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Alex Abramovich


19 August 2019

Like wearing a raincoat when it rains

Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble started to form in summer 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Damon Locks was teaching art at a prison in Illinois, and feeling less than hopeful, when he heard the Pointer Sisters’ cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Yes We Can Can’ come over the radio. Locks had trained as a visual artist in Manhattan and Chicago and performed, for much of the 1990s, as the singer in a post-punk band called Trenchmouth. But the music that he began making now sounded nothing like punk. Inspired by Public Enemy, by that Pointer Sisters recording, by Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Eddie Gale’s Black Rhythm Happening, and by a performance the Voices of East Harlem gave at Sing Sing in 1972, Locks started to layer beats over snippets of Civil Rights era speeches.


11 July 2019

‘Edison didn’t need me’

Jerry Williams Jr released his first album as Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind, in 1970. Before that he worked as a straight-up songwriter and producer – at Atlantic Records, among other places – cutting singles for Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Pitney, and Inez and Charlie Foxx, as well as himself. He had got his start in 1954, the year that Elvis Presley made his first commercial recordings. Like Presley, Williams was living with his mother back then, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the song he recorded: ‘Now, I know I take my whiskey/and sometimes get carried away,’ Williams sang. ‘I’m over 21 years old/so you ain’t got a darned thing to say.’


24 April 2018

Homage to Gene Clark

Harold Eugene Clark and Ingram Cecil Connor III – who grew up to be Gram Parsons – were both Southern boys, born a few years apart. Parsons was wealthy; Gene Clark was working-class. But both of them picked up guitars early on, moving with the times from rock and roll combos to folk groups before making their way to Los Angeles, where they ended up playing with the same musicians and, occasionally, with each other. Both of them passed through the Byrds: Clark formed the band with Jim (later Roger) McGuinn; Parsons was one of his eventual replacements. Both went on to make albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin; The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark) that are cornerstones of country-rock – what Parsons called 'Cosmic American Music'.


15 December 2017

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders met in New York City in 1962, in front of the Charles Theater, two blocks north of Tompkins Square Park. Kupferberg was selling issues of Birth, a mimeographed publication he'd started in the 1950s. Sanders, who'd just launched his own mimeographed magazine, knew a few things about him. 'I'd seen his picture in a number of books,' Sanders later recalled. 'I learned a little bit later that he was the guy "who'd jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge", as described in Howl. (Actually it was the Manhattan Bridge.) I later asked him why. He replied, "I wasn't being loved enough."’


25 April 2017

Bad Colour

'The music came across the airwaves and suddenly it felt as if the world was actually changing,' Keith Richards said in 2003. 'Things went from black and white or grey to full Technicolor: no army, there's rock'n'roll music and as long as you've got a bit of bread you can buy anything, you don't need to queue. All of these things combined created a very strong thing in England for our generation. It was a breath of fresh air and a promise of real possibilities, instead of the prospect of simply following in our fathers' footsteps, which was pretty gloomy.'


20 March 2017

Another Name for Rock and Roll

Every year, at around this time, the radio station WFMU hosts a fundraising marathon. The highlight is usually Yo La Tengo's marathon-within-a-marathon covers session, which lasts for three hours or so. Callers who pledge a hundred dollars get to request a song – any song. YLT do their best to play it. Most of the time, there are too many songs to get to, and so, as the mini-marathon draws to its close, the band does an extended medley. On Saturday, YLT set that medley to the tune of the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'. Midway through, they sang a good portion of Chuck Berry's mysterious 'Memphis, Tennessee'. Weirdly, the words fit the tune perfectly. But then I was reminded of Berry's response, in 1980, to recordings by Wire, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols. 'So this is the so-called new stuff,' Berry said. 'It’s nothing I ain’t heard before. It sounds like an old blues jam that BB and Muddy would carry on backstage at the old amphitheatre in Chicago. The instruments may be different but the experiment’s the same.' An hour later, a friend called to tell me that Berry was dead.


8 February 2017

Ode to Joy

The Budapest Festival Orchestra played Beethoven at Lincoln Center this week, the First and Fifth Symphonies bookending the Fourth Piano Concerto on Sunday, and the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies on Monday. The standing ovations began on Sunday: Richard Goode gave a commanding performance; students from Julliard and Bard showed up onstage, unexpectedly, for the Fifth Symphony's finale. I bought my tickets months ago, well before the presidential election. But the election followed me into the hall. Throughout the interval on Monday night, an elderly couple discussed the day's headlines in despairing terms. A few minutes earlier, two hundred rabbis and cantors had marched past Lincoln Center, on their way from 88th and Broadway to the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle, protesting against the president's ban on Muslim refugees.


17 November 2016

On Spring Street

‘I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,’ Donald Judd wrote in 1974. ‘Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job.’ Caitlin Murray quotes this in her introduction to a new collection of the artist's writing. Like everything I’ve read by Judd, it's matter of fact, utilitarian – plain in ways that conceal the effort that might have gone into the actual work.


20 September 2016

Come Together

I'd heard there was 'nothing new' in Ron Howard's Beatles movie, and in the grand scheme of things this turned out to be true, though there's new concert footage and excellent bits with the fans. (Among other things, you'll see a tweenage Sigourney Weaver, up in the nosebleed seats at the Hollywood Bowl.) But forty-five minutes into the film, there's a striking set piece.


22 August 2016

Dixie Fried

Jim Dickinson – whose 1972 record Dixie Fried is about to be rereleased – grew up in Tennessee but I met him, fifteen years ago, in North Mississippi, in the double-wide trailer he lived in at his Zebra Ranch recording studio. He'd played with just about everyone by then: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones (