonator.”

Bob says: “Perhaps only in Mississippi – the first guy arrested for poison letters was an Elvis impersonator. He was turned loose. The new person arrested is a Wayne Newton impersonator and that is just plain offensive.” To make it even worse for Bob, The Daily Mail reports that “the FBI searched his home, vehicles and former studio last week, after dropping charges against an Elvis impersonator who says he had feuded with Dutschke in the past.” Couldn’t make that up – feudin’ impersonators: Elvis vs Wayne…

The Thick Of It Writer Ian Martin’s 60 thoughts about turning 60, The Guardian
My favourites:
4. It was 1968. Early summer evening, a Saturday. My mate and I were hitching home in the Essex countryside. We got a lift from a happy couple in a boaty car that smelled of leather and engine oil. We were 15, they were proper old, 20-ish. Relaxed and so very much in love. They treated us as equals, laughed at our jokes, we smoked their cigarettes. “Walk Away Renee” by the Four Tops came on the radio. We all sang along to the chorus. I felt a blissful certainty that life as an adult might genuinely be a laugh. The entire encounter lasted no more than 10 minutes. I have thought about that couple every day since. Every day, for 45 years. Imagine that. A Belisha Beacon of kindness pulsing through the murk of a whole life.

58. “Nice snare sound.” Always say this to someone you like when they are playing you terrible music, especially if it’s their demo. This insincere but specific observation allows both parties to sidestep more general, and potentially cruel, discussion. If the person insists, they deserve everything they get, starting with “shit snare sound.”

Portrait Of The Artist, The Guardian: Madeleine Peyroux, Singer
What work of art would you most like to own? “I hate the idea of owning a work of art. But I do own a guitar that I consider a work of art. It’s a 1943 Martin 0-17. I took it on tour with me for 16 years, but I’ve just had to put it back in the closet. It was made in the United States during the second world war, when metal was rationed – there’s no metal in the neck, which means it’s constantly going out of tune.”

Edith Bowman’s 10 Best Songs Ever Written, Stylist Magazine
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On: “To be honest, I don’t feel there’s a lot I can say about the song itself. Just listening to it says it all. It’s the perfect tonic. It brings out the sunshine. The horn section at the start of the song, coupled with the melodies, makes you want to groove from the first few bars. Instant smiles from the get-go.” Marvin would be pleased that his agonised plea for peace and understanding (opening lines Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying…) soundtracks Edith’s braindead summer picnics. And she actually says, about Joni Mitchell’s “The River,” “she sings it in a way that makes her feel totally accessible, the fragility in her voice encouraging you to sing along. This is probably quite a ‘girl’s choice’ to be honest…” In what world is choosing a song by one of the greatest songwriters ever to have graced pop music girly? There’s not a lot of fragility in Joni. Bare, naked honesty, yes. Fragility? I don’t think so. This is a woman who got totally pissed off when she played acetates of Court & Spark at a party after Dylan had played the acetates of Planet Waves, and having no-one listen. And knowing that it was a better record. The woman who Dylan whispered to, after they shared a bill together in the early 2000s, “Joni, you make me sound like a hillbilly in comparison.” Oh, Edith. Behave.

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 12th September

When Harry Met Sammy
I don’t normally like to these posts to be long, but as a piece of writing this is too good to edit down. This reminded me again that things are rarely as they seem, rarely as simple as outsiders perceive—those at the centre of events always have a much more complex perspective. And also it reminded me of the importance of primary recollections…

It started when Barney let me know a couple of months ago about an upcoming Harry Smith Conference, America Changed Through Music: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music at 60, a one-day conference this Saturday September 15th. It’s hosted by the University of East Anglia’s School of American Studies at UEA London, and will explore the impact and ongoing legacy of an extraordinary cultural artefact—whew! I emailed one of the co-directors, Thomas Ruys Smith, as I’d been talking to Sam & Ann Charters about their time with Moe Asch at Folkways Records, and offered to put him in touch. He said he’d be delighted in Sam’s view. And then Sam emailed me with his view, which is brilliant (if off-message…)

“I’ve had a long, complicated relationship with Harry’s set. I first heard it in New Orleans in 1952 just after it first came out—a folk singer named Billy Faier in the French Quarter had it—then when Annie and I first began living together in 1957 the first thing we bought together was the Harry Smith set. $35 dollars—a lot of money for us. I liked some of it—some of it I already knew—and it all seemed to be to be just part of what had been going on with the reissues of old jazz and blues recordings since the 1930s. Fred Ramsey was doing a twelve volume LP reissue for Moe Asch of the history of jazz at the same time and his volume 1 had a lot of the same kinds of material. When I began working with Moe he said that he had been helping support Harry and they both were junking old 78s on 6th Avenue, just around the corner from the Folkways office. All the records in the collection were up in the office and half of the records that went into the set were his. He said that he and Harry had talked a lot about what they wanted from the set and of course it followed the outlines that the Lomaxes had set up in their folk song anthologies. The LPs were fine and fun—but no big deal.

But—for all those sixties teenagers the world began with Bob Dylan, and if he listened to the set it had to be the roots of everything that ever happened in America. Harry was living in the Chelsea Hotel all this time and in all my experiences with him he was a genuine horse’s ass. I had to shut him up sometimes when I was trying to record people in the Village and he kept drifting into Moe’s office begging for money. All his films were there as well, but I had seen a lot of experimental film and I didn’t think these were very exciting. His great things seemed to be the collection of painted Russian Easter Eggs in his hotel room, and his unending repertoire of string games. I edited an album of Allen Ginsberg’s readings and singing from tapes that Harry made in the hotel room, and at least he got a decent sound.

He made some scrawled notes for a Volume 4 and I was given the luckless task of trying to figure out what he wanted to include from his list—which drew down upon my head the wrath of everyone whose lives had begun with the original three volumes. Harry finally couldn’t pay his hotel bill, so Allen moved him in and supported him, which meant that Harry now became an iconic figure, since Allen always made it known that he only hung out with important figures. Before he died Allen set up in his will a legacy to pay for promotion of the Harry Smith legend. The woman who had the job was a fire-eater who often expressed her dislike for me, but I always felt that she was just doing what she was paid to do. There was eventually a Harry Smith celebration at the St. Marks Church on the Lower East Side where Harry was presented as the only person anyone knew who was probably at least as important as Jesus.

So that’s me and Harry—I wish some of these people could somehow see that what happened in the 1950s was just a continuation of the gathering and collecting of vernacular music in the South that had been going on for nearly a century. Everything I learned was from what people like Fred Ramsey and Bill Russell had done in New Orleans and the South in the 1930s—their recordings of musicians like Leadbelly and Bunk Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton—the books and articles and eventually LPs and films. Why does Harry get the credit for something that was much larger than his set? I dunnow.

I did a radio interview yesterday with someone in America who had just read The Country Blues and he wasn’t really aware that these things could have happened so long ago. At least the people obsessed with the blues don’t go on about Harry—they want to talk about the Stones and the other Brits. I try always to talk about other things, but there is always a silence. At least he didn’t ask me about Dylan.

You can certainly pass this on to Tom—a small muted protest.”

Thankfully, Tom felt that it was “a priceless perspective to get on things—a rich account from a significant individual.” As it is. My dad used to include a couple of the tracks when he did record recitals around the country in the late fifties. I found these notes he made about Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s James Alley Blues.

Bill Colyer Record Recital rough notes

Art Garfunkel: Walking/Singing interface
Reports MSN Music: We did not know that Art Garfunkel has been walking as part of his therapy. He’s currently walking across Greece, en route to Istanbul, a journey that began in Ireland and has continued in 100-mile installments over the past 10 years. He tells us: “I am singing while I walk! I sing because I need to find my voice—I’ve had trouble with it over the last two years—and I can’t live without singing.”

Duquesne by Bob Gumpert
Following last week’s mention of Duquesne, Bob sends these fantastic photos.

1986: Duquesne, PA. The abandoned Duquesne Steel Works, and a view of the dying steel town. Photographs by Robert Gumpert

On My iPod, Danny O’Donoghue, Metro
Fire and Rain by James Taylor. “This is such an emotional song and without doubt one of his best. It’s about the time he spent with junkies, in particular a girl called Suzanne.” Ah, Danny, with his simple, inaccurate view of the world…
The song actually chronicled Taylor’s experiences in mental institutions, such as McLean Hospital in Massachusetts as a senior in high school and his battle with drug addiction (The fire in the title refers to his shock therapy). “Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you,” refers to Suzanne Schnerr, a childhood friend of his who committed suicide while he was away in London recording his first album for Apple Records. Friends at home, concerned that it might distract Taylor from his big break, kept the news from him, and he only found out six months later.

Where’s My Harmonica, Albert? Why, In Beak Street, Bob, At Your Pop-Up Shop…
…just around the corner from Carnaby Street. Underwhelming. I bump into Mark Ellen, whose two-time-listen opinion of Tempest is “Five good songs.” Dead on. Or as my friend Lloyd said, “It’s like one of his theme time radio shows—but just him…”

Bobstore; Cinema downstairs, desultory Don’t Look Back showing; Shop floor and harp.


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